CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558
STANFORD - Do hormones make boys violent and girls nurturing?
There is no reason to think so, says Stanford philosopher of science and feminist scholar John Dupre.
Although there is a fairly sharp biological distinction between men and women, Dupre said, "the way we think of and elaborate this distinction is much sharper than the reality."
In his recently published book, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science (Harvard University Press), Dupre writes that "there is a fair-sized industry of a priori speculation on the biological causes of human gender differentiation, an industry that is not only intellectually disreputable, but potentially even politically pernicious."
Such speculation, Dupre said, is damaging to attempts to think progressively about society and how it might be changed. Instead, he said, scientists who announce "this is the way things are because this is how they have to be" are used to legitimate the status quo.
One of the basic themes of Dupre's book, he said, is an attack on the unity of science "in order to get away from the idea that anything said by someone in an institutionally scientific context is to be taken as authoritative."
In his book, Dupre challenges the idea that science is a unified enterprise with the ultimate goal being the "full story" of how everything works.
This view of the world - called "mechanism" by analogy with the way everything in a machine fits together - is expressed in the philosophical doctrines of reductionism and determinism, which Dupre addresses.
Reductionism, he said, posits that "the way to understand things is to take them apart, see how the pieces fit together and how the pieces combine to produce the outcome."
Determinism, Dupre said, argues that the way things have been put together determines everything that will happen after that.
Thus, he said, sociobiologists will tend to say that in examining the factors that determine what men are like, "you have to look at genes, genes producing hormones, hormones producing behavior, in a process that explains everything in a hierarchical way from the bottom up."
Reductionism can be seen as a way of avoiding hard questions, Dupre said: "Questions about social norms - Is this the way we want to live? If it isn't, how would we change things? - can be eliminated by saying 'It's not an option. It's all in the genes. It doesn't much matter whether you like it or not. You can enjoy it or deplore it, but that's how it has to be.' "
Instead, as he writes in his book, Dupre believes that "in domains where human decisions are a primary causal factor, normative discussions of what ought to be must be given priority over claims about what nature has decreed."
It is not surprising that feminists have clashed with those offering determinist and reductionist explanations of behavior, Dupre said.
Since feminists seek to change the world, particularly in regard to gender roles, he said, they reject theories that explain the differences in what men and women do in terms of genes and hormones causing behavior.
"According to some sociobiologists, changing that would be like trying to make your cat bark and your dog meow, which perhaps you could do if it were really important, but at the cost of making both animals very unhappy," Dupre said.
But males and females do not operate like wind-up toys, he said, that if set going then behave in a certain way - "men going around bopping people over the head and women going around looking for babies to take care of."
Of course, humans are biological organisms - very few people want to deny that, he said. "But what determines our behavior," Dupre said, "is a complex process involving the interaction of our biology with learning, acculturation, example and social norms."
Dupre said he agrees with feminists who say that the fact that women give birth to children does not mean that they are the ones who must care for those children for the next 18 years. Although, he added with a laugh, as the father of a 2-year-old, "I can see myself tempted by biological determinism."
Dupre also deals with the philosophical doctrine of essentialism which, he said, is closely connected with mechanism and with feminist concerns. Essentialism, he said, "has to do with whether you think that the way the world is divided into kinds of things is simply something you discover or is something you impose on the world to a significant degree."
At one extreme, he said, the model is chemistry, with scientists sorting out the elements and placing them in a periodic table. But, he said, "nobody knows how to carve up the biological world the way we think we can carve up the chemical world."
It is impossible to understand how the biological world is divided without looking at why people want to divide that world, Dupre said.
"The categories we get, the kinds of things we distinguish, have something to do with why we're doing the distinguishing," he said. "And the question of why becomes more important the closer we get to human concerns."
Another example of essentialism, he said, is the use of homosexuality as a category to divide kinds of people. Treating heterosexuals and homosexuals as different kinds of people, he writes, "may be no more firmly grounded than the search for the typical characteristics and genetic peculiarities of stamp collectors or aficionados of crossword puzzles."
"Taking a kind of behavior and using it to define a kind of person is crazy because many different kinds of people may engage in that kind of behavior," he said.
There has been a movement by some within the gay community to embrace an essentialist view that says homosexuality is biologically determined, and therefore is no one's fault, Dupre said. The problem with that, he said, is that it buys into the idea that homosexuals need a biological excuse and it might seem to license the search for a "cure."
Science should be more democratic, Dupre said, "more open to discussion of what it's doing and why it's doing it and less of a kind of priesthood where people pronounce 'Science has shown' and we all bow politely."
"I don't consider myself at all anti-science," he said, "but that's because there's no monolithic 'science' to be anti."
After all, he said, in his own field, "nobody says 'Humanists have shown such-and-such.' Both sciences and humanities have yielded wonderful achievements and some very dubious propositions," he said.
His next project, Dupre said, will be a look at economics, which he said is also "too important to be left to a priesthood. We need to have more discussion by people with different perspectives on what society should be like."
This is an archived release.
This release is not available in any other form.
Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to firstname.lastname@example.org.