Rereading de Beauvoir 2: Biology Is Not Destiny

Part One: Destiny

Chapter 1: Biological Data (Or, Biology Is Not Destiny)

In her chapter on biological data, SdB tries to get to the bottom of what the “female” represents in the animal kingdom – a question she says needs to be answered before one can ask what kind of female is realised “in woman”. (21) But this chapter has another motive, and that is to investigate and debunk the use “man” has made of  (pseudo) science in justifying female oppression.

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

One thing the biological data can show is that the kind of differentiation of male and female into two types, with which we’re so familiar, is not universal in nature. Why, then, is it still taken for granted? Indeed, why is it not only taken for granted and not investigated in its own right, but used (as Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas et al. do) to explain other things about the world:

 “It is through sexual activity that men define the sexes and their relations just as they create the meaning and value of all the functions they accomplish: but sexual activity is not necessarily implied in the human being’s nature.” (24)

SdB of course rejects the view that sees sexual activity – sexual differentiation – as axiomatic; as something necessary or essential to our humanness. We could, she points out, imagine a society that reproduced itself another way (using parthenogenesis, for example), or one that was composed of intersex people. (Here, I should point out that SdB’s language is of its time, and she uses the term “hermaphrodite” in this discussion. While changing linguistic conventions might be excused, SdB’s treatment of intersex and LGBT issues has attracted sustained criticism. More on that in later chapters.)

SdB’s discussion of the primary role of the male in reproduction that arose along with patriarchy is sobering. Using pseudo-science to justify oppression, the female role is seen is passive, the male’s as active. His seed is a strong and active life force; she “merely fattened a living and active, and perfectly constituted principle”. (25) While modern biology eventually dispatched that error, the active vs. passive view of human male vs. female certainly wasn’t dispatched along with it.

But let’s, for a moment, imagine it is true; that the egg is the passive counterpart (or partner!) to the active sperm. What would that tell us about women and men? Nothing! SdB notes rather drily that “it would be rash to deduce from such an observation that woman’s place is in the home: but there are rash people.” (29)

But, eek, SdB’s next discussion, of insects, is one of reproduction and death, of slaves (males) who do their duty then die or are killed by bigger, stronger females. She specifically points to the praying mantis, known of course for consuming the male, and the subsequent “myth of devouring femininity” (33) it has spawned.

The sexual variations in nature outlined in this chapter are remarkable, and bring to mind in the modern reader the anthropomorphism we tend to impose on nature. Instead of nature showing us how much of our own behaviour is, say, cultural, as SdB is doing here, we look for (and find!) nuclear family values in fish, birds, even lion prides. (Just watch almost any nature show, but most definitely nature shows of the Disney variety. Children’s cartoons are stuffed full of “families” of all manner of species.)

Insects are one thing, but since we aren’t bugs, what about mammals? SdB sees the jump as important. Again, looking at reproduction, the fundamental difference among mammals, she argues, is that during sex, the sperm immediately becomes foreign to the male while the female remains “both herself and other than herself during the whole gestation period.” (36)

The (almost) endlessly repeating female cycle of menstruation alienates woman from her body: man is his body just as woman is hers, “but her body is something other than her.” (42) SdB’s purely physiological account of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding and menopause is wholly negative: the pain, the health impacts, the risk of death, the “exhausting servitude”. (43)

Are you wondering whether or not SdB’s account is really a purely dispassionate assessment of purely biological data, free of context? Couldn’t at least some of these data, in a different context, be reversed: turning the negatives into their opposite? Yes!

“The body is not a thing, it is a situation. … As soon as we accept a human perspective, defining the body starting from existence, biology becomes an abstract science;  … ‘weakness’ is weakness only in light of the aims man (sic) sets for himself, the instruments at his disposal and the laws he imposes.” (46-7)

The female “enslavement” she spoke of earlier is dependent on, for example, how many births society demands of her, the hygienic conditions in which pregnancy and birth occur and so on.

In the final analysis, then: biology is not destiny; woman’s body is not enough to define her. (49)

This conclusion gets to the heart of contemporary arguments about things like “family values”, motherhood, reproductive rights and so on. Anti-feminists would like to posit an eternal female/feminine/maternal nature to which women “should” adhere, and yet would insist this nature not resemble any kind of raw state of nature, in which death and killing and sacrifice have no moral import, but are simply used as needed wherever they help perpetuate the group, the pack the species. For them, woman’s female/feminine/maternal nature is natural but outside the natural world, defined instead by god. It’s a pretty neat trick when you think about it.

I suppose it’s my humanities background, but I find this chapter on biological data one the least interesting of The Second Sex. And it’s not just because of the humanities bias, either. It’s also because I’m not sure which of the data still hold true, and I’m not really equipped to find out. (Too lazy?) Biology has advanced so much since the 1940s (a much greater understanding of DNA, for example), that SdB’s science might well have been superseded for all I know.

But if she’s a good philosopher, that won’t matter – even if it makes for some out-of-date reading. Her point that biology cannot “ground values” or mandate the fate of an individual human should still hold. Though only if “human” (man/woman) is defined as an existentialist would define him/her (as, for example, “a being who is not given, who makes himself (sic) what he is.” P. 46). And not, say, as the Bible would.

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