Scientism: Fruit Flies and Vaginas


One of the more important and problematic themes in science studies is its critique of scientism. By "scientism," I mean an exaggerated trust in the methods of science to reveal the nature of reality. As it turns out, what science tells us about reality is largely historically contingent.

A recent example of this contingency involves work done on the mating habits of fruit flies, summarised in an NPR article:

The study, on fruitfly[sic] mating, was done in 1948 by geneticist A.J. Bateman. Bateman showed that the male insects' strategy was to mate with many females, whereas the females' strategy was to be discriminating in their choice of partners.

The article goes on to explain that not only has this study of fruit flies been overturned in a recent paper (Gowaty et al. 2012), but also that Bateman's work on fruit flies impacted our idea of what constitutes natural human behaviour.

Scientists are not the neutral actors we imagine (or wish) them to be. This point is made rather forcefully by Paul Feyerabend:

That interests, forces, propaganda and brainwashing techniques play a much greater role than is commonly believed in the growth of our knowledge and in the growth of science, can also be seen from an analysis of the relation between idea and action. (1993:17)

As Feyerabend argues, and the Bateman case suggests, ideas precede action. This is to say that Bateman had ideas about the relative promiscuity of male and female fruit flies before he designed and conducted his experiment. Unsurprisingly, his experiment proved what he already knew.

A more classic example of this sort of occurrence involves the work of the sixteenth century anatomist Andreas Vesalius. In 1543, Vesalius published his groundbreaking work on anatomy De humani corporis fabrica. While it doesn't look much like a contemporary anatomy text, the book was quite an advancement for the time as Vesalius had taken the unusual step of actually looking inside a few human bodies. Earlier anatomists had generally preferred (for religious or legal reasons) to look inside animals, and infer physical similarities with humans (Harcourt 1987:37).

Despite having better access to cadavers than his predecessors (usually they were the bodies of executed criminals), what Vesalius saw when he opened one up is not what we would see. Here is an example of an illustration from Fabrica:

The surprising thing is that this is not a drawing of a penis, but rather a vagina. Why does it look like a penis? Because, prior to the eighteenth century, anatomists generally subscribed to a "One Sex" theory (Laqueur 1992), which held that women and men were different forms of the same sex. Women were simply inverted in some key areas.

When Vesalius opened a woman's body, did he see something different and draw the picture above to conform with the theory, or is the picture an accurate representation of what he actually saw? The idea of what he would see which he held before he conducted the dissection influenced him to such a degree that it became what he actually saw inside the unfortunate woman (in this case the lover of a monk who had been caught).

It might be argued that through successive iterations of the scientific method our knowledge of reality is continually refined and becomes more accurate. That is to say that science itself demonstrates its own contingency. After all, didn't Gowaty et al. use science to disprove Bateman's earlier experiment, thereby advancing our knowledge of the fruit fly? Not entirely. We have no reason to believe that idea did not precede action for Gowaty, just as it did for Bateman and Vesalius. Take the quote from Gowaty that concludes the NPR article:

> The most important experimental data for the evolutionary justification for the double standard in humans is in question.

In the deployment of the "double standard" there is the hint of a political project. It is not a coincidence that this experiment has successfully overturned Bateman just as we are steadily been moving towards a "One Standard" model for human sexual behavior. Do we have to seriously consider the possibility that if society had moved in a different direction since 1948, the experiment by Gowaty et al. might have turned up a different result, one which supports rather than overturns Bateman?

At the very least there seems to be a kind of reinforcement mechanism at work. A scientist has an idea of what is true, and conducts an experiment proving the idea. Then the experiment is taken to buttress and extend the idea into more areas of science and society. Thanks to Gowaty et al., we now have naturalized scientific support for promiscuity among human females. (Here I imagine more than the unlikely scenario of a man getting a woman into bed after correctly explaining to her the mating habits of the fruit fly.)

This is a huge problem for anyone with an interest in scientific knowledge. The science studies approach, which effectively destabilizes and undermines science is potentially dangerous especially in the wrong hands, as Bruno Latour (2004) reminds us. We need to simultaneously emphasize the contingent character of science without giving scientific knowledge of reality on the same epistemological weight as fantasy.

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