Daughters need letters

When I teach genetics, I like to pull a little trick on my students. About the time I teach them about analyzing pedigrees and about sex linkage, I show them this pedigree and ask them to figure out what kind of trait it is.


It’s a bit of a stumper. There’s the problem of variability in its expression, whatever it is, which makes interpretation a little fuzzy — that’s a good lesson in itself, that genetics isn’t always a matter of rigid absolutes. They usually think, though, that it must be some Y-linked trait, since only males (the squares in the diagram) have it at all, and no females (the circles) are ever affected.

Then I show them the labeled version, and there’s a moment of “Hey, wait a minute…” that ripples through the class. Keep in mind that even the science classes at my university contain typically 60% or more women.


It’s a truly horrible pedigree. Not only is it trying to reduce a very complex trait like “scientific ability” to a discrete character, but its assessment is entirely subjective — a point that is really brought home by pointing out that the pedigree was drawn by Francis Galton, who judged himself brilliant, and that he was evaluating his own family.

The silent tragedy here, though, is all those women judged as lacking in the characters of brilliance and scientific ability. They are rendered as nullities by the prejudices of the time — even if they had shown the spark of genius, they probably would not have been recognized by Galton — and by a culture that wouldn’t have trained or encouraged girls to do more than master needlework and laundry and household management, and would have brought them up to value the fruitfulness of their ovaries over the product of their minds.

Look at all those empty circles. I’m sure some of them had the capacity to be an entrepreneur like Josiah Wedgwood, or an eclectic philosopher like Erasmus Darwin, or a deep and meticulous scientist like Charles Darwin, or even just a successful doctor like Robert Darwin (II-4; not someone I would have characterized as brilliant, and also an indicator of the variety of abilities Galton was lumping together in his arbitrary judgments). Half the scientific potential in that pedigree was thrown away by restrictive social conventions.

That’s the kind of blind bias we have to end, and I think this Letters to our Daughters project is a wonderful idea. Stop pretending the circles are empty, and ask them to speak; color in those circles with talent. If you are a female scientist, or you know a female scientist, write in and set an example, and show the next generation of our daughters that they have a history, too.

You can read the first letter in the project now. I think it needs a few thousand more.

Subtle sexism in science?

From among our most German friends, I found this article on WeiterGen on women in science that led to an article by one of my favorite scientists, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, that I found rather disappointing.

She describes her experiences as a woman in science of a previous generation, in which the discrimination was much more overt. She experienced seeing her work given to the credit of her male peers, of working under bosses who told her that women couldn’t do as well in science, and of working to the top of her profession to find a paucity of female colleagues and to find herself as the exception that proves the rule. You’ve got to admire her for overcoming all that to achieve far more than most of us privileged males.

The end of the article is also good, in which she urges men to be more aware of gender issues, and points out that there are persistent differences in women’s roles in society that we need to actively overcome; I’m also impressed that she’s putting her money where her mouth is and has founded the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation, which provides fellowships to women scientists specifically to help them balance conventional family obligations with research.

There’s a part in the middle that bugs me, though. She’s arguing that it’s OK that we don’t necessarily get that perfect 50:50 ratio in every field, and I agree with that … I just find why she thinks that should be so to be troubling.

Men and
women are different by nature, not
only because of their education or
the roles traditionally ascribed to
them by society. Of course, I do not
think that women are in any way
less intelligent than men or do not
have the capacity to do excellent
science in principle. It is not a matter
of skills or talent, but according
to my observations the strengths,
aims and interests of women differ
from those of many of their male
contemporaries, at least on average.
I know many women who share
my disgust for the personal pride,
vanity and narrow focus of some
successful male colleagues and in
turn appreciate the more considerate,
broad-minded way some female
colleagues do their science. I
understand women who hate to push
themselves forward, or who are not
willing to narrow down their spectrum
of interests, including family and
friends. I have often experienced
that women in my family — much
more so than men — have a hard
time understanding my passion
for science, while they are more
interested in social issues, art and

Men and women are different, obviously, and there may well be intrinsic differences that will steer the sexes in different directions. That’s not a problem. But you know, claiming that women have a “more considerate, broad-minded” approach to science really isn’t that much different from a Larry Summers claiming that boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls. It’s not necessarily true, even in average or in natural inclination, and it perpetuates a stereotype.

An individual woman ought be able to be ambitious, pushy, vain, and focused and succeed in science without her approach being considered in conflict with her gender. It isn’t. Similarly, an individual male researcher can be considerate and giving and helpful without betraying his sex. I want women to succeed in science because I don’t want anyone to be hindered in their careers by the imposition of stereotypes, and let’s not have women graduate students walk into a lab under the shadow of an expectation that they have to be the liberal nurturers of the research group, the ones who’ll be interested in art and music more than the nerdy males. It’s a nice reputation to have, I’m sure, but it’s also an imposition of an unfair expectation on women that we don’t place on men.

Uh-oh — I can think of a few people who will argue with this

Although this article does make a very good case that you can’t be a feminist and religious at the same time. Even the most peaceful religions, like Jainism and Buddhism, treat women as inferiors.

The article doesn’t mention any female-centered religions, though, like Wicca…I suppose you could be a Wiccan feminist, but you’re still stuck trying to believe in crazy stuff.

There must be violence against women

Those darn human rights organizations keep meddling in people’s personal affairs — for instance, they think fathers and brothers shouldn’t be allowed to beat or kill their wives and sisters if they have been dishonorable, and that women ought to report abuse to the police. Don’t they know that violence against women is a good thing? There are perfectly good reasons for it.

Relationships between fathers and daughters or sisters and brothers also provoke argument from human rights organizations, which propose the suggested solutions for all relationships. Personally, I don’t think fathers or brothers would undertake such behavior unless there was a reason for it.

Of course, if you actually read the article, the author just rambles about and never tells us what these good reasons might be. If women are naughty, you have to do something about it, after all, and why not kick and hit them?

Fathers are responsible for their daughters’ behavior, but human rights organizations deny this too. Brothers also should take action regarding their sisters’ behavior, especially if their parents are too old or dead. If a daughter or sister makes a mistake – especially a moral one – that negatively affects the entire family and its reputation, what’s the solution by such organizations?

According to them, women should complain to the courts about any type of violence against them. Likewise, should fathers and brothers complain to police if their daughters or sisters violate moral, Islamic or social norms?

Fathers should handle their daughters via any means that suits their mistake; thus, is it better to use violence to a certain limit or complain to the police? Shall such women then complain to the police against their fathers or brothers? It’s really amazing to hear this.

It really is amazing. How about talking with them, treating them with respect, and finding out what their reasons for their behavior might be…and how about finding a solution other than stupidly hitting them?

It’s also peculiar because all of this violence is only excused against women — as if fathers and brothers do not ever violate moral, Islamic, or social norms. It’s all so blindly one-sided. And here’s the interesting reason why:

Dear readers – especially women – don’t think that I hate or am against women; rather, I simply mean to preserve the morals and principles with which Islam has honored us.

I hope my message is clear, since it’s really quite relevant to the future of our societies, which must be protected from any kind of cultural invasion.

That last bit is legitimate — of course there is a fear that outsiders will destroy one’s culture, especially the valuable, useful, loved parts of one’s historical tradition, so there is a natural tendency to bunker up and defend everything with equal zealotry. But no culture is perfect and every culture has some ugly relics creeping about in the basement; in this case, the mistreatment of women is one such horrid little vestige of a barbaric society. Perhaps instead of arguing in favor of the indefensible, it would be better to encourage the culture to change from within, and recognize that there is injustice in Islam.

Unfortunately, there will also be people who will argue that because Allah wills it, it must be so.

Putting women in their proper place

Ladies! Here’s the class for you!

The class, “Biblical Model for Home and Family,” is one of nine courses, with others focusing on the value of a child, clothing construction, nutrition, and meal preparation, that make up a homemaking concentration Southwestern began offering female humanities majors this fall.

The move has attracted criticism, but Bible-based homemaking courses aren’t that unusual. Masters College, a Christian liberal-arts school in California, offers courses teaching women how to cook, manage time, and “joyfully submit to their husbands.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., offers a marriage and family class teaching wives how to meet their husbands’ needs and keep marriage exciting.

Why am I not surprised that this course is offered by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, new home to William Dembski? It does seem like his kind of place.

That’s a seminary, where people go to get lobotomized anyway…but what is the Discovery Channel Store’s excuse? Here’s what they advertise as appropriate science gifts for boys:

    Cube Word Series 2 Set (“Create your very own interactive world”)

  • Discovery ATM Machine (“This at-home ATM is an excellent way to learn about saving money.”)
  • Discovery Radio Controlled Arthropods
  • Virtual Distance Football
  • Discovery Star Theater

And here’s what the girls get:

  • Rainbow In My Room
  • Discovery Sew Fun Sewing Machine
  • Discovery Pink Slide and Text Messengers (“Chat with your friends wirelessly and transmit text messages up to 15′ away.”)
  • Discovery Diamond Dust Microscope
  • Discovery Fashion Design Studio

Yeesh. No wonder we have a hard time getting women into science.

Oh, well — it could be worse. They could be endorsing female genital mutilation. Nobody would be crazy enough to do that.

Wake up, everyone!

A few little videos by way of the marvelous Kevin Hayden:

  • Ladies, did you know that you are just like a cardboard box? We’re supposed to treat you delicately and with respect, just in case you’ve got something in your uterus. If you’ve had a hysterectomy or you’re menstruating, though, and we know the box is empty, well, we don’t have to worry about you so much.

  • Guys, did you know that you are followed everywhere by a mob of enthusiastic, hyperactive sperm? I love how both sexes can be objectified by the functions of our gonads.

  • I’ve shown the video for this one before, but I’m going to do it again just because I love the New York Dolls and this will put you in a happy mood for a Monday morning. Here are the New York Dolls performing “Dance Like a Monkey” live:

Pandagon disturbs me

Sometimes, men really suck. Amanda horrifies me with this wife-beating video: a horrible little man browbeats, strikes, and briefly chokes his wife while having their children videotape the whole thing. I guess he felt that she deserved it.

I couldn’t help but noticed that the wretched Y-chromosome-bearing thug was also prominently wearing a bright, sparkly cross around his neck the whole time.

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