International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Less Noble Sex: Scientific, Religious and Philosphical Conceptions

by Nancy Tuana

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This work systematically and relentlessly documents how Western thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Darwin and Freud (the story ends at the beginning of the twentieth century), have downgraded and belittled women when compared to men. Little if anything escapes Nancy Tuana’s charge – philosophy, science, medicine, religion.

The Less Noble Sex begins with creation stories, Pagan and Christian, and shows how, built right in from the beginning, the assertion is that men are superior, strong, brave, intelligent and much more that is desirable, while women are inferior, weak, cowardly, and, frankly, not that bright.

Charles Darwin has a major place in the pantheon of male promoters. His theory of evolution through natural selection is the medium whereby he argues that males are more intelligent than females. His theory of evolution through sexual selection holds that females are less evolved than men, basically situated at the level of children rather than real adults.

In the chapter Not in God’s Image, we swing into the religious dimension to find how reluctant were the Christian sages to allow that females have souls and who, when it comes to minds, held that women are second-rate.

Tuana takes on morality next, showing how women have widely been considered creatures of lust. Even a philosopher like Kant, arguing that morality is a matter of reason, was loath to allow that females are moral beings at all. At best, their role is to make men better moral beings. This failing at the moral level was linked to the hysterical nature of women, something much bound up with their sexuality. Oddly, there seems to have been some debate about whether the problems stem from too much sex or too little.

You might think that women at least come into their own when it is a matter of reproduction and childbearing. Not so fast!  Many pagan myths make males the chief or only sources of new life; or, when females are given a role, within a generation or two it vanishes. It was likewise in Christianity. Mary, for instance, seems just a convenient vessel for God, who produced Jesus entire and then parked him in Mary’s womb for a few months. Even where women do seem to have a significant role in reproduction, it turns out that it is the man’s role which is greater. 

And so we draw to the end, with discussion about how biology was seen to necessitate men being in control of society and women playing a subservient role. Although the story ends a hundred years ago, a postscript warns that many of its observations  still apply today.

For those interested in sex and gender roles and how they play out in the science-religion interaction, this book is essential reading. No true understanding of today can be blind to the past. However, as the author admits, the story is incomplete. There is no discussion of those who have argued that men and women are truly equal (for instance, the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, was always an ardent feminist). Nor is there discussion of the social and economic and other reasons that led to such persistent chauvinism and why we how be able to conquer it today. But, in a world of excellent histories that ignore gender in Western science and religion, this is a fresh perspective. In short, read those books but read this one too.