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Letitia Falk

Lab Technician/Recent MSc graduate, University of British Columbia

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Sexism a product of reproductive misunderstanding

I have an idea I want to get some feedback on that merges my interest in biology with my passion for feminism ;) The explanation is a bit long so I will post a summary and then explain below. Tell me what you think!

Although we exaggerate the differences between men and women culturally, arguably the main difference between the sexes is reproductive. Our biological understanding of reproduction should therefore be paramount in shaping the way that we understand, and differentially attribute value to the sexes.

Historically, humans have gone through large cultural shifts in beliefs with regards to the relative importance of men or women compared to one another. This is how I think our understanding of reproduction matches:

1. Hunter Gatherer Societies
(Matriarchal)
-Women seen as responsible for life

2. Agriculture/Domestication of livestock
(Patriarchal)
-Fertilization understood, emphasizing the importance of men in reproduction

3. Modern Science
(Egalitarian)
-Microscope allows for the identification of sperm and eggs, discovery of DNA and equal genetic contribution from mother and father

If this trend is accurate then we should be moving closer and closer towards equality between the sexes...well, maybe slightly towards women with the discovery of mitochondrial DNA ;)

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    Jan 23 2012: "Mitochondrial DNA is irrelevant insofar as our personal attributes are concerned, unless it goes wrong. Mitochondria are the descendants of once-free-swimming bacteria, which joined with another ancient single-celled organisms to form the eukaryotes, of which we, and plants, and fungi, are all just a part. They act, as Prof Turnbull said, as little batteries in our cells; but they don't interact with "our" DNA, they reproduce independently within our cells, providing energy with their waste products. "A baby born using this procedure will have the characteristics of its mother and father; it will have DNA from a third person, but mitochondrial DNA only affects how the battery works, not who we are. Changing the battery does not change the computer," says Prof Turnbull. "The development of everything that makes us us, our brains, our hair colour etc, is in the nuclear DNA."

    It appears that mtDNA is metaphorically like tonsils, no known use but a real pain when they go wrong. Overall not a strong argument for any theory of sexual value.

    Biologically ascribing social variables is always fraught with danger, partly because of the enormous scope and complexity of our biology so far as we know it, but more so because of the even greater portion that we don't.

    Your presumption that we exaggerate difference between the sexes culturally is just an opinion, possibly influenced by your interest in feminism, but the assertion that we need to attribute different value to each sex based on some reproductive philosophy is, well, something of a curiosity.
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      Jan 25 2012: Raiford, I agree with you about the mitochondrial DNA. It was meant quite tongue in cheek ;) Its difficult to determine at which point something becomes "exaggerated" but our interpretation of how different men and women are does seem to vary culturally. Perhaps as many have said, it is reductionist to attribute social values to Biology. It is my reference point, and I find it interesting to think about how empirical knowledge (in this case our own Biology) shapes our social values (if it does).

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