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Scientist discusses gender and nature

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Section: News

October 17, 2008

While most of her colleagues look for answers, Anne Fausto-Sterling is a scientist in search of questions. Fausto-Sterling addressed a packed audience Wednesday night, at the fifth annual Eleanor Roosevelt Lecture, hosted by the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. In her lecture “Nature, Nurture, Neither?” the featured speaker presented some of her most recent studies of early-developmental gender traits and sex differences in bone development to show that science has been asking the wrong questions about gender.

“We are spinning our wheels trying to argue dualisms, but we need a different way of conceptualizing,” she said.

A professor of biology at Brown University, Fausto-Sterling addressed reasons why both arguments for “nature” as well for “nurture,” used to explain human behavior, are socially and scientifically problematic.

“What’s wrong with the argument from genetics, is that genes are the middle of the sandwich,” she said, explaining that genes are not the permanent and deterministic entities that most assume them to be. “Genes don’t cause things. They only interpret the world in which they find themselves,” she said.

The problem of attributing gender and sex differences to choice, she argued, is that it implies conscious control. To outline the absurdity of this conceptualization, she joked, mimicking a fictional character that would fit this paradigm: “Ok, I’ve decided to be a homosexual. This is what I want to do, so now I’m going to go out and do it.”

She proposed that people adopt the view that nurture affects nature, therefore one’s environment physically affects one’s genes. Because the relation between sex, gender and sexual desire is poorly theorized, she said, we need to bring taboo topics back into focus. “Like a child’s sexuality,” she said. “It exists. We have to bring it back into the conversation, but imagine trying to get a federal grant on this topic.”

Fausto-Sterling’s lecture drew mixed reviews from the audience. Though she acknowledged the limits to her small pool of data, and explained that she intends to build a new framework for examining problems of sex and gender rather than providing answers, some students left disappointed.

“She had really good ideas, but I’m not satisfied,” said Ari Salinger ’12. Nonetheless, Salinger acknowledged that the lecture was insightful and significant. “The work she is doing is really important. It needs to be done,” he said, referring to proposed deconstruction of the present paradigm with which we approach issues of sex and gender.

Megan McGrath ’12 expressed appreciation for the lecture. “I enjoyed it, it was really dense.”

Prof. Sarah Lamb (ANTH) said she deeply admires the work of Faust-Sterling and frequently assigns it in her classes. Her interest lies mainly in the speaker’s attempt to study cultural phenomena through biology, and suggested that professors from both anthropological and biological fields should work together on a more regular basis. “Anthropologists tend to not be able to generalize or quantify data [in the way biologists do], but we have a lot more ethnographic data,” she said, referring to Fausto-Sterling’s struggle in drawing data from the very limited amount of videotapes of children she was able to acquire.

Prof. James Mandrel, chair of the Women and Gender Studies department and organizer of the event, was very satisfied. “It was terrific; I’m delighted,” he said. “It surpassed my expectations.”

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