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Eighteenth-century natural historians created a peculiar, and peculiarly durable, vision of nature—one that embodied the sexual and racial tensions of that era. When plants were found to reproduce sexually, eighteenth-century botanists ascribed to them passionate relations, polyandrous marriages, and suicidal incest, and accounts of steamy plant sex began to infiltrate the Eighteenth-century natural historians created a peculiar, and peculiarly durable, vision of nature—one that embodied the sexual and racial tensions of that era. When plants were found to reproduce sexually, eighteenth-century botanists ascribed to them passionate relations, polyandrous marriages, and suicidal incest, and accounts of steamy plant sex began to infiltrate the botanical literature of the day. Naturalists also turned their attention to the great apes just becoming known to eighteenth-century Europeans, clothing the females in silk vestments and training them to sip tea with the modest demeanor of English matrons, while imagining the males of the species fully capable of ravishing women. Written with humor and meticulous detail, Nature’s Body draws on these and other examples to uncover the ways in which assumptions about gender, sex, and race have shaped scientific explanations of nature. Schiebinger offers a rich cultural history of science and a timely and passionate argument that science must be restructured in order to get it right.


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Eighteenth-century natural historians created a peculiar, and peculiarly durable, vision of nature—one that embodied the sexual and racial tensions of that era. When plants were found to reproduce sexually, eighteenth-century botanists ascribed to them passionate relations, polyandrous marriages, and suicidal incest, and accounts of steamy plant sex began to infiltrate the Eighteenth-century natural historians created a peculiar, and peculiarly durable, vision of nature—one that embodied the sexual and racial tensions of that era. When plants were found to reproduce sexually, eighteenth-century botanists ascribed to them passionate relations, polyandrous marriages, and suicidal incest, and accounts of steamy plant sex began to infiltrate the botanical literature of the day. Naturalists also turned their attention to the great apes just becoming known to eighteenth-century Europeans, clothing the females in silk vestments and training them to sip tea with the modest demeanor of English matrons, while imagining the males of the species fully capable of ravishing women. Written with humor and meticulous detail, Nature’s Body draws on these and other examples to uncover the ways in which assumptions about gender, sex, and race have shaped scientific explanations of nature. Schiebinger offers a rich cultural history of science and a timely and passionate argument that science must be restructured in order to get it right.

30 review for Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science

  1. 5 out of 5

    Alok Vaid-Menon

    How Men Defined ‘Nature’ to Oppress Women: Rutgers University Press (1993) Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus coined the term Mammalia (mammal). This was the only one of his zoological groups that highlighted a feature associated with women: the maternal breast. A few years prior he wrote a dissertation against the “evils of wet-nursing.” During this time, it was conventional for upper class women to have wet nurses for their babies. Linnaeus argued that this violated the “laws of nature,” but really How Men Defined ‘Nature’ to Oppress Women: Rutgers University Press (1993) Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus coined the term Mammalia (mammal). This was the only one of his zoological groups that highlighted a feature associated with women: the maternal breast. A few years prior he wrote a dissertation against the “evils of wet-nursing.” During this time, it was conventional for upper class women to have wet nurses for their babies. Linnaeus argued that this violated the “laws of nature,” but really he believed that the “character of the upper-class child could easily be corrupted by the milk of lower-class nurses” (68). Stanford Historian Dr. Schiebinger argues that there was no empirical reason for the name “mammal” and that instead Linnaeas paid homage to the maternal breast as part of a coordinated effort to undermine women’s public power and attach new value to women’s domestic roles. “The scientific fascination with the female breast helped to [reinforce] the sexual division of labor in European society by emphasizing how natural it was for females to rear their own children” (42). Naturalists used the breast to argue that it was “nature’s sign that women belonged only in the home.” By honoring the mammal as the highest class of animals “Linnaeus assigned a new value to the female: women’s unique role in reproduction” (53). European legislators politicized breasts to locate the power of women in “nurturing the future sons of the state” (64), rather than in the fields of knowledge production they had previously occupied (like midwifery and medicine). With the dawn of the Enlightenment men began to justify discrimination using the rhetoric of nature. In 1790 British naturalist William Smellie argued that social hierarchies came from natural hierarchies “independently of all political institutions” and that “nature herself has formed the human species into castes and ranks” (145). Male scientists argued that the natural, exclusive role for women in society was motherhood. French physician Julien-Joseph Virey argued that the word “femme” derived from “fetus” because women’s “natural destination” was to generate life. For 18th and 19th century scientists, the focus on sex was almost exclusively about white women, This is because women were thought to shape racial characteristics (the shape of noses, lips, and skulls, hair texture, and skin color). German physician Johann Blumenbach believed that Black features were different because babies’ heads pounded against their mother’s backs as they worked and “flattened their facial features.” Accordingly, white women were important insomuch as their behavior directly impacted the status of the future generation of white men. When Blumenbach divided the world into five major races (one of the first racial classification systems) he labeled the Caucasian skull “female” and did not mention sex for the other four skulls. (He selected the Georgian skull as representative of the white race because he believed its “great beauty revealed [Caucasians] as the archetype from which all other races had degenerated.”) This history illustrates the great lengths European men took to define nature in a way that allowed them to absolve themselves of responsibility: they weren’t disenfranchising women and people of color, they were just doing what “nature” entailed. We should always be skeptical of people using the rhetoric of “nature” to justify discrimination. Sexism is not science.

  2. 4 out of 5

    K. Jarboe

    An informative and informed history of the structural racism and sexism of science since the Enlightenment. Schienbinger excellently fleshes out the social and political contexts for her arguments, and reminds readers that science continues to be exclusionary (as most of my non-white and/or non-male scientist friends can attest to). Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in or is otherwise studying gender and race history in America, science, art history, anthropology, and philosophy (es An informative and informed history of the structural racism and sexism of science since the Enlightenment. Schienbinger excellently fleshes out the social and political contexts for her arguments, and reminds readers that science continues to be exclusionary (as most of my non-white and/or non-male scientist friends can attest to). Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in or is otherwise studying gender and race history in America, science, art history, anthropology, and philosophy (especially phenomenology, since the treatment of one's body is a large part of how one experiences the body, but obviously there are ethical philosophical issues raised in this book as well).

  3. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    This book shattered my general outlook on science and gender. The major question Schiebinger poses to us in this reading I have not been able to let go of, and at some point I ask myself this question everyday. She asks us how different would science/medicine be if women would have been allowed to participate from the beginning? That question haunts me because I feel that not only science, but our world would be very different indeed.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sean Chick

    Postmodern crap that attacks science and the Enlightenment. Certainly the author is correct that natural science was engendered, but so what? What do you expect from that era? In the end it reads like a diatribe on why women were left out, while pointing out that "male" achievements are dubious. Man-haters and postmodern thinkers will love it, but the rest of us who strive for a better world, and are inspired by the Enlightenment, can only spit in its general direction. Postmodern crap that attacks science and the Enlightenment. Certainly the author is correct that natural science was engendered, but so what? What do you expect from that era? In the end it reads like a diatribe on why women were left out, while pointing out that "male" achievements are dubious. Man-haters and postmodern thinkers will love it, but the rest of us who strive for a better world, and are inspired by the Enlightenment, can only spit in its general direction.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    A fascinating history of the construction of gender in modern science. Learn why mammals are called mammals, and how white naturalists went ape-shit when they found out plants reproduce sexually.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chris Friend

    Thoughtful & accessible; worth reading.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Chris Ma

    Informative and easy-reading. Compared to the ambitions of some other authors writing in the same field, this book anchors its point in its materials very well and sound.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    Loved this book! Especially the chapter on Mammalia. So so fascinating.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Raymond Li

    The author seeks to explore how the true relationships between the sexes and the ideological renderings of these relationships shaped 18th century European science in general and natural history in particular. The interest in vegetative sexuality that emerged from the 18th century had a strong interest in the precise distinction between animal and human sexual characteristics. And in the chapter discussing apes and humans, the author mentions that for the male naturalists of the 18th century, it The author seeks to explore how the true relationships between the sexes and the ideological renderings of these relationships shaped 18th century European science in general and natural history in particular. The interest in vegetative sexuality that emerged from the 18th century had a strong interest in the precise distinction between animal and human sexual characteristics. And in the chapter discussing apes and humans, the author mentions that for the male naturalists of the 18th century, it was not reason, language, or the ability to create culture that distinguished female humans from animals, but rather the unique form of anatomy. In short, masculine naturalists subconsciously believed that "women are not human" or "a subspecies of human".

  10. 4 out of 5

    Valerie

    This book uses a feminist lens to examine how gender and to a lesser extent race, both implicitly and explicitly, shaped European science and natural history in the eighteenth century. It does so by using several specific examples, such as the labeling of different plant parts as being male and female as well as the origin of the term “mammal,” to analyze the role of gender in science on a larger scale. Gender continues to shape science today, partially due to this past influence, and scientists This book uses a feminist lens to examine how gender and to a lesser extent race, both implicitly and explicitly, shaped European science and natural history in the eighteenth century. It does so by using several specific examples, such as the labeling of different plant parts as being male and female as well as the origin of the term “mammal,” to analyze the role of gender in science on a larger scale. Gender continues to shape science today, partially due to this past influence, and scientists need to better incorporate women and their concerns in the way science is practiced.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Dyan

    I discovered Schiebinger through her book Plants and Empire, and she is steadily becoming one of my favourite academics/writers. Nature's Body is a really fascinating and detailed account of the way gender has impacted science, particularly during the Enlightenment and colonial era(s). A definite recommendation! I discovered Schiebinger through her book Plants and Empire, and she is steadily becoming one of my favourite academics/writers. Nature's Body is a really fascinating and detailed account of the way gender has impacted science, particularly during the Enlightenment and colonial era(s). A definite recommendation!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Cana McGhee

    very solid 3.5/5! straightforward argument about how reliance upon female anatomy and human sexual relations in natural history in particular developed a white male scientific gaze that also has impacts on which peoples were considered able to “do” science at all

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    In her introduction Professor Schiebinger posits the gender traits ascribed to plants and animals change with shifting notions of masculinity and femininity in Western Culture. Through the ensuing chapters she shows such to be the case. The Swedish botanist Linnaeus, known for his system of biological classification, allowed social convention to dictate scientific classification. During this 'age of enlightenment' when attitudes toward the universe were changing the political and scientific worl In her introduction Professor Schiebinger posits the gender traits ascribed to plants and animals change with shifting notions of masculinity and femininity in Western Culture. Through the ensuing chapters she shows such to be the case. The Swedish botanist Linnaeus, known for his system of biological classification, allowed social convention to dictate scientific classification. During this 'age of enlightenment' when attitudes toward the universe were changing the political and scientific worlds were controlled by men. The author brings out this point as she discusses the arguments given for differences in race and sex. While there were those who felt the differences were God given and part of the chain of life others argued for the universality of Man. Schiebinger quotes English naturalist Richard Bradley --"I suppose there would not be any great difference [between peoples of the world]; if it was possible they could be all born of the same parents, and have the same education, they would vary no more in understanding than children of the same house." The development of 'modern' European science that began during the Renaissance created problems as European mores and institutions suppressed the development of certain kinds of knowledge. There was a European disregard for local knowledge especially as they explored distant lands. But changes also took place in Europe. For hundreds of years midwives had held a monopoly on the entire field of women's health care. They possessed knowledge of local plants that could be used for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, beginning in 17th c. men increasingly encroached on the field of women's health and by the 19th c men had taken over the more scientific (and lucrative) parts of birthing. This takeover emerged with larger issues in science and politics. The anatomy of sex and race was caught up in 18th c politics of participation. That is, could people other than wealthy, European males have any place in the scientific and political spheres. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it as it enhances one's understanding of the gender imbalance in science and engineering.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Thanks gender and science class.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jake Whom

  16. 4 out of 5

    Roger

  17. 5 out of 5

    Agnes

  18. 5 out of 5

    M

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ava

  20. 4 out of 5

    Maura

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

  22. 5 out of 5

    Rachael Ball

  23. 5 out of 5

    Hanika

  24. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Orpheus

  26. 5 out of 5

    Albireo

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sophie H

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alison

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anj

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