While the social sciences were once seen as biology’s ugly cousin, in the last five years, the field has emerged from the shadows to exact its revenge. Instead of eagerly exploring where exciting, new scientific advances will take us, some academic researchers are content on doing an about-face turn to effectively halt biology’s progress, sending us back 150 years to metaphorically reinvent the wheel.
As well, an online Coursera lecture on “Science and Philosophy” from the University of Edinburgh equated evolutionary biology with creationism, claiming that both are based in faith. The course claimed that evolution is no better than “fairy tales” and questioned whether we should teach it in schools without a disclaimer that it isn’t scientific.
Of note, the lecturer of the course, Orestis Palermos, has an academic background in philosophy, which is not a scientific discipline. He also listed his professional title as Research Explorer, leaving most of us to wonder what exactly that means. The course has since been pulled from Coursera’s website, likely due to public backlash on social media and dismay from other academics affiliated with the university.
I, too, once drank the Kool-Aid. In my early twenties, I learned about “feminist theory” and believed that the world is a patriarchal society with a history of using science and evolution as tools by which to justify oppression. I was even taught the horrendous idea that gender is a social construct.
It's become commonplace for pejorative terms like scientism and biological essentialism to be thrown around by critics who don’t have the slightest understanding of what biological explanations entail.
At the end of the day, we are hard-wired to reproduce, and so it only makes sense that the ways in which we approach dating and sex would follow. This isn’t to say that environment doesn’t play a role, but it isn’t realistic to believe that we’ve overwritten millions of years of evolutionary influence. Acknowledging that men and women are different, particularly with regards to our brains and our sexual systems, and the fact that these differences have biological underpinnings, does not mean we are advocating for discrimination against women. This is desperately needed nuance that has been lost from the conversation.
Even Charles Darwin, the eminent forefather of evolution, has been accused of being a misogynist. For example, in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, he wrote that “man has ultimately become superior to woman.” It is understandable why some find science threatening as a result, but attacking Darwin in this way is an example of presentism, fallaciously holding ideas and events from the past to modern day ideals in order to discredit an entire body of work.
In order to know whether your perspective is correct, you must be willing to hear arguments against your position. Nowadays, it's become commonplace for pejorative terms like scientism and biological essentialism to be thrown around by critics who don’t have the slightest understanding of what the scientific method or biological explanations entail. They are preoccupied with advancing their unfounded theories, and what’s most insulting is they make no efforts to hide their ignorance.
The Norwegian documentary series Hjernevask perfectly captures how clueless gender scholars are. Its first episode examines why women and men tend to gravitate toward different occupational preferences, even in cultures that have the highest rates of gender equality. When a “gender researcher” is asked, “What is your scientific basis to say that biology plays no part in the two genders’ choice of work?” she responds, “My scientific basis? I have what you would call a theoretical basis. There’s no room for biology in there for me.”
It exemplifies what this argument, in the end, boils down to: scientific truths that have been deemed controversial, and ideologues who don’t care to have a clear comprehension of what they’re arguing against, but who will stop at nothing to stifle opposing views.
Support for these scholars isn’t based on the merit of what they are saying, but rather, the message that they stand for. People tend to fear the unknown, and it takes time and effort to go out of your way to read the scientific literature and wrangle with jargon that can be difficult to understand. On the other hand, you can parrot politically correct tropes and be praised for it, without much of a second thought.
I suggest following advice from Geoffrey Miller, an associate professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of New Mexico, when evaluating a person's argument. If they aren't willing to entertain how contradictory evidence might change their opinion, you know they are ideological.
I have watched as these changes have infiltrated the sciences over the last several years and it’s been a pernicious process. In this case, the calls are coming from within the house, and those in the academy who disagree with this way of thinking must make take it upon themselves to help clean up the mess. The longer these ideas go unchallenged, the more entrenched and widespread they will become.
Debra W. Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.