Use in Science  > Whose Science is it Anyway?


A Feminist Exploration


We have to begin by asking: what exactly is this idea of "science" that undergirds the methodology of scientific experimentation?

by Carol J. Adams -- The AV Magazine, Winter 1998


Lives begin in community. We learn through community. We exist interdependently. Our culture is structured so that learning and even living can occur almost "invisibly." We can come to see ourselves as born into relationships rather than as atomistic, self-made individuals. This allows for an important shift in beliefs -- no longer do we see humans as radically other than nonhuman life forms, no longer erecting a boundary between the presumably "self-made human" and the presumably "nature-made animals."


Feelings matter. This rather obvious statement has one context in which it is greatly contested: the debate over experimentation on animals. In this context, feelings are thought to get in the way of science. Protesters who object to experimenting on animals for scientific knowledge are often accused of being sentimental -- of letting feelings, rather than intellect -- determine our positions. The underlying presumption in this charge is that doing science and being sentimental are exclusive of each other.


Feminist philosophy offers a way for us to think about why feelings matter and why doing science and being sentimental are not exclusive of each other. The insights of feminist philosophy into the construction of science as supposedly "objective" and "rational" equips us to critique the use of animals' bodies for scientific knowledge in a new and exciting way. We have to begin by asking: What exactly is this idea of "science" that undergirds the methodology of scientific experimentation? Science, like the culture of which it is a part, is not a given, something delivered from a mountaintop; science is constructed. Who constructed "Science" as we know it? Whose science is it? Science is not value-free; we just believe it is.


Although it is valorized as the only appropriate way of "doing science," the methodology of science arises from and has been limited by male experience of previous centuries. Animal experimentation is part of a patriarchal culture in which science, like masculinity, is "tough, rigorous, rational, impersonal, competitive and unemotional" as Sandra Harding describes it in The Science Question in Feminism.


Science "happens" through a subject-object relationship. Domination allows for the construction of "knowledge" based on the observations of the object by the subject. Gender notions infuse the ideas we hold about the way a scientist "discovers" knowledge, by which a "knower" studies an object -- the "known." The relationship that is dictated for this gaining of knowledge is one of distance and separation between the knower and the known. The subject who experiments is radically separate from the object upon whom she or he experiments.


Animal advocates not only face the overwhelming problem of power in this culture in which the tendency is to identify with the knower, the subject who is creating knowledge, rather than the "known," the material being studied (who are often animals). We also face the problem that what science claims for itself -- objectivity -- yet a value-free science is not possible. Before we debate the efficacy of "animal models" we need to step back and ask "Whose science are we talking about?" Science arose from a Western patriarchal colonial culture. Attitudes about gender, race, class and nonhuman animals, have everything to do with the way "science" is conceptualized. It has been by and large Euro-American middle-class and upper-class men who have created scientific theorems, ethics and the ground rules for animal experimentation. They have created these out of the perspective by which they approach the world: as subjects surveying an object.


The notion of the objective scientist -- one who is and should be a disinterested human observer -- is central to modern science. Science has been created in the image of the "man of reason" -- nonemotional, rational, separate from and over others. We might come to believe that one can transcend the body, personal and cultural history and thereby acquire "pure knowledge." As a result, the scientific concept of objectivity remains unexamined and science is thought to be value-free. But knowledge can never be pure and the scientific concept of objectivity is itself a value -- a value derived from the dominant perspective on reason, the body, feelings, gender and animals.


We have inherited a Western philosophic tradition that values differences rather than connections: men are different from (and above) women; humans are different from (and above) animals; whites are different from (and above) people of color; the mind is different from (and above) the body. Presumptions of human difference and superiority become intertwined with attitudes toward our own very animal-like bodies, which we must somehow disown to successfully use our minds. Discussions about morality, decision-making, feelings and science occur within this culture of differentiation.


The emphasis on differences between humans and animals established fierce definitions about what constitutes "humanness," even though we humans are animals too and are not the only animals with social needs or group memories. Yet we are conceptualized as "not animals." The qualities attributed to humans become the most cherished ones. So, for instance, reasoning is seen as a capacity possessed only by humans and it is valued over other activities. According to this tradition that values separation, the body is an untrustworthy source of knowledge. That which traditionally differentiated humans from animals -- qualities such as reason and rationality -- have been used to differentiate men from women, whites from people of color and the ruling class from the working class.


In earlier centuries, it was believed that men could transcend their bodies with their minds, but women, like animals, could not. While we have progressed from this theoretical equation of women with animals, we have not eliminated the mind/body dualism that undergirded it. We have simply removed the human species from this debate. Equated with man, reasoning is still seen as a process that occurs when one transcends the body. Suspicious attitudes toward the body are carried over to suspicious attitudes toward feelings: they are untrustworthy, not reliable, not what good science is. We end up with a science constructed after the Western philosophical idea of the "Man of the Reason." As a result, gender notions are insinuated within the methodology of how a scientist "knows." This has impoverished our understanding of reasoning, emotion and science. Within the philosophical framework of our culture, hostility exists toward the body and the feelings we experience through our body. This hostility deprives us of knowledge by viewing the body as something that stands in the way of knowledge rather than as an avenue for knowledge. And it excludes ways of learning, restricting how and what we can know. In fact, we can think through the body, not despite it.


The science that would arise from an acknowledgment that we are all situated bodies existing in relationship would begin at a radically different place. No one would object that we have feelings about what happens in scientific experiments; this would be a given. Of course, we all have feelings and, of course, appropriate emotions can contribute to knowledge! Once that became a given, perhaps there would be no debate about animal experimentation at all, because once we honor emotions and the bodies from which they arise, all bodies might be cherished. We would not see some bodies as objects for experimentation because we would know -- know fully -- that there are no objects and no objectivity.


Carol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. She explores the ideas of feminist philosophy and ecofeminism in her more recent Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals.