Digging Up Dinosaurs
Have you ever heard anyone exclaim, “It’s biology!” when confronted with the problem of male promiscuity, or the disproportionately high number of black people in American prisons? Perhaps their wording was “It’s genetic!” Either way, it shows just how convenient it is to attribute social inequalities to biologically hard-wired differences. As the figurehead of this trend, the emerging New Traditionalist movement has been pining for a return to a bygone era characterized by old-fashioned racial and sexual roles, but a new host of critics are raising their voices in dissent, pointing out the danger of this deceptively appealing retrogressiveness. And Universal Life Church ministers have a vested interest in this debate.
“It Must Be Because They’re Black!”
Hard-wired biological differences have been used to excuse racial inequalities in some of the most disturbing and questionable ways. As Lisa C. Ilkemoto of Ms Magazine explains, U.S. president Bill Clinton, along with the two leaders of the effort to map the human genome, announced in 2000 that racialization was all but dead. Biologist Craig Venter had proclaimed that “race has no genetic or scientific basis”, she notes, and this opinion was widely accepted in the scientific community.
Since then, however, efforts have been made by powerful institutions to re-introduce race as an explanation for human social inequalities. In her book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century, social critic Dorothy Roberts examines and attempts to discredit this trend. She points out how scientists, governments, and big business are using recent findings in genetics to render racial differentiation “neutral” and “factual”, and to justify racially-based explanations of health inequities such as the lower breast cancer rate but higher mortality rate among black American women.
Roberts also critiques how the commerce and justice systems use “genetic race” to justify bias in government as well as in personalized medicine–to make a profit. The commercialization of race-based drug sales, Ilkemoto paraphrases her as saying, “may impose a norm of genetic self-regulation that will fall most negatively on those deemed the source of genetic risk”, and these will too often be women of color. The genetic race hypothesis is also being employed in the U.S. government’s rapidly-growing DNA database. Roberts also notes how blacks represent a disproportionately large sample of offenders in the DNA databases due to racial profiling, racism in prosecutions and convictions, and assumptions about biologically hard-wired race differences which stem from a renewed interest in pseudoscientific, race-based explanations for violent tendencies.
Responding to this glut of seemingly uncontroversial, benevolent attention to race, Roberts critiques the motives driving supporters of racial science. In particular, she points out the ideological motives behind the effort to preserve genetically race-based explanations for social inequity:
What links racial science from one generation to the next is the quest to update the theories and methods for dividing human beings into a handful of groups to provide a biological explanation for their differences—from health outcomes to intelligence to incarceration rates.
In other words, Roberts argues, racial science becomes a meme which keeps humans neatly classified and reinforces biological explanations for social inequity. This is critical in the effort to pawn off violence, disease, and traits generally regarded as inferior on less privileged groups, without having to think critically about how our minds and society influence this process. Every ULC wedding officiant and nondenominational priest should treat this pseudoscientific trend with suspicion.
“Men Are Like This, and Women Are Like That”
But the biology excuse does not end with race–it is also used to excuse sexual inequity. Consider the new gender-education movement, which is founded on the premise that boys and girls should be educated separately because they possess immutable biological sex differences. This hypothesis, which is supported by family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax and author and consultant Michael Gurian, posits that boys should trained to be leaders and competitors because they are naturally more aggressive and disciplinarian, and that girls should be trained to be followers and cooperators because they are naturally more passive and nurturing.
But Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, in their book The Truth about Boys and Girls: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes about Our Children, challenge these assumptions and attempt to refute the pseudoscientific claims made by people like Sax and Gurian. One case in point, argue Rivers and Barnett, is the lack of empirical evidence showing that girls should be taught in whispers because their hearing is so much more acute than that of boys, and the assumption that boys need to expend more energy than girls is also refuted by evidence showing that there is a positive correlation between exercise and learning in both boys and girls. As J Goodrich of Ms explains, chapter after chapter Rivers and Barnett refute the evidence used to support the Sax-Gurian principle that boys are dominators, and girls, doormats. This is important work, because it reminds us as ULC ministers how harmful, oppressive, and tyrannical sex roles based on bad science can be.
River and Barnett are not the only voices speaking out against pseudoscientific biological excuses for sex discrimination. Another prominent critic of New Traditionalism is psychologist Cordelia Fine, a senior research associate at the Centre for Agency, Velues and Ethics at Macquarie University and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychology. In her book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Fine critiques the commonly-held belief that men are hard-wired to systematize, and women, to empathize, is damaging to ourselves and society. She shows how our minds feed into, interact with, and influence observable sex differences, which in turn reinforce our assumptions in a vicious cycle. At one point she critiques Dr John Gray (author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus) for excusing the greater domestic workload of women by suggesting women need to do more housework because it produces the oxytocin which facilitates social bonds. She points out how Gray’s hypothesis is not empirically tested and that there are more satisfying sociological explanations for this double standard.
In addition to providing sociological and psychological insight, Fine combs through the neuroscientific studies justifying sex discrimination and debunks them, pointing out their methodological flaws and misguided interpretations of the data. For example, she points out, even in species in which adult males do not normally care for the young, such as rats, the males consistently show an uncanny knack for nurturing the young when females are absent, proving that nurturing abilities are not hard-wired and suggesting that if adult male rats can do it, well, so can adult male humans. Breaking down such paradigms is partly what people get ordained online to do. It is exactly this kind of nuanced, sophisticated, uncompromising scrutiny of simplistic, convenient, reductive belief systems that we should be taking more seriously.
We can basically see how powerful social institutions and systems perpetuate myths about hard-wired biological differences in order to justify racial and sexual inequity, using misleading or poorly-supported scientific studies as a crutch. Why? Because it benefits privileged groups like white, males, and heterosexuals while treating everyone else like chopped liver. It’s no longer clever to spout the platitude “It’s biology!” and expect people to take these words for granted. The consequences are foreboding: a return to the nineteenth-century, when blacks were enslaved because they were seen as intrinsically subhuman, or even further back to the prehistoric savanna when males hunted and waged war while females cooked the meat and popped out babies. Conceivably, biological determinism might also provide a justification for eugenics and racial cleansing.
Every period of history has its own pretty, pseudoscientific ideas about race and sex differences, which attract non-critical thinkers like a shiny metallic bauble, and only when the next generation arrives do we observe how preposterously subjective and sentimental our forbears’ “evidence” really was. Perhaps we perpetuate these myths because they make us feel safe and secure, and because they’re easy and convenient to believe in, but this doesn’t mean that they are good for us. The Universal Life Church Monastery takes a cautious, skeptical position on biological determinism, always emphasizing that we should challenge long-held, comforting beliefs, especially those which divide rather than unite us, for, after all, we are all children of the same universe.