MedHum Monday Book Review: From Eve to Evolution

DailyDose2Feminist and women’s rights activists, like queer activists, have long had an uneasy relationship with the male-dominated fields of scientific inquiry. Evolutionary theories, the science of sex difference, and more recently the field of evolutionary psychology, have all been wielded as proof positive of innate disparities between women and men, used to support arguments against women in higher education, in the workplace, in politics, and more. However, a less-examined parallel history also exists: one in which scientists — many of them women — have used scientific methods and evidence to advance the case for women’s rights. It is one chapter in this history that Kimberly Hamlin seeks to tell in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago, 2014).

9780226324777During the fifty years following the American civil war, there was an explosion of popular interest in scientific inquiry in America, including the popularization of Darwinian theories of evolution (Origin of Species was published in 1859). In Gilded Age America, evolutionary theories competed with, and at times displaced, the dominant Christian, Bible-based explanations of human nature and society. Racial and sexual differences were increasingly explained not through the language of God’s will but rather in terms of natural selection and species survival. Women’s rights advocates — who during the antebellum period may have argued about their capacity for virtue or turned to Biblical exegesis to bolster their case for equality — found, in the postwar period, that evolutionary biology was key front in the struggle for rights.

Some female scientific thinkers, a group of white women Hamlin terms “Darwinian feminists,” believed the new scientific discourse provided an opportunity to advance the case for (white) women’s equality on evolutionary grounds. In From Eve to Evolution Hamlin considers a group of late-nineteenth century feminist thinkers who deployed evolutionary rhetoric in advance of women’s rights. “This project,” she writes in the introduction, “is one attempt to add women’s voices and a focus on gender to the vast literature on Darwin in America” (2). She examines the work of women such as Helen Hamilton Gardner, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Margaret Sanger, all of whom understood that arguments about women’s emancipation hinged on understandings of the female body and its capacities for reproduction.

Did higher education deplete women’s reproductive energy such that it endangered their physical capacity for procreation? Was pregnancy best considered a disease to be cured or a natural process to be supported through proper nourishment and exercise? If humans were mammals, what lessons for human society could be drawn from observations of animal behavior? What role did male mammals take in caring for young? What role did female mammals take in selecting a mate? All of these questions were debated both in the halls of academe and among the general public well into the twentieth century.

From Eve does an excellent job of documenting key developments in political-scientific discourse both among feminist thinkers and the general public in America at a time when twentieth-century reliance on scientific explanations of human behavior was solidifying into a secular faith. By the mid-twentieth century, whether they wished to or not, feminists had to debate the socio-political status of women within a framework that focused on the capacities and limitations of the body, and the degree of agency that women could exercise over their physical selves. Into the twenty-first century, the struggle for reproductive justice, double standards of sexual behavior, the recognition of human sexual and gender diversity, pop psychological debates about brain difference, and ongoing debates about women’s full participation society turn (publicly, at least) not on the question of God’s will but on understandings of physiological difference between male- and female-bodied people.

At times, From Eve overreaches in its argument that science displaced theology as the ground for these debates. Debates about women’s rights have never been argued solely on theological grounds, and despite the primacy of scientific discourse in America today our debates about gender and sexuality continue to turn on deeply theological axes. In reality, religion and biology have been deployed in complex, intertwined ways both for and against equality throughout the modern era.

Too, I was disappointed in the lack of black voices in this narrative; black intellectuals and activists during the Gilded Age would have been deeply engaged in interrogating and resisting the scientific racism that evolutionary theorists — not least among them white feminist women — deployed in aid of white supremacy. Hamlin acknowledges that hers is a tale of white, often unabashedly racist, female voices — but is too quick to assume that because white women and women of color did not debate on the same stage, non-white women were not engaged on these issues.

I hope that future scholars will revisit this historical period and topic with a focus on black (and other racialized) women’s responses to Darwin. Such a follow-up study would provide us with a more robust understanding of how black women’s rights advocates, particularly, contended intellectually and politically with the virulent scientific racism and sexism of the period — and what promise they might have seen in the power of science to refute spurious claims of naturalized inequality.

In the end, From Eve is a well-researched and insightful discussion of scientific thought by a group of well-positioned white, feminist intellectuals during a period in American history when scientific discourse was solidifying in method and gaining in cultural authority. It reminds us, as we renew efforts to bring women into STEM professions, that women have always on some level been active scientific researchers, thinkers, and popularizers. The individuals profiled in this book demonstrate the many ways in which scientific knowledge can inform our social struggle for a more equal human society.

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