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A photo of Ruth Hubbard
Laura Wulf/Harvard University

Ruth Hubbard and the evolution of biology

There’s a joke among journalists that winning a Pulitzer Prize predicts the first line of your obituary. Being the first woman to attain tenure in biology at Harvard University is a similar kind of billboard accomplishment, so it’s no surprise that when the holder of that distinction, Ruth Hubbard, died on 1 September at the age of 92, The Boston Globe led its article with that fact. 

Much more than this bureaucratic milestone makes Hubbard’s a notable scientific life, however. Her professional career as a consequential researcher, teacher, writer, and thinker spanned a period of drastic change for women in academe, from the days when women—no matter how brilliant, well-trained, and productive—overwhelmingly got only adjunct or temporary positions to now, when many are tenured faculty members or top-level administrators, despite a gender gap that still persists. Hubbard not only lived that transition; she helped make it happen with pathbreaking analyses of gender’s biological underpinnings and how it influences who does science, what science they do, what questions they ask, how they conceptualize what they find, and what difference this makes. “No one,” said prominent geneticist Richard Lewontin, “has been a more influential critic of the biological theory of women’s inequality than Ruth Hubbard.”

A second look at Darwin

I first encountered Hubbard’s work in the mid-1980s, when I was doing research for my own book about gender. To understand Hubbard’s influence, one must appreciate the thinking of those days. At that time, for example, scientists were seriously considering how human evolution could explain why boys on average did better than girls on the SAT math test. In 1983, after all, boys scoring in the top 0.01% on that test outnumbered similarly high-scoring girls 13-to-1.

Today, the idea that biology could be the sole cause of the math score gap is a whole lot less persuasive. By 2005, about one in three scorers in the top 0.01% was a girl. But the reigning theory back in the 1980s held that Neolithic hunters on the prehistoric African savanna—all males, naturally—had evolved brains that produce better spatial abilities than had the female gatherers. The argument went that the ability to fell animals with stone-tipped weapons translated, millennia later, into more correct answers on multiple-choice questions about equations. In this analysis, traditional gender roles and expectations reflected innate abilities rather than influenced behaviors and choices.

This is the ideological milieu that Hubbard walked into when she began exploring the scientific literature on gender about a decade before I did, her interest piqued by the then-burgeoning women’s movement. As part of her effort, she revisited Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which she had last studied while a student. As she recalled in a 2007 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), her rereading showed her “the effect of political and social theory on the science that gets done” and how scientists “read [humans’] social arrangements onto the world of animals and plants.” This convinced her, she wrote in her 1982 essay “Have Only Men Evolved?,” that “we need to rethink our evolutionary history” because until then “women [had] not figured in the paradigm of evolution.”

She also expressed her then-provocative conclusions in other places, including a 1990 essay with the revealing title “The Political Nature of ‘Human Nature.’” The fact that “people from different races, classes, and sexes do not have equal access to resources and power, and therefore live in different environments,” makes teasing apart the effects of nature and nurture very problematic, she wrote there. Generalizing about group differences supposedly related to sex, “such as that men are heavier, taller, or stronger than women” (or, presumably, better at math), “obscure[s] the diversity among women and among men” and the fact that there is great overlap in “all traits except those directly involved with procreation.”

It’s hard to overstate how radical such insights were in their time, especially coming from someone with such serious scientific credentials. But Hubbard had an outsider’s perspective that seems to have prepared her to look deeply and skeptically at the scientific culture where she had spent her entire adult life. Arriving in the United States as a teenager in 1938 after fleeing the Nazi annexation of her native Austria with her Jewish family, the Vienna-born Hubbard (nee Hoffmann) “always felt like a foreigner in the United States,” her son told The Boston Globe.

Nonetheless, she thrived in the new country. As a student, she had initially considered following her parents, both physicians, into medicine, but she opted instead for biological research. Working in George Wald’s lab as “the best graduate student [he] ever had,” as he had described her to The Globe, she earned her Ph.D. (issued by Radcliffe College, then Harvard’s women’s division) in 1950 and in 1958 became his second wife. In 1967 she shared the prestigious Paul Karrer Gold Medal with Wald for their work on the physiology and chemistry of sight (for which he won the Nobel Prize that same year).

During her early decades in research, before the women’s movement had emerged, she was “perfectly comfortable in [science’s] internalist paradigm, where you ask a question and … if you’re lucky you find an answer and that brings up the next question and so on … and you don’t really look very far to left and right as to why some questions are more important than other questions,” she told the CBC. But eventually, the changing consciousness about women’s role in society at large made it “imperative not to close my eyes to the fact that science is part of the social structure.” The movement “really challenged me to think about not how we thought about vision [but about] how we thought about women’s biology, how we thought about evolution.” She noticed that “for social reasons … the big questions have been asked by men, and so they ask certain kinds of questions,” resulting in many answers that “didn’t really correspond to the experiences of women.”

She also “suddenly became aware,” she continues in the interview, that “I was a research associate and lecturer, whereas the men who were my contemporaries either were on the ladder or had already got professorships. How come?” 

It was not until she was almost 50, in 1974, that Harvard took what she termed in her 1990 book The Politics of Women's Biology “an unusual step,” moving her and a few others from the “typical women's ghetto” of at-will “research associate and lecturer” jobs to the tenured ranks. By that time, the issue encapsulated in that book title was also absorbing her scholarly attention. A series of pioneering articles, books, and classes that followed did much to demolish the longstanding intellectual foundations of women’s marginalization and assumed inferiority and led, in a sense, to the academic world we know today.

Rebooting “computers”

In an agreeable coincidence, a new book published in the month of Hubbard’s death offers another fascinating view into the attitudes and opportunities that ruled science in Hubbard’s early years. In Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly presents the surprising and little-known history of the African-American “computers,” or female mathematicians, who played a pivotal role in some of this country’s signal technological achievements. (Last year, one of these remarkable women was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.) Hired to do on paper the complex calculations that undergirded the work of NASA and its bureaucratic predecessors, these women displayed technical prowess that violated not only the gender stereotypes that Hubbard attacked, but also the era’s racial stereotypes as well.

During World War II, labor markets tightened drastically as millions of men took up arms. Recruiters desperate for workers able to do essential technical tasks on the country’s aviation and weapons programs had to seek talent where they could find it, which forced them to ignore prevalent notions about gender and race. They turned to female math majors, including those whose degrees came from that segregation era’s black colleges. This history, Shetterly writes, provides a “doorway to the story of all the … women, black and white, whose contributions have been overlooked. By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their difference, but to fit in because of their talent.”

That pretty much describes Hubbard’s goal, too: to have women and the scientific work they do become—and be recognized as—normal components of the research enterprise. We’re not entirely there yet, but thanks to her work and that of others, women scientists are immeasurably closer to that goal.

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