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Letters
  • Biology and Morality
  • Single-sex Schools
  • Advice & Consent

    Biology and Morality

    Edward O. Wilson's "The Biological Basis of Morality" (April Atlantic) is in many ways generous, sensitive, and challenging. But it seems to me that it is also absolutely bristling with difficulties. For one thing, Wilson's summaries of religious and theological history descend repeatedly into painful caricature. His reduction of religious ethics to theories about natural law treats the far more fundamental tradition of biblical relational and covenantal ethics -- found in the classical prophets Jesus and Paul up to writers like Kierkegaard, Buber, Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr -- as if it didn't exist, and that betrays his basic juxtaposition of transcendentalism and empiricism into the fallacy of the false alternative. For another thing, it seems to me also that he has simply not understood the force of Kant's argument that (as applied to Wilson's defense of "objective" science) the human self cannot be understood without remainder as rooted in the objective natural world we can know empirically, because the world of objects known to empiricism has, by eliminating the possibility methodologically, no place for the subject that knows such a world. This means that if in fact it can be shown empirically that we are given to certain socially accredited "moral instincts," as free moral intelligences we are still faced with whether we ought to conform to them -- or to which of competing ones. For ethics is about not what we want or are pressured or programmed to do but what we ought to do. The expression "moral instinct" is an oxymoron!

    And Wilson's effort to contrast empiricism and transcendentalism in the way he does seems to me to be based on a great misunderstanding. He believes that religion and natural science are fundamentally different -- the one grounded in "ambiguous" "idioms of theology and philosophy," the other in solid "objective knowledge." But I submit that the juxtaposition he describes is not between religion and science but between two religions. To say that the methods of empirical science are one way to understand reality is one thing, but to say they are the only way is quite another. That's not science anymore, for one can't know empirically that the only source of knowledge is empirical. That's scientism. And as an ism, it plays for Wilson exactly the same interpretive role as religion. He complains that transcendental ethics begins with moral principles presumed to be self-evident, yet he begins with an epistemological principle that he presumes to be self-evident: empiricism -- a "free-standing assumption" if ever there was one. Why is his faith any less "blind" than the religious faith he eschews?

    The wonder of Wilson's disparaging outline of "The Origins of Religion," about how a religion will begin as a cult, increase in power to achieve tolerance outside the circle of believers, organize itself around a central myth that explains "how the chosen people -- those subscribing to the belief system -- arrived at its center," and then develop a set of "instructions and formulas ... available to members who have worked their way to a higher state of enlightenment," is that it would seem to apply so perfectly to his scientism.

    Stanley R. Moore
    Claremont, Calif.

    I fully agree with Edward O. Wilson's essential point that there is a biological basis to morality and human nature. However, I think that his focus on transcendentalism versus empiricism diminishes his overall argument. Two statements from the essay illustrate what I'm driving at: "The essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another"; and, in discussing the need to scientifically probe the biological basis of moral sentiments, "From that knowledge it should be possible to adapt ancient moral sentiments more wisely to the swiftly changing conditions of modern life into which ... we have plunged." In other words, we are psychologically maladapted to life in our current environment.

    That is the crux of the problem. Modern human beings lived for approximately 200,000 years in small hunter-gatherer bands. Pre-modern human beings lived similarly for at least two million years. Only in the past 10,000 years has our human lifestyle significantly changed. In this evolutionarily short time span occurred the transformation from small-scale, nomadic, relatively egalitarian, kin-based foraging societies to large-scale, sedentary, hierarchical, agricultural-industrial societies composed of distantly related individuals. In the process some of our "prehistoric" evolved behaviors were distorted and/or perverted. Thus sexually selected male behaviors, which subconsciously promote a drive for prestige and status, became the motivation for pillage, conquest, wealth-hoarding, enslavement, and female subjugation as settlements grew in size and some form of order was needed to maintain cohesion.

    Moral precepts have undoubtedly been with us longer than the written record. But ethical principles probably did not come about until the process of societal transformation began. The problem lies not with our ethical principles but with the phenomenon of class-based, male-dominated hierarchical societies whose rulers must justify the inequities they maintain.

    Marc Beallor
    North Canton, Ohio

    Edward O. Wilson placates religious sensibilities by declaiming not once but twice that accepting the biological basis for religious beliefs does not make them untrue. The religious (oceanic, cosmological) emotion is one thing. Our feeling of awe at the totality of existence probably is a foundation of morality, since it carries us to an experiential priority beyond ourselves. Wilson rightly concerns himself with the compulsion of this feeling. Religious beliefs, however, as Wilson indicates, have been merely ill-informed hypotheses. Wilson's article seems to replace superstition with science in this heretofore neglected domain.

    Certainly most religious beliefs have by now been proved decidedly untrue. Those that have not are all in contention, and must therefore be mostly false too. For instance, if there's only one God, there can't be many. If we go to Heaven when we die, we can't be reincarnated. If communal dancing on the prairie brings rain, then the target of prayer is relative. If Jews are God's favorite people, then Jehovah's Witnesses are not. If Mohammed supersedes Jesus, then Christ is not the main son of God. And so on. When faced with the plethora of contradictory religious convictions and the historical record that religious beliefs have overwhelmingly been exposed as superstitious fictions, it is irrational to state that remaining religious beliefs might be true.

    Surely, in the old college spirit that you can't prove a negative, nothing Wilson suggests proves that religious beliefs are untrue. But the likely probability that any are true is on the order of the odds that all the molecules in a room will randomly converge into a corner. In the laws of quantum physics this, too, is possible, but it's not happening.

    Mark Vlosky
    Broomfield, Colo.

    Edward O. Wilson manages to give a pretty fair explication of the sociobiological take on ethics while tiptoeing around the theory's main problem. If ethical commands are merely biological or cultural dictates, then they cease to be moral imperatives, and a rent in the moral fabric becomes merely a glitch in the evolutionary design. To see how foolish this is, ask any parents of a murdered child if their feelings about the child's murder can be explained away as a genetic by-product. Chances are you won't even ask the question. Shame will stop you.

    To be fair to Wilson, he does try to replace some of the moral seriousness his theory necessarily jettisons. The results, however, are laughable, especially when we try to apply to Wilson's statements those standards implicit in a scientific view. Take, for example, the sentence "The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic." Where is the proof of that? What could ever count as evidence that such a statement is right or wrong? Equally bad is the next sentence: "Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all religious cosmologies combined." Does Wilson have a grandeur meter? Statements like these can't even be true or false. They're nonsense.

    In a nutshell, the real problem is that Wilson can't have it both ways. Kant was right. If you want to preserve a realm of moral earnestness, you have to keep it free from the encroachments of science. If you take the other path and say good-bye to an independent moral realm, you say good-bye to it for good.

    Mark Gray
    Seattle, Wash.

    Single-sex Schools

    In "The Trouble With Single-Sex Schools" (April Atlantic), Wendy Kaminer is quite right to point out the danger of justifying single-sex education for girls and women in ways that perpetuate gender stereotypes. What she fails to note, however, is that girls' schools and women's colleges are not supported exclusively by people who believe that females think differently or learn differently or speak differently from males. They are supported by people who believe that such institutions play a major and effective role in advancing the interests of girls and women in a world in which true gender equity has yet to be achieved.

    Not all girls' schools and women's colleges are alike; not all have the same mission or offer the same rationale for their existence. No one would treat coeducational schools and colleges in as oversimplified and superficial a manner as Kaminer treats single-sex institutions.

    Kaminer asserts that separating the sexes itself reinforces gender stereotypes. But arguing, as she does, on general principles, one could make exactly the opposite case: that boys and girls, women and men, are most likely to perform their gender roles in the presence of each other. After all, roles are played for an audience. The actual realities of gender performance are, of course, more complex than either of these generalizations.

    The basic problem with Kaminer's discussion is that it takes place in an abstract bubble that no actual social realities seem to penetrate. The Young Women's Leadership School, in East Harlem, and the Virginia Military Institute are simply lumped together as single-sex institutions, though one is a small experimental program for disadvantaged African-American and Latina girls, and the other has been a traditional bastion of southern male privilege where generations of young men have been socialized into their gender roles through rituals of misogyny. (If girls at the East Harlem school are ridiculed by being called "boys" when they fail to perform well in class, I have yet to hear about it.) Kaminer compares the "discrimination" practiced by girls' schools and women's colleges to the bad old days of racially segregated schools. But can she really believe that men are discriminated against by not being able to attend Barnard (with Columbia across the street) or Wellesley (with MIT and Harvard just down the road a piece) in the same way that black Americans were discriminated against by not being able to attend white schools in the era of segregation?

    Kaminer's own values are not exactly clear. She first attacks women's colleges for being elitist and then denigrates them for losing top-flight female talent to the coed Ivies. The fact is that women's colleges continue to attract exceptionally bright and highly qualified applicants. At the same time, like other liberal-arts colleges, they make an enormous commitment to financial aid, which means that a large proportion of their students come from backgrounds of economic deprivation. Many are the first in their families to attend college; many are the daughters of recent immigrants; many are older women pursuing their education part-time as they meet other life responsibilities.

    Kaminer argues -- illogically, I believe -- that we should support single-sex education only if we are prepared to give up on the project of achieving gender equity in coeducational schools. Some of us have had no problem working for gender equity in coeducational settings while at the same time supporting girls' schools and women's colleges, which are hardly the likeliest targets for feminist concern.

    Judith Shapiro
    President
    Barnard College>
    New York, N.Y.


    In her recent article Wendy Kaminer calls all-female schools "models of equivocation" because they have "fostered femininity along with feminism." Is it the problem of all-girls schools that we live in a society that implies we must decide between the two? If we did not live in a culture that values hunting over gathering, that venerates and rewards traditionally male jobs and professions at the expense of the work women have done through the ages, would we have to choose between being feminine and supporting the advancement of women?

    There are two ways to address the fact that men and women do not share power and economic rewards equally. The first is to open the doors of the corridors of power to women -- to be sure that we are training our daughters to be doctors and lawyers and athletes and astronauts. We have no trouble with this one. The second is to recognize that the work that women have traditionally done is important work. This is the one that we approach sheepishly. We have to apologize for choosing to stay home to raise children, for having time to cook, for being a kindergarten teacher rather than an engineer, for being -- heaven forbid -- feminine.

    In doing so we send an interesting cross message to our daughters. We celebrate them, as we should, when they win at a science fair, get an athletic scholarship to college, or become a computer scientist -- in short, when they are doing what twenty-five years ago would have been done only by men. Are we as eager to praise our sons who announce that they plan to eschew the baseball team to work at a local day-care center? We accept traditionally male work as the important work; we teach our daughters to aspire to it exclusively; and then we wonder what happens to their self-esteem.

    What Kaminer sees as equivocation in single-sex schools, I see as balance. Educating our daughters well today requires a remarkable juggling act. We do have to "facilitate their entry into the professions," but it is no less important to remind them that the work women have traditionally done, merely preserving and transmitting our culture, is important work.

    As a teacher of mathematics, I see it as critically important that my students are well trained and at ease with my subject; for twenty-five years I have committed myself to swelling the ranks of scientists, engineers, and computer scientists with my female students. But I am careful to tell them, and to remind myself, that as much as my girls need mathematics, mathematics needs them more. They bring to the study of the subject an important perspective; they are interested in connecting. My all-girls classes have challenged me to connect mathematics to other disciplines, to the good of the world and to the betterment of others, rather than studying it in a vacuum. We have all come to understand not that they can do mathematics in spite of these traditionally feminine concerns but that they will do better mathematics because of them.

    I do not think we will ever be successful in our quest for equity by androgyny. The problem is not that sex differences are "regressive notions" but that we persist in valuing only male models.

    Ann S. Pollina
    Head of School
    Westover School
    Middlebury, Conn.


    Based on my sister's experience at a private women's college, I must agree with Wendy Kaminer's article. When I visited my sister at school not long ago, I expected to see classes full of women who contributed confidently to discussions, free from the fear that male voices would drown them out.

    Instead I discovered relatively silent classrooms full of reticent students. I also found a school that offered few advanced math or science courses, specializing instead in the more stereotypically "female" fields of the humanities and the social sciences. In addition, the older students seemed most concerned with "catching" men who attended the nearby all-male military academy.

    In general my sister's college sparked less classroom participation by women, allowed fewer options to excel in nontraditional areas, and provided fewer intellectual contacts between men and women than did the private coeducational university I attended. I must agree with Kaminer that attractive as is the promise of single-sex schools, coeducational schools serve students better.

    Elizabeth C. Feil
    Sacramento, Calif.

    Wendy Kaminer replies:

    I don't recognize my article from Judith Shapiro's angry, inaccurate description of it. A reader of her letter would never know that much of my article was devoted to discussing social-science evidence regarding the benefits of single-sex schools for young women and girls (the studies are inconclusive) or that I focused on the question that Shapiro claims I ignored: Do exclusively female schools foster achievement and advance equality?

    I don't share popular feminist beliefs in the value of single-sex education, but I did not ignore or misrepresent them. For example, I did not "lump together" the Young Women's Leadership School, in East Harlem, with all-male military institutions like VMI and the Citadel. Instead I made Shapiro's point: I explained that supporters of the East Harlem school perceive it as a kind of affirmative action for lower-income minority students who suffer discrimination in coed classrooms. I stressed that the school is "intended to prepare girls for colleges and careers."

    I did not compare elite female secondary schools and colleges to impoverished, racially segregated public schools. I did suggest that constitutional principles prohibiting racial segregation should apply to sexual segregation as well. I did not even imply that male students at Columbia are disadvantaged by Barnard's exclusionary admission policies. I did point out that low-income minority males and females are both at risk, and I questioned whether establishing high-quality public schools for lower-income girls and not lower-income boys was an appropriate exercise in affirmative action.

    I did not and would not denigrate the Seven Sisters for losing the best-credentialed students to the Ivy League. (And I don't equate credentials with intelligence or talent.) I simply reported a predictable trend, shaped by the apparent preferences of female high school seniors, only three percent of whom even consider attending single-sex schools.

    Advice & Consent

    The following is offered as an update on the recent discussion in these pages concerning the origins of the term First Lady (Word Improvisation, October, 1997, Atlantic; Letters, January and April Atlantics):

    In a letter dated January 20, 1878, the Washington journalist Emily Edson Briggs (1830-1910) appealed to Lucy Webb Hayes, "as our first lady," to publicly "approve the progress of woman on the high road of civilization." Elsewhere, describing an 1871 presidential reception, Briggs identified Julia Dent Grant as "the first lady." Briggs clearly played a hitherto unappreciated role in helping to establish the phrase first lady in White House reporting. Undoubtedly she was not alone, but these appear to be the earliest occurrences of first lady yet documented.

    Special thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary researcher David Shulman (who pushed the date of the original phrase, "first lady in the land," back to 1834) and, for Briggs's letter, to Nan J. Card, the curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, in Fremont, Ohio.

    J. E. Lighter
    Knoxville, Tenn.

    Peter Schrag ("California, Here We Come," March Atlantic) shows his true political colors when he dismisses as "facile" Ronald Reagan's identification of the main problem in confronting domestic policy -- an enormous, abusive, and out-of-control government. What is truly facile is Schrag's belief in the virtue of an unchecked and well-funded legislature.

    William A. Fedders
    Chicago, Ill.


    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Letters; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 6-11.

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