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Dawkins and feminine pronouns

I know Dawkins has gotten himself into some gender hot water, belittling Rebecca Watson's elevator experience and saying Western women don't have much to complain about compared to Islamic ones, or something like that. I've read most of his books, but not followed his internet presence.

But there's something I wanted to dig up:

"The present book goes further. To dramatize it a bit, it attempts to free the selfish gene from the individual organism which has been its conceptual prison. The phenotypic effects of a gene are the tools by which it levers itself into the next generation, and these tools may 'extend' far outside the body in which the gene sits, even reaching deep into the nervous systems of other organisms. Since it is not a factual position I am advocating, but a way of seeing facts, I wanted to warn the reader not to expect 'evidence' in the normal sense of the word. I announced that the book was a work of advocacy, because I was anxious not to disappoint the reader, not to lead her on under false pretences and waste her time.

The linguistic experiment of the last sentence reminds me that I wish I had had the courage to instruct the computer to feminize personal pronouns at random throughout the text. This is not only because I admire the current awareness of the masculine bias in our language. Whenever I write I have a particular imaginary reader in mind (different imaginary readers oversee and 'filter' the same passage in numerous successive revisions) and at least half my imaginary readers are, like at least half my friends, female. Unfortunately it is still true in English that the unexpectedness of a feminine pronoun, where a neutral meaning is intended, seriously distracts the attention of most readers, of either sex. I believe the experiment of the previous paragraph will substantiate this. With regret, therefore, I have followed the standard convention in this book."

This is from the preface to The Extended Phenotype, dated to June 1981. I read it sometime in the 1990s and was struck by the surprise gender issue in a genetics/evolution book; I'd probably been sensitized by Douglas Hofstadter's essays on gender, especially his disturbing Person Paper on Purity in Language, though I think Dawkins was writing before those came out.

On the one hand, Dawkins chickened out of it, even though it was just a randomization, not making the feminine default all the way through. (Though maybe switching would be worse?) On the other hand, it's easy as a modern reader to judge someone for not taking risks with their second book, in 1981, publishing in England. (On the third hand, I wonder what computer he was using at the time.) On net, I think I still give him a bunch of points for even caring about the issue and being on the right side.

For the 1989 reprint of The Selfish Gene he obliquely mentions the issue again, saying the publisher wanted to reprint the original book, "warts, sexist pronouns, and all", plus a couple more chapters. The one new chapter I looked at switched between gender neutral and male language: the proverbial nice guy quickly turned into 'it', but the Prisoner's Dilemma is illustrated with two men, not two people.

For his later books, I don't know; I didn't find many passages with generic people or pronouns that would need a gender. In The Ancestor's Tale there's "we are people" that could have been "we are men" in an older writer; "man-made artifacts", but then "All Humankind" for Rendezvous 0. But then a couple of hypothetical ancestral shrews are Henry and Eric. And, welp, "Every time an individual has a child, exactly half his genes".


Unrelatedly: Climbing Mount Improbable is printed in some trippily wide Centaur typeface. Seflish Gene looks quaint and not in a good way... Times? Extended Phenotype, also from Oxford University Press, looks better but also weird. Ancestor's Tale looks normal, but my paperback must be high-acid paper or something, it's browning pretty badly already, despite a 2004 copyright.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/378892.html#comments


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Oct. 22nd, 2013 12:31 pm (UTC)
It is distracting to have the feminine pronoun for the neutal "one" instead of the masculine. To me, though, that means we need to do it more so that we get used to it and it's no longer distracting. (I'm doing a little social engineering in my own home, often using the feminine pronoun for the neutral in speech. Check back in 15 years to find the results.)

Switching would be worst of all, I think, making the reader think there were at least two persons being discussed.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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