Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Lot of Explaining to Do

I recently read Rebecca Solnit's new book, Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket Books, 2014), a collection of essays kicking off with her deservedly famous piece of the same title.  Readers may be surprised that I bought a copy right away, since I've hammered on Solnit more than once in the past (she really ought not to try to write about religion, she gets it wrong every time), but "Men Explain Things to Me" is a powerful, important essay, and the other essays in the book are fine too.  So this time I'm going to quote her with approval and appreciation.

In the essay "Grandmother Spider," Solnit writes:
I think a lot about obliteration.  Or rather that obliteration keeps showing up.  I have a friend whose family tree has been traced back a thousand years, but no women exist on it.  She just discovered that she herself did not exist, but her brothers did.  Her mother did not exist, and nor did her father's mother.  Or her mother's father.  There were no grandmothers.  Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history.  Her family is from India, but this version of lineage is familiar to those of us in the West from the Bible where long lists of begats link fathers to sons.  The crazy fourteen-generation genealogy given in the New Testament's Gospel According to Matthew goes from Abraham to Joseph (without noting that God and not Joseph is supposed to be the father of Jesus) ... Thus coherence -- of patriarchy, of ancestry, of narrative -- is made by erasure and exclusion [70-72].
This is very good, and I hope it will encourage my readers to read the entire essay, and the book.  I still have to quibble, though.  The genealogy of Jesus that opens the gospel of Matthew is not a "fourteen-generation genealogy": it is forty-two generations, divided into three groups of fourteen.  Maybe that's what Solnit meant, but it's not what she wrote.

So let me digress for a moment and have a New Testament scholar, Dennis Nineham, explain things to you*.  Nineham points out "the problem that on the most plausible interpretation of the most likely form of the text as we have it, the third period contains only thirteen names; [but] Matthew clearly intended, or understood it, to contain fourteen" (172).  He goes on to explain that Matthew seems to have gotten the names in his genealogy "from the LXX [i.e., the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used by the early churches], mainly from I Chronicles 2-3, supplemented by Ruth 4.18 and possibly Haggai 1.1 -- an intelligible enough procedure if you believed, as presumably Matthew did, that the Old Testament was inerrantly accurate on all matters, including matters genealogical" (174).  That covers the first thirty names.  However, "When we come to the last eleven names in the third list, the vital names which specifically link Jesus with the acknowledged kingly line in Israel, we are completely in the dark" (174),

To add to the confusion,
... we may ask: if Matthew drew on the Old Testament because he regarded it as authoritative, how comes it that he felt free to deviate widely from it in the way he does, for example omitting four names from the list it gives and assigning Rahab to a date fully three hundred years later than that to which both the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition unmistakably ascribed her?  It has often been suggested that the absence of the names of three of the kings may simply have been accidental, the result of an error on the part of a copyist; in which case we should presumably have to say that the balanced numerical structure which so impressed the evangelist was fortuitous and factually baseless.  although this suggestion of a scribal mistake is not without plausibility on palaeographical grounds, to suggest that such a symbolic numerical structure was simply the result of an accident surely stretches our credulity rather far, and we may notice that if we accept it, we shall have to suppose that Matthew cared so little about accuracy in factual matters that he did not know, and did not bother to check, whether the numbers he regarded as so significant were really derived from the Old Testament [175].
Speaking of Rahab, she's one reason I don't think Solnit bothered to look at this crazy genealogy before she wrote about it.  One of the other puzzles about Matthew's genealogy (and there are plenty of them, discussed in Nineham's article) is that it includes the names of five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus.  This makes it anomalous for a biblical genealogy, the exception that proves the rule.  I suppose Solnit was limited for space (though "Grandmother Spider" is pretty long), and discussing the women in Matthew's genealogy would have diverged from the main course of her argument; but given her customary sloppiness when she writes about the Bible I think she simply didn't know about them.

This doesn't affect the point Solnit wanted to make, of course: genealogies, Matthew's included, are meant to bolster someone's authority, and they do so by erasure and exclusion, not to mention invention.  And it happened that a few days after I finished reading Men Explain Things to Me, I read another book that showed the same process of erasing women at work, but this time in evolutionary biology.

The book was Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science by Evelyn Fox Keller, published by Routledge in 1992.  By quoting it I run the risk that some of the problems she points to have been corrected in the past twenty years, but from what I see in more recent discussion about science, I doubt it.  And in any case, the 1980s and 1990s were hardly primitive, pre-scientific times; they were a time of scientific triumphalism as defenders of Darwinism contended with "Scientific" Creationists in the courts and in the media, asserting the correctness of their science against pseudoscientific superstition.  In "Language and Ideology in Evolutionary Theory," Keller wrote:
In much of the discourse of evolutionary theory, it is commonplace to speak of the "reproduction of an organism" -- as if reproduction is something an individual organism does, as if an organism makes copies of itself, by itself.  Strictly speaking, of course, such language is appropriate only to asexually reproducing populations because, as every biologist knows, sexually reproducing organisms neither produce copies of themselves, nor produce other organisms by themselves.  It is a striking fact, however, that the language of individual reproduction, including such correlative terms as "an individual's offspring" and "lineage," is used throughout population biology to apply indiscriminately to both sexually and asexually reproducing populations.  Although it would be absurd to suggest that users of such language are actually confused about the nature of reproduction in the organisms they study (for example, calculations of numbers of offspring per organism are always appropriately adjusted to take the mode of reproduction into account), we might nonetheless ask: What functions, both positive and negative, does such manifestly peculiar language serve?  And what consequences does it have for the shape of the theory in which it is embedded? [128-9].
Which individuals reproduce themselves?  For a long time, biologists assumed them to be male on the assumption that "the reproductive contribution of females [provided] the raw materials or nutriments for growth" (130), though that has changed.  Even Darwin, who tended to see natural selection as a process affecting individuals, "was at other times quite explicit in including differential procreation along with survival in his definition of natural selection" (131).  Eventually population genetics tried to solve the problem by focusing on the reproduction of gametes.
In spite of this fact, however, the theoretical (and verbal) convention that subsequently came to prevail in much of the teaching and practice was to equate natural selection with differential survival and ignore fertility altogether.  In other words, the Hardy-Weinberg calculus seems to have actually facilitated not one but two kinds of elision -- first, of all those complications incurred by sex and the contingency of mating that are lost in the representation of reproduction as gametic production, and second, more obliquely, of reproduction in toto [133].
One way of dealing with
the difficulties of sexual reproduction is that of acknowledging sexual difference, and attempting (at least in some contexts) to restrict reproduction to only one sex -- for obvious reasons, usually the females of the species ... This strategy (known in demographic theory as the reproductive dominance of females) would be perfectly adequate were there, in fact, one sex, or alternatively, if neither the attributes nor the availability of males were relevant to the reproductive process, and we furthermore agreed not to inquire too closely about the reproductive fitness of males [138].
Although "rewriting the equations of mathematical ecology for two sexes appears to relatively straightforward" (139), Keller shows that there is a tendency among scientists to resist doing so, and to continue to treat sexual reproduction as if it were asexual.  And twenty-first century evolutionary psychologists continue to treat reproduction, and evolution, as if they were about the reproduction of males, with females either cooperating passively or wickedly obstructing the males' struggle to perpetuate their genes.

*Dennis E. Nineham, "The genealogy in St Matthew's gospel and its significance for the study of the gospels."  Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 58 (1976): 421-444.  As reprinted in Nineham, Explorations in Theology, London: SCM Press, 1977: 166-187.