07 May 2012

Paradigm Shift: In Action

Trade paperback, 311 pages
Published 2006 (originally 2005)
Acquired October 2011

Read January 2012
The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution
by Elisabeth A. Lloyd

Elisabeth Lloyd's book explains what she sees as a series of missteps in the study of female orgasm by adaptationists.  Many theories have been advanced to explain the existence of the female orgasm, and according to Lloyd, none of them-- not even the one generally accepted by the scientific community-- stands up to scrutiny of the evidence or the methodology.  But this one has gone largely unaccepted.

Though much of the book consists of Lloyd nitpicking people's explanations for female organsm (she is clearly not familiar with Joseph Harris's suggestion that academic writers be generous, but then many philosophers don't seem to be), it's a fascinating case study of the scientific method in action.  The middle chapters get pretty dull (and her tone gets very tiresome), but both the beginning, where she lays out her background, and the conclusion, where she explains what has happened and what should be done, are interesting.  And, admittedly, her explanation of why everyone else is wrong was pretty compelling to this layman.

In the conclusion, Lloyd lays out a challenge to evolutionary biologists, suggesting that "The history of evolutionary explanations of female orgasm is a history of missteps, misuse of evidence, and missed references. The case is still open, and it is ripe for some good scientific work" (257). Lloyd identifies the primary problem in this case as "bias," which she equates to the background assumptions made by the scientists working on the "problem" of female orgasm. I think, though, that this is not the giant flaw that Lloyd thinks it is, but a casebook example of Thomas Kuhn's paradigmatic science in action.

Lloyd identifies four problematic background assumptions in the work on female orgasm. The first of these is adaptationism, which is her term for "the presupposition that a trait that evolved served a particular adaptive function for the organism, and that is why it is present in the population" (229). The others are less obvious and more dangerous for that: androcentrism, which Lloyd defines as believing that male patterns also hold for females; procreative focus, the assumption that only procreative sex is evolutionarily significant; and the assumption of human uniqueness.

Lloyd's description of the problems of this background assumption of adaptationism is reminiscent of Kuhn's description of "normal science" in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. According to Lloyd, all researchers studying the female orgasm "routinely assume that the female orgasm is in fact an adaptation, because they are operating within a theoretical framework in which the most interesting traits are assumed to be adaptations" (230); according to her reading, Symons's byproduct account (which she favors out of all current theories, based on the current evidence) was rejected solely because it did not view the female orgasm as an adaptation. Lloyd's comment echoes Kuhn's description of the way scientists operating under a paradigm perceive the object of their research: "What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see" (113). Lloyd's adaptationists see adaptationism because that is the paradigm under which they are operating.

It is fairly clear that for most of the scientists Lloyd discusses, the female orgasm is a case of what Kuhn would call "puzzle-solving." The question these scientists have asked is always "how exactly female orgasm does increase reproductive success"; whether or not it does is largely unquestioned. Because the female orgasm researchers are operating in an adaptationist paradigm, they perceive themselves as already "knowing" that female orgasm is an adaptation; they need only to solve the puzzle of how that is so, and alternative lines of research are discouraged. This worldview, however, leads to the biases that Lloyd states cause scientists to ignore factual evidence if it does not fit their background assumptions.

It is important to understand that the case of the female orgasm is an example of Kuhnian normal science, because that very fact presents the resolution to Lloyd's problem. In discussing how paradigms shift, Kuhn says that "Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where the anomaly is later observed" (64). Awareness of an anomaly in the course of normal science takes time, but it does happen. After the awareness of an anomaly, where a scientist discovers that a theory does not fit observed facts, there is an exploration of an anomaly, and then a paradigm change so that the anomalous is expected. This is the process that will happen with research into the female orgasm-- and Lloyd herself has helped it along with the publication of The Case of the Female Orgasm. But change does not happen instantaneously, and Lloyd's book is only a step in that direction.

What makes Lloyd’s analysis of the case of the female orgasm particularly worth reading, however, is where it leads us to go beyond Kuhn, in the conception of what a paradigm is. According to Kuhn, a paradigm consists of "law, theory, application, and instrumentation together" (10). For Kuhn, "nonscientific" considerations do not seem to enter into paradigms. Despite a passing reference in the original text that factors such as autobiography, personality, and nationality can play a role in theory choice (153), Kuhn does not consider the kinds of values that Lloyd would call "social biases" to be part of a scientific paradigm

But it is clear from Lloyd's analysis that the social bias of androcentrism has had at least as much of an effect on the case of the female orgasm as the scientific background assumption of adaptationism. Just as anomalies generated by adaptationism will have to be noticed and accounted for to trigger a paradigm change, so too will the anomalies generated by androcentrism. This suggests that social biases can be part of a scientific paradigm, and that they too can blind scientists to data that does not fit their expectations as they go about puzzle-solving. Hopefully it also suggests that those anomalies can and will be accounted for by a new paradigm as soon as someone notices them-- which Lloyd has already done. There's a lot of nitpicking and disingenous comments, but even if I didn't enjoy reading all of it, it ought to help some scientist somewhere solve this "problem" in a better way.

All that said, I really hope to never read the phrase "uterine upsuck" ever again.  Gross.

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