June 13, 2011

Is Anatomy Destiny?

One of my favorite things to do at lunch these days is to watch a TED talk.  They're the perfect length for a short break from my research or writing, and I often end up showing one or more when teaching.  Today, I watched Alice Dreger (professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern) give a talk called "Is Anatomy Destiny" back in December.

In light of a surprising recent uptick in traffic to my April blog post "Gay Caveman! ZOMFG!", I wanted to link to Dreger's talk, which ranges from her discussion of problems with our binary sex and gender categories to her approval of the Founding Fathers' decision to move away from leadership based on blood ties to a more radical and inclusive anatomical theory, that all men are created equal.

About five minutes in, Dreger sums up in just a few sentences how science is pushing us into what she calls our discomfort zone - the realization that sex, anatomy, race, and other categories aren't as clear-cut as we once thought they were:

We now know that sex is complicated enough that we have to admit nature doesn’t draw the line for us between male and female, or between male and intersex, or female and intersex – we actually draw that line on nature.

So what we have is a sort of situation where the farther our science goes, the more we have to admit to ourselves that these categories that we thought of as stable anatomical categories that mapped very simply to stable identity categories are a lot more fuzzy than we thought. And it’s not just in terms of sex – it’s also in terms of race, which turns out to be vastly more complicated than our terminology has allowed.

As we look we get into all sorts of sort of uncomfortable areas.  We look, for example, at the fact that we share at least 95% of our DNA with chimpanzees. What are we to make of the fact that we differ from them only really by a few nucleotides? But as we get further and further with our science, we get more and more into a discomfort zone where we have to acknowledge that the simplistic categories that we had are probably overly simplistic.
Watch the whole talk below, or click over to the TED YouTube channel.


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