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Darwinism and Gender

By Richard Pimentel

Lawrence Summers possesses an impressive curriculum vitae which includes his position as Secretary of the Treasury (1999-2001) during Pres. Clinton’s administration and the presidency of Harvard University (2001-2006). In addition, he was an accomplished economist and researcher. However, none of his accomplishments and experience prevented him from resigning his position in June 2006 as Harvard’s President. As some of you may recall, his resignation was the result of controversial remarks that Summers made at a National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce back in January 2005. The focus of this Cambridge, MA conference was on women and minorities in science and engineering fields and the approximately 50 attendees were there by invitation-only.

In his speech, Summers emphasized the need for commitment to expand opportunities for women and to fight discrimination. He admitted that there exists a predominance of males in the fields of science and engineering and he explained that this is partially explained by the demands of motherhood that can restrict a women from working incredible amounts of hours and by other factors such as upbringing. It is reported that, at this point, Summers said “I am going to provoke you” and that this was mentioned several times. After this, Summers raised the hypothesis that the shortage of elite female scientists may be due in part from "innate" differences between men and women. According to Steven Pinker of the New Republic and Marcella Bombardieri of the Boston Globe, Summers does not ascribe to this view but he just wanted to bring up the point for discussion. However, some of the attendees interpreted his remarks as overly dismissive of discrimination against women.

Others felt that his remarks were appropriate in that it presented a legitimate topic for debate into whether women are underrepresented because of sociological reasons or genetic reasons. Days after his remarks, Summers told the press that his remarks were wrongly interpreted as “suggesting that women can’t do science.” His remarks centered around research that girls are likely to score lower on standardized math and science tests than boys. During his speech, he never presented an argument for why this may or may not be true, but his stated intention was to offer hypotheses. Nonetheless, some of the female attendees felt that Summers meant that women possess genetic differences that inhibit them from succeeding in math and science.

The most vocal critic of Summers’ speech was Dr. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at M.I.T. Along with four other attendees, Dr. Hopkins walked out during Summers’ speech and later on stated, “I felt that I was going to be sick.” If she had not left, she admitted that she would have “either blacked out or thrown up.” She attributed her quick exit to a physical disgust at the ideas uttered by Summers. Due to Dr. Hopkins early exit, Summers’ off the record remarks were made public and many were calling for Summers to apologize and, in some cases, to resign. Summers explained that his speech was an “academic exploration of hypotheses.” He apologized for any offenses that resulted from his remarks and began a campaign of penance by affirming his commitment to diversity on the Harvard campus and by appointing a decade-long $50 million task force to reform the treatment of women who pursue careers in science and engineering. Nonetheless, he still resigned from the Harvard presidency last year.

Although most of the attention has been focused on the gender remarks and the subsequent reactions, there is another issue worth bringing up that is relevant to this debate. As a biology professor and adherent to Darwinian evolution, Dr. Hopkins must be aware of the comments that Darwin wrote regarding the differences between males and females. For instance, Darwin wrote in chapter 19 of The Descent of Man, “Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius." Later on in the same chapter Darwin states,

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman- whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr.Galton, in his work on Hereditary Genius, that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.

Even though there are many who disagree with Darwin’s assessments on women, these remarks are certainly worse than anything stated by Dr. Summers. Darwin’s views on gender bring to mind a number of questions. In light of her disdain towards Lawrence Summers, what is Dr. Hopkins reaction to Charles Darwin’s views on gender differences in The Descent of Man? Is there an inconsistency for Darwinian evolutionists to believe in gender equality even though Charles Darwin believed that men were inherently superior to women? Can one believe in natural selection and not need to believe in Darwin’s view on the inferiority of women? Males are superior because, according to Darwin, they are stronger and more intelligent. Is this view considered an essential Darwinian doctrine or is it non-essential? In other words, can one still be an adherent of Darwinism while not accepting his argument that males are superior to females? In light of the events surrounding Dr. Summers and the subsequent reactions, these appear to be legitimate questions.

One of the most popular debates regarding the social implications of Darwin’s views published in The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man is whether or not his views are responsible for the emergence of eugenics as promoted by Francis Galton and for the promotion of social Darwinism that came about in the 1860’s. Most notably, Herbert Spencer popularized social Darwinism with the phrase “survival of the fittest.” His objective was to apply natural selection to the social realm by claiming that individuals and nations competed in their struggle for existence with the goal of advancing of human evolution in society. Although Darwin’s ideas are commonly used to support social Darwinism, it is important to observe that other notable figures such as Thomas Malthus were used to support this. As a demographer, Malthus argued that human population always outgrows food supply and it is the weak that die because of their inability to adapt to these environmental realities. Unfortunately, this idea and certain Darwinian doctrines have been utilized by some to promote this idea of social Darwinism in order to advance racist ideologies and activities such as eugenics. Nonetheless, social Darwinism shares a common denominator with the remarks made by Dr. Summers and the reactions by Dr. Hopkins and others: both present an interesting debate as to the application of Darwinian principles to social situations. No matter how one feels about Darwin’s views on gender and Summers’ presentation of hypotheses on gender differences, it is still compelling to think about Darwinism’s role in modern human society

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