In case you haven't noticed it yet, genes are back in style. Designer Genes.
You can hardly open a publication these days without being confronted by the latest recycled fashion. Once again we are being told that The Designer of Us All created men and women out of entirely different patterns.
Now, frankly, I never bought much off of the unisex rack. When I looked at the label, they were almost always male goods that women were supposed to accept. They rarely fit me right. But this new offering is about as comfy as a corset and a wing collar.
Designer Genes can be found at the moment on any magazine rack. In the December Science magazine there is an article about the scientists at Johns Hopkins who suspect that males are born better at math. In Newsweek, they ask the question: Do Males Have a Math Gene?
In the October Quest magazine there is an article about the University of Chicago research on the differences between male and female brains.
And in the recent Commentary, there is an article by Michael Levin that lumps together selective "scientific facts" to "prove" that the biological differences between men and women make equal rights an impossible and irrational goal. Levin makes mental leaps that rival Nureyev in energy. Unfortunately, he thinks with his feet.
The Designer Gene debate is cut out of old cloth. It's an argument about human nature, between biology and environment, nature and nurture, that has gone on for centuries. To what degree are people born "that way," relatively fixed beasts of biology? To what degree are they formed, as relatively flexible creations of their environment?
It's no accident that those who believe in changing society place more importance on our environment. Those who are against change place more importance on our biology.
Nobody really knows, you see, how much we are a product of our genes or our culture. It is most likely that we are a mix, neither wholly free of nature nor dominated by it. But the argument is fascinating because it is really a product of politics more than science.
Science, the most "objective" of disciplines, is often as trendy as Seventh Avenue. Not only do we pick and choose from the wardrobe of scientific ideas, but scientists themselves often back one or another notion as it fits their own prejudices and politics.
The history of the Scientific Facts About Men and Women is particularly outlandish. In the 19th century, for example, very serious sorts of men went around measuring skulls. Paul Broca, a French anthropologist, came up with the theory that women's social position in the home was due to the fact that they had smaller brains.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the common wisdom was that the differences between nationalities and races and sexes were rooted in biology. There were the Anglo-Saxon males and the inferior "Others." This notion went out of style with Hitler.
A similar notion that hormones made women incapable of doing male work went out with the national need for Rosie the Riveters.
It's not surprising that now the right wing has reemerged wearing Designer Genes. As Harvard biologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould puts it, "In certain fields where the social importance is high and the data is poor, the history of scientific ideas has mirrored social history and very little else."
The research being done on differences between men and women is fascinating. I assume some differences -- beyond the physical ones -- exist.
Ironically, even the ones that stand on shaky research grounds favor women. In that same Commentary piece, Michael Levin, who is hardly what you'd call a feminist, inadvertently made the best argument for putting women in charge. "War may be loathsome but only males have ever been capable of waging it," he writes. This is as good a reason for keeping men in the kitchen as I have read.
The problem is how research is used and by whom. "What we see is that the pendulum is shifting," says Gould, from change to anti-change. "At the base of it is politics, not science."
Politics can use science to serve the status quo. Politics can use the work of a woman brain researcher to prove that women can't be scientists. Politics can find some biological reason why a nurse should be paid less than a bus driver.
Designer Genes are becoming the uniform of the conservative camp followers.
All the old arguments against women are being hauled down from the attic.