Monday, November 30, 2009

Sex and Plato

The November 30 issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article about the case of Caster Semenya, the phenomenal South African runner who won the 800 meter title at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. Semenya's victory has since been overshadowed by a controversy over the runner's identity. Semenya competed in the women's race but there are many who claim that she is not a woman. She possesses many of the features normally associated with males. As a result Semenya has been subject to humiliating scrutiny and examination in an attempt to verify her sex. Add to the mix racial and class issues (Semenya is black and from one of the poorest regions of South Africa) and we have the makings of a very complicated and sensitive story.

The New Yorker article poses some questions about philosophy and the metaphysics of sex categorization as well. Dr. Alice Dreger, a bioethcs professor at Northwestern University, is quoted as saying that there is no solution to the question of what the difference is between a man and a woman: "Science is making it more difficult [to solve], because it ends up showing us how much blending there is and how many nuances, and it becomes impossible to point to one thing, or even a set of things, and say that's what it means to be male." And Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, who teaches biology at Brown University, is reported to say "there are philosophers of science who argue that when scientists make categories in the natural world--shapes, species--they are simply making a list of things that exist: natural kinds. It's a scientist as discoverer. The phrase that people use is 'cutting nature at its joint.' There are other people, myself included, who think that, almost always, what we're doing in biology is creating categories that work pretty well for certain things that we want to do with them. But there is no joint."

The metaphor of carving at the joints comes from Plato's Phaedrus, and raises the specter of Platonic realism. On the allegedly Platonic view, biologists and other scientists are discovering categories like "male" and "female" or "mammal" and "virus." The contrasting view, often called "nominalism" says that the categories are created by humans based on their own interests and needs. A pragmatic view of this sort is defended in the American philosopher W.V. Quine's paper "Natural Kinds."

While recognizing that a brief quotation in a magazine intended for a lay audience cannot capture the nuances of Fausto-Sterling's thought, I nevertheless feel compelled to point out that the dichotomy drawn in the article oversimplifies matters. First, the existence of "problem cases" of people who are difficult to categorize by sex does not entail that the concept of maleness or femaleness is a human creation. Among the responses available to the realist are epistemicism (our inability to categorize is the result of our own cognitive limitations) and anti-dualism (there is at least a third category of "intersexual" people). But also Fausto-Sterling seems to set up a false dichotomy. It is doubtless true that people categorize according to their needs and interests. It does not follow that the resulting categories are more like inventions than discovered features of reality.

Neverthless, the case of Caster Semenya raises important issues about the nature of identity and scientific understanding. Philosophers of science are well placed to contribute constructively to the discussion of these issues.


Zach Sherwin said...

Interesting... I have a question for you: when you claim that the article poses questions about "the metaphysics of sex categorization", what function does the word "metaphysics" perform? What makes the issue of sex categorization a metaphysical one?

michael papazian said...

Zach has a good question. I guess I wanted to distinguish between biological and scientific questions about sex differences and broader (perhaps non-empirical) questions about the ontology of categories such as male and female, such as whether these categories are real or conventional. I take it that the latter questions are principally metaphysical rather than scientific, though as the article demonstrates, scientists do at times discuss these metaphysical issues.

R. J. Marvin said...

Does epistimism as a response for the realist give strength to Fousto-Sterling concept of male and female sex categories? It seems that by acknowledging our inability to categorize due to cognitive limitations makes it better to error on the side sex ambiguousness. This is grounded in the principle that it is an inevitability for human societies to manifest inequalities in cases of multiple gender categories. There is empirical evidence that cultures who have more fluid concepts of gender generate less social inequality and have less incidents of crime resulting from these inequalities.

michael papazian said...

In response to Ray, it is natural to think that a recognition of limitations would foster tolerance, but I'm not sure that in practice this is always the result.