5 Times Biology Was Absurdly Unscientific
When we think about science-ey sciences, the ones that really know what's up, Biology is usually pretty high up on the list. I mean, they look at your cells and totally get it! Right? They bring us all this medicine and knowledge and if anyone knows anything about our bodies it's biologists, right? Well, sometimes, claims come out of biology that are just plain ridiculous and they get away with it. Here's some times when Biology was far from a "hard science."
#1. Male Scientists Are Baffled by Lesbian Monkey Sex
By now, it's pretty much accepted that homosexuality is pretty much as natural as it gets. However, scientists studying the reproductive habits of pygmy chimpanzees seem to be a little behind the times.
You see, female pygmy chimpanzees have frequently been observed engaged in an activity where two pygmys hold each other and "swing their hips laterally while keeping the front tips of vulvae, where the clitorises protrude, in touch with each other." In other words, they have a "special hug" where they rub their clitorises together and make each other feel real good. This activity has been dubbed "genito-genital rubbing" or "GG rubbing" by the primatologist Takoyashi Kano. Kano, and his fellow primatologists, insist that GG Rubbing is not sexual and that pygmy chimpanzees do not have gay sex.
"No mom, she's not my girlfriend, we were just GG rubbing"
Why? Because female pygmy chimpanzees GG Rub together even when not in estrus! What's estrus? Why, estrus is the period of time when monkeys have sex.
You see, primatologists like Mr. Kano define sexual activity as something that happens during estrus, and they define estrus as the time when sex happens. So which comes first?
The philosopher Elizabeth Lloyd argues that these male researchers are committed to the idea that female primates, humans included, are sexually motivated by reproduction. That is, that women just wanna have babies and orgasms are just a convenient bonus. And so they overlook obvious evidence to the contrary. Even when it's staring them right in the face, making eye contact while having a big lesbian monkey climax. Afterall, lesbian pygmy chimps don't get pregnant from GG Rubbing, which would mean they do it for pleasure and not for those sweet sweet monkey offspring.
#2 Geneticists Discover "Female Genome", Forget What Genome Means
We've all been told that "men are from mars and women are from venus" but in 2005 news went out that some geneticists were taking that literally, claiming that men and women actually had two completely different genomes, and were "as different from each other as humans and chimpanzees."
This wasn't just some fringe scientists. The author, Dr. Huntington Willard's claims were published in Nature, the leading academic journal in determining, as the name would imply, what is considered "natural."
Popular media went wild. The New York Times proclaimed that men and women were "altogether a different species" based on this research.
In her book Sex Itself, Sarah Richardson goes into incredible depth picking apart every problem with the study, but one fundamental flaw stands out above all others.
The very definition of what a genome is prevents Willard's claims from being true. A genome is the complete set of genes in a species. In other words, no human could possibly have a "different genome" from any other human, as the genome itself is a description of every possible variation. For men and women to have different genomes they would have to literally be different species. But of course, if two animals exclusively mate with each other, and produce offspring resembling either parent consistently, we typically consider that to be the definition of a species. You'd never see a hamster give birth to a guinea pig. If there were an independent "female genome", humans would be the most frequent practitioners of interspecies orgies on the planet.
#3 Archaeologist's "Reconstruction" of Ancient Skull Actually Just Modeled On Patrick Stewart
In 1996, two college students in Kennewick, WA, were just having a fun time wading through a river when suddenly oh my god is that a skeleton?!
It turns out, these two students managed to accidentally stumble upon what ended up being a 10,000 year old skeleton. Not just that, the skeleton was almost perfectly intact except for a 10,000 year old spear in its side, presumably the cause of death. Besides giving the best story to one-up their friends at parties, this discovery also resulted in the most absurd attempt at grave-robbing you could imagine.
Given the age and location of the so-called Kennewick Man skeleton, you would easily assume that it belonged to an Indigenous American. After all, 10,000 years ago is 9445 years before Europeans invaded the Americas and swept the continent with their disgusting colonies of men who didn't understand the concept of bathing. However, the scientists who first got their grubby hands on the skeleton could not let that be true.
Why? Because of NAGPRA, the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This law, passed as recently as 1990, makes it illegal to dig up the remains of Indigenous Americans and use them for your museums and research. Until NAGPRA was passed, many white archaeologists would just go up to Indigenous graveyards, dig up people's family members, cut up their corpses for experiments, sell all the artifacts to museums, and it was all completely legal. Under NAGPRA, indigenous tribes and can file claims and force museums and scientists to return their ancestor's bodies back to the tribe so they can rebury the body.
So how did the archaeologists who had the Kennewick Man handle this? By claiming the skeleton wasn't indigenous of course! And how did they convince the courts that a 10,000 year old skeleton found in North America wasn't North American?
By making a CGI mock-up of Patrick Stewart's face and claiming it was the Kennewick Man.
Perhaps Captain Picard traveled back to 10,1996 B.C and got stabbed with a spear?
Archaeologists can't actually predict what kind of nose or fat distribution someone had based on their skull, but that doesn't stop them from taking artistic liberties. Based on this mock-up, the judges were convinced that the Kennewick Man was somehow magically European and granted ownership of the skeleton to the Army Corps of Engineers, and control over it to the scientists who made the mock-up.
Meanwile, the Umatilla Nation decided if something that stupid could convince the courts of something that absurd, it'd be better not to push it to the Supreme Court for fear of the precedent it would set.
#4 Primatologists Create Machine That Only Records "Important Orgasms"
Ah, those pesky primatologists again. This time, it's macaques. macaques, like pygmys, often have lesbian sex. macaques don't GG Rub, instead, they mount each other and use their hands to stimulate each other to orgasm. Elizabeth Lloyd, ever the sleuth when it comes to primate orgasm politics, interviewed many researchers of primate sexuality in her quest to prove that female monkey sexuality is not just driven by really really wanting babies.
This time, she met a man who, uninterested in watching Macaques fuck each other all day long, invented a magnificent machine which would do it for him. This machine would track increased heart-rate and muscle contractions, and thus record every instance of an orgasm. Miss Lloyd was very interested in these studies, as so far they were finding that rates of female orgasms much lower during heterosexual sex than was showing up in other studies on homosexual sex. Do female Macaques get off more with each other than with the males?
To her surprise, that wasn't it at all. The male scientist who invented the machine had wired it so that it would only start looking for signs of a female orgasm after it had noticed signs of a male orgasm. When asked by Elizabeth Lloyd why this is, the researched replied that he was only interested in "important orgasms."
Apparently important orgasms are caused by men who don't just fall asleep as soon as they climax
So the data was worthless. If the female macaque came before the male, it wouldn't be recorded. What if the male macaques were all just really good at sex? And consistently got their mates to climax first? Well apparently that would have made the human male researchers feel inadequate so those orgasms were deemed unimportant and couldn't even be counted with the way the research was set up.
#5 "Negroes Sleep While Wearing Masks" And Other Horrific Racial Typologies
So far, we've only been looking at horrible, absurd, but modern scientists, but let us journey back to the 19th century, Biology is an old science, and often works are built upon works built upon other works going on and on back for hundreds of years. Let's go back for just 164 years, just before the civil war.
Before we get into this, I must warn you. The racism we are about to see is truly horrifying. It will sit with you for days, especially if you decide to read the source material. However, this list would be incomplete if we didn't get into biologists describing so-called "human typology."
In 1851, Doctors Copes, Williamson, and Browning; lead by Doctor Samuel Cartwright, were commissioned to do a study on the medical needs and differences of African-Americans. This was in the deep South at the height of slavery, and during the heated debate with the north over abolition. These researchers had big stakes in defending slavery, and you can see it in their conclusions.
Cartwright starts off by claiming that not just the skin of African-Americans is darker, but also "in the membrane, the muscles, the tendons, and in all the fluids and secretions. Even the negro's (sic) brain and nerves, the chyle and all the humors, are tinctured with a shade of the pervading darkness." Indeed, even "bile and blood" is "of a deeper color and blacker than the white man's." He also claims in another part that their sweat is a sticky, thick, black substance which will stain cloth. Cartwright also claims that the entire skeletal structure of black people is different in every minute way from white people.
Their study goes on for 20 pages, but among their observations are some especially ridiculous claims. On one page, they state that there is a unique "agitation of every part of the body at once, which [black people] call dancing all over]. Cartwright then proceeds to criticize the musical tastes of his subjects, in what might remind you of your English complaining about all that hip-hop and rap that's popular these days. He does this for a whole half of a page.
The main argument of the racist tirade is that black people, do to a certain shape of their collarbone, have respiratory problems which result in poor oxygenation of their blood if they aren't "exercised." That otherwise, they just kinda sit around and perish. So it's up to white slave owners to "exercise" black people in order to oxygenate their blood and keep them from dying. Huzzah, a pro-slavery argument.
Every single part of the paper is meant to portray African American slaves as childlike, and white slave owners as benevolent paternal figures. Everything from the functioning of the liver, to sleeping patterns, to "the way they fear the rod" is compared to children.
If you hit me with a rod, I'll fear it too
Cartwright and his colleagues do not hesitate to even cite Genesis in defending slavery. Their scientific biology study claims that 19th century slavery was prophesied in Genesis, and that the different races of humanity are descendants of different biblical characters. In case you're curious, white people are descendants of Japeth, and black people of Canaan.
While it's easy to laugh off some of these claims, such as a memorable one that all black people cover their faces with masks, bags or pillows, when they sleep, or otherwise sleep with their heads by a fire, we must remember that this was considered "hard science" and was cited for many years.
In 1886, medical dictionaries at the time casually made references to Jews and Arabs as being "descendants of Shem". These dictionaries, citing works such as Cartwrights, were themselves cited in medical works and dictionaries in 1956, using the same terminology of "negroid, caucasoid, and mongoloid" as was used in the 19th century.
While medical writings have become more nuanced linguistically, it is still built on these older studies. In 1976, the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Life Sciences casually makes references to all people of a given race sharing a common ancestor, and while that ancestor is not mentioned as being biblical, this idea comes from works where that intention was explicit.
"I am sad now, you tricked me, I thought this was going to be funny, why did you tell me all this"
When academics and scientists talk about "standing on the backs of giants" we should remember that the scientific method is not pure. Scientists are humans too, and are flawed like the rest of us. They are influenced by the culture they grow up in and the giants they're standing on top of are some racist fucking giants. Studies aren't always this obviously absurd and flawed, but that doesn't mean they aren't being biased by culture, or contain some assumptions going in which uphold systems of racism and misogyny. The origins of things matter and especially when it comes to science, the origins go back to some pretty dark times of our history. We can cover it up with rainbows and murals but these things are still hanging out in our culture. Like evil fleas or mind-parasites that tell us things we just trust are true without ever thinking about where those ideas came from. We trust that scientists and biologists know what they're doing, but hopefully now you know that just isn't always true. That isn't to say we should throw out the baby with the bath water. The field of medicine still does some amazing things. But we need to remain critical and now just believe things because Science Said So.
Sources and Further Reading
Image of mom talking to teen from Kidswithoutgod.com
Image comparing Kennewick Man with Patrick Stewart from Everycounty.org
Spork cartoon from Neutrosis.me
Image of disparaged woman by sleeping man is from Healthmeup.com
Images of man threatening child with rod from Ideasevolved.com
Feminiscience takes concepts and information from Feminist Science Studies and makes them accessible and digestible, so you can learn about ways that you can take back and define your own body. Feminiscience is about feeling empowered to argue on behalf of your body. You know your body, you are your body. The shroud of academia sometimes convinces us that others can tell us we are wrong about ourselves. Feminist Sciences say that we actually can and should engage with scientific literature and Feminiscience is an entryway.
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