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The uses of essentialism

Critical Quarterly’s special issue describes varieties of essentialism and anti-essentialism in ancient thought through to twenty-first-century popular culture and charts historical and contemporary applications of this most mutable of terms. The shifting ways in which the story of essentialism is told by both scientists and humanists emerges as the critical point of the debate. In what contexts can essentialism be a helpful tool in terms of facilitating scientific analysis and innovation, asserting group identity, and mobilising political activism? And in what situations is essentialism a harmful concept, used to legitimize prejudices and conventions by ascribing fixed and inevitable qualities to groups and individuals?

In the story of biological essentialism, one of the key figures is Aristotle. Traditionally, the Aristotelian approach has been characterised as anti-empirical, responsible for establishing a system of rigid classification of natural forms. Christopher Gill explains that recent scholarship takes a different view, emphasising the positive use of the concept of essence in Aristotle’s biology, when considered in its own terms and contexts. Rather than closing off exploratory, empirical inquiry into animal life-forms, Aristotle’s biological thinking can be seen to have opened these up. Nevertheless, many modern scholars agree that Aristotle’s account of the gender roles in reproduction – as Gill puts it, ‘the idea that the female is a “disabled” male’, a deflection from the natural pattern rather than an integral part of it – is less defensible.

The role that essentialism, and anti-essentialism, has played in thinking about gender is explored by Angelique Richardson, who highlights correspondences between two nineteenth-century thinkers not normally regarded in the same light: Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill. Their shared emphasis on the process of historical change, and the need for diversity and experiment, became vital for late nineteenth-century feminists such as Mona Caird, seeking to challenge Victorian views of biology as deterministic. Caird’s journalism and fiction offers a non-essential view of biological traits, where the role of environment and daily circumstances in human development is foregrounded. Caird’s synthesis of Darwinian and Millian theory can be seen, Richardson observes, to anticipate the approach of twenty-first-century systems biologists who investigate the interconnectedness of nature and nurture.

The complex connections between nineteenth-century studies of language and racial essentialism are traced by Will Abberley, who demonstrates the ways in which philology was used to both enforce ideas of fixed and separate categories of race and, conversely, to emphasise universal human origins. Arthur de Gobineau, August Schleicher, and others, argued that variations in grammar were more reliable indicators of a racial hierarchy, in which non-Europeans were lower down the scale, than physical differences. Since language is not inherited, but learnt, this involved a view of language as ‘racial property’. Standard versions of languages were associated with an inner essence belonging to an ‘inventor race’, while variations on such standards were viewed as deviant or degenerate. Contrastingly, Friedrich Max Müller, who popularised philology in Britain from the 1860s onwards, thought that though languages had diversified, all speech shared common, primordial origins. Müller’s anti-racism, was, however, predicated on anthropocentrism. His view of language of as exclusively human was thus out of step with Darwin’s conception of human speech as an adaptation or elaboration of animal communication. These nineteenth-century debates about divisions between races and species have resonances with recent research into animal psychology, which seek to challenge essentialist divisions between human and animal communication systems.

Staffan Müller-Wille’s investigation of essentialism as a historiographical term involves the eighteenth-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus and his twentieth-century interpreter, Ernst Mayr. Müller-Wille considers the part played by disciplinary politics in Mayr’s critique of Linnaeus’s essentialism. Mayr’s attempts to assert the authority of evolutionary biology, at a time in the mid-twentieth century when physics and chemistry were thought to offer more potential for understanding the world, led to an inaccurate and unhelpful conception of the extent to which essentialist thinking dominated pre-Darwinian life sciences.  Appropriately for an issue of Critical Quarterly which publishes the reflections of an interdisciplinary workshop, Müller-Wille pinpoints the moment at which such a discussion became possible, finding it likely that it was Mayr’s Growth of Biological Thought in 1982 ‘that transformed essentialism from a term with a rather restricted, technical meaning in the history and philosophy of science into a household term prevalent among sociologists, psychologists, and arts and humanities scholars’.

Ann Heilmann elucidates current debates amongst sociologists, psychologists, and arts and humanities scholars over a new strain of gender essentialism in popular culture, which locates female sexual experience and self-definition in pornography, and privileges scientific studies that claim there are innate and gendered differences in mental aptitudes, over research which refutes such findings. Pointing out that essentialist ideas of gender have served both to reinforce entrenched social inequities and challenge them, Heilmann examines the way in which some feminists have adopted an essentialist position in order to pursue a political agenda. Postcolonial feminism has mobilised political activism by calling for, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s terms, an ‘embodied epistemological essentialism’ which recognises black and Asian women’s different experiences of racism and sexism. Can essentialism – in the sense of a focus on ‘material, embodied reality’ – therefore be reclaimed as a tool for critiquing the current commodification of feminist sexual politics?

Barry Barnes is also concerned with strategic essentialism, in relation to the way that scientific disciplines are perceived and represented from within and without. Barnes suggests ways in which essences (defined as ‘invisible, empirically inaccessible entities’ which are thought to account for ‘visible phenomena and states of affairs’) have played, and continue to play, a positive role in many kinds of scientific, technological and medical innovation. However, if essences are maintained by convention, they can also encourage conventional or conservative practices, or lead to misrepresentation of information to external audiences. If essentialism is instrumental to scientific research, then this needs to be balanced with a rigorous awareness of how accounts of such practice can be put to use outside of the lab to legitimate damaging prejudices or mythologies.

It is evident from reading all the contributions to this special issue, that if essentialist narratives are an inescapable aspect of ways in which we have thought and continue to think, then the critique of essentialism is equally unavoidable.

Demelza Hookway, March 2012

Essentialism in Science and Culture Special Issue of Critical Quarterly now out

Critical Quarterly has published a special issue on Essentialism in Science and Culture following a British Academy-sponsored workshop on essentialism at the University of Exeter. The issue is guest-edited by  Angelique Richardson. Articles in the issue range from essentialism in Aristotle’s natural history to twenty-first-century genomics and feminism.

Brain Sex?

‘Sex in the brain: do men and women think differently?’

The above video presents  a discussion on the possibility of ‘sexing’ the brain into male and female classifications at the recent Battle of Ideas Festival.

Some writers predict that sweeping statements about female linguistic superiority and male scientific abilities will one day seem as ludicrous as the old arguments that women’s smaller brains or more delicate brain fibres rendered them unfitted for political life.   This raises the question – why are we so keen to look for the roots of human behaviour in biology? Have we truly reached the limit of what social change can achieve in bringing equality between the sexes, forcing us to seek explanations in science? Or, by asserting natural differences, do we risk limiting the potential of all of us to a narrow fraction of what we might become?

World’s Largest Toy Shop Moving on from Gender Essentialism

London’s famous Hamleys toyshop has triggered a debate over gender stereotypes in products aimed at children.

Laura Nelson has proposed that the shop reorganise its products around interests rather than dividing them into toys for ‘boys’ or ‘girls’.

Neuroscientists talk about “brain sex” now in an openly deterministic way. The sociologist Dr Ellie Lee, of Kent University, notes: “There is a resurgence of this naturalistic, 19th-century idea about men’s brains and women’s brains being different on a basic level. You see it a lot in discussions that happen around schooling, the idea that you need to school boys differently to girls because all boys want to do is run around in the playground and kick the shit out of each other. Whereas girls like to sit still and do colouring in.”

Telegraph columnist Jenny McCartney writes in support of Nelson’s proposal. Click here to read her article on the subject.

Click here to find our more about the campaign to challenge traditional gender binaries in children’s toys.

Neuroscience in the Dock

Can neuroscience help to re-define what it means to be guilty?

This week’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind explores the implications of new brain research on the legal process and its use as evidence in court. Claudia Hammond considers the ethical issues raised by the possibility of predicting criminal behaviour.

How might practitioners in culture and science work together to prevent criminality becoming essentialized as a matter of genetic inheritance?


Source: the Pennsylvania State University Libraries,, public domain.

Biology and Culture Workshop, University of Exeter, 27th – 28th September 2011

How can interchange between the life sciences and the humanities help to solve problems facing modern society? This was one of the central questions animating a Biology and Culture Workshop organised by Dr Angelique Richardson. The workshop was funded by the British Academy, with support from the Centre for Victorian Studies, and the two keynote speakers were sponsored by the International Office and the College of Humanities at Exeter. Sessions were introduced and chaired by Richardson and Professor Regenia Gagnier.

Read a  summary of the programme here.

The workshop was attended by a number of prominent scholars in these fields. See a list of participants here.

See the workshop poster here.

The event followed an earlier workshop, also funded by the British Academy on the ‘Roles of Essentialism’. Click here to read the report of this event.

Day One

Richardson outlined in her Introduction ways in which biology and the humanities can speak to each other, highlighting the non-essentialist aspects of biology and a new emphasis on environmental context in contemporary biology. In his Welcome Nick Talbot, Professor of Molecular Genetics, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Knowledge Transfer) emphasised the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in seeking solutions for global problems, citing research on the rice blast fungus which is having a devastating effect on the global food supply, destroying enough rice to feed 60 million people each year. Rice contributes 23% of the calories consumed by the global human population and strategies for controlling rice blast as part of an environmentally sustainable plan are urgently needed.

The keynote – ‘Frenemies: Biology in a Social World’ – was given by Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University. Fausto-Sterling is a leading expert in biology and gender development and has achieved recognition for works that challenge entrenched scientific beliefs while engaging with the general public. Her latest research analyses the emergence of behavioural differences between the sexes in early childhood. Invited participants from universities around the UK, who work on literature and science, responded with discussion and state-of-the-field analyses.

Fausto-Sterling’s talk began by considering the intersections between Wendy Brown’s analysis of the crisis in the humanities in her article ‘Neoliberalized Knowledge’ (2011) and Vicki Kirby’s challenge to deeply-held views about nature versus culture in Quantum Anthropologies (2011). If, as Brown argues, it is necessary to offer a compelling defence of the humanities in the increasingly corporatised world of the university, then it is vital for cultural critics to appreciate what Kirby calls the productive energy of scientific theories. The goal of her own research, Fausto-Sterling said, is to articulate a theory that shows how bodies and identities are quasi-objects – that is, hybrids, shaped by the social as well as the natural. It is also important, she said, that this empirical research provides models of complexity, flexibility, passion and democracy, making genuine interchange between science and the humanities possible, as well as activism and politics based in, but not trapped by, living and changing bodies.

In the overview of her research that followed, Fausto-Sterling explained how she uses developmental and dynamic systems theory to look at the emergence of sex-related differences of varieties of human sexuality during the first few years of development. The questions she is trying to answer include: Where do differences in the development of motor activity, and preferences for toys and peer affiliation, come from? What does it mean, biologically, for an eight-month old to have a preference? Fausto-Sterling suggests that it is out of the small daily interactions between parents and babies that materialised differences in male and female bodies begin to emerge. It is possible that gendered social structures literally re-shape the body, as neurological connections form in infants.

Following Fausto-Sterling’s compelling presentation, workshop participants debated the issue of how it was possible to reconcile disciplines and find commonality between humanists and scientists who study sex and sexuality. Should the humanities organize themselves into problem-based teams, for example, and address themselves to science policy makers rather than scientists? How could literary critics establish themselves as an expertise to be taken seriously when policy decisions are being made? Professor Jay Clayton (Vanderbilt University) argued that by focusing on specific problems, scholars might avoid creating a false binary between culturalists and physicalists. Some participants found the idea of problem-based teams a troubling one, suggesting that humanists deal with what cannot be measured in a world that is increasingly obsessed with the quantifiable. One role of the humanities, it was agreed, was to articulate a language of complexity for a world driven by commodities, markets, and the easily consumable.

The workshop participants’ state-of-the-field summaries offered much further material for reflection and discussion. A key theme which emerged from this part of the workshop was the importance of the history of science when thinking about the relationship between literature and science in the twenty-first century. Dr Charlotte Sleigh (University of Kent) said that when teaching the history of science, she always emphasized to students that scientific knowledge is constructed through complex social processes. She suggested that literary scholarship might usefully consider what (or whether) it adds to such explanations – and whether it might need to reassert its distinctiveness from overtly historical methodologies.

Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford) asked why the history of science is so marginalized in UK universities, and suggested we also think about the influence of literature on science, as well as the more usual analysis of the influence of science on literature. Warning of the dangers of being useful, she reminded us of J.S. Mill’s emphasis in his inaugural address at St Andrews (1867) on university as a training of mind not for business. Mill urges: ‘Now is your opportunity for gaining a degree of insight into subjects larger and far more ennobling than the minutiae of a business or a profession, and for acquiring a facility of using your minds on all that concerns the higher interests of man, which you will carry with you into the occupations of active life, and which will prevent even the short intervals of time which that may leave you, from being altogether lost for noble purposes.’

Dr Ralph O’Connor (University of Aberdeen) and Professor Sharon Ruston (University of Salford) both brought up the importance of paying attention to the literary nature of nineteenth-century science writing. O’Connor asserted the need to address wider audiences without regressing to generalities, and called for more dialogue with modern languages. He warned against work which used essentialising ideas about science and urged a need for greater historicisation, suggesting that literary critics needed to be alert to genre within science writing. Ruston considered ‘waves’ of science and literature scholars, emphasising the value of networks and collaboration, and drew attention to the inseparability of science and literature in the nineteenth century, and of the pervasive use of biological metaphors in romantic literature. Professor David Amigoni (Keele University) noted ways in which the funding councils are now setting priorities and drew attention to the AHRC call for science in culture, and suggested ways in which we might address questions both of contemporary and historical impact. Dr Carolyn Burdett (Birkbeck) reflected on what happened to Victorian ideas of sympathy, and the extent to which the word which now frequently replaces it, empathy, replays a wish to discover physiological causes for complex moral, social and psychic states. Dr Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester) talked about methodological relativism, and the need to understand, for example, why people disagreed with Darwin in his historical moment.

The concluding discussions of day one of the workshop explored a strand of thought that Richardson had introduced at the outset of the workshop. She spoke of the centrality of history to Darwin’s evolutionary biology – with its links to John Stuart Mill’s emphasis on the value of individual difference and experiments in living – and how paying attention to this can challenge, as Fausto-Sterling’s work does, easy divisions between nature and nurture. Shuttleworth argued that the linguistic turn in the humanities had partly caused the past estrangement of scientists and humanities scholars. It has become counter-productive, she observed, to treat ‘everything as cultural’. She presented her work on Victorian child psychology as speaking for the role of history in scientific knowledge. Amigoni suggested searching for a common currency between science and the humanities, such as the story: the scientific paper might be studied as a narrative form with a history. He also observed that scholars of literature and science shared many common concerns with those in science communication, and might collaborate with them. Just as cultural history seeks a dialogue with the past, he noted, science communication seeks a dialogue with the public. O’Connor observed that engagement with the wider public was equally important for cultural historians. He argued that scholars occupied in specialist areas of research needed to ‘reconnect with the big picture’ when addressing wider audiences. This would mean communicating the fundamental issues at stake, opening up debates on what it means to be human and how we want biology to shape our society.

Day Two

On day two, the keynote – ‘Three Minutes in Genome Time: 1871, 1931, and 2001’ – was given by Jay Clayton, William R. Kenan Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. His current research involves the ethical and social issues raised by genetics as they appear in literature and films. He has lectured on genetics and literature at the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in the US, the English Institute, the MLA, the Narrative Society, the Society for Literature and Science, and medical schools across America.

Time, Clayton argued, is a concept which genomics might strive to render meaningless. The popular discourse that we are products of immutable genes, he argued, confounds the model of beginnings and ends, forgotten pasts and unknown futures. Instead, both past and future are inscribed in genetic code, rendering one’s future health problems readable before they happen. Clayton emphasized the implications of interpreting DNA as a language, transforming biology into a sign system, which the Humanities can help to interpret. Genetic code is synchronic, he suggested, existing in a perpetual present of unalterable phenotypes; yet, it is also diachronic, developing through inheritance. Genes might be fruitfully compared to Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of langue in language – an abstract system of rules and possibilities which generate parole. This might mean individual utterances or, in genetics, members of the species.

Beginning in 1871, Clayton argued that utopian and science fiction published from this year onwards dramatized the issues that would bedevil the public response to evolutionary theory. Texts like Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) explored how newly-discovered deep time absorbed humans into wider stories of biological change. These concerns continued in Aldous Huxley and John Haldane’s interest in genetics in the 1930s, and contemporary fictional responses to the mapping of the human genome.

Clayton’s paper provoked debate among delegates with regard to the vacillating reputation of Samuel Butler from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Amigoni argued that Butler’s Lamarckian scepticism of the individual was useful to William Bateson’s arguments for the new principles of genetics in the first decade of the century. However, Butler later fell out of favour again when figures like John Haldane stressed the non-teleology of genetics in the 1930s. Burdett suggested that evolutionary theory did not necessarily oppose earlier traditions of romanticism, with Darwin’s sense of the grandeur of life influencing Victorian writers like Olive Schreiner.

Gagnier addressed the question of the ‘worried well’, and the use of genetics to predict future illnesses. How did this link, she asked, with transhumanist philosophers such as William Hacking who imagine that humans will soon be able to transform their bodies and live for centuries? Professor Ellen Clayton (Vanderbilt University) responded that such thinking can be seen in many services, such as 23 and Me, which offer to read clients’ genome sequences and predict future health problems. She added that many people now blog about such ‘recreational genomics’, aiming to structure their lives around genetic health forecasts. Professor Jane Spencer urged the importance of an inclusive approach to questions of poverty and disease. Jay Clayton commented that the imaginative literature in the last twenty years dealing with issues related to genetics has been much more thoughtful than such transhumanist philosophy. Fiction like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2005), he noted, has created opportunities for reflective interventions in genomic debates. Gagnier, equally, warned against reductive biological approaches to culture, such as so-called ‘Darwinist literary criticism’. Such criticism was one-dimensional, she said, reducing all narrative to parables of natural and sexual selection.

Richardson drew attention to the overlap between traditional interests in family history and the more recent concern with genetic history, illustrated in websites like Genes Reunited. Ellen Clayton further observed that this interest in genetic history was already impacting on match-making institutions, with some Jewish rabbis in New York requesting to see couples’ genetic sequencing before marrying them, to avoid the perpetuation of genetic diseases in the community.

The discussion returned several times to how utopia and dystopia remained pervasive cultural models for understanding the social uses of genetics. Ellen Clayton noted Francis Collins’s utopian recommendation that every newborn be genome-sequenced. Anne Fausto-Sterling drew attention to Native Americans using genetics to prove their heritage. See:Native American DNA Tests: What are the Risks to Tribes?” The Native Voice (Dec. 3-17, 2004).

The discussion closed on the theme of interactions between the humanities and neuroscience. Fausto-Sterling introduced the delegates to current neuro-imaging technology which promises to visualize brain activity. The brain of a subject watching a film is scanned, and the images in his or her mind’s eye are reconstructed from the neural data collected. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain has enabled researchers at the University of California, Berkeley to build ‘dictionaries’ of measured brain activity matched to the shapes, edges and motion viewed. Examples of such visual ‘brain-reading’ have been published online and are available to view here and here. Read more about the Gallant Lab research here. Dawson and Shuttleworth pointed out some epistemological problems with the system, since it seemed to ignore the social dimensions of representation. Jay Clayton agreed that such efforts to picture human consciousness omit ‘différance’, the reliance of meaning on difference and deferral. Like the imagined language of genes, he observed, the Gallant Lab’s visual language of the brain is synchronic, abstracted from historical and social contexts. Where might ambiguity, ideology and the social construction of reality fit into these apparent images of the mind? Gagnier commented that perhaps the most important role of the humanities in its future collaborations with the sciences was to stress the importance of history, and that the humanities must defend the value of remembering roads not taken against presentist and futurist culture, which often presents the development of science and society as teleological. The reductive aspects of neuroscience, and a resurgence of media representations of essentialisms, were then addressed, and Shuttleworth spoke on the dangers of being too reductive in current studies linking neuroscience and literature.  Discussion then turned to questions of pedagogy and the use of technology in the classroom, and Richardson commented on the centrality of environment in its various forms to all aspects of human endeavour. The workshop concluded noting potential future collaborations between humanities scholars and scientists.