image description: A header illustration on an abstract background featuring a planet, a beaker and scientific symbols.
image description: A header illustration on an abstract background featuring a planet, a beaker and scientific symbols.

Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

A feminist intervention to science

It is time we dismantle cis/heteronormativity in science and disentangle the scientific results that have come from it; and that we be a little more doubtful of truths, and a little more confident about uncertainty.

May 8, 2023

As a student of life sciences, I have always been taught that science is objective. The scientific method is concerned with an empirical acquisition of truth — we perform experiments, gather data, and merely present the reality as it exists. This seemingly value-free, neutral and impartial nature of science is also how it acquires authority in society and our individual lives. Science does not care about your personal politics — it is just science. Or so we are told.
A brisk examination of history, however, is enough to realize how the narrative of scientific objectivity has time and time again lent itself to the justification of racist, misogynistic, and queerphobic beliefs and ideas.
Evelyn Fox Keller, an American physicist and feminist author, provides an example of how traditional understandings of masculinity and femininity fashioned the scientific understanding of ovum as passive and sperm as active, which has now been disproved. This tendency to project gendered expectations onto the biology of sex and gender has, historically, extended beyond human biology research.
When evolutionary biologist Angus John Bateman conducted research on fruit flies, they found that frequent mating is positively associated with reproductive success in males, but not in females. Known as Bateman’s principle, this theory advances the evolutionary dogma that males are promiscuous and females are choosy. This is one of many theories in evolutionary biology that endorses a binary gender normative understanding of living beings. Patricia Adair Gowaty from University of California, performed a series of experiments in 2012 which challenged Bateman’s principle of sexual selection. Her team failed to replicate Bateman’s finding which has for decades remained (and still is) canonical in the field. These results suggest the paradigmatic power possessed by scientific conclusions that capture or confirm existing world-views.
American ecologist Joan Roughgarden similarly challenges Darwin’s sexual selection theory and its adequacy to explain the diversity in sexual and gender expressions that exist in nature. She believes that our preoccupation with a heterosexual, binary-gendered model of imagination has led us to an understanding of nature that reflects the same. We have looked for and found ‘objective’ truth objectively reflecting what we believed subjectively: the “natural norm” characterized by the rigid division between a binary and overlapping gender identities, sexual identity, and sexual orientation. Countering these claims, she gives numerous examples of diverse gender and sexual expressions in various life forms that exist on the planet — organisms that exhibit sex-role reversal, multiple genders, sex change, same-sex matings, no dimorphism, and so on. She argues that these examples provide selective advantage for natural selection in ways beyond what sexual selection theory imagines and therefore, are not “exceptions to the rule,” or caused by deleterious mutations as popularly believed.
These examples also demonstrate how social beliefs influence scientific knowledge production. Forming part of the ongoing effort to center feminist perspectives on science, these approaches are concerned with critiquing and complicating the notion of the centrality of truth and empiricism in the field. Feminist philosophy of science holds that social values, beliefs and norms play a role in science. Social and political values that constitute the framework and background assumptions we operate on — to ask questions, to evaluate theories against, and to guide our search for data — are the ways in which human subjectivities make their way to the objective quest for knowledge. What kind of evidence we look for and consider, how we set up our experiments, how we make sense of our results, and what conclusions we draw and choose to believe are all motivated by preexisting social assumptions and go onto shape the resulting science.
But why is this important? Why should we care?
The false idea of complete objectivity in science makes it less permeable to critique and is more easily rerouted for problematic ends, such as the endorsement of racist, misogynist, and queerphobic propaganda. Unawareness of the subjective bias in science leads to not just inaccurate but harmful “truths” about the world and ourselves.
Take the case of the female orgasm: there are more than a dozen hypotheses in evolutionary biology that suggest that female orgasm is a seeming anomaly because it is not necessary for reproduction. Feminist philosopher of science Elisabeth Lloyd argues that androcentric understandings of sex and pleasure informs this mode of thought, which prevents the consideration of available data on female orgasm. And there is a bidirectional, perhaps cyclic, echo between science and society: as much as preexisting social frameworks influence knowledge production, the resulting science impacts social beliefs, values and behavior. This means that when society undervalues female pleasure, less knowledge is produced about the female orgasm, further confirming the bias. It remains an enigma, and its de-prioritization in personal lives becomes naturalized.
Likewise, scientific knowledge, produced since the time of Charles Darwin, which endorses the heterosexual, binary-gendered model of nature has encouraged more of the same — there has been a chorus of scientific rhetoric around “male” and “female” brains, testosterone levels, muscle strength, and behavior. More dangerously, these claims are being adopted in the political and legal realm to pass misogynist and anti-transgender laws, such as the recent ban of transgender women from competing in the World Athletics games.
Other scientific studies, ones that foreground feminist concepts and methods to counter bias in sex and gender research, tell a different story: the decision to classify living bodies into two rigid categories was always a political one, never biological. Hormone levels, chromosomes, gonads and genitalia — living bodies exhibit these biological characteristics in a range. They are also not static. Our bodies respond to and change with the environment. For example, social constructions of gender can affect the body and brain, from muscle mass to testosterone levels to brain structure. However, average differences between culturally defined “males” and “females” are overhyped, and science is used as a tool to essentialize identities as fitting into neat categories, consequently punishing intersex, trans and non-binary bodies. Moreover, these averages have traditionally been defined based on cis-white bodies, thereby othering anyone who does not fit into said definitions. Black cis women being disqualified from Olympics for “exhibiting high testosterone” is a classic example.
In addition, numerous studies are now also starting to show that treating sex as a binary biological variable in medical studies produces unreliable results. The GenderSci Lab at Harvard has developed a conceptual framework of “sex contextualism” for the study of sex-related variables in biomedical research, which by recognizing the pluralism and context-specificity of sex, offers an alternative to sex essentialist approaches. Their paper suggests that male-female comparisons may not be generalizable to all males and females, those who are not males or females, and may not be necessary or sufficient to capture sex-related biological variation.
Joan Roughgarden, in her book, Evolution’s Rainbow wrote, “Sexual selection theory is an elite male heterosexist narrative projected onto animals. Basing a theory of human behavior on sexual selection theory naturalizes this narrative and transfers the narrative back to humans, as though it were a theory of human nature.”
It is time we dismantle this cisherternormativity in science and disentangle the scientific results that have come from it. To this end, I believe that it is crucial we remain critical of the notion of objectivity in science; that we be a little more doubtful of truths, and a little more confident about uncertainty; and that we unveil the transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny cloaked in science.
Arya Gautam is a Contributing Writer. Email them at
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