The Less Noble Sex

Nancy Tuana’s THE LESS NOBLE SEX has the look of a ponderous academic tome, with its copious endnotes, exhaustive bibliography, and arcane illustrations, but readers will be pleasantly surprised to find an unusually readable account of the image of women from the Greeks to the nineteenth century, wedded to a highly interesting argument about the way religion and philosophy affect the direction of the work of scientists, and how the work of scientists is used by philosophers and clergy to give authority to the more abstract world of ideas.

In four chapters, “Between Man and Animal,” “The Weaker Vessel,” “Creativity’s Soil,” and “The Beautiful Evil,” Tuana explores the images of women that are derived from classical texts such as Hesiod’s THEOGONY and the Bible and shows how they affect the so-called objective observations of early scientists such as Aristotle, Galen, Cope, and Charles Darwin. She argues persuasively, and never polemically, that major beliefs generally accepted by Western philosophers, such as a belief in woman’s relative imperfection compared to man, woman’s defective rational capacities and moral sense, and woman’s need to be under the control of man, all find their way into science as a priori ideas.

For example, craniologists in the nineteenth century worked in the face of all kinds of obvious facts to create a science based on brain size and shape which would account for why women were so naturally deficient in the rational realm. They conveniently overlooked the commonsensical observation that bigger brains were not necessarily smarter; if they were, the smallest elephant would be vastly more capable of rational thought than the largest man. They also made no adjustment for the brain’s percentage of body weight, which might have put women in a more favorable light relative to men. From alchemy to embryology, Tuana explores the metaphysical assumptions that are the clear underpinnings of much of Western scientific thought.

The only unfortunate thing about this book is that the author has arbitrarily cut off her inquiry in the late nineteenth century. One cannot help feeling that it would be a joy to watch her use the same powers of observation on the relationship of philosophy and science in the late twentieth century.