Why The Origins Matter

A lot of people in the sciences, and maybe you're one of them, will have a common reaction to stuff like the other articles on Feminiscience. "Why does this matter? That's old. We don't use that anymore." Well, this article is about why it matters.

Chart with four stacked boxes with upwards arrow in background. Bottom box reads "Original Idea Or Piece of Writing. (Serves some argument or function)", next up is "Cited by other articles or media (Full content of origins is shrouded)", next up is "Common Knowledge (No longer requires citation)", and on the top is "Cultural Knowledge (Still covertly serves original function, isn't thought about)"

Behold! A graph!

Above, is a diagram. It's very technical, isn't it? Sorry to get all complicated, there will be a cute cat photo later on to compensate for the graph. Let's walk through this chart one step at a time, starting from the bottom.

Level #1: An Idea Is Born

Of course, ideas don't just exist in vacuums. Someone, at some point, thought of something. The original inventor of this idea also lived in a particular time and place and was influenced by their own culture and time period, with its own graph. It's graphs all the way down I'm afraid and nobody lives in a vacuum.

Stack of increasingly smaller turtles

If you put a turtle in a vacuum I'm pretty sure it would die

More importantly, this idea was shared with the world. The author probably did this through writing, and probably had a reason to do it. In our examples, it's usually a scientist sharing ideas to make particular arguments. For instance, Havelock Ellis using the idea of Sexual Dimorphism to make a case for White Supremacy or Biologists describing racial differences to justify slavery. Sexual Dimorphism and Racial Differences aren't necessarily real but if they are real, it supports the author's argument.

When the idea first started, it had to be argued for. The author had to explain it is and convince us that it's true. A common way of doing this is by citing other authors and their ideas. That brings us to next level of our pyramid.

Level #2: The Idea Is Cited

At some point, someone else wants to use this idea to argue for their own idea. Someone else already made the argument for the first idea, so rather than explaining it all again, this new author just tells us to read the original author's argument. Because we all totally always do that, right?

It's actually kinda astounding how something being cited a lot makes it seem true, doesn't it? The more times a scientific article is cited, the more we think it's probably pretty valid. Of course, the argument in the article might be based upon other articles, going down and down for a really long time. Nobody has time to check every citation of every article and all the citations of all of those articles forever. Most of us don't even check if the citations on Wikipedia go anywhere at all before we send articles to our friends.

Wikipedia logo held in hands

*What?! being on Wikipedia doesn't just mean it's true?!

In the example of Havelock Ellis, someone might have some other purpose for talking about the pelvis of a white woman being large. It might have nothing to do with the original argument. So they'll cite Ellis and not mention all his stuff about "objective beauty" because it isn't relevant. Regardless of if white women do have large pelvises, Ellis's writings can act as a source for the claim. This newer article gets cited by another article again, and again, and eventually that brings us to the next level.

Level #3: The Idea Becomes Common Knowledge

When an idea has been around long enough, people stop citing it. Harvard's guide to avoiding plagiarism has a whole section on Common Knowledge. The Harvard definition is stricter than MIT's definition which allows for details of the Big Bang Theory to go un-cited if writing for an audience of physicists.

This makes sense, but gets more slippery when we get into social beliefs, or rather, beliefs we don't realize are social. That there are two sexes, male and female, is not a given. A lot of the articles on Feminiscience have made that pretty clear. However, the idea that there are two sexes, mutually exclusive from each other, has become so commonly cited that it doesn't need to be cited any more. If there is a drug trial and they are comparing effects of a drug in men versus women, they do not have to dedicate a portion of the paper arguing for the existence of those categories in the first place, nor do they have to cite an article that does so.

At this point in the life-cycle of an idea, nobody even mentions where the idea came from. Nobody says the name Havelock Ellis and you're more likely to be asked for citations if you refute the idea than uphold it. If an idea is this common in a field, it will also likely leak out into the world at-large, bringing us to the top of the pyramid...

Level #4: The Idea Becomes Cultural Knowledge

At this point, everyone, at least vaguely, know the idea. The idea is a part of culture. Your grandma knows and probably believes the idea. At this point, that the idea is even a distinct idea at all is sometimes not even thought about. The idea is just the way things are, or it at least feels right without actually having any knowledge about where it came from, if it came from anywhere at all.

This is the point where a lot of people start questioning why it matters where it came from. It's true, isn't it? It's not like everyone who believes women have larger pelvises have read and agreed with Havelock Ellis, and they probably have different intentions than him too.

Man in dark room looking at computer screen

There is a much more common motivation for men interested in large pelvises

The problem is that the idea was put out into the world to serve a certain purpose, remember? Those biologists from the first level who were describing differences between human races? They were doing that as part of a larger trend of white domination of the world. They were doing it to reinforce the idea that there are different races at all. Once the idea becomes cultural knowledge, it just feels true. If someone told you that black people have different noses and collarbones, and it made them more likely to be asthmatic, the cultural ideas we hold unconsciously bias us towards believing that without thinking about it too much. That black people are fundamentally different from white people, and possibly even weaker or inferior, is a cultural idea. That thing about asthma? That's pulled from a horrible racist piece from a hundred years ago arguing that respiratory problems caused black people to be lazy unless forced to work as slaves. More subtle forms of racism can be justified because of this foundation.

The ideas that have already gotten to this level of the pyramid help other ideas get up here too. They reinforce each other. It creates a vicious cycle which allows things like racism to root themselves in culture so deeply that there are entire academic fields devoted to trying to figure out how to get rid of it. Racism is the weed that won't go away because under the dirt is a vast network of cultural roots.

Photo of dandelion fluff

Maybe your wish for things to be simple isn't worth blowing the seeds of racism all over the place, just saying

Ultimately, the cultural ideas are still built upon a foundation of history. When you learn about where a cultural idea originated, you can start pulling out those roots. When we know that something isn't necessarily how we once assumed it to be, then we can start thinking about how else they could be.

The Origins Matter, Questons to Ask Yourself

If you still aren't convinced, then whenever you hear about the problematic origins of some other scientific idea, before you dismiss it as ancient history, ask yourself these questions.

  • Has this old article been cited by other, newer articles or textbooks?
  • Have any articles that cited this article been cited by other articles or textbooks?
  • Has anyone refuted these claims in an academic journal?
  • Why do you have stakes or attachments to the idea being challenged?

It's true that academia and science is all about standing on the backs of giants, but let's just remember that sometimes, we're standing on the backs of some pretty messed-up giants.

Hey, You promised me a cat photo

Oh! Shit! Right! Here you go!

Picture of orange cat

Wow, this cute cat really makes up for this article, doesn't it?

Image Credits & Uhh.... Sources?

All images are from wikimedia commons, except the chart, which is an original creation.

Very ironically, this article is without citations or sources not otherwise provided in the other articles on this site. I'm sure that I got these ideas from somewhere but I actually don't know the origins and I can't remember anyone ever explaining this to me. I'm sure some cultural studies person wrote about this somewhere but I couldn't find anything! If you know who I'm plagiarizing then please let me know because they probably got a lot more in depth than I did and I could probably learn a lot from reading their work.


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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