In Mother Nature, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy talks about how the scientific picture of maternal behavior (human and animal) has become much more complicated in the last couple centuries. I think that this is instructive in looking at how both “conventional wisdom” and -isms can get in the way of paradigm shifts in science. Given the importance of female scientists in the paradigm shift, it is also an argument for diversity and for Nothing About Us Without Us. I believe that sizism may currently have important distorting effects on science, which is why this is going in my FA blog. If we want scientists to ask the right questions regarding fat and metabolic syndrome, we have to have scientists who are at least willing to consider the merits of Health At Every Size and question the extent of the health effects directly caused by fat.
It was no accident that the first moralists and then Victorian evolutionists looked to nature to justify assigning to female animals the same qualities that patriarchal cultures have almost always ascribed to “good” mothers (nurturing and passive). Women were assumed to be “naturally” what patriarchal cultures would socialize them to be: modest, compliant, noncompetitive, and sexually reserved. (p. xvii)
Several changes contributed to the new awareness of reproductive variation among mothers. In addition to the theoretical shift to focus on individuals, field studies were lasting longer, decades rather than months. Also, more women were doing field research. In 1875 Antoinette Brown Blackwell had lamented that “Only a woman can approach [evolution] from a feminine standpoint and there are none but beginners among us in this class of investigations.” A century later, 37 percent of Ph.D.s in biology in the United States were being awarded to women, and the proportion in the field of animal behavior was about the same. Although male and female researchers do science in the same way, they may be attracted to different problems. The upshot of all these factors was that this time, when distaff Darwinians tapped male evolutionists on the shoulder, many of the latter were primed to respond.
By the late 1980s, prominent male biologists were joining their women colleagues in pointing out the need to correct “inadvertent machismo” in their respective fields. Some of them made points similar to those [George] Eliot, [Antoinette Brown] Blackwell, and [Clemence] Royer had tried to communicate more than a century earlier. (p. 53)
And here’s an example of just how hard it is to get past these sorts of ingrained assumptions:
…Wilson published his pioneering work on Sociobiology, which included a notoriously inaccurate description of foraging societies that claimed that “During the day the women and children remain in the residential area while the men forage for game or its symbolic equivalent in the form of barter and money.” A Victorian (and a 1950s suburban) ideal of mother tending the hearth was substituted for the actual life of a highly mobile Pleistocene gatherer.
But Wilson, let’s recall, was an entomologist and had to give himself a crash course in ethnography in order to write the chapter on humans for Sociobiology. Perhaps more telling, professional anthropologists themselves failed to register this whopper–even anthropologists who had actually helped collect the data indicating that a woman in a hunter-gatherer society might travel a full 1,500 miles in a year while carrying a year-old baby. The error was simply overlooked because it corresponded with expectations about how the world should appear. (p. 496)