Feminist scholars have opened many academic disciplines -- art, history, psychology, literature, anthropology -- to ideas and approaches that a historically male perspective in those fields had excluded, wittingly or otherwise. But what of the natural sciences? Is there something inherently "male" about the laws of physics or the principles of mathematics that should earn them similar revision?
Margarita Levin, who teaches philosophy at Yeshiva University, believes the question is profoundly silly. In the winter issue of The American Scholar, she delivers her caustic response to feminist attacks on the supposed sexism of accepted scientific thought.
Levin admits that scientists, like other scholars, "are influenced by extra-logical considerations" that could lead to "deviations from the ideal of objectivity" -- including those inspired by sex differences. Unlike other disciplines, however, "the self-correcting character of the scientific method, with its emphasis on observation, the replication of experiments, and open discussion, insures that such deviation will eventually be seen as such."
Levin implies that the most cogent feminist thinking about science discerns male dominance "in the 'master molecule' theory of DNA functioning; in the notion of forces 'acting on' objects; in the description of evolution as the result of 'struggle' to survive; in the view that scarcity of resources results in 'competition' between animals -- in short, in any theory positing what they deem destructive, violent, uni-directional or hierarchical relations."
If this generally persuasive essay has any significant weakness, it is that its reader must rely on Levin's selection of examples: Before shooting into the barrel, she has stocked it with slow-moving fish.
The feminist revisionists, in Levin's analysis, fail "to take seriously the fact that so-called masculine science works." So why does she take their arguments seriously enough to address them? Here's Levin's reply: "If feminist theory had as little influence on the real world as the real world has on it, it could be ignored with impunity." Ouch.
Omni is always a lark, with its spacey treatment of spacey themes, its fetching covers and design, its solemnity about the supernatural. Take the January issue.
"What if scientists donned the black robes of justice and ruled on cases involving science?" Ten of them, mostly nonfamous types, agreed to sit on the magazine's Supreme Court of Science, and delivered their studied and terse individual opinions on six Omni-esque questions.
Should human genetic modifications that can be passed on to offspring through "germ line therapy" be allowed? A lot of backing and filling on this one, except from the best-known of the judges, blunt-spoken Edward Teller: "We know much too little of human genes. My one passion is knowledge. As a scientist I am prejudiced. Let research go on. Ignorance will help no one."
Here's one straight out of a new-age soap opera: Should a woman who makes her living as a psychic be awarded damages by the hospital whose faulty CAT-scan procedure, she claims, destroyed her powers and prevented her from foretelling her son's fatal automobile accident? The scientists figured this one out fast: Oh, yeah? If she was really a psychic how come she couldn't foretell the CAT-scan accident?
One more: If Harvard digs up some ancient tribal burial ground on an architectural expedition in Louisiana, can the tribe's living descendants claim ownership of the exhumed artifacts? Teller has another short answer: "I don't know. Those are words that scientists should use more often." Stephen Hawking, a British physicist, shows native aplomb in his even shorter answer: "Not being American, I have no opinion."
All 10 of the Omni judges, incidentally, are men.
The Traps of Exile
Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet and Nobel laureate who lives in New York, has published his discerning reflections on the role of the writer in exile. They will be troubling to almost anyone who fits that singular bill.
Exile, Brodsky says in The New York Review of Books for Jan. 21, "accelerates tremendously one's otherwise professional flight -- or drift -- into isolation." It breeds obstinacy in the writer that "may amount to intensity of concentration and then, indeed, we may get a great work of literature ... More often, however, this obstinacy translates into the repetitiveness of nostalgia, which is, to put it bluntly, simply a failure to deal with the realities of the present or the uncertainties of the future."
These thoughts, first delivered in Vienna last month to a Wheatland Foundation conference on the condition of literary exile, follow more turns than can possibly be reflected here. But Brodsky's conclusion bears repeating: "If we want to play a bigger role, the role of a free man, then we should be capable of accepting -- or at least imitating -- the manner in which a free man fails. A free man, when he fails, blames nobody."
Under the Sign of Cancer
Is there such a thing as a "cancer-prone personality," a psychological type that tracks statistically with a susceptibility to cancer? Steven Locke MD and Douglas Colligan, authors of a new book on the subject called "The Healer Within," find the evidence compelling. Writing in the January/February New Age Journal, they argue that acquiescent, eager-to-please, sensitive people tend to have less success fighting cancer than more aggressive types, who refuse to surrender psychologically to the fatality of their disease. Anyone disposed toward holistic medicine will not find these theories terribly surprising, but for others, the research distilled here is intriguing.