"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Women and Science Fiction

This week, for a change of pace, I'd like to direct you to a wonderful interview with science fiction author Pamela Sargent on Heroines of Fantasy
Pamela is a prolific author and winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Pilgrim awards.  She has also published several anthologies featuring women authors of science fiction.  Her novel Earthseed is currently being adapted for the big screen.  Read our interview with Pamela to learn what inspired her to write science fiction, as well as her thoughts on the past, present, and future of the genre.

Those of you who are looking for news about High Maga, the companion novel to Eolyn, I'm happy to report the manuscript is coming along nicely.  Author and editor Terri-Lynne DeFino has been kind enough to do a beta read for me, and now I'm working through her comments and edits in preparation for sending the draft back out for a few more beta reads. 

Terri is one of my most loyal fans, but also one of my harshest critics (a great combination to have in a critique partner). Her standards as a reader of fantasy are high.  So when she said High Maga is "fabulous" -- right before she [ahem] told me all the things that need to be fixed -- it made me very happy. 

Terri's edits are making the manuscript stronger, more complex in some ways, but tighter at the same time, which is very exciting.  I really am looking forward to sharing this novel with the world, but of course there are many steps left to complete before it can come to press.  Though the biggest job, getting it done, is just about over. 

In the meantime, if you are anxious for previews of High Maga, please visit and friend my Facebook page for Eolyn, where I've begun posting quotes from the new novel.  I will also post chapter one right here on this blog in the not-so-distant future, so stay tuned for that.

Thanks so much for stopping by.  Next week I'll continue the series on Women and Science with a post about Hypatia, a fourth century woman mathematician who lived, taught, and died in the city of Alexandria.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Chaste and Lawful Marriage

It is no easy task to get nature to conform to the Laws of Nature. ~Evelyn Fox Keller

Aargh!  My master plan for this week's post has been foiled. 

I had hoped to embed a wonderful video for you on my blog, an interview entitled Science and Gender: Evelyn Fox Keller, produced by the Films Media Group in 1988.  One would think there'd be a public version of this video -- an excerpt at least (5 minutes, please?) -- somewhere in the vast universe of the internet, but if such a jewel exists, I have not found it.

A physicist by training, Keller has published multiple volumes on the relationship between language, science, and gender, including the biography A Feeling for the Organism, which documents the life and work of the geneticist Barbara McClintock, recipient of the Nobel Prize for her discovery of transposons.

In this very engaging interview with Bill Moyers, Keller explores how language influenced the foundational philosophies of modern science, and how those philosophies -- established centuries ago -- continue to shape science even today.

"Henry Oldenburg," Keller points out, "said it very clearly.  The purpose of the Royal society was to establish a truly masculine philosophy.  Why?  What did they mean by a truly masculine philosophy?  Francis Bacon said 'Let us establish a chaste and lawful marriage between mind and nature...'"

With these and other references, Keller identifies marriage as a central metaphor for the scientific revolution.  And not just any marriage, but a particular model of marriage, a patriarchal model in which the purpose was the domination of nature (woman) by the mind (man).

As part of this metaphor, qualities such as objectivity and reason were associated with the masculine, and fully incorporated into the scientific endeavor.  Qualities of empathy and emotion were linked to the feminine and rejected.      

Why? Keller asks. 

Where do these ideas come from?  What does it mean to create a dicotomy between objectivity and empathy? Why would we call one masculine and the other feminine?  Why was one recognized and the other rejected in the definition of science? 

Of course, these are metaphors established over four hundred years ago, but remarkably Keller identifies many contemporary examples where the ideas articulated by Oldenburg and Bacon still drive the scientific endeavor.

The labeling of empathy as "feminine" (when in fact, as I think most of you would agree, women do not have a monopoly on empathy), and the exclusion of both from "science" has had important consequences.  It not only shapes our vision as to what science is, it perpetuates a fantasy that science can be practiced in a way that is free of human values, preconceptions and aspirations.  It perpetuates the myth that science is objective.

Any human product cannot be free of human values, Keller insists.

Yet nature, as her interviewer Bill Moyers points out, is not a human product.

True.  But science does not give us nature.  It gives us a construct of nature.  A powerful construct, to be sure, but a construct nonetheless.  One that will always be colored by the lens of human language and perception.

It was at about this point during the interview that I started getting itchy.   Objectivity is a fundamental value of science. All scientists strive for it; I myself have striven for it. So it is very difficult for me to contemplate the full implications of Keller's argument.

What would happen if we were to remove this pillar upon which the scientific establishment has been built? Just thinking about it gives me the feeling of standing on a precipice; knowing that if I jump everything that I thought I knew about science might be fundamentally altered. 

Will I fall forever, flailing blindly into an uncharted abyss?  Or is there a new structure out there waiting to be discovered?  A revolutionary approach that will make science even more powerful, more productive than it has been for the past four centuries? 

Keller's answer is a hopeful one.  She is convinced that if we can better understand the relationship between language, values and science, we will be able to harness this creative resource in ways that would be even more productive, and geared to a greater wellbeing of all humankind. 

Is she right? 

I don't know.  But Evelyn Fox Keller certainly gives one a lot to think about, and for that I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know some of her scholarship.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Warriors and Wimps

Color-enhanced electron micrograph of a human ovum and sperm.
Stories of fertilization are loaded with gender stereotypes, even
in modern-day textbooks.  See the artist's rendition below.

anthropomorphic 1. ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human.  2. resembling or made to resemble human form.

I've touched upon the topic of anthropomorphism before, in my post Animating the Forest, part of my series of reflections for the 2011 Andrews Forest Writers Residency.  There I talked about the tension between me-the-writer and me-the-scientist when interacting with the forest, and how my desire to avoid anthropomorphism influenced the way I write about the natural world, and the way animals were portrayed in the novel Eolyn. 
A common artist's rendition of fertilization, where
the voyage of the sperm appears as a kind of space
odyssey:  To explore strange worlds, to seek out new
life, to boldly go where no man has gone before...

As a biology professor, I run into anthropomorphisms on a a daily basis, sometimes in unexpected places.  For example, today in introductory biology we introduced the term hydrophilic, which one of the students was quick to define as "water-loving". 

Hydrophilic compounds have an affinity for water, and so "water-loving" is a catchy phrase that can help students remember what hydrophilic means and how it applies to biology and chemistry.  But -- let's face it -- molecules are not capable of "loving" anything. An innocent anthropomorphism, but an anthropomorphism nonetheless.

Women and Science this week also tackled the subject of anthropomorphism. We often use human characteristics to tell stories about the natural world, and as a result these stories, though meant to communicate scientific information, are often couched in terms that reflect and reinforce gender stereotypes.  Take this example which we looked at just yesterday:

Warriors and Wimps.  From a male's perspective, there are never enough females to go around and so, motivated by lust and sheer greed, each of them comes into serious competition with other philanderers...   (John Sparks, Battle of the Sexes: The Natural History of Sex.  London: BBC Books 1999)

I'll let you guess which non-human animal this excerpt is talking about, though in a sense, the animal referred to is irrelevant, because the story is not really about that species.  It is a high-drama conflict cast in human tones, where male "warriors" battle each other for access to passive females, who seem to be caught in the classic damsel-in-distress syndrome we so often complain about in fantasy fiction.

You guessed right!  Our lusty warriors are elephant seals.
From a biological perspective, we really cannot impose human motivations like "lust" and "sheer greed" on another animals. Nor can we qualify their behavior as "philandering", because terms like these impose moral connotations on patterns that have evolved under natural selection, and therefore have no moral implications whatsoever, not for the animals that engage in the behavior, and certainly not for the humans who study them. 

By this last statement, what I mean is that humans must judge the moral implications of our behavior within the context of our own species and societies; we cannot base our moral codes on the behavior of other animals. Yet often scientific information is communicated in a way that does just that.  Take this example, also discussed in class this week, from a story of human origins that attempts to explain pair-bonding between men and women:

The Naked Ape: Origins.  Male and female hunting apes had to fall in love and remain faithful to one another....In this way, the females were sure of their males' support and were able to devote themselves to their maternal duties.  The males were sure of their females' loyalty, were prepared to leave them for hunting, and avoided fighting over them.  And the offspring were provided with the maximum of care and attention.  (Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal. New York: Dell Publishing, 1967.) 

An outdated reference, to be sure.  Since the publication of Morris' version of human cultural history, a lot has changed in the field of paleoanthropology, and in our understanding of the behavior of early humans.  But this still serves as an excellent example of how "scientific" information can be construed to reinforce certain stereotypes -- in this case, a cerca 1950s vision of the ideal family, where Mom stays home with the kids, Dad goes off to a collegial atmosphere at work, both are perfectly faithful to the other, and everyone lives happily ever after. 

Let me take off my scientist cap for a moment and go back to being Karin-the-storyteller, because all this has implications for the stories we tell about the natural world, and the responsiblity we assume in telling them. 

One of my all-time favorite series:
The BBC's Planet Earth

I once saw a fascinating presentation by a BBC filmaker in La Selva Biological Station, where he showed us how the BBC systematically takes unconnected snippets of wildlife footage and manages to weave it all together into an interesting and cohesive drama. 

Truth be told, none of us would watch those BBC wildlife specials if they did not deliver some interesting drama.  And yet, speaking as a professor who has used BBC productions such as Planet Earth in the classroom, a fundamental goal of those series is to communicate the reality of the natural world.  Finding the balance between achieving solid scientific content and creating the drama that will hold the interest of the non-scientist is a constant challenge.  Layer on top of this the need to craft drama in a way that avoids the trap of social stereotypes, and you have a formidable task indeed. 

I've rambled on enough about this.  Now it's your turn. 

Have you run across "scientific" stories that reinforce gender stereotypes?

If so, how would you recast these stories in a way that could avoid those stereotypes?