To the Editor:
I would like to take issue, in a friendly way, with two points Charlotte Low makes in her generally favorable dual review of my book, The Failure of Feminism, and Michael Levin’s Feminism and Freedom [Books in Review, May].
The first point concerns Miss Low’s statement that both books rely “not so much on common sense—which would suffice—as on an odd collection of pseudo-scientific theories of a sociological stripe.” With due respect, common sense never suffices. It must be affiliated with other things—faith, reason, science, or all of these—if it is not to become common nonsense.
One of the worst things feminism does is indeed to divorce people from common sense about men and women. But the principal reason feminism can wreak havoc on common sense is that the ground has been prepared in advance. The idea of environmental determinism serves a very specific function for social reformers. It is used to convince people that their own experience is useless as a basis for generalization—for one’s experience would be so different, in a different culture, that to use mere personal perception as a basis for understanding is absurd. Ordinary citizens are thus reduced to dependency on “experts” for reliable information, and are in effect reduced to intellectual passivity and, hence, pliability.
Now, there is no way to refute this idea in terms of common sense. The refutation of environmental determinism requires extensive ethnographic data and an adequate explanation for whatever patterns the data present. The road back to common sense must pass through the terrain of science.
It is therefore disconcerting, in a magazine of COMMENTARY’s caliber, to see a cavalier dismissal of the work of Steven Goldberg, which Miss Low gives as her unique example of pseudo-science. Goldberg’s great contribution is that he has shown, decisively and finally, that all the reports of sexually egalitarian and female-dominated societies are false. I challenge Miss Low to refute the validity of Goldberg’s findings. She will not be able to do so.
It is possible, more plausibly, to disagree with the explanatory theory Goldberg puts forward. But to sneer at his work as pseudo-science is to trash standards.
The second point concerns the need for men to reclaim at least half the input in gender issues. Miss Low concludes by saying “there is much to welcome in the message both Davidson and Levin bring us. One wonders when we will start hearing it from women.” She clearly assumes that criticism of feminism is somehow more legitimate, more important, when it comes from women. On the contrary: by abdicating their responsibility to direct society in its intimate as well as its politico-economic aspects, men have brought on the current mess. Women by themselves will be quite helpless to clean it up—one reason for which is that most feminine women eschew public activism, leaving a clear field for the Friedans, Ehrenreichs, and Dworkins. That, too, is in the nature of the case.
New York City
To the Editor:
In what was apparently meant to be a favorable review, Charlotte Low complains that my book, Feminism and Freedom, contains much pseudo-science. This is an extremely serious charge which, if correct, would render my book intellectually valueless. (Pseudo-science, after all, is the product of cranks and crackpots.) It is unfortunate, therefore, that she cited no examples of pseudo-science. Did she have in mind the work of neuro-endocrinologists that I cite? Or Steven Goldberg’s idea that a feedback loop between biologically innate differences and reinforcement is a simpler account of extant sex roles than “socialization”?
It is simply not enough to say, especially in the current climate of opinion, that “common sense” will do. If the determinativeness of innate sex differences is denied, then feminists must be right that all sex-role differentiation is social in origin. If this is so, not only does my thesis that feminism entails coercion collapse, so do all systematic arguments against feminist excess.
Perhaps in the future COMMENTARY will assign books with scientific content to reviewers who are competent to understand it.
City University of New York
New York City
Charlotte Low writes:
Don’t shoot, I admit it! I’m no scientist. But neither Michael Levin (philosophy is his domain, says the book jacket of Feminism and Freedom) nor Nicholas Davidson (he’s just a “writer,” says his blurb) claims to be a scientist, either. Despite gaps in my education, I have picked up a few things, mainly that while life is short, evolution is long, very long. This lends a mysterious quality to the evolutionary process, and it makes the process of human evolution, if there has been any, mysterious to the point of inexplicability.
I was perhaps too harsh on the sociobiologists, but in some ways they deserve it. Sociobiology—the study of the social life of animals—is marvelous as a descriptive science. It’s fun to see, for example, how wolves organize themselves into a social hierarchy based on strength and leadership qualities and how the stronger, sharper males pick off the choicer she-wolves, just as humans do. A visit to the county fair will reveal that cows are so placid and maternal-looking that they might as well be wearing earrings and carrying handbags, while the bulls act like guys watching the fights on closed-circuit television. Male and female created He them, and so He did.
But when sociobiology takes a speculative turn, particularly in speculating on how human beings came to be the kind of creatures they are, it runs into a rut—which is why I called it “pseudo-scientific.” Creatures even remotely resembling human beings—and we don’t know whether they were ancestors, uncles, or cousins—have been on this planet for only about two million years, less than the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. The more we learn about these shadowy forebears, in fact, the less “human” they seem. The oldest distinctly human settlements, of the fire-building, funeral-holding Neanderthals, are only about 200,000 years old. By 70,000 B.C.E., human culture was quite sophisticated: the Cro-Magnons decorated their caves, sewed their clothes, played musical instruments, and made animal carvings that resemble those of the Eskimos. In short, they lived like the hunter-gatherers of today. Studying these folk is the domain of the historian and the cultural anthropologist, not the sociobiologist. There has been little time for humans to “evolve” into or out of much of anything. From what we know, they have always been pretty much like today’s human beings.
Thus, it seems to me that sociobiology has had to step into the purely fanciful to explain why we act or even look the way we do. My favorite theories are those of Desmond Morris, who believes that the human face derives in appearance from the human derrière, because our ancestors found hindquarters sexy. Isn’t that circular reasoning?
This does not mean that I believe traditional sex roles are pure cultural determinations; they are obviously based on innate differences between the masculine and the feminine. But patriarchy, although it has its parallels in animal harems, is a distinct and marvelously beneficent human creation, in which men voluntarily take on the responsibility of supporting and raising the children they have fathered and supporting their mother so she can nurture the young ones.
That is why common sense—the exercise of ordinary human observation and reason—seems to provide quite an adequate base for assessing the foolishness of women’s-studies programs and unisex athletics as well as the wisdom of traditional human institutions that recognize male and female differences. Furthermore, although I, like Mr. Davidson, find it distressing that most men of the last two decades have rolled over and played wimp at every ukase from the feminist trumpet, I believe that, for efforts to stem the slash-and-burn tactics of the feminist movement to seem credible, much less succeed, they must come, for the most part, from sensible women.