Monday, 4 July 2011

Alice Dreger: Is anatomy destiny?

Alice Dreger
Do our bodies define who we are? Should we take our place in society based only on our phenotype?

We are bombarded with stereotypes all our lives, and they affect everything: what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to think, even what we are supposed to look like. Men are engineers, women are mothers. Men like technical things and are good at 3D thinking, women are good at tasks involving language. Men wear trousers and prefer drab colours, women wear skirts or dresses and prefer pink. Male and female are mutually exclusive either/or states, like tall/short, or fat/thin.

All stereotypes. We have female engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, accountants... all of whom may also be mothers, just as a male may also be a father, but why should femininity be primarily defined by parenthood and masculinity by profession? There are still reputable scientists and psychologists asserting that there is a huge difference between male and female brains. How much is true, how much is due to the study team's own (possibly unintentional) bias, and how much is poor interpretation of the results?

So, does my talent for spatial wotsit and my mad skillz with languages make me a hermaphrodite? Or are these talents we tend to develop because we're told all our lives that we're going to be good at this and bad at that because of the shape of our genitals? There's huge pressure to be part of the crowd, act and think like everyone else. People who don't quite fit in with the decreed norm suffer: too dark, too white, too tall, too short, too clever, too dumb, too male, too female, too foreign... to do the job.

Of course, there are always the weirdos who react like this. I used the word "weirdos" advisedly and I'd like you to think about the implications of that particular epithet, starting with the lumping together of genuine individualists (and individuals) with the mentally ill and otherwise unhinged. As I said earlier, there's huge pressure to conform. Me? I like that song.

People are beginning to accept that the distinction between male and female isn't as clear-cut as we've all been brought up to believe. Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University in Chicago (yes, a female professor) has some very interesting things to say about anatomy and how society judges us on ours.

Incidentally, she's funny, something women aren't supposed to be good at either. Here's the talk given by Prof. Dreger and hosted over at TedTalks:
Here's the link to the original article, with some interesting comments in the rather lengthy forum discussion. There's an interactive transcript of the talk, very useful for study and discussion.

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