What does sexism have to do with immunology?

Today we’re talking about gender, sex, biology, and immunology.

Leukemia treatment - immune system T-cells (center) binding to beads which cause the cells to divide
The immune system in action! Click for more details

News source: Real Clear Science, How Do Feminists Explain Immunology?

(Spoiler: feminists explain immunology the same way non-feminists do.)

The original science: In this case, I’m discussing a blog post that draws on a bunch of stuff, honestly. The author cites a review paper by Dr. Sabra Klein (Sex influences immune responses to viruses, and efficacy of prophylaxis and treatments for viral diseases) as his focal point, though.

I first saw this: On Fark.com. (Notice: this is a website for grown-ups. Even if it’s kind of a place where grown-ups go to act like kids.)

Helpful vocab:
feminist – someone who believes that there has been sexism/bias against women in society/institutions and works to end that (see Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog for a more comprehensive definition and conversation on feminism)

As a feminist biologist, when I say that men and women (and those who don’t identify themselves as either) are equal, I don’t mean they’re exactly the same in every way. I mean that they are exactly the same in their moral, social, and personal value, regardless of their DNA or their body. I don’t see any reason why a man who loves kids can’t stay at home to raise a family or a woman who loves welding can’t be a construction worker (to give some very casual examples), even though as a biologist I know that women and men will probably always have different world record times for the 100-meter dash.

Remember, even though the word equality makes us think of the word “equal,” and “equal” is used interchangeably with “identical” in math and science, “equal” and “identical” do not mean the same thing in discussions about people.

immunology – the study of the immune system, which you can think about as the way a living thing defends itself against damage from other living things.

review paper – Scientists produce several kinds of written work. A review paper is one in which one or more scientists will summarize what we know about an idea, often focusing on what has been learned “recently” (so, giving more time to stuff that we’ve learned in the past 5-10 years, not the past 50-100 years). Review papers normally talk about where scientists are going with their new research, too, and what questions remain to be answered.

Why this is news: Dr. Berezow seems to be saying that this is news because the review paper just came out. (I disagree. We’ll get to that.)

What I want to clear up:
Okay, let me get this out there: I identify as a feminist. This is a bias of mine, and I try to be honest about the things I can see as my own biases, to help keep me from letting that make my science wrong. I also studied the evolution of the immune system as part of my dissertation, including trying to understand sex differences in how animals respond to germs, so this is a subject that is of professional interest to me.

Here’s what I want to say about (1) sex and gender, and (2) the science of sex differences in immunology.

(1) When feminists say that “gender is a social construct”, what we mean is that what it means to be a girl or boy, or man or woman, isn’t something that automatically happens because of what’s in our DNA instructions. (Dr. Berezow quotes Simone De Beauvoir on this point.) When we talk about sex, we are talking about what does happen because what’s in our DNA instructions – and as a student of biology, I was taught that female organisms make egg cells and male organisms make sperm cells. (Things get much more interesting when you realize that there are some organisms that make both – like a lot of plants, or some worms – and there are a lot of organisms that don’t have anything like sperm or eggs, like bacteria and a lot of the phytoplankton we talked about earlier.)

As a feminist scientist, then, I use gender to talk about socially-shaped personality and sex to talk about what kinds of reproductive structures a body makes (or tries to make; turns out even sex isn’t 100% easy to define). So, statements like this one from Dr. Berezow frustrate me: “It is simply not possible to blame immune differences on socially contrived gender roles.” I would never say that! And I think his language was just broad enough to include me in a group of people he expects to say that. Seriously: it’s possible to believe that the DNA instructions for humans that make sperm cells make a different immune system than humans who make egg cells…AND that there is sexism operating in society. Including neurosexism.

Dr. Berezow’s post strikes me as being an argument against a straw feminist (see also: straw man). I don’t think he means it that way, but let’s be clear: Dr. Berezow straight up says that de Beauvoir ignored biology and never acknowledges that any other feminist has ever NOT ignored biology. By doing this, he’s, uh, sort of arguing against a point of view that doesn’t exist – hence my mention of the “straw man” logical fallacy.

Dr. Anne S. Jones
Pictured: Dr. Anne S Jones. Yes, women immunologists exist! Regardless of whether they are feminists!

Like any group of people, people who identify as feminists don’t agree on everything, so I’m sure there are feminists who think that studying the biological differences between men and women is a problem. Just…not anyone I happen to know, and not me, and this is my blog, so I get to tell you about my firsthand experience as both a feminist and a scientist. (I do not wish to commit a No True Scotsman fallacy here, particularly since I honestly think that there are feminists who disagree with me when it comes to how we study human biology.)

Also? Not so ago, we learned that men* (human adult males) and women (human adult females) have different symptoms when they have heart attacks, which is generally understood to be because doctors studying heart attacks studied men and not women. After that, feminists like me called for a more inclusive way of studying disease.

A brief digression: the book that Dr. Berezow mentions, the one by Cordelia Fine, was reviewed for PLoS Biology by Dr. Ben Barres. It’s an open-access journal, so you can read that review here. In addition to being a neuroscientist, Dr. Barres has particular insight into gender in science, as an openly trans* scientist.

A second digression: oh, yeah – Dr. Berezow mentioned the infamous speech by Dr. Lawrence Summers. When I read the transcript, what I saw was a speech written by a person who didn’t realize how poorly he chose to explain his thoughts; I found it to be in incredibly poor taste to say that white men are underrepresented in the NBA, for instance, given that the legacy of racism in the United States means that being a professional athlete has long been “acceptable” for black men in a way that is problematic. (I refer you to Maya Angelou‘s I know why the caged bird sings for a powerful anecdote about that. Chapter 23.) The major criticism I heard in the immediate backlash about the speech was that Dr. Summers’ speech was understood to convey that he had not, like, carefully thought about what had been presented during the preceding conference (read the Q&A in the linked transcript). It was and is NOT that he said something “politically incorrect” by saying “men and women are different,” as Dr. Berezow suggests, but that Dr. Summers – by using the words he did – dismissed the fact that many studies have found that when we change the way society treats women, we see changes in how women act (which, for women in science, was what the conference he gave this speech at was all about). (Geek Feminism Wiki Anita Borg Institute summary) I could go on about this in more detail, but that’s not what I want to focus on today.

(2) I said I’d come back to why I don’t think this is as newsworthy as Dr. Berezow’s tone would suggest. We’ve known about sex differences in response to infection for awhile. We know that the hormones that we associate with “being female” and “being male” seem to play a role in those responses, and that testosterone looks like it makes males less able to fight off infection. Review papers help us to think about what we’ve learned and I think this is a great topic to review, but really: if there’s enough science that has been published in professional journals that Dr. Klein could write a review means that this isn’t brand new science.

Dr. Brainiac’s scientific two cents:
The biological differences between sexes is fascinating! Currently, we think that testosterone actually makes men less well able to fight infections than women, who have estrogen in their bodies. More women tend to be diagnosed with autoimmune diseases – diseases where the immune system attacks the healthy parts of a person – but there isn’t an agreement as to why this is. I think the idea of the review paper, that maybe the fact that female bodies react more strongly to infection than male bodies and therefore female bodies are more likely to be attacked by their own immune systems, is an interesting proposition, and I’d love to see what other scientists find out if they try to ask that question.

And this has NOTHING to do with whether girls are good at math or boys should be able to play with EZ Bake Ovens.

Scientific questions I would ask next:
Let’s say that Dr. Klein, who wrote the review paper, was right, and that when female bodies get infected by germs, they respond so strongly that it means female bodies are more likely to be attacked by their own immune systems. My next question is whether there are differences between the level of immune system activity between men and women with the same autoimmune diseases, and whether we can for sure say that the immune system is more active in these men and women than in men and women without the diseases. Makes sense, right? In order for female bodies to be more likely to get this kind of sick, they have to behave differently when they get exposed to germs in the first place.

Final thoughts: Scientists are people. We get things wrong sometimes. We can be stubborn and we can do things without realizing it. I think that what Dr. Berezow discusses in his blog post isn’t really fair to the biology he talks about, or to feminism. A whole lot of us feminists support modern science. We believe that there are differences between male and female bodies – but we also believe that those differences don’t make a person less “good” than any other person, or that what someone’s genetic information says about them says, definitely 100% no doubt, that they can or can’t do something they enjoy or are good at. (I can’t stress this enough, which is why I’ve said it several times here!)

For what it’s worth, I think it’s totally worth talking about how the American political coalitions treat science, and to think carefully about how the American left wing isn’t as pro-science as it may claim or think (and how it doesn’t get called out on its lies and mistakes the way it should). After reading the excerpt of Dr. Berezow’s book on Amazon, I absolutely believe he’s got something important to say. I just happen to dislike and disapprove of the way he and his coauthor say it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. Berezow meant to be inflammatory in order to draw attention to his blog and/or his book.

This is a very big set of topics! I know we will have more conversational spaces devoted to social justice issues, scientific bias, and what it means to be human in the future.

* I am no expert on the trans* experience. I definitely believe that gender is a construct, and that biology is messy, so bodies that most people might say have a male or female sex/reproductive state aren’t all the same. I am aware that my discussion of sex differences in biology doesn’t cleanly make room for those who have identities that aren’t “man” or “woman.” Apologies if I have inadvertently said something inappropriate, and please let me know how to do better in the future. (back)

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