Satzinger Helga | Gender differences in 20th c. biology: Why one gender difference is not enough


Gender orders played a crucial part in the development of genetics from its inception at the beginning of the 20th century. Simultaneously the political debates on the social gender order were nourished substantially by the new results of the natural sciences. Interrelated as they were, the two realms of the creation of gender orders were nevertheless inhomogeneous and contradictory. Around 1900 notions of gender equality became the basis of Mendelian genetics, supporting political demands for female emancipation. At the same time genetics disregarded gender differences in the shaping of the understanding of heredity and its definition of relevant processes. Two decades later, genetics conceptualised gender differently, at least in the German speaking community. It saw the blurring of a clear cut discontinuous binary order into an order showing a continuous scale of intersexes between male and female. Old embryological concepts could be integrated into new genetic concepts of sex determination, mediated by a mixture of femininity and masculinity causing gene-products. This concept was used in the science based political discourse on racial purity and degeneration, arguing that miscegenation would lead to the dissolution of a proper discontinuous, binary gender order, thus threatening the superiority of the Nordic race.
These two examples show very clearly how genetic concepts were interwoven with crucial political conflicts of the time. There was no one and only political gender order at stake. There also was no one and only scientific gender order used in the sciences. Different scientific disciplines used different constellations according to their problems and political needs.
In my paper I will use these and other examples in 20th c. biology to discuss the problem of the frequent and sometimes unconscious gendering and de-gendering in the creation of biological knowledge, which, as in the case of knowledge dealing with procreation and heredity, cannot be gender free. But, what concept of gender can a critical approach use without re-inscribing natural assumptions? What will happen to biological knowledge, if we try to start our questions from different perspectives? I will also discuss the problems created by a concept of gender in gender studies, which disregards the materiality of bodies. How to come to a knowledge, which adequately incorporates notions of difference without adding layers of unconscious preconceptions?
This question is crucial for the evaluation of recent developments in the life sciences, where gender – and race - have become renewed categories to investigate differences.