The other day, this popped up in my Twitter feed:
I won’t be shedding any tears for Kathleen Stock’s resignation. In academia, you don’t get very far if you cling to dead theories, like biological essentialism.— Tom Williamson (@skepticCanary) October 31, 2021
My first thought was that I do shed some tears for Professor Kathleen Stock. I do not celebrate academics being hounded out of their jobs just because I disagree with them. On the other hand, it is perfectly justifiable that (say) Dr Andrew Wakefield was hounded (and eventually sacked) from his post – although this was not just because he promoted vaccine phobia, he was also a fraud and a danger to his patients.
So what is “Biological Essentialism”? Is it (as at least one person in my timeline has suggested) part of a set of ideas that are akin to anti-vaccinism? And is it a “dead theory”? Is belief in this theory good grounds for defenestration? And does Kathleen Stock subscribe to this theory?
Let us investigate …..
Some theories can reasonably described as “dead”. Phlogiston theory springs to mind in this context. But this theory was a scientific theory that was eventually killed by empirical evidence.
Purely philosophical theories are harder to kill.
This is a bit of a technical example but Karl Popper’s philosophical theory of Verisimilitude was (arguably[i]) killed by Pavel Tichý, but that is because the logic of Popper’s theory was faulty and led to contradictions.
A more typical example of a philosophical theory (one which is easier for lay people to get their heads around) is Cartesian dualism[ii] – a theory in which our material bodies are inhabited by an immaterial spirit or soul. Few serious philosophers subscribe to such ideas these days (though I once attended a lecture by a serious philosopher who did[iii]) but most (and certainly most religious people) people probably do subscribe to something like this. There are, ultimately, no empirical findings or knock-down rational arguments that could kill this type of theory stone dead.
(It might be noted here that, at least, some proponents of notions of “gender identity” seem to be arguing that our physical bodies possess gendered souls.)
So what type of theory is “Biological Essentialism”?
In philosophy, “essentialism” is the doctrine that things have one or more characteristics or attributes that are essential to their identity. For example, Plato (an essentialist[iv]) might have argued[v] that all activities we call “games” must have one or more essential features in common that makes it possible for us to use the word “game” in all such cases.
Wittgenstein argued the exact opposite. He (though these are not his examples) would have pointed out that some games (like cricket) have lots of equipment; some games (like tig) do not. Some games (like Australian football) have lots of players; some games (like solo video games) do not. Some games (like ice hockey) involve strenuous physical activity; other games (like chess) do not. Some games (like quidditch) have codified rules; other games (like frisbee) do not – and one of these is a fictional game.
Wittgenstein concludes that the terms we use do not need to correspond to real-world things that have essential features in common for our use of language to work.
An example where this begins to become more relevant to our present purposes concerns biological sex. There are a tiny number of people who the proverbial man (or woman) on the Clapham Omnibus would have no hesitation in classifying as a “man” (or a “woman”) but who were not born with the standard XY (or XX) chromosomal arrangements. Faced with an XYY individual, I suppose the strict[vi] essentialist would have to say that an XYY individual is not really a man. The non-essentialist encounters no such problems.
I am, however, unsure as to how such considerations help opponents of Kathleen Stock. For one thing, trans people are (as far as I am aware) almost exclusively people with standard karyotypes. For another, it is precisely the people who assert that “trans women are women” (and “trans men are men”) who would seem to be the essentialists here. Such people argue that all women do have one thing (and only one thing) in common: their gender identity.
But are we talking about the right sort of “essentialism” here?
I decided to google this term. The first thing that came up was this definition (from Oxford Reference):
The belief that ‘human nature’, an individual's personality, or some specific quality (such as intelligence, creativity, homosexuality, masculinity, femininity, or a male propensity to aggression) is an innate and natural ‘essence’ (rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture). The concept is typically invoked where there is a focus on difference, as where females are seen as essentially different from males: see gender essentialism. The term has often been used pejoratively by constructionists; it is also often used synonymously with biological determinism. See also essentialism; compare strategic essentialism.
This sort of essentialism is something completely different. We are back to the nature versus nurture question here with “essentialism” being identified with belief in the importance of nature rather than nurture. (I am not sure why “determinism” crops up here. That is a whole other debate.)
Science tells us that sexuality is (largely – not entirely) an innate and natural essence of someone’s being rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture. That is why “conversion therapies” do not work.
But consider a different example:
The black pop singer Michael Jackson apparently identified as a white person, and used skin lightening and hair straightening chemicals, and extensive plastic surgery in order to change his appearance. Was his desire to become a white person an innate and natural essence of his being, or a product of the (historically racist) culture into which he was born?
And which of these two examples is (say) a teenage girl’s yearning to become a boy more similar to?
Different people will give different answers to these questions, but, once again, it seems to me that it is those who assert that “trans women are women” (and “trans men are men”) who are the essentialists. It is they who seem to be asserting that gender is (like sexuality) an innate essence of someone’s being rather than a product of circumstances.
I think we have established that the meaning of the term “essentialism” is far from clear and that different people use this term to mean very different things.
If we consider the first definition I looked at, we see that the debate has been going on for millennia and will undoubtedly continue far into the future. The theory is wounded but far from dead.
If we consider the second definition I looked at, the theory will be established (or disestablished) for all sorts of different aspects of the human condition as science progresses and we figure out what causes what. The theory may well be declared dead in some areas but very much alive and kicking in others.
On either definition, it seems to me that it is the opponents of Professor Stock who are more “essentialist” when it comes to gender identity.
And whoever is or is not an “essentialist”, and whoever is right about what is or is not “essential”, the intellectual enquiry needs to continue. I am not sure whether Andrew Wakefield is mad or bad; but he is one (or both) of these things and was a danger to the public. Kathleen Stock is none of these things. She is (or was) an academic writing about ideas. It is absolutely appalling that so many students and colleagues are actively trying to prevent her from making further contributions to that enquiry.
It is not even clear that she has ever been guilty of the “crime” of “biological essentialism“ - on any definition of that term. She rebuts the allegation here for example. But I intend to find out.
My interest piqued by the tweet I quoted, and in solidarity with someone who has been treated appallingly, I have ordered a copy of Professor Kathleen Stock’s book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism.
[i] I should certainly so argue.
[ii] An explanation aimed at school students rather than academics, but a perfectly good starting point for lay people.
[iii] And nobody in the audience called for his resignation.
[iv] Though I am not aware he ever used this description for himself, and I am not sure many people who get described as “essentialists” would.
[v] I do not think Plato ever ruminated on this specific topic.
[vi] We can imagine how a less fastidious essentialist might tweak his criteria to accommodate such anomalies.