Monday, February 14, 2011

A feminist lens on science

By Margie Fishman, Emory Report

When Professor of Women's Studies Elizabeth Wilson was an undergraduate in New Zealand, a women's studies department did not exist. So she majored in psychology and championed feminist issues like reproductive rights outside of the classroom.

Since then, a "bilingual" breed of feminist scientists (or scientist feminists) has emerged. They view the human body as more than a reliably rational machine. Instead, they understand it to be a complex system profoundly integrated with its environment.

Today’s 18-year-olds “see a middle path, a way to incorporate both sides," Wilson says. "It's an important growth area in women's studies."

Wilson joined Emory’s top-ranked women’s studies department in 2009. Her research explores the intersection of biology, psychoanalysis and evolutionary theory.

In her "Introduction to Studies in Sexuality" course, she asks undergraduates to consider such questions as the biological theories of homosexuality or the "queer anti-marriage argument," exploring why gays and lesbians would want to join an intrinsically discriminatory institution.

Her other intriguing courses include "Hysteria to Prozac: The Gender Politics of Mental Illness" and "A User's Guide to Freud: Gender, Sexuality and the Unconscious."

Wilson's latest book, “Affect and Artificial Intelligence,” argues that pioneers in artificial intelligence from 1945 to 1970 were interested in developing agents that not only think, but also learn, feel and grow.

"If you're trying to build an agent that works with humans on a regular basis, building an emotional robot makes the interaction more flexible and robust," she says. "These were concerns from the beginning."

Her upcoming book, "Gut Feminism," applies a feminist lens to biomedical theories of depression.

"Traditionally, men were seen as the mind and women as the body," Wilson says, adding that any attempt to forge mind-body connections across gender lines was greeted with hostility.

Feminists have long been resistant to harnessing scientific data because they felt sidelined by the scientific community, while scientists have been suspicious of any attempt to introduce bias, she explains.

Calling on extensive medical data about how antidepressants navigate their way through the body, Wilson argues that the neurological regulation of depression is not limited to the brain, but also involves an enormous network of nerves in the gut.

"Antidepressants don't just go straight to the brain and nowhere else," she says.

British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow argued in his influential work, "The Two Cultures," that the breakdown in communication between the sciences and the humanities was a major stumbling block to solving the world's most pressing problems.

That debate has raged on for more than 60 years, notes Wilson, but the last few years have brought a renewed commitment to collaboration between the sciences and feminist theory, and a critical mass of literature to back it up.

"Today, we are really in a good position to train students in both cultures," she says.

Related:
Dining with machines that feel
Why robots should care about their looks

1 comment:

  1. I have an advanced degree in WS and have taught yoga for ten years at my local university. Depression is in every cell of the body as is the mind. Conversely, joy is in every cell. When we ask the body to move in a way the body isn't habituated toward, we wake it up. This is necessary to affect habituated depression which I often see in college students. They are emotionally on one channel, that being down. Some are embarrassed at first to even smile, joy being unfamiliar and scary. We need to integrate purposeful movement into the curriculum of our children to fight depression in adulthood.

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