How sexist is Aristotle's developmantal biology?

Phronesis 52 (3):251-69 (2007)
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The aim of this paper is to evaluate the level of gender bias in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals while exercising due care in the analysis of its arguments. I argue that while the GA theory is clearly sexist, the traditional interpretation fails to diagnose the problem correctly. The traditional interpretation focuses on three main sources of evidence: (1) Aristotle’s claim that the female is, as it were, a “disabled” (πεπηρωμένον) male; (2) the claim at GA IV.3, 767b6-8 that females are a departure from the kind; and (3) Aristotle’s supposed claim at GA IV.3, 768a21-8 that the most ideal outcome of reproduction is a male offspring that perfectly resembles its father. I argue that each of these passages has either been misunderstood or misrepresented by commentators. In none of these places is Aristotle suggesting that females are imperfect members of the species or that they result from the failure to achieve some teleological goal. I defend the view that the GA does not see reproduction as occurring for the sake of producing males; rather, what sex an embryo happens to become is determined entirely by non-teleological forces operating through material necessity. This interpretation is consistent with Aristotle’s view in GA II.5 that females have the same soul as the male (741a7) as well as the argument in Metaphysics X.9 that sexual difference is not part of the species form but is an affection (πάθος) arising from the matter (1058b21-4). While the traditional interpretation has tended to exaggerate the level of sexism in Aristotle’s
developmental biology, the GA is by no means free of gender bias as some recent scholarship has claimed. In the final section of the paper I point to one passage where Aristotle clearly falls back on sexist assumptions in order to answer the difficult question, “Why are animals divided into sexes?”. I argue that this passage in particular poses a serious challenge
to anyone attempting to absolve Aristotle’s developmental biology of the charge of sexism.

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Devin Henry
University of Western Ontario


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