Well, final year is looming over me, and that can only mean one thing: reading lists! And this one was a book I picked up from the university library on something of a whim, hoping to pick an area within it to explore in the scope of my dissertation, and I simply could not put it down. Over the past few days, I have curled up in a multitude of nooks and crannies about my house, reading through its analyses of gender and race within the scope of Enlightenment science. It is a highly important work, adding to a host of new revisions of scientific history, history of race, and even the history of European society in general.
Nature’s Body is an examination of scientific standards throughout history, with a particular focus on the writings of eighteenth century biologists, anthropologists, and botanists, and how they carry with them gendered or racially biased ideas, some of which have been passed on to modern usage from their roots in Enlightenment Science. The work moves initially from the realms of plant science, into the study of mammals, finishing off in a discussion of wider notions of race and sex within scientific study in the eighteenth century, and examines how these beliefs were shaped by notions of sexual or racial difference. The book is a far-reaching account of a science that was formed, whether intentionally or otherwise, by preconceived notions of racial or sexual difference, with quotes from some very big-named eighteenth century scientists highlighting how entrenched these beliefs were.
What is great to see as an undergraduate history student is a work denying the prevailing notion that the Enlightenment was the pinnacle of human understanding of the natural world. Time and time again, as Schiebinger highlights, the Enlightenment project promised huge heights and then failed to reach them, whether in its treatment of African peoples, women, or even those who didn’t fit the strict social standards of the times. Schiebinger uses a blend of historical accounts, illustration, and analysis to engage the reader with a plethora of eighteenth century aspects of society that, whether intentionally or otherwise, forged itself upon the entrenchment of racial or gender bias within seemingly every aspect of day-to-day life. Most interestingly for me, was the discussion over the seemingly bipartisan nature of women’s place within society, as dictated by the male-focused elite – the emphasis on virtue, virginity, and purity carried itself even into the discussions on biological and anatomical difference.
Nature’s Body is an important work in the history of science as it concerns itself with aspects of the field that contemporary people would take for granted. The use of the term mammal or mammalia to denote a category of animals to a modern reader is taken for granted, but the gendered origins of the term (from the root mammalis (“of the breast”) or mamma (“breast”) prove problematic when place under scrutiny. The often gendered world of Enlightenment science is explored in a logical and engaging fashion, and the reader is left questioning the foundations of modern science, and the issues raised by even the terms that we employ. An important and essential work for anyone wanting to examine gender or race within historical scientific enquiry.
That’s all for now,
Fig. 1 – Cover of Londa Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body: Sexual Politics and the Making of Modern Science, Rutger’s University Press, 2004, Image taken from the Nature’s Body Goodreads page which can be viewed here
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