Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Because culture, not nature, is the problem

Most readers of this blog probably know that Helen Merrick is the author of the Secret Feminist Cabal and maybe even that she was the co-editor of Women of Other Worlds, a WisCon-centered anthology of mixed fiction and criticism published in the late nineties by an Australian press. But Helen is also an energetic scholar with numerous other publications to her name, and in more than one disciplinary arena. At the moment, for instance, she's working on a book about Donna Haraway's work, and that's because she's passionately into Feminist Science Studies.

I've just read a dynamite article of hers (which she actually wrote a few years ago) published in the March/April 2010 issue of Women's Studies International Forum, titled "Science stories, life stories: Engaging the sciences through feminist science fiction." In this article she argues that feminist science fiction has the potential for bridging the "two culture divide" that persists in feminist scholarship-- the divide between the sciences and the humanities. As Helen writes,
[F]ew [feminist scholars] have followed Haraway and Rose's lead in viewing feminist SF as a space of productive convergence between the arts and sciences. Even within the specialised field of feminist SF criticism, there exists a a similar lacunae; most studies to date are firmly grounded in literary criticism with surprisingly little attention paid to the role of the sciences in feminist SF. SF remains an underutilised resource in thinking through some of the problematics of two-culture engagements, perhaps precisely because of its hybridized positioning on the two-culture border.
I find particularly interesting the parallel Helen draws between between feminist science studies and feminist sf:
In many ways feminist SF occupies the same uncomfortable discursive and cultural space as science studies itself-- an uneasy balancing between the two cultures of science and the humanities. Whilst feminist studies of science often employ humanities-based methodologies to examine and critique science, SF can draw on both literary techniques and the language and methodologies of science: creating potentially boundary-crossing "fictions of science." Like many critics in the field of feminist science studies, some SF writers are originally scientists whose feminism impels them to write different stories....And like many humanities-trained science critics, SF authors are often avid "amateur" readers and researchers of science, including [Gwyneth] Jones herself, Nancy Kress, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Nicola Griffith. Such authors share with feminist scientists and science critics a fascination for, and even love of, science....they share the impulse to "both critique and find inspiration with science's bounds."
After discussing the ways in which feminist sf is able to engage with the epistemology and practice of science, Helen then focuses on Gwyneth Jones's Life as "a vital, challenging and complex example of feminist fiction that can draw on its generic positioning and history to 'boldly go' where few realist fictions can," "speaking to two related, although quite distinct, concerns in contemporary feminist engagements with the sciences: the nature of women's work in the sciences, and the integration of the biological and material into our theorisations of sex and gender."

Probably the most fascinating part of the article (for me, anyway), is Helen's drawing on "neo-materialist feminist" theory:
Like advocates of the new materialism such as [Myra] Hird, Life reminds us that "while nature emphasises diversity, culture emphasises dichotomy," and illustrates why the use of biology 'to reify sex dimorphism' should not deter feminists from seeing the natural sciences "as a useful site for critiques of this dichotomy. At the same time, the whole novel and its title can be read as a reminder that the conception of "life" offered by the dominant narrative of molecular biology (or what Jones terms "Stupid Darwinism") is narrow and reductionist. As originary story, such concepts alone cannot explain or represent the complexity, interimplication or "complementarity" of the biological, social, and historical relations between humans and non-humans, on a variety of levels, from molecular and cellular to societal.
The article is available for purchase here, but since it costs $42 (yes, for an electronic file that is eight pages long!), if you want to read it, you will probably want to look for it in hard copy in a library near you. (I'm reminded that a long time ago I was a regular subscriber to this journal-- until it was bought by a multinational corporation and the price of a subscription went up by about a factor of 10.)


Athena Andreadis said...

Cultures indeed have a craving for categories and very often impose them artificially and arbitrarily.

However, as a practicing molecular neurobiologist who is also a reader and writer of speculative fiction, I respectfully suggest that people who wish to integrate science and SF (a laudable goal) should trouble to familiarize themselves a bit more with the current thinking in my discipline before calling molecular biology "stupid Darwinism". The only people still mouthing reductionist paradigms are demagogues and charlatans. A bit more:

On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks

SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

Timmi Duchamp said...

It's not molecular biology that gets characterized as "stupid Darwinism," Athena, but the "dominant narrative." (Check the syntax of the sentence in which the phrase occurs, please.)

Maybe this misconception is my fault-- perhaps I left out too much of what Helen's article says, unconsciously adopting shorthand-- probably per my assumption that everyone reading the post has either read Gwyneth's novel or knows enough about it to know that Gwyneth would never have a character (at least not one that's a molecular biologist herself!) characterize her field of science as "stupid Darwinism." Gwyneth shadowed a molecular biologist before writing Life, & she's won kudos from practicing biologists for her depiction of the practice of science in Life. I'm quite sure you'd find its approach to molecular biology exemplary, were you to read it yourself.

Timmi Duchamp said...

The other thing, Athena, is that "stupid Darwinism" isn't meant to say that Darwinism is stupid, but that that particular narrative is a stupid version of Darwinism.

(Just realized you might have thought Gwyneth was castigating Evolutionary Theory rather than what certain people have made of it.)

Athena Andreadis said...

Timmi, I did read and understand what the sentence said: namely, that the reductionist paradigm is wrong, not the theory of evolution. I also understood that the article and the book are critiquing those who adopt a simplistic, erroneous view of what evolution, genetics, neuroscience, etc. show us.

What I tried to convey with my answer is that no biologist of real standing advocates that the reductionist view is valid. It is not the dominant narrative in working science -- especially biology whose complexity across all scales has long been recognized. It may be the dominant narrative in other domains that often (ab)use and distort science to justify preconceptions or agendas. If practitioners of science studies think that reductionism is still the dominant narrative in biology, the studies need to catch up with their subject.