Females in Aristotle’s Embryology

In Andrea Falcon and David Lefebvre (ed.), Aristotle’s Generation of Animals: A Critical Guide. pp. 171-187 (2017)
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How does Aristotle view the production of females? The prevailing view is that Aristotle thinks female births are teleological failures of a process aiming to produce males. However, as I argue, that is not a view Aristotle ever expresses, and it blatantly contradicts what he does explicitly say about female births: Aristotle believes that females are and come to be for the sake of something, namely, reproduction. I argue that an alternative to that prevailing view, according to which the embryo’s sex is determined solely by “non-teleological necessity,” also misrepresents Aristotle’s view. As I show, the explanation Aristotle gives is more sophisticated and less egalitarian than the alternative account allows: There is some sense in which males are, for Aristotle, the “default” result. I offer instead an interpretation that can accommodate the asymmetry between Aristotle’s biological account of the production of males and females, but which does not imply that females are thereby teleological failures. There is no doubt that Aristotle thinks females are inferior to males in many respects. However, if he thinks that inferiority is grounded in biological facts, it is not the fact that females are the results of a failure of form to be realized.
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