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Author: Susan Latta
Title: Nature Bites Back: Book Reviews
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Fall 1999

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Source: Nature Bites Back: Book Reviews
Susan Latta

vol. 2, no. 2, Fall 1999
Article Type: Book Review

Nature Bites Back: Book Reviews

Susan Latta

Angier, Natalie. Woman: An Intimate Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Hales, Dianne. Just Like a Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female. New York: Bantam, 1999.

Stange, Mary Zeiss. Woman the Hunter. Boston: Beacon, 1997.

Just when we thought it was safe to venture out without the threat of essentialism nipping at our heels every time we uttered the taboo "m" or "f" words, a spate of books has appeared to raise the issue of nature versus nurture once again. Cruise and you'll find titles such as Sex on the Brain and The Trouble with Testosterone which rehash the debate about how much of our behavior is culturally determined (and thus changeable) and how much is hardwired into our brains by evolutionary biological forces (and thus immutable, natural, and just the way things are).

The situation is not necessarily as grim as the titles might imply. The three books reviewed here address these same issues but, in varying degrees, problematize the issue of gender based traits by calling into question the underlying binaries surrounding claims about "masculine" and "feminine" behavior. While none of the authors could be classified as deconstructive—at least not consciously so—it's clear that they are saavy enough to realize that the emphasis on cultural situatedness and provisionality expected in postmodern approaches can no longer be ignored. As a result these three books are sometimes frustrating, sometimes immensely appealing expositions of how biological and social sciences are re-visioning the notion of gender roles and how they develop.

Indeed, all three of the authors, Dianne Hales, Natalie Angier, and Mary Zeiss Stange make the argument that moving beyond the exclusionary either/or of binaries to an inclusionary both/and perspective is, well, just the kind of thing a woman would do.

Dianne Hales's Just Like a Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female takes a fairly straightforward, typically academic approach to presenting the data on what we know about how women's identities are formed by biological, social, and cultural factors. Hales states in her introduction that her goal is to provide the empirical data to back up longstanding feminist claims that have seldom been taken seriously by the mainstream until now (xiv-xv). As the number of women in the hard and biological sciences has increased, so too have the reinterpretations of the "factual" biological data that have been used for centuries to prove the inferiority of women. She recounts several instances where she or the researchers cited in the text have been requested to drop any data that suggests biological differences between men and women for fear that the data will be used against women (153, 190, 243). However, Hales points out that:

the differences between men and women, we can now see, are exactly that: differences, not signs of defects, damage, or disease. Women are not the second sex but a separate sex, female to the bone and to the very cells that make up those bones....While biology is no longer destiny, it remains a crucial part of our reality. In affirming our femaleness, we are not diminishing or discrediting our mental ability or essential equality. Rather, we are recognizing a fundamental source of strength and sustenance. (xi)

But Hales does make explicit cases for the cultural situatedness of gender differences. A young American woman, as she is usually presented the literature and even in media, is outer-directed, obsessed with her weight, and becoming more and more passive as she grows to maturity. Hales explicitly points out that these "typical" images may be typical for American women of European descent but not for women in other cultural groups. For example, Hales notes that young African-American women, who come from a strong matriarchal culture, generally have more self-esteem than young women of European descent. African-American women are more comfortable with their body image, even if they are overweight, and are more likely to confront others when they feel their needs are not being met (136). Navajo girls, instead of seeing menarche as something detrimental, are mentored by older women in the group to see this event as a positive life change and perform a run through the forest to show their strength and proclaim their entry into womanhood (131). As for the belief that girls just don't get math—well, Hales cites data showing that Japanese girls, at least, get math: "the difference between Japanese girls and American boys [in math test scores] is much greater than the difference between Japanese girls and boys or between American girls and boys. Could culture be an even greater influence than gender?" Hales asks (250).

It could indeed. Hales works through some of the topoi of gender studies—evolution, biology, developmental psychology and neurology—synthesizing a wide variety of information in a way that makes it accessible to readers outside those fields without overly simplifying the complex relationships of nature and culture. Is Just Like a Woman a good read? Well, it's a painless one. Hales follows through on what she promises: to provide hard data to prove or disprove commonly held beliefs about sex roles. The volume provides a handy reference, synthesizing studies and summarizing arguments that have been made on these issues but providing little that is new or challenging to the topic.

Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography takes more chances with the these questions. Her stated purpose is to provide:

a celebration of the female body—its anatomy, its chemistry, its evolution and its laughter. It is a personal book, my attempt to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling into the sludge of biological determinism. It is a book about things that we traditionally associate with the image of a woman—and things that we don't....My book sets out to tackle the question "What makes a woman?" (ix-xv)

So what makes a woman? From a glance at the table of contents, primarily her body parts. Angier fragments a woman's body, working from its smallest parts, the cell and its chromosomes to the clitoris, the uterus, the breast, the ovary, and hormones. The implied message is that she will reclaim these images, reworking the stereotypes that have been associated with a woman's body and reversing the fragmentation of a woman's identity that results in focusing primarily on her anatomy. She even borrows from Mary Carlson the term liberation biology (xv) to describe her project.

Angier starts off well. In an early chapter, she lets Jane, who has androgen insensitivity syndrome, a chromosonal disorder that leads to testicular feminization, tell her own story of how she was led to believe that her scar on her abdomen was the result of having her "twisted" ovaries removed. Jane didn't realize the truth about her condition until she was in college, came across pictures of people like herself in a medical textbook, and realized that her removed ovaries had been in reality testes. Although she had inherited a Y chromosome, which set the stage for the development of a male fetus, she also inherited a mutated x chromosome which prevented her body from responding to the androgen needed to complete the evolution of the fetus into a male child. As a result, she inherited a body that on the surface was female but carried traces of a male (26-32).

Jane's story sets the stage for an analysis of biological differences that will challenge the essential categorizations of "male" and female" and recalls Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and her theories on the performativity of gender. However, Angier never fully develops the critique that Jane's case suggests. To the non-academic reader of the text, Jane's story might come across as one more piece of exotica, an interesting nature anecdote that will be filed away with Angier's frequent references to the antics of bonobos and macaques. An academic reader may be frustrated at her failure to fully explore the ramifications of this narrative and many others in the book.

Despite Angier's claim that she is not rewriting Our Bodies, Ourselves, the middle chapters come across as just that—with the added annoyance of occasionally strained wit and cleverness. The overtly political claim that Angier makes in her introduction falls through in these chapters, and the reader quickly becomes bogged down in discussions of the composition of breast milk and the merits of hormone replacement for menopausal women. And everywhere, there are apes, apes, and more apes. Angier has a fondness for looking to primates for clues to human behavior.

To give Angier her due, she does attempt to make personal connections for her readers by providing narratives of both her personal experience and that of others as they relate to the body part at hand. And she also attempts to raise her readers' consciousness by relating some of the myths that have arisen concerning these body parts, such as Hippocrates's theory concerning the "wandering uterus" and the myth's impact on women's medical treatment (84).

Not until the end of the book, however, does she return to the challenge she set for herself earlier on. First, Angier takes on evolutionary psychologists whom she typifies as "profess[ing] to have discovered the fundamental modules of human nature, most notably the essential nature of men and women" (325) and then lays out the arguments to prove that such a view is "narrow and inflexible" (325) and "endorses old prejudices and conforms to our mental Dewey decimal system" (325). Second, Angier argues that one of the most subversive acts a woman can make with her body is to make muscle. She begins by debunking the myth that women who lift weights "bulk up" and begin to look "masculine" and then points out the health benefits of developing lean mass (285). Near the end of the chapter, she sneaks in the statement that "Female strength is seditious. It can make men squirm" (294) and then dances away from it again, only to return to a more explicit statement in a discussion of domestic abuse:

If men believe that they are always stronger than all women, and that here at least they have the upper hand, by rights, by testosterone, by one and hemoglobin, and if our species' sexual dimorphism is overrated and the heft of women understated, then a man, an angry idiotic, small-souled man, will view the cost of hitting a woman as depressingly low, and a woman will view the thought of protecting herself as ludicrous, ridiculous, because she can never, ever succeed....I am not, absolutely not, blaming women who are assaulted by men for allowing themselves to be beaten, but I am questioning the mentality that effectively hypertrophies the size and strength dimorphism between men and women, and that makes men, even frumpy, lethargic, academic men, smug, and that makes women, even tall, substantial women, afraid. (298)

Building off her exhortation for women to acknowledge and develop their physical power, Angier makes a third move—she urges women to claim aggressiveness for their own:

Aggression is for girls....Now is our chance. Aggression is unfashionable. It has been medicalized and demonized and tossed on the landfill of public opinion, and it is no longer seen as a desirable trait or the mark of a real man. We are free to salvage aggression and do with it as we please.... Aggressive behavior can be hostile and seek to wound, but it can also be creative ad seek to engage. (242)

Does Angier's data prove her assertions that woman is more than the sum of the myths about her anatomy? Yes and no. The data is certainly there, and Angier for the most part leaves it up to her readers to make the inferences that would lead to that conclusion. However, I can't help but think that Angier's chatty, sugar coated tone throughout the book will lead most readers to lend no more thought to the political impact of the evidence she is laying out than they would to the latest issue of Vanity Fair.

Mary Zeiss Stange sends no mixed messages in Woman the Hunter. She's thoroughly annoyed at the belief that through evolution, both biological and social, women have become peaceful gatherers of fruit and nuts while man the hunter drags home the mastodon. Stange's book, perhaps most appropriately, is the most adversarial of the three books yet, at the same time, the more intensely personal. Each chapter of the book is preceded by a powerfully descriptive and evocative essay that presents Stange's shift in perspective from an ambivalent meat-eater to an avid hunter and problematizes the anti-hunting view that the taking of life is a cruelty. Take, for example, the conclusion of Stange's narrative of a hunt she and her husband went on during a brutally cold Montana winter. After seeing a tiny fawn frozen to death in a creek bottom and a group of deer too cold to be able to gather the energy to run from them, they come across:

some deer at the far end of the field, several hundred yards off. No more than indistinct shapes, they appeared and disappeared, phantoms in the now thinly falling snow. With the wind in our favor, and the snow as much camoflage for us as for them, we proceeded along the fence until we were perhaps two hundred yards away. Steadying my .30/06 on a fencepost, I focused the scope on a doe, another doe, a fawn, another fawn.
Teeth chattering and my right hand burning with cold...I thought quickly about the fawn we had seen curled peacefully in the snow, about those deer paralyzed for sheer survival in the trees. "I'm taking the one farthest to the left," I whispered to Doug, who was aiming his rifle...
We had killed the two fawns. (56)

Stange refuses to allow us to fall into sentimental views of nature. She argues that because of our alienation from nature, because of our refusal to acknowledge that we, too, are a part of the earth's ecosystem, we find it seductively easy to view nature and animals unrealistically (101). This failure to confront reality results in both the patriarchal and radical ecofeminist tendency toward essentialism, allowing each, in their own ways, to naturalize the split of aggression as an innate masculine trait and pacifism as an innately feminine (and to some feminists superior) trait. Stange seems particularly concerned with radical feminism, and explicitly states:

a widely remarked essentialist strand has woven its way into radical feminist discourse about women, men, and their relations both to each other and to the natural world. In idealizing female biology and psychology (and, too often, demonizing the male), radical feminism today reinforces precisely those gender dualisms it originally sought to dismantle. (4)

Stange makes it her job to dismantle these dualisms. She points out that several ecofeminists are not up to date on current anthropological theory and thus are basing their theories on premises that have been disproven (70). Like both Angier and Hales, she touches on anthropological data itself, particularly the work of Washburn and Lancaster, whom, she says "argued that socially constructed gender roles are the logical outcomes of biological predispositions" (26), most specifically, the sexual division of labor. Stange questions the logic of these conclusions, noting "that the sexual division of labor is the only adaptation that consistently remains as a 'distinctly human' trait says less about its role in human evolution than it says about theories about evolution and the social matrices for which those theories arise" (38).

Stange also makes several very convincing arguments against the anthropological mainstays of man the hunter/woman the gatherer. First, she points out that there is data to prove that in many cultures women have participated as hunters (2). Secondly, she also points out that some of the activities that have been classified as women's work, that is catching fish and grubs, would be classified as predation in other species (35). Thirdly, she calls upon Donna Haraway's work in Primate Visions to make the point that the emphasis on warfare as the "root metaphor" for twentieth century Western culture led scientists to, consciously or unconsciously, project warlike tendencies on their version of the idealized, "universal" man. As a result, women became naturalized as peaceful and domestic, their role restricted to taking care of home and family—a powerful argument to get women out of the jobs they had assumed during the war so that the returning warriors would have gainful employment (39-40).

So much for biological determinism. As Stange pithily puts it:

Obviously women had more to do over all those eons than digging roots, picking berries, and evolving wider pelvises to accommodate the offspring of their male-hunter offspring....The picture that emerges of women's role in prehistory in the hunting hypothesis is illogical enough that were other evidence lacking, reason alone should call it into question. (28)

Stange overtly assigns a political agenda to the exclusion of women from hunting: "it all comes down to the issue of power, both literal and symbolic, and to American culture's deep-rooted ambivalence about power in female hands" (57).

As a corrective, Stange suggests that we consider the Native American view that nature is "enspirited" and that all beings in the ecosystem are interconnected, a dynamic, constantly changing mosaic. As she notes, "discomfiting as it may be to contemplate, we—as individuals and as species—live because others die. This is a lesson that close, honest observation of nature teaches readily enough" (119). She also decries cultural imperialism, arguing that "it is not the business of the dominant culture to 'let other ways survive:' we are all in this together and we should be able to learn from one another" (127).

Stange's book is guaranteed to make many readers squirm. While the hits on patriarchy and radical feminism are not exactly unexpected, the questioning of vegetarianism is particularly thought-provoking, and while Stange's arguments may not necessarily make those who abstain from meat run out for some venison, it will certainly give them another view of the ethics of interconnectedness.

To Stange's credit, the book is a fascinating read, easily combining data and theories from a wide variety of fields. There are two false notes, however. First, Stange seems to position herself primarily by opposing others (patriarchy, radical feminists). At one point she notes that she takes a "social" view of the world, but never hammers out exactly where she would place herself theoretically on that continuum, a glaring omission in a text so steeped in agonistic academic argument. While it is clear that her arguments share many concerns with those of various postmodern approaches, a more assertive, rather than defensive, stance would have lent her arguments more credibility. Secondly, like many other feminist writers, she attempts to re-vision an image of woman as empowered, calling upon the Greek goddess Artemis as a symbol for woman the hunter. Given the emphasis on goddess archetypes in the eighties, such as Shinoda Bolen's Goddesses in Everywoman, this seems a bit cliched. Also, given her emphasis on native cultures, it seemed a little surprising that she would return to a Western archetype rather than an indigenous one. Perhaps she was looking for an archetype that an audience presumed to be of European descent could identify with, or perhaps she was worried about the culturally imperialist move of scavenging from another culture its icons and myths, but the section on Artemis was a disappointing let-down from the feistiness of the rest of the book.

Obviously, the nature/nurture debate is not solved yet. As long as we inhabit bodies, enmeshed in this world, we will have to come to terms with the physicality of our being and the interconnectedness of our minds, bodies, and cultural and physical geographies which we inhabit. Hales, Angier, and Stange are moving in the right direction with their impulse to escape the either/or of binaries and envision a more inclusive view of male and female identity. Their books, and other recent publications like them, are the next step in breaking down the stereotypes that have arisen because of biological determinism.

Works Cited

Angier, Natalie. Woman: An Intimate Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Blum, Deborah. Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women. New York: Harper Colophon, 1984.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hales, Dianne. Just Like a Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female. New York: Bantam, 1999.

Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Sapolsky, Robert M. The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Stange, Mary Zeiss. Woman the Hunter. Boston: Beacon, 1997.