Hola mi Gente,
I’m currently working in one of the most challenging complexes on Rikers Island. I’m just sayin’… LOL
It’s Friday, so it’s all about s-e-x…
Sex, Science & the Egg & the Sperm
It has fallen on science to sort through language and culture to arrive at an “objective” truth. But I have always been intrigued on how culture and language shape science. Since ancient times the feminine has been depicted as creative and fruitful but needing to be dissected, shaped, and controlled by “male” reason. The 17th century English philosopher and inventor of inductive reasoning, Francis Bacon, writing within the historical context of widespread persecution of witches, described a scientific process that included images of nature as female, to be restrained, tortured, and probed by mechanical inventions. “Never ought a man to make a scruple,” he wrote, “of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object… ”
Really? ::blank stare::
Sexual difference became an obsession of science during the Enlightenment era, with an exploration of the differences between the sexes, based on anatomy. In contrast, older, more traditional cultures had used ritual to link the social and natural worlds, so that rituals were the authority, and in a similar way, the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment claimed nature set down social laws that should be followed. In 1735, for example, the Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, published his classification of plants, describing them in terms of their sexual parts. The males were the dominant, defining parts; the females were secondary and submissive. Such examples were used as a “natural” justification of the subjugation of women. In other words, men and women were not equals.
In this way the identification of women with nature and emotion and men with culture and reason was created. This association of women with nature defined as motherly and physical — so that their ideal role was in the home as nurturers — was also used to link them with superstition, depicting the feminine as an obstacle to progress. Both men and women were defined biologically, but while men were free to engage many different parts of the public sphere, women’s roles were tightly controlled and limited by their “natural” function.
In 1759, Linnaeus came up with the term Mammalia, naming an entire class of animals after lactating mammary glands, a feature that roughly only half ever possess. Linnaeus could have chosen external body hair, for example, as a better defining characteristic. However, he was embroiled in a propaganda war against wet nursing, and was more concerned about emphasizing how “natural” it was for a mother to suckle her own child. According the scientific consensus of the time, the breast was a symbol of the natural bond between mother and child, and in that way, women were limited in their role in the home at the center of the family. It was therefore seen as biologically normal and morally good and the emphasis on breastfeeding was another way of limiting women to domestic roles and keeping them from the public sphere and away from political power.
Lest you think this is some ancient way of thinking, please note that this bias still exists. Take note that today language and gender roles continue to confound science. Anthropologist Emily Martin wrote a thought-provoking essay on this issue titled The sperm and the egg. In order to shed some light on the gender stereotypes hidden within the scientific language of biology, Emily Martin pointed to major scientific textbooks’ depiction of male and female reproductive organs as systems for the production of eggs and sperm. Therefore, within the female cycle, menstruation is clothed in the language of failure. The sloughing of the uterine lining is termed “debris,” for example. On the other hand, male reproductive processes are described in positive terms such as the “maturation” or the immense manufacturing of sperm.
She noted that scientific descriptions served to reinforce gender stereotypes and in that way, functions of the egg and the sperm were misunderstood. For example, the egg was seen as passive. It does not move, but “is transported” along fallopian tube. In contrast, sperm are active: they “deliver” their genes to the egg and, ‘”activate’” its developmental program. Some researchers likened the egg’s role to that of Sleeping Beauty: a dormant bride waiting for her lover’s magic kiss, which brings her to life. This language is in line with the tradition started by Linnaeus and Bacon. A tradition that has as its roots a form of misogyny.
Recently the researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that the sperm and the egg stick together because of adhesive molecules on the surfaces of each. The egg traps the sperm and adheres to it so tightly that the sperm’s head is forced to lie flat against the outer layer of the egg. In other words, the egg isn’t “passive” it is proactive in the reproductive process. The trapped sperm continues to wiggle ineffectively. If the digestive enzymes released by the sperm start to soften the zona just at its tip the fragile sperm can get oriented in the right direction and make it through the zona.
Yet, even this new version of the role of the egg and the sperm helped little in changing the narrative at the cultural level. Researchers who made the discovery themselves continued to write papers using the same stereotypical metaphor of sperm as the “active” party who “penetrates” the egg.
And there you have it, how even science is confounded by language and culture.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…