International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M280
Individual papers
Self, eugenics, and essentialism

From word to practice: Eugenic language in sterilization legislation (1905-1945)

Luke Kersten (Carleton University, Canada); Laura Davis (Queen's University, Canada)

Between 1905 and 1945, 31 states in the Untied States and 2 provinces in Canada enacted sterilization legislation. Over 70 statutes and amendments were enacted to guide, oversee and regulate sterilization practice, while over 16 distinct conditions were given as grounds for sterilization. Although excellent legal, historical, and philosophical scholarship has investigated the motives, causes and consequences of this legislation (Paul, 1995; Lombardo, 2008), little systematic work has been done analyzing the language of sterilization legislation. The present study attempts to fill this gap in the existing literature. Statistical analysis is conducted using multiple linear regression analysis. Several questions are explored: Is there a relationship between the regulatory procedures outlined in sterilization legislation and the different kinds of eugenic traits described? Is there a relationship between different categories of traits across legislation? Is there a core set of traits that persists in sterilization through time? In answering these questions, we look to add one more piece to the eugenic puzzle. We argue that part of what lies at the heart of eugenic thought and policy in North America at the beginning of the 20th century is a preoccupation with curbing traits seen as explicitly “mental”, and only secondarily those seen as physical and criminal. We further argue that this study provides support for recent theorizing about the role 'mental disability’ in eugenic history.

The self in scientific psychiatry

Serife Tekin (Daemen College, United States)

Mental disorders disrupt an individual’s relationship to herself, her social environment, and her physical environment, and thereby primarily concern the self – the dynamic, complex, relational, multi-aspectual configuration of capacities, processes, states, and traits that support a degree of agential capacity. However, the concept of the self is not included in the scientific investigations of mental disorders. One example of what I call the problem of the missing self in scientific psychiatry is the concept’s limited use in the last three editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (i.e., DSM-III, DSM-IV, and DSM-5; henceforth DSM-III+), a classification manual of mental disorders created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to be used as a guide for scientific research, and various clinical, forensic, and administrative services. The concept of the self was left out because of the conviction that its use will hinder psychiatry’s commitment to be scientific, because the self is neither readily observable nor measurable. This paper takes issue with this conviction and argues the concept of the self can be instrumentalized as a scientific target in psychiatry once it is enriched by contemporary cognitive sciences. In addition, once the traditional approach to objectivity as value neutral body of knowledge is replaced with alternative approaches where science is regarded as a social process, and objectivity, as a community’s negotiation of different values, it will be clear that the use of concept of the self is not an impediment to scientific psychiatry. In the first part of the paper, using historical and philosophical analysis, I trace the exclusion of the self as a scientific target in the classification of mental disorders in the DSM. I show that in an attempt to move away from the psychoanalytic framework, with the claim that the individual psyche is not a tractable scientific target, operationalism left out important self-related features of mental disorders from the scientific discussions. More specifically, the historical—narrative features of mental disorders and the phenomenology of the encounter with them have been neglected, presenting obstacles to the progress on the scientific inquiry into and clinical treatment of mental disorders. I then point out some work in cognitive sciences that illustrate how the self is scientifically tractable, thereby challenging the assumption made in DSM-III+. Note that my goal in this paper is not to develop a model of the self to be used in scientific psychiatry, nor to offer strategies as to how this model can be incorporated into the DSM, but rather, to deal with the presuppositions that prevented the use of the concept in scientific psychiatry.

Rejecting sex essentialism: Cases from biology

Eleanor Gilmore-Szott (University of Utah, United States)

This paper discusses the inappropriate application of essentialism to sex as a biological characteristic, and suggests that essentialism is ultimately unsuitable for biology in general. Sex is an intuitive example of Kripke’s application of origin essentialism in biology, however biological cases, such as intersex conditions and tetragametic chimerism, pose problems for both kind and individual essentialism. These biological cases demonstrate that sex is a spectrum with regards to genotype and phenotype, thereby making kind membership difficult to define. Additionally, sex is not necessarily fixed throughout the lifespan of an individual and so too individual essentialism fails. The cases discussed in this paper demonstrate that sex is not an essential characteristic, thus we must question if essentialism fails when more broadly applied to the field of biology.