. 4
( 8)


distinguishing between plausible and implausible understandings, we
can only refer again to the standard that the hermeneutic circle sup-
plies in the unification of part and whole. What makes a particular
interpretation of a particular text illuminative of its meaning is the
way that the interpretation is able to fit the text™s parts into an inter-
locking whole. Doing so requires interpretive decisions about which
parts are crucial to the overall meaning and which are less important.
It may be that no interpretation of a particular text is able to give equal
weight to all of its facets. Instead, different interpretations cast light
and shadow on different aspects. Sedgwick™s interpretation of Sense
and Sensibility highlights the bedroom scene in which Marianne
writes to Willoughby with Elinor by her side. Noting that bedroom
scenes are somewhat rare in Austen™s novels,34 Sedgwick illuminates
the importance this bedroom scene has for understanding the novel
and helps us to see the whole of the novel in its terms. A different
interpretation might highlight the scene in which Elinor finally lashes
out at Marianne who has attributed her stoicism in the face of
Edward™s impending marriage to her lack of real depth in her feeling
for him. While Sedgwick™s interpretation has little to say about this
outburst, we might use it to advance a virtue-based interpretation of
the novel in as much as Elinor™s response stresses the importance of a
fidelity to the promises one has made over an easy emotionalism. The

Sedgwick, ˜˜Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,™™ p. 113.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 101

two different readings thus take different scenes to be more and less
important to the meaning of the novel as a whole. In doing so, each
highlights different elements and relegates others to the comparative
Nevertheless, giving different weights to different parts of a text
because these parts figure in different understandings of the whole is
not the same as failing to make sense out of the parts at all because
the whole in terms of which one tries to understand them does not
allow one to integrate them. Contrast the two interpretations of
Sense and Sensibility to Graham L. Hammill™s interpretation of
Caravaggio™s second ˜˜Sacrifice of Isaac,™™ for example.35 In Hammill™s
view, the painting presents an alternative to the ˜˜Pauline historiog-
raphy that would have us understand the origin of Christianity in a
conversion from Jewish carnality to Christian brotherhood.™™36
Hammill thinks that Caravaggio also offers us another conversion to
Christianity, one from ˜˜an erotic homosexual, pederastic, and anal
carnality.™™37 For Hammill, the ˜˜strikingly erect knife™™ that Abraham
is holding is the key to this meaning; in preventing Abraham from
bringing the knife down on Isaac, he thinks that the angel is pointing
to a substitution of European civilization for anal sex between
Abraham and Isaac. ˜˜This scene of pederastic anal sex is the social
fantasy that Caravaggio™s aesthetic assumes.™™38 However, this inter-
pretation fails to integrate its understanding of the ˜˜strikingly erect
knife™™ with other elements of the painting. For Hammill, civilization
is represented by a building in the background of the painting, behind
the figures of Abraham, Isaac, and the angel, that Hammil sees as the
beginnings of a modern city. Yet, why the standard interpretation of
the building as either a villa or a monastery is not more plausible he
never makes clear. More to the point, perhaps, it is difficult to see how
the angel can be pointing to it insofar as he directs his finger across
Abraham™s body not behind him and is presumably pointing towards

Graham L. Hammill, Sexuality and Form: Caravaggio, Marlowe and Bacon
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 87“89.
36 37 38
Ibid., p. 88. Ibid., p. 88. Ibid., p. 89.
102 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

the ram that he wants Abraham to substitute for Isaac. Finally, given
the positioning of Abraham with respect to Isaac in the painting it is
hard to see how anal sex should be part of the interpretation. Instead,
we must either re-think the physical possibilities for pederasty or
rethink the meaning of the knife. Hammill™s interpretation does
more than simply de-emphasize some parts of the painting in favor
of others. Sedgwick™s interpretation of Sense and Sensibility can
ignore Elinor™s outburst without making it unintelligible. Indeed, if
we take up Sedgwick™s interpretation of the point of the novel, we can
see this part of it as a depiction of the intensity of Elinor™s reaction to
being criticized by the one she loves. In contrast, Hammill cannot
make any sense of elements in Caravaggio™s painting, and this inabil-
ity counts against the plausibility of his interpretation of it.

How does thinking about textual interpretation help in thinking
about racial identities and identifications? Social constructionist
accounts of racial identities are interested in tracing the multiple
events, institutions, interactions, and introjections that make people
blacks, whites, and the like. Suppose we look, instead, at the condi-
tions for racial understandings. That is, suppose we ask not why or
how individuals become who or what they are, but instead simply who
or what they are. Instead of looking at mechanisms of racialization, in
other words, suppose we look at interpretations of racial meanings.
Interpretations of texts are interested in illuminating what they mean.
Interpretations of individuals are similarly interested in understand-
ing meaning.
If we can depend upon the conclusions we have reached in
examining textual interpretations, then our attempts to understand
who or what we or others are are always understandings within frame-
works and from particular perspectives. Who or what individuals are
depends upon the parts of which they are wholes, while the wholes
of which they are parts are composed of them and other parts.
Understandings of who we are thus move in circles. We understand
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 103

each other within wholes and understand the wholes in terms of how
we understand one another. Moreover, these circles are historically
rooted. In our attempts to understand one another we make use of the
particular frameworks for understanding people that are bequeathed
to us by the histories and traditions to which we belong. For us, these
include those frameworks that comprise the afterlife of the European
encounter with Africans and subsequent ideas for cheap labor. Our
heritage is therefore one that includes the Atlantic slave trade, the
institutions of slavery and segregation, the development and demise of
biologistic notions of race, and the civil rights movement and its
aftermath. Given this heritage, we cannot go back before the point at
which racial understandings of individuals became available to us any
more than we can go back before the point at which Freudian inter-
pretations of Hamlet became available. Instead, certain historical
interactions and entanglements allow for Freudian interpretations of
Hamlet and other historical interactions and entanglements allow for
racial interpretations of individuals.
These interpretations are no more limited by the intentions
of those we are trying to understand than our interpretations of texts
are by their authors™ intentions. An author writes a book to express
certain themes and ideas. Critics interpret the book and if their inter-
pretations are compelling, they become part of the text that sub-
sequent readers read “ Hamlet as, in part, the depiction of Oedipal
relations between son and mother, for example “ whether or not these
themes and ideas were part of the original author™s intentions. The
same holds of people. A person may act so as to express membership in
a certain cultural group and yet find him or herself on a slave ship
stacked up with people from different cultures and understood
by the slave traders as indiscriminately African or black. Those
Ashanti, Beruba, and so on who survived the Middle Passage became
slaves and came to possess the identity as African and black, first,
against their original self-interpretation but eventually as part of it.
After the Civil War, Du Bois wrote of his own somewhat similar
104 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys™ and
girls™ heads to buy gorgeous visiting cards . . . and exchange. The
exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer refused my card, “
refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me
with a suddenness that I was different.39

It was not part of Du Bois™ intention or original self-understand-
ing to be different. Nevertheless, the understanding the newcomer had
of him reconfigured the understanding he had of himself, just as new
approaches and new texts can reconfigure our understanding of
Hamlet. Moreover, just as Hamlet, with all the meanings it comes
to contain, offers us an interpretive framework for understanding and
thereby living in and creating our world so, too, do our understandings
of one another and ourselves. The little girl™s understanding of who Du
Bois was supplied him with an interpretive framework for understand-
ing and living his life. Not only did a racial interpretation of who he
was become available to him; as a psychological matter, he made this
identity fundamental to who he understood himself to be. He began to
live his life as a black and from the time of the visiting cards incident
on, he wrote, a veil shut him out from the white world of his class-
mates. So he held that world ˜˜in common contempt,™™ seeking only to
beat those classmates whenever he could:

At examination-time, or . . . in a foot-race, or even beat their stringy
heads . . . The worlds I longed for . . . were theirs not mine. But they
should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from
them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by
healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my
head “ some way.40

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. with an introduction by David W.
Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams (Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1997),
p. 38. Also see Robert Gooding-Williams, ˜˜Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy,™™
Constellations, 5 (1) 1998, p. 23.
Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, p. 38.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 105

When we understand Hamlet, we understand a different text
from the one that either Shakespeare or his original audience under-
stood. Similarly, what Du Bois understood when he looked at himself
after the visiting cards incident was a different ˜˜text™™ from the one
with which he began. And as it did for the person on the slave ship, this
new understanding helped to orient his future and was revised in light
of it. Lives move in hermeneutic circles in which we anticipate our
future in terms we take from our past and revise our understanding of
our past in light of the future we anticipate for ourselves. Moreover,
Du Bois™ story and countless others like it became part of the history
of race. In reading each other and ourselves as black, white, Asian,
Latino, or Latina, we are part of a historical tradition in which we
understand each other in terms of the history of which we are a part
and develop the historical tradition of racial interpretations in the on-
going interactions and entanglements in which our racial understand-
ing of one another participates.
To be sure, this historical hermeneutic circle raises the same
issue for racial identity that it raises for literature. For, if we under-
stand Hamlet in terms of its interpretive history and if this interpre-
tive history is already the afterlife of Hamlet itself, why is that
historical hermeneutic circle not a vicious one? Why do we not simply
understand Hamlet the way it has always been understood? This
question is of obvious importance for our racial understandings. We
want to know how we should understand ourselves and others but if
we cannot escape a historically ˜˜effected™™ answer to this question, an
answer the terms of which are dictated by our history, then what have
we achieved by looking at textual understanding? Do our understand-
ings of who or what we are not bring with them the failures, ideo-
logies, and biases of our racially produced world? If so, the move from
questions of identity and social construction to an account of under-
standing will have been of little help. Just as it is difficult to see how
we could unravel our constructions as raced individuals to move to
non-racialized constructions of identity, we will have to admit that we
retain racial meanings as part of a vicious hermeneutic circle.
106 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

The answer that we gave to this worry in the case of literary
interpretation stressed the multiple histories in terms of which
Hamlet is intelligible. There is not just one set of historical relations
or interpretive traditions from the point of view of which the play is
uniquely intelligible, just as there is not just one frame of reference
from which to understand the American Civil War. Instead, there are
countless historical sequences and contexts of concerns, events, and
issues in terms of which we can illuminate meaning. Different under-
standings of Hamlet develop by taking up different strands of thought
as their point of reference. The same holds for the identification of
who or what we and others are. We are not uniquely intelligible from
only one perspective or within one context of concerns, events, and
issues. If the meaning of Hamlet is not exhausted by a Freudian
interpretation and the meaning of Sense and Sensibility is not
exhausted by a queer interpretation, nor is the question of who or
what individuals are exhausted by a racial interpretation. Appiah™s
worry about the way in which identities can ˜˜go imperial™™ speaks to
this point.41 We can add to it the recognition that the multiple inter-
pretations we develop are valuable because and to the extent that they
illuminate the texts and people as parts of wholes. Just as Sense and
Sensibility is, in turn, a novel about virtue, onanism, and individual
rights, depending upon the context of concern, individuals are in turns
blacks, Red Sox fans, mothers, and Americans, once again depending
on the context of concern.
Of course, a critic might say that Hamlet is fundamentally a play
and that Sense and Sensibility is fundamentally a novel, no matter
how we understand what they are about. Similarly, one might say that
an individual is basically a black, white, Asian, or Hispanic, no matter
what else he or she is. She is a black Red Sox fan or a white parent. Yet,
we typically decide whether we need to attend to a text™s theatrical or
novelistic elements or whether we are interested in its themes, as we
understand them, apart from these elements. A critic might contend

Appiah and Gutmann, ˜˜Race, Culture, Identity,™™ p. 103.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 107

that one cannot understand Hamlet unless one understands it in its
theatrical dimensions. Critics have likewise argued that we need to
attend to the theatrical dimensions of Plato™s dialogs. Nevertheless,
these arguments remain ways of approaching Shakespeare and Plato
among a myriad of ways, none of which can plausibly claim to be
exclusive or exhaustive. Indeed, the usual response to a claim that we
can understand a text only as a play or as a novel is to show just the
way in which we need not, in which we can understand it as a
philosophical argument or a tableau. Furthermore, since we often
understand what a play or a novel is differently as well, it is unclear
that insisting that Hamlet is a play tells against pluralism in
Similar conclusions hold for understandings of individuals.
Take the parallel with the plurality of ways in which we can under-
stand what a play is. It may be that, for historical reasons, we can
intelligibly understand ourselves and others as blacks, Latinos,
Latinas, Asians, and whites. Yet, if insisting that Hamlet is a play
does not tell against pluralism in understanding, nor does insisting
that someone is a black or African American. One might be a black
from the perspective of a focus on one™s heritage or from the perspec-
tive of a focus on one™s color. Moreover, if one is understood as black
from the perspective of one™s heritage it may be either because all of
one™s ancestors can trace their lineage to sub-Saharan Africa, or because
only one can. Of course, it is precisely this pluralism in understanding
racial identity that allowed courts to prevent various kinds of immi-
grants from becoming naturalized citizens of the United States.
Immigrants could be denied citizenship rights for being non-whites
on a variety of understandings of whiteness: skin color, being
Caucasian, being European, or being what the founders must have
had ˜˜affirmatively in mind.™™ Nevertheless, the racist use of principles
of interpretive pluralism does not make the principles themselves any
less valid. Moreover, each of the understandings of whiteness that the
court used has problems of its own. It may be possible to understand
Elinor™s concern for Marianne as either sisterly virtue or illicit
108 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

passion. In contrast, very few individuals actually have skin that is
pearly white; the court itself admitted that Caucasian is a word ˜˜dis-
credited by most™™; being European is an odd criterion for whiteness
since Europe surely includes people the court would not consider
white; finally, determining what the founders had ˜˜affirmatively
in mind™™ raises all the issues surrounding intentionalism in
Moreover, if individuals can be blacks or African Americans in
different ways, they are not always either black or African American.
Sense and Sensibility has a different meaning within the context of
works on onanism than it does within the context of virtue ethics or
political changes in Iran, and the same holds for who we are. We have
different meanings or identities within different contexts as well and
are only white or non-white within particular contexts. Again, of
course, a particular nation can try to argue that citizenship forms a
whole of which questions of racial identity form coherent parts. Yet,
we can also use the variations to make a point: if individuals can be
understood in different ways from different perspectives, then the
insistence that they are ˜˜really™™ black or really white is both arbitrary
and dogmatic. Moreover, if that insistence leads to enslavement, seg-
regation, or a host of other actions, then those actions are themselves
nothing more than the arbitrary use of state power. Of course, we do
not need to refer to the interpretive character of racial identities to
show that slavery and segregation reflect the arbitrary imposition of
state power. Nonetheless, if social constructionists emphasize the
extent to which the contradictions of construction give license to
state institutions to impose whatever agendas they want, we can
also emphasize the extent to which acknowledging differences in
interpretation undermines any patina of legitimacy such state power
may pretend it has.
Dimensions of meaning come variously into light and darkness
in both textual understanding and in accounts of what and who we are.
Racial understandings of ourselves and others, then, are problematic
where they claim to be exhaustive of who we are, ˜˜go imperial™™ or
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 109

claim a necessary pre-eminence. Even if racial understandings are
sometimes legitimate accounts of who we are, their legitimacy is
limited to restricted contexts with restricted purposes. Nafisi illumi-
nates the drive for freedom in Austen™s novels but she does not illu-
minate all the meanings they possess nor does she exhaust the
different interpretive contexts in which the novels™ different mean-
ings arise. Similarly, even if we can often legitimately understand
people as ˜˜black™™ given the history of which we are a part, this under-
standing does not exhaust either their identities or the different con-
texts in which different identities emerge. Hence, to the extent that
racial understandings do attempt to monopolize who or what individ-
uals are they violate the conditions of understanding in general. They
obscure the equal status of other identities and identifications and
appear in contexts in which they make no sense because they cannot
be integrated with the particular context or whole in play. Racial
understandings are possible only on a non-dogmatic basis, one that
recognizes that the equal status of other identities as understandings
of who and what we are and that links racial identities not only to
particular histories but also, within those histories, to specific con-
texts of interpretation.
If the tendency of racial identities to ˜˜go imperial™™ is a miscon-
ception of the conditions of understanding in general, how do we
know precisely when they must cede ground to other identities?
How do we know when a particular interpretation of a text should
cede ground? In this latter case, we refer back to the hermeneutic
circle and to the capacity of an interpretation to integrate the parts of
a text into a unity of meaning. While many different interpretations
may succeed in integrating the parts in this way, interpretations that
fail to do so also fail as interpretations. Thus, while we may try to
understand the Abraham of Caravaggio™s ˜˜Sacrifice of Isaac™™ as an
about-to-be-reformed pederast, it not clear how we can integrate
this understanding with the rest of the painting. We can assess inter-
pretations of identities in the same way insofar as identities form part
of a larger text-analog. Take the practice of racial profiling. The
110 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

justification for this practice is the claim that identifying individuals
as blacks and Hispanics enhances the ability of law enforcement
officials to discover criminal activity. But these identifications as
often, if not more often, lead officials to violate the rights of law-
abiding citizens, to humiliate them at best, and to prosecute or kill
them for no reason at worst. Moreover, the identifications often lead
officials to overlook actual criminals who, because they are identified
as white, move below law enforcement radars. Placing racial identities
within a crime-fighting context thus issues in the same kind of contra-
diction as placing a pederastic Abraham within Caravaggio™s painting.
Viewing the painting as a whole as an illustration of the Pauline
substitution of Christian brotherhood for carnality and understanding
Abraham™s position in the painting as an immediate threat to Isaac
allows for the integration of part and whole. In contrast, in order to see
the painting as an illustration of the substitution of civilization for
˜˜homosexual, pederastic, and anal carnality,™™ we must overlook or
distort the position that Abraham has in it. Likewise, take the ˜˜whole™™
or context of fighting crime. If we view individuals within this context
as either engaged in suspicious activities or not, then part and whole
cohere. In contrast, if we understand individuals as blacks and
Hispanics within the same context it is difficult to see how whole
and part possibly can. The quip about ˜˜driving while black™™ aptly
captures just this incoherence.
Similar problems issue from understanding people as raced indi-
viduals in the context of fighting disease. Some medical scientists
have argued for the importance of racial identifications in this context
and have seen using them as a benevolent form of racial profiling.42
˜˜Blacks™™ or African Americans have been found to have higher rates of
heart disease, to respond differently than ˜˜whites™™ and other groups to
certain drugs, and to be susceptible to certain diseases to which whites
are not susceptible. Smoking in African Americans, for example, has

See, for example, Edwin J. C. G. Van Den Oord and David C. Rowe, ˜˜Racial
Differences in Birth Health Risk: A Quantitative Genetic Approach,™™
Demography, 37 (3), 2000, pp. 285“298.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 111

been linked to a higher incidence of lung cancer than smoking has for
other groups and it has been linked to cardiovascular disease, low birth
weight, and infant mortality, as well. One study associated these
higher risks of smoking with genetically lower capacities for metabo-
lizing nicotine.43 Yet, suppose in doing so the study misunderstands
who the individuals are, seeing a phallic symbol, as Hammill does,
where this meaning conflicts with the meaning of the whole? Tobacco
companies target poor people for sales of cigarettes high in tar and
nicotine. Moreover, doctors refer some patients with early-stage lung
disease for surgery and not others while in the United States many
people live in the sorts of degraded environments that may influence
metabolism.44 Hence, to claim that patients are black in the context of
lung disease is to overlook other possibilities: for instance, that in the
context of lung disease, patients are simply poor. Moreover, if the
identity that has lung disease is different, if it is poor people as opposed
to blacks, then the explanation may change as well. Indeed, since
biological variations do not flow along the patterns established by
sociocultural conceptions of race, a better explanation for the
increased health risks of smoking for some people might look to
impoverished living conditions and different levels of stress. The
insistence on racial identities is equally if not more dangerous for
medicine than it is for law enforcement since it can impede investi-
gation into more salient causes of disease such as behavior, degraded
environments, and poverty.
The history of research on asthma in the United States is a good
example of this danger. In a study undertaken in the mid-1960s,
researchers uncovered a two-and-a-half- to eight-fold increase between
1952 and 1962 in the number of visits for asthma presentations to four

Lynne E. Wagenknecht et al., ˜˜Racial Differences in Serum Cotinine Levels Among
Smokers in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in (Young) Adults Study,™™
American Journal of Public Health, 80, 1990, p. 1053. Cited in ˜˜The Meanings of
˜Race™ in the New Genomics: Implications for Health Disparities Research,™™ Yale
Journal of Health Policy, Law and Ethics Spring 2001, p. 55.
See ˜˜The Meanings of ˜Race™,™™ pp. 55“56.
112 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

hospitals in New York City.45 Two of these hospitals served primarily
minorities, African Americans at Harlem Hospital and Puerto Ricans
at Metropolitan Hospital. Excluding visits for trauma and childbirth,
one out of every four visits at Harlem Hospital was for asthma-related
problems while at Metropolitan Hospital one out of seven visits dealt
with asthma. All of the causes of asthma are still not known, but in
the 1960s many psychiatrists attributed it to deep-seated emotional
insecurities. They also thought that self-hatred was a common trait of
˜˜the black personality.™™ Putting the two together, researchers
explained the increase in asthma at the two hospitals as the effect of
the psychic damage induced by centuries of racial discrimination.
Moreover, they thought that the civil rights movement simply exa-
cerbated the problem, creating conflicts between what John
Osmudson of the New York Times called ˜˜hostile feelings and depend-
ent needs.™™ Because asthma was a reaction to psychological stress, it
was easy to see why it would ˜˜arise among members of racial minority
groups on whom civil rights activists focus.™™46
Yet, suppose the researchers had not assumed that asthma
patients should or could be identified by race as well as by illness? A
separate study examined the sensitivity of a group of New Yorkers to
the newly discovered cockroach allergen. The study found that many
more African Americans and Puerto Ricans tested positive to the
allergen than did members of other groups. Further, positive reactions
to the allergen corresponded to the severity of cockroach infestations
in housing. Some commentators promptly pointed to the sanitary
habits of poor, ethnic minorities as an explanation of these infesta-
tions. Nevertheless, a study of cockroach allergies in the Dominican
Republic found that they were far more prevalent in wealthy children.
Poor children lived in drafty wood frame homes with outdoor toilets

The information in this paragraph and the next comes from Greg Mitman™s,
Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes (New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press, 2007). The author was kind enough to let me read the
manuscript before the book was published.
John Osmudson, ˜˜Asthma Linked to Emotions,™™ New York Times, August 1, 1965,
p. 25, cited in Mitman, Breathing Space.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 113

and sinks. Rich children lived in well-built homes with tight masonry
construction, indoor plumbing, humidity, and an absence of air
exchanges, precisely the conditions in which cockroaches thrive.
These were also the conditions prevalent in the deteriorating housing
of Harlem. Leaky pipes, falling plaster, and rotting garbage left by non-
resident landlords in stairwells supplied the food, water, and humidity
that cockroaches needed. As it turned out, 63 percent of the people in
the cockroach study were also asthmatic. It is now known that some
asthmatic reactions are tied to allergies and, in particular, to allergies
to cockroaches, rather than race.
To be sure, one might argue that racial identities serve as useful
proxies for other identities for medical purposes. In other words, doc-
tors and medical researchers can identify individuals by race as rough
indices of possible susceptibilities while conceding that these suscep-
tibilities may stem from the fact that a higher percentage of the group
in question are the victims of degraded environments. Nevertheless,
even this ˜˜soft™™ application of racial understandings in medicine is
problematic. Not only can it reinforce ˜˜the ˜hard™ [biological] concep-
tualization of race,™™47 as on-going genetic approaches to asthma make
clear. In addition, a ˜˜soft™™ application can be disastrously misleading.
Asians, for instance, have been found to be one of the healthiest groups
in the United States. Nevertheless, individuals with Vietnamese
ancestry are five times as likely to contract cervical cancer as other
individuals.48 In this case, assigning racial identities to individuals
can serve to obscure health risks. ˜˜Soft™™ racial understandings can also
result in dangerous assumptions about who will or will not respond to
a certain drug, and why they do or do not do so. Researchers have found
that the glaucoma drug, Travatan, for example, works better for blacks
than it does for whites.49 Yet, if it does so because the etiology of the
disease differs for environmental reasons then directing the drug to
black populations mistakes the identities for whom the drug is

Reanne Frank, ˜˜The Misuse of Biology in Demographic Research on Racial/Ethnic
Differences: A Reply to Van den Oord and Rowe,™™ Demography, 38 (4), 2001 p. 565.
48 49
˜˜The Meanings of ˜Race™,™™ p. 44. Ibid., p. 57.
114 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

helpful. The identity that is part of the curative whole is that belong-
ing to people living under stress or in degraded environments, for
example, not that belonging to a certain race. Even the diagnosis of
diseases that are linked to heredity is risky when it proceeds by way of
racial identities since the ancestries relevant to a particular disease do
not always follow the lines we associate with these identities. Sickle
cell anemia, for example, is badly described as a black disease since it
is rare in the Xhosa of South Africa but found in southern India and the
Arab peninsula.50
In what contexts, then, do individuals intelligibly possess racial
identities? We might understand someone as a sports fan when sports
form the context of concern, when we want to discuss a game or go to
one, for instance. Similarly, we might understand individuals as
African American in the context of a discussion of plans for Kwanza
or as Irish American in the context of St. Patrick™s Day. One might
understand oneself and certain others as siblings with regard to family
gatherings or in discussion of issues such as nepotism. Likewise, one
might understand others and oneself as Africans, Europeans, or Asians
when discussing or emphasizing certain parts of one™s heredity or
upbringing. These contexts are personal or festive ones, limited to
certain sorts of conversation and certain occasions. Just as one might
be a left-hander in the context of learning to play golf, one might be an
African American or American black in the context of planning a trip
to Africa.
Another context in which racial identities and racial under-
standings of individuals remain intelligible, however, speaks to the
continuing difference, say, between St. Patrick™s Day and Martin
Luther King, Jr. Day. The historical consequences of understanding
individuals as African American in non-occasional and non-festive
contexts remain whereas the historical effects of understanding indi-
viduals as Irish American in non-occasional and non-festive contexts

See Amy Gutmann, ˜˜Responding to Racial Injustice,™™ K. Anthony Appiah and Amy
Gutmann, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 117.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 115

do not. The move to an incidentally Irish American identity required
only the dismantling of legal barriers in employment, education, and
the like. Because African Americans came to the United States as
slaves, because their segregation was wholesale, and because slavery
and segregation have on-going consequences for African American
wealth, income, education and opportunity, the move to an inciden-
tally African American identity requires extra steps. For this reason,
black or African American identities have an excuse for appearing in
contexts that would appear to have no interpretive room for them. We
arguably still need to target these identities within some interpre-
tively inappropriate contexts in order to analyze and to correct the
continuing disparities that issue from the ways they have historically
appeared in interpretively inappropriate contexts. The same arguably
holds for Asian, Latino, and Latina identities.
This conclusion leads to a thin form of a black politics of recog-
nition and a limited defense of racially targeted governmental policies
such as affirmative action. Tommie Shelby defends the former on the
basis of what he calls a thin black identity. Such an identity does not
depend on ˜˜thick™™ commonalities of ˜˜race,™™ ethnicity, culture, or
nationality. Instead, Shelby sees black identity as ˜˜a vague and
socially imposed category,™™ one that identifies people as blacks
under two conditions: either they ˜˜have ˜certain easily identifiable
inherited physical traits . . . and . . . are descendents of peoples from
sub-Saharan Africa™ or, although they do not possess or only ambigu-
ously possess these physical traits, they ˜are descendents of Africans
who are widely presumed to have had™ them.™™51 If one acknowledges
that human beings vary considerably in their physical traits and that
the family tree of any individual contains countless upper branches
and countless ways of tracing ancestry back to a putative beginning,
then a thin black identity becomes very thin indeed. Moreover, Shelby
does not think that black solidarity requires that one endorse even this

Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black
Solidarity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 207.
116 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

thin black identity or have any attachment to it at all. Instead, he
claims, black solidarity depends only on a ˜˜shared experience with
anti-black racism and [a] mutual commitment to ending it.™™52 Hence,
it might be that with regard to governmentally initiated policies such
as affirmative action in employment and education, a hermeneutic
integrity would suggest policies of strict racial neutrality: racial under-
standings of individuals can be no more easily integrated with educa-
tional and employment contexts than they can with crime-fighting
ones. Nevertheless, following Shelby, we can also acknowledge that
dogmatic and imperial uses of racial understandings led to the system-
atic exclusion of certain groups from important social institutions and
practices and that this exclusion was total, endured for centuries, and
had devastating consequences that still continue. Further, since racial
understandings were introjected or looped into self-understandings,
they resulted in demeaning and self-limiting life plans or ˜˜scripts™™ that
have themselves not yet entirely disappeared.
For these reasons, it is at least arguable that the legacy of histor-
ical discrimination cannot be corrected by restricting racial under-
standings to festive or ceremonial contexts alone. The French
experience would seem to support this point in as much as the race-
neutral path France has pursued has not resolved the problem of racial
discrimination and has, instead, led to violence, bitterness, and dis-
may. Taking France as a cautionary tale, we can defend Shelby™s thin
politics of recognition along with his important proviso that ˜˜the
physical and genealogical characteristics that constitute . . . thin
blackness, apart from the unjust treatment that they engender [need]
have no intrinsic significance for the members of the united oppressed
We can also defend minority preferences in college admissions
and employment with similar reservations. Minority preferences
reflect an interest in looking for eligible candidates beyond the boun-
daries that dogmatically racial understandings of individuals

52 53
Ibid., p. 237. Ibid., p. 237.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 117

established. Moreover, even where candidates have not themselves
been the victims of exclusion or have managed to overcome its con-
sequences on their own, such preferences provide new scripts and new
life-models for those who have been victims or have not been able to
overcome the legacies of discrimination on their own. Nevertheless,
given how uneasily racial identities fit within educational and
employment contexts, care is required here. It is surely appropriate
to ask whether affirmative action programs in employment and in
university admissions are the most efficient means for overcoming
racial discrimination. Given the small number of individuals they
help directly, and given the bitterness and consternation they elicit,
we might argue that we should look for other ways to equalize benefits
and burdens, such as improving public schools and equalizing the
funding for them.
We might also ask whether the context of university admissions
is the proper venue for redressing the consequences of racial identi-
fication. Diversity in college classrooms advances educational purpo-
ses since students and faculty learn from one another and learn from
their differences. Yet, students differ along many lines: they are violin-
ists, basketball players, Iowans, and Cambodians, conceivably all at
once. Moreover, all of these differences contribute to student and
faculty learning. Increasing or maintaining diversity reflects an educa-
tional purpose while correcting for historical injustice reflects a quite
different one. Social institutions that are interested in the diversity of
people who have access to them should be interested in diversity
across the wide spectrum of who and what we are. Social institutions
properly tasked with creating a more equal society should look at
those understandings of who and what we are, including racial under-
standings, that have contributed to our inequality.
Furthermore, even if our history renders it excusable to under-
stand people in terms of racial identities for purposes of employment
and college admissions, it does not follow that it is also excusable to
understand people in terms of these identities on the job or in college
classrooms. Where racial identifications lead educators to treat certain
118 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

students differently than others and to expect less of them than they
do of others, as some opponents of affirmative action suspect,54 then
the identities of these students have been misunderstood. Once in the
classroom, students are students not races, and they must be educated
equally. To the extent that understanding people as races is excusable
in contexts where doing so militates against the possibility of integrat-
ing part and whole, this excuse is limited to the purpose of struggling
against and redressing the inequalities that were caused by dogmatic
and monopolistic racial understandings in the first place. Insofar as
the crucial factor for black solidarity is experience with anti-black
racism where ˜˜black™™ refers to a presumption about ancestry, strictly
speaking, the identity at issue here is not a black identity but identity
as a victim of oppression due to theoretical assumptions about race. As
Shelby puts it, ˜˜Once a racially just social order is achieved, thin
blackness may in fact lose all social and political significance.™™55

Racial identifications and identities are ways of understanding who
and what we and others are. There are many such ways. Our under-
standing of Hamlet or Sense and Sensibility is historically informed,
non-dogmatic, and non-exhaustive. It contains within it various
entanglements of the text with other texts and different concerns.
Even when we think that our understanding is illuminating and
important, we do not think that it is the only possible way of illumi-
nating the text or showing its importance. Instead, we think it illumi-
nates the text from within a specific horizon. In addition, we look
forward to other interpretations and other views of the text. We want
to know what they understand in the text that we might have over-
looked and we want to see it illuminated from various different vant-
age points. Our understandings of others or ourselves as Red Sox fans

See, for example, Charles Murray, ˜˜Affirmative Racism,™™ in Nicolaus Mills, ed.,
Debating Affirmative Action: Race, Gender, Ethnicity and the Politics of Inclusion
(New York: Delta Books, 1994).
Shelby, We Who Are Dark, p. 238.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 119

and siblings follow in these paths: they contain all the historical trials,
tribulations, and triumphs entwined with the identities; they take
themselves to be partial understandings of who certain individuals
are and they leave room for other understandings and other vantage
points. We do not assume that understanding someone as a Red Sox
fan or an Irish American will help to solve a crime or assess qualifica-
tions for a job. Nor is it an identity we mark on the US census or our
drivers™ licenses.
These conditions of understanding require the same recognition
of the limits of our understandings of one another in racial terms. We
must acknowledge the conditions of their possibility in a particular
history; we must take them to be no less partial and no more funda-
mental accounts of who people are than accounts of people as Red Sox
fans or siblings, and we must allow for numerous other possibilities of
identity and identification. If the question of whether someone is Irish
comes up only infrequently, with reference only to certain concerns or
activities, the same must hold of our understanding of one another
as black, white, Hispanic, or Asian. Like the former, the latter is only
an occasional understanding, one that is illuminating only within
limited contexts. While these contexts currently include the remedia-
tion of past injustices and do so only with some violation to the
integrity of part and whole, by recalling the conditions of understand-
ing we can work towards the time at which these contexts will include
only celebrations and personal settings. In chapters 4 and 5, I want to
argue that the same holds of our understandings of one another in sex
and gender terms.
Sex and science

As coherent ways of understanding who we are, our racial identities
are historically rooted and situationally limited. Yet, the analogous
idea for our identities as women and men seems to be quite implau-
sible. We have seen that the features that determine which sex one is
can be as arbitrary as the features that determine which race one is.
Nevertheless, since the division of human beings into two sexes is at
the root of our form of sexual reproduction, that division would seem
to be less arbitrary than the division of human beings into a set of races.
Indeed, insofar as human history has the reproduction of the species
as its prerequisite, sex identities would seem to be quite different from
identities and identifications that result from history, such as racial or
national identities. Instead, sex identities would seem to form the
condition for our having a history at all.
Furthermore, if evolutionary psychology, one branch of behav-
ioral ecology that studies human beings, is correct, the role that sexual
reproduction plays in human evolution means that the characteristic
traits and proclivities of the two different sexes just follow. Hence,
gender as well as sex is arguably less situational than other identities.
Race cannot be found in our genes even if, as Armand Marie Leroi
insists, groups can be distinguished from one another insofar as they
each possess a set of genetic variants in common that ˜˜are collectively
rare™™ in the other groups.1 For the problem for any given individual
or set of individuals is to decide whether they are rarities. Yet, our
identities and identifications as men and women or males and females
would seem to be quite different. As Naomi Zack puts the point: ˜˜The

Armand Marie Leroi, ˜˜A Family Tree in Every Gene,™™ New York Times, March 14,
2005, p. A23.
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 121

sexual identification paradigm is objective or real in a scientific way
while the racial parts of clusters of racial traits are solely ˜in the
Lines of research other than evolutionary psychology appear
to confirm this view. Studies of intelligence and the brain examine
the differences that follow from our evolutionary development
with regard to the structure and functioning of male and female
brains, while endocrinology looks at hormonal differences. Such
differences seem to indicate that sex and gender are not simply theo-
retical commitments. Instead, they pervade our bodies in precisely the
way that race does not. Consequently, in contrast to identifications
and identities of individuals in racial terms, identifications and iden-
tities of individuals in sex and gender terms would seem to be non-
historical, non-perspectival, and non-incidental to who we are. We
are sexes and genders in a global and non-contextual way that we are
not races.
Certain versions of psychoanalytic theory may seem to present
a further challenge to any attempt to ˜˜de-center™™ identifications and
identities as men and women. If Juliet Mitchell is correct, ˜˜No human
being can become a subject outside of the division into two sexes.™™3 As
a Lacanian, Mitchell claims that psychoanalysis cannot make a dis-
tinction between what she calls ˜˜biological gender™™ and ˜˜socially
defined sex.™™ Yet, if we must be socially defined sexes (more usually
called genders) and if socially defined sex cannot be stripped of bio-
logical gender (more usually called sex), then no way of parsing psy-
choanalytic theory would allow us to curtail or incidentalize our
identities as men, women, males, or females. If we are to be subjects
at all, we must be sexed and gendered ones, and if we are not subjects,
what are we?

Naomi Zack, ˜˜Race and Philosophical Meaning,™™ in Naomi Zack, ed., Race/Sex:
Their Sameness, Difference and Interplay (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 37.
Juliet Mitchell, ˜˜Introduction “ I,™™ in Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, eds.,
Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne, trans. Jacqueline
Rose (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 6.
122 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

Nevertheless, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory presents less of a
challenge to a pluralistic and interpretive account of identity than the
˜˜harder™™ sciences of evolutionary biology, endocrinology, and the
brain. As Mitchell construes it, Lacanian theory stresses the extent
to which ˜˜subjectification™™ is also sex and gender construction and, in
Lacanian terms, therefore involves the imposition of power in the
form of the ˜˜castration complex.™™4 At the same time, Lacanians also
emphasize the extent to which identity as a man or a woman (and,
therefore, a subject) is precarious because of its origins in fantasies
having to do with the child™s relation to its mother, father, and lan-
guage itself. This emphasis provides theoretical room for a more
protean account of identity, for it leaves open the possibility that
who we are depends upon the context in which we are trying to
function. Moreover, psychoanalytic theories typically understand
the elements of the fantasies it explores as constructs that have their
point in the clinical situation. The notions of the castration complex,
repression, and incestuous desire have their utility only in the capacity
to provide a structure for illuminating individual life-histories.5 While
sex and gender identities and identifications may be important modes
of ˜˜subjectification™™ for purposes of coming to terms with our life-
history within a therapeutic situation, it is not self-evident that they
are always important outside of it. For both reasons, then, Mitchell™s
view is compatible with an interpretive and pluralist view of our
identities and identifications as men and women.
In contrast, sciences such as evolutionary psychology, endo-
crinology, and neuroscience make more essentialist claims.
Evolutionary psychology claims that the two human sexes serve as
bedrock explanations for a series of human characters and behaviors
linked to evolutionary success. Sciences of the brain declare that
differences in the brains and intelligences of men and women are
equally explanatory. Indeed, some maintain that they condition

Mitchell, ˜˜Introduction “ I,™™ p. 14.
See, Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (Boston, MA: Beacon Press,
1971), p. 260.
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 123

many of the social differences that many feminists would like to
overcome. Finally, some endocrinologists arguably make even more
out of male and female differences. In this chapter, I do not intend to
dispute differences between men and women or, at least, between
males and females. Rather, I am interested in what meaning they
have, and from what point of view. In specific terms, I want to ask
whether we need to put males and females at the crux of our evolu-
tionary history and what is behind the interest in male and female
differences. My goal here is to clear the brush, as it were, for the
pluralist account I shall offer in chapter 5. I shall begin by quickly
reviewing the standard evolutionary account, or at least the one that
has captured the popular imagination.

Behavioral ecology famously begins with the idea of ˜˜selfish genes™™ or,
in other words, with the idea that the genes that ˜˜get themselves
copied into more and more individuals will be the genes that prevail
and persist through time.™™6 Since ˜˜those of us alive today are the
descendants of those who successfully survived and reproduced in
past environments,™™7 whatever genes proved to be successful in the
evolutionary situation will be the ones we continue to possess today.
To be sure, in species that reproduce sexually only a part of an indi-
vidual™s genetic material can be duplicated in his or her offspring.
Nevertheless, sexual reproduction is more efficient for genetic sur-
vival than is non-sexual reproduction because it produces variable
offspring that have a better chance of surviving in changing environ-
ments. Moreover, while sexual reproduction does not always involve
just two different sexes in all species, behavioral ecologists argue that
a division into two is optimally efficient because it allows for just the
right division of labor. Bobbi S. Low explains, ˜˜Reproducing in sexual
species requires two quite different sorts of effort: getting a mate

See, for example, Bobbi S. Low, Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human
Behavior (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 19.
Ibid., p. 21.
124 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

(mating effort: striving to gain resources or status, getting mates), and
raising healthy offspring (parental effort such as feeding, protecting,
and teaching offspring).™™8
In order to explain this bifurcated division of labor in at least a
relatively perspicacious way, Low tells a story that begins with a
floating population of ˜˜something like jellyfish . . . reproducing by
releasing into the sea haploid gametes, each carrying half the adult
number of chromosomes.™™9 These gametes are of different sizes, rang-
ing from very small to very large, but each must unite with another
gamete in order to form a zygote. The smaller gametes will need to
expend less effort to move than the larger ones and will therefore move
fastest and farthest in the ocean currents. The larger gametes will have
the resources to live longer and to contribute to better-endowed
zygotes. Over time, then, mid-sized gametes will be likely to die out.
The smaller gametes, who can travel further more quickly, will come
into contact with more additional gametes and will therefore be better
favored for contributing to a greater number of zygotes while the larger
gametes will be better favored to contribute to well-endowed ones.
Moreover, natural selection will favor any behavior by the gamete
carrier that enhances the advantages of its gametes. Hence, because
the tasks of ˜˜seeking™™ and ˜˜nurturing™™ are so different, carriers will
specialize in producing either small or large gametes but not both:

The only advantages to a small gamete are that it gets there faster
and is energetically cheap . . . The only advantage to a large gamete
is its contribution to a healthy well-endowed competitive zygote.
So typically it is more profitable for a single individual to make “
and promote the success of “ only one of the two gamete types. This
pattern . . . is so ubiquitous that, without thinking about it, we tend
to call small gametes ˜˜sperm™™ and small-gamete-makers ˜˜males,™™
and to call large gametes ˜˜eggs,™™ and large-gamete-makers

8 9
Ibid., p. 38. Ibid., p. 38. What follows is distilled from chapter 3.
Ibid., p. 39.
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 125

Males can produce large numbers of sperm countless times over.
For them, therefore, the task of inserting their genes into the next
generation favors mating as often as possible. However, because in
mammals gestation takes place within the body of the female, mating
many times over when already pregnant will have no effect on genetic
survival. Thus, while sperm-producing males are interested in mating
with as many egg producers as possible, egg-producing females look for
quality in mating opportunities rather than their quantity.11 It follows
that females will be coy and choosy and males relatively indiscrimi-
nate. In human beings, these differences are universal, Robert Wright
insists, ranging from Western cultures to the Trobriand Islands. He

If we accept even the three meager assertions made so far “ (1) that
the theory of natural selection straightforwardly implies the ˜˜fit-
ness™™ of women who are choosy about sexual partners and of men
who often aren™t; (2) that this choosiness and unchoosiness,
respectively, is observed worldwide; and (3) that this universality
can™t be explained with equal simplicity by a competing, purely
cultural theory “ if we accept these things, and if we™re playing by
the rules of science, we have to endorse the Darwinian explanation:
male license and (relative) female reserve are to some extent

Additional male and female dichotomies follow according to the
standard evolutionary account. Because each male increases the chan-
ces of his genetic survival by mating with as many females as possible,
each is forced to compete with other males who are trying to increase
the chances of their genetic survival in the same way. Hence, the
males of a species will develop those features that allow success
both in competition against other males and in winning the favors of
the choosier females. Males will thus tend to develop showy displays

See Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Evoutionary Psychology and Everyday Life
(New York: Vintage Books Edn., 1995), p. 36.
Ibid., p. 46.
126 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

such as decorative tail feathers, to grow larger than the females, and to
produce weapons such as antlers to use against other males. They can
also make themselves attractive to females by offering resources.
Wright connects resource provision in apes and human beings to the
relatively high parental investment that the males of these species
have in their children. Since the biology of female mammals limits the
number of times they can reproduce, not only are they less interested
in greater numbers of mating opportunities, they also possess a rela-
tively high degree of parental investment in each offspring both before
and after birth. The parental investment of males before birth is nil
since the production of sperm is so easy. Yet, after birth, the relative
helplessness of their infants means that the males of human and ape
species have a higher parental investment than males of other species.
If those children are going to survive at all, human and ape males have
to help provide for them.13 Male parental investment still tends to lag
behind that of females because males retain greater opportunities for
insuring their genetic survival. Still, a male™s ability and willingness
to provide resources to his offspring both accounts for female choices
in selecting partners and leads to characteristic traits: females select
males for mating who can provide and are willing to share resources;
males therefore try to show that they can provide more resources than
others, by showcasing their wealth, status, or power.
While females want resource providers, males want females
who are healthy, young and not currently pregnant, although capable
of becoming pregnant.14 In human beings, health is indicated by lus-
trous hair and clear skin; youth is indicated by a lack of wrinkles and
sags; and the state of being both not-pregnant but young enough to
become pregnant is signaled by a narrow waist or a low waist-to-hip
ratio. Since possession of these attributes facilitates getting a mate,
women strive to attain and manufacture them artificially, through
clothing, cosmetics, adornments, and even operations.15 Low thus
argues that traditional differences in male and female preferences

13 14 15
Ibid., pp. 57“60. Low, Why Sex Matters, p. 80. Ibid., pp. 83“87.
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 127

continue to hold into the present: ˜˜Women rank men™s ability to get
resources high, and men rank women™s youth and health high.™™16
What are we to make of this standard story? Wright insists that
we play ˜˜by the rules of science™™ and Low claims that behavioral
ecologists begin at the beginning: with ˜˜simple conditions that are
conducive to analysis.™™17 Nevertheless, it is worth noting, although
certainly not for the first time, how closely the standard account
tracks obvious stereotypes.18 Indeed, Low™s account of the sedentary
character of large egg producers largely reproduces the demand that
nineteenth-century medicine made of women. Its view seemed to be
that sitting was a good idea for women, at least during their childbearing
years since they needed to preserve their energy for menstruation,
pregnancy, and lactation. Physicians therefore advised women to
perform no strenuous activity lest they jeopardize their ability to
bear and nurture healthy children. Climbing more than two flights
of stairs during menstrual periods was dangerous; long walks could
produce unhealthy degrees of fatigue; and any form of higher educa-
tion risked depriving the reproductive organs of the necessary ˜˜flow of
power,™™19 no doubt issuing in sickly, sallow children. In 1877 the

Ibid., p. 79. See also Wright, The Moral Animal, p. 60 and Deborah Blum, Sex on the
Brain: The Biological Differences between Men and Women (New York: Penguin
Books, 1998), p. 122. In some species, males develop decorations such as brightly
colored feathers to attract females. Many evolutionary theorists argue that the
presence of frivolous ornaments signals honesty in genetic contribution: if a male
can survive with ornamentations that seem to reduce his swiftness or ability to
compete, the fact that he can survive at all indicates the superiority of his genes and
makes him attractive to females.
Low, Why Sex Matters, pp. xiii“xiv.
See, for example, Marlene Zuk, Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can™t Learn
about Sex from Animals (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002, http://
ark.edlib.org:/13030/kt0v19q0bp/) pp. 9“10.
See Colette Dowling, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality
(New York: Random House, 2000), pp. 15“20. Recent textbooks have reversed the
nineteenth century™s view of the processes of sperm and egg production. Whereas
the nineteenth century thought menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth required
that women reserve all their minimal strength for these tasks, more recently it is the
production of sperm that seems more onerous while menstruation is debris and the
production of eggs is all over at birth. ˜˜Far from being produced, as sperm are, they
merely sit on the shelf, slowly degenerating and aging like overstocked inventory™™
(Emily Martin, ˜˜The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance
128 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

Regents of the University of Wisconsin therefore supported a lighter
course load for women:

Every physiologist is well aware that at stated times, nature makes a
great demand upon the energies of early womanhood and that at
these times great caution must be exercised lest injury be done . . . .
Education is greatly to be desired but it is better that the future
matrons of the state should be without a University training than
that it should be produced at the fearful expense of ruined health;
better that the future mothers of the state should be robust, hearty,
healthy women, than that by over study, they entail upon their
descendants the germs of disease.™™20

Yet, while Low™s account of egg producers echoes nineteenth-
century medical views of women, her account of sperm producers
seems to come straight from a country and western song. Small gam-
ete producers are rootless, iterant and promiscuous, leaving a pregnant
girl in every town. Perhaps these similarities confirm Low™s analysis:
nineteenth-century physicians and twentieth-century songwriters
accurately express our evolutionary heritage. Yet, given developments
in medical ideas since the nineteenth century and given the parochial
nature of country and western songs, it seems at least as likely that
evolutionary psychologists have written historical ideas about sex and
gender into their accounts of elementary conditions. We might won-
der if there are not other vantage points to take on our evolutionary
history. Are there ways to conceive of sexual selection that do not
involve coy women and promiscuous men?
As Marlene Zuk points out, even biologists who continue to
accept female choice as a crucial part of sexual selection mostly reject

based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles,™™ in Feminist Theory and the Body, Janet
Price and Margrit Shildrick, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 180.
Quoted in Carol Smith-Rosenberg and Charles Rosenberg, ˜˜The Female Animal:
Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century
America,™™ in Woman and Health in America, Judith Walzer Leavitt, ed. (Madison,
WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), p. 16. Smith-Rosenberg and Rosenberg
note that female physicians tended, not surprisingly, to disagree with this
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 129

the idea that females are therefore coy. Instead, ˜˜evidence from
insects, birds, primates and other organisms . . . suggests that females
often mate many times, with many different males.™™21 The prima-
tologist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy agrees. Chimpanzees, for example, live
in relatively separate groups policed by bands of related males.
Despite the fact that females cannot increase their reproductive suc-
cess through promiscuity a female chimpanzee, according to Hrdy
˜˜mates on average 138 times with some thirteen different males for
every infant she gives birth to.™™22 In one group of chimpanzees studied,
over half of the infants had fathers who did not belong to the group,
supporting the view that female chimpanzees “ and female baboons
and Barbary macaques as well “ are every bit as promiscuous as their
male counterparts are meant to be. On the other hand, the biologist
and evolutionary theorist, Joan Roughgarden suggests that males may
not be as promiscuous as advertised. Male rhesus monkeys, baboons,
and lion tail macaques reject the females of their respective species on
a regular basis and Roughgarden hypothesizes that they do so because
sex has implications. ˜˜Mating is a public symbol. Animal ˜gossip™
ensures that everyone knows who™s sleeping with whom. Therefore
mate choice, including male mate choice, manages and publicizes
relationships.™™23 Men, then, are as choosy as women. Sexual inter-
course is not any ˜˜cheaper™™ for them than it is for females.
If we must rethink the standard story of promiscuous males and
coy females, we might also rethink the story about resource provision.
In the account that evolutionary psychology offers, the biology and
physics of gamete production is supposed to encourage specialization
in either producing off-spring or providing for them. Conversely, it is
simply inefficient for one gamete producer to try to do both. Hence,
Low minces no words in declaring different male and female

Zuk, Sexual Selections, pp. 9“10.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the
Human Species (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), p. 85.
Joan Roughgarden, Evolution™s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in
Nature and People (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), p. 170.
130 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

preferences in a mate: what men want is ˜˜virtually universal™™ and it is
women who are ˜˜healthy, young, not-pregnant™™; what women look
for in men, on the other hand, are ˜˜signals of resource control.™™24
Nevertheless, alternative evolutionary accounts give a more active
and important role than Low does to the resource-securing capacities
of the women of the evolutionary period. Some suggest that women
provided up to 70 percent of their families™ nutrition, in part through
their ˜˜gathering™™ activities but also in hunting and trapping both small
and large game.25 While men apparently did most of the large-game
hunting, the nutrition they supplied by doing so was unreliable,
dependent on the hunt™s success and widely dispersed to the commun-
ity at large rather than to their own families.
Take the Hazda of Northern Tanzania. The research team of
Kristin Hawkes, James F. O™Connell, and Nicholas G. Blurton Jones
found that ˜˜mean time allocation to most activities is similar for
childbearing-aged women and adult men, the only significant differ-
ence being that women do more food processing.™™26 They also found
that individual male hunters failed 97 percent of the time. Indeed, by
tracking large game only, ˜˜the hunter routinely forgoes opportunities
to supply a steady stream of small prey to his household.™™ In contrast,
˜˜If he gathered plant foods, he could provide even more calories to his
own family.™™27 Hawkes, O™Connell, and Blurton Jones conclude that
women™s foraging rather than male hunting ˜˜differentially affects
their own families™ nutritional welfare.™™28 Even if this conclusion
fails to give enough credit to large-game hunters, it hardly constitutes
a reason to minimize female contributions in the evolutionary

Low, Why Sex Matters, p. 83.
See Heather Pringle, ˜˜New Women of the Ice Age,™™ Discover, April 1998, pp. 62“66.
Also see Natalie Angier, Women: An Intimate Geography (New York: Anchor
Books Edn., 2000), p. 244.
K. Hakes, J. F. O™Connell, and N. G. Blurton Jones, ˜˜Hadza Women™s Time
Allocation, Offspring Provisioning and the Evolution of Long Postmenopausal Life
Spans,™™ Current Anthropology, 38 (4), 1997, p. 557.
27 28
Ibid., p. 573. Ibid., p. 573.
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 131

situation. Women were no worse providers than men. In fact, they
may very well have been better.
Hawkes, O™Connell, and Blurton Jones did find that while a
Hazda mother™s foraging is the most important factor in determining
her children™s nutritional welfare, when she has a very young new-
born, the time she can spend foraging and, further, the efficiency with
which she forages, decreases.29 The people who step in to help with
the nutrition of the older children, however, are typically not men but
grandmothers. If grandmothers are not available, then it is older aunts
and cousins who step in. Hawkes, O™Connell, and Blurton Jones argue
for an evolutionary explanation for this help. The assistance that
grandmothers and older women without young children offer means
that their daughters and younger relatives can wean their babies ear-
lier, produce more babies more quickly, and thereby increase the
probability of some of the older women™s genes surviving into subse-
quent generations. In her work, Hrdy adds a further thought. Because
of the help that those she calls ˜˜allomothers™™ offered, recently weaned
children in the evolutionary period did not have to be independent.
And because their grandmothers and older aunts continued to provide
for them, they could enjoy a longer childhood and period of depend-
ency than most animals, one that allowed human brains to continue
to grow and develop. Hrdy does not think long human childhoods
can be fully explained by the opportunity they allow for this brain
development: ˜˜The reproductive benefits of being a little bit smarter
would have had to be tremendous in order to offset the obvious costs
of taking a long time to mature.™™30 If, however, the resource provisions
of post-menopausal women already allowed for long childhoods,
then the costs of developing brains could be initially much smaller.31
According to this story, then, grandmothers are the evolutionary
motor behind human intelligence.
If Hrdy and Hawkes, O™Connell, and Blurton Jones are correct,
we need not look at mating proclivities and resource provision in

29 30 31
Ibid., p. 559. Hrdy, Mother Nature, p. 287. Ibid., pp. 284“287.
132 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

either sex or gender terms. Individuals of many species are circum-
spect about sexual intercourse and parents and older relatives together
provide for their young. Indeed, it might be more illuminating to focus
on those who are not producing children than on those who are, since
the former arguably provide for human intelligence, healthy children,
and genetic survival. Moreover, updating the ˜˜grandmother hypothe-
sis™™ (which Hrdy calls the ˜˜grandmother™s clock hypothesis™™32) does
more than merely provide an evolutionary explanation for menopause
and human intelligence. It provokes a second set of questions. Until
recently, medical science pathologized menopause and advocated hor-
mone replacement therapy as a means of coaxing women™s bodies to
function as if they remained childbearers. Hawkes, O™Connell, and
Blurton Jones point out, however, that human beings are fertile on
average for as long as other primates are: namely, for about thirty
years. What needs to be explained, then, is not the early termination
of fertility in human beings but the longer life spans that human
beings possess. But then the question arises as to whether individuals
or evolution itself are adequately understood in terms of a division
between egg carriers and sperm carriers. Is it not because certain
human beings are conceived of primarily as egg carriers and in terms
of their parental effort that the question arises as to why they live on
when they no longer bear or rear children? Would anyone ever have
thought such individuals needed dangerous hormone replacement
therapy after menopause if they had not been defined fundamentally
and primarily as egg carriers?
Perhaps we should throw out the entire theory of sexual selec-
tion. Roughgarden thinks that we should because it cannot account
for the amount of same-sex sexuality in fish, birds, animals, and even
some species that reproduce asexually. Yet even if we draw back
from abandoning the theory of sexual selection entirely (since it
follows from the theory of natural selection) we can admit that
mating has purposes in addition to reproduction. Indeed, accounts of

Ibid., p. 285.
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 133

homosexuality in primates go back to the 1970s.33 Scientists have
offered ninety-four descriptions of homosexual behavior in bird spe-
cies, over one hundred accounts in mammalian species, and substan-
tial evidence of same-sex matings in dolphins, whales, and manatees.
Roughgarden draws two theoretical consequences from these
accounts. First, we must allow for the possibility that secondary sex
characteristics such as showy tail feathers are as much about attrac-
tiveness to the same sex as they are as attractiveness to the opposite
sex. Here she cites Zuk, who notes in passing that the bonobo clitoris
may be in the front of its body ˜˜because selection favored a position
maximizing stimulation during the genital“genital rubbing common
among females.™™34 Second, we must admit that mating has a wider
function than simply conjoining sperm and egg. Rather than being
directly connected only to the production of offspring, both homo-
sexual and heterosexual mating contributes to what Roughgarden
calls ˜˜social inclusion.™™35
The contribution is clear in bonobo activities where a day con-
sists in many brief sexual encounters with both same-sex and opposite-
sex partners. Bonobos trade sex for what Roughgarden calls ˜˜candy,™™
bundles of branches and leaves or sugarcane. Yet, sex also facilitates
sharing. Bonobos invite each other for sex in various same- and opposite-
sex pairings before they eat, apparently so that they are more likely to
share their food instead of fighting over it. In addition, sexual encoun-
ters provide a means of reconciliation after disputes and a means of
integration: ˜˜When females migrate to a new group, the new arrivals
establish relationships with the established matriarch through
frequent GG [genital“genital] rubbing and grooming.™™36 Finally,
sexual activities between females help in the formation of coalitions.
The upshot of these encounters is, in general, an increased ability to

Roughgarden, Evolution™s Rainbow, pp. 128“129, 132“136, 140“142, 164.
Ibid., p. 157; Zuk, Sexual Selections, p. 143.
More often, she talks of ˜˜social inclusionary traits.™™ See Roughgarden, Evolution™s
Rainbow, p. 6.
Roughgarden, Evolution™s Rainbow, p. 149.
134 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

establish and maintain relationships necessary to both survival and the
ability to reproduce. Roughgarden hypothesizes that female“female
sex, in particular, allows for increased control over food and protection
from males. In turn, this control and protection allows females to start
reproducing at a relatively early age and hence to have greater repro-
ductive success. ˜˜A female who doesn™t participate in this social
system, including its same-sex sexuality, will not share in these
group benefits,™™ Roughgarden writes. ˜˜For a female bonobo, not
being lesbian is hazardous to your health.™™37
If Roughgarden is correct, then it is mistaken to begin an
account of evolutionary history with heterosexual sex for the purposes
of reproduction. We should begin, instead, with object-unspecified sex
for the purposes of social inclusion. Moreover, once we do so, we can
tell an evolutionary story that focuses on the genes selected for
enhancing these latter capacities rather than those more narrowly
tailored to reproduction. We might put the point as Zuk does:

The lesson is that even in nonhumans, sex can be about more than
reproduction. People find this surprising, and in a way it is not quite
accurate, because of course ultimately everything is ˜˜about™™ repro-
duction; any trait that is not passed on will disappear. Thus foraging
is about reproduction, keeping warm is about reproduction, main-
taining blood pressure is about reproduction. Doing these things
correctly means that the animal doing them has offspring that do
them too, which is what life is all about. But if keeping warm is
about sex, none of us expects to get pregnant every time we put on a
sweater. It stands to reason, then, that even sex is not always about
sex, at least in the short term . . . Sexual behavior . . . broadly
contributes to fitness but does not have to result in offspring every

What does this broader view of sex suggest for mate choice in
human beings? It may be that men want young, healthy women

37 38
Ibid., p. 150. Zuk, Sexual Selections, p. 181.
S E X A N D S C I E N C E 135

capable of having children, as Low claims, and that women ˜˜rank
men™s ability to get resources high.™™ Nevertheless, Low also admits
that the contemporary surveys that cite such differences in gender
preferences indicate similarities as well, in as much as all individuals
are interested in mates with senses of humor.39 Robin Goodwin™s
studies confirm that for both men and women ˜˜the kind-considerate-
honest-humorous mate™™ is ˜˜the most highly prized potential part-
ner.™™40 Another study indicates that at the very top of both
American men™s and American women™s lists of what they want in a
mate are a dependable character, emotional stability, and a pleasing
disposition41 while a study of Serbians finds the most desirable traits
for both men and women to be ˜˜faithfulness, tenderness, passion,
reliability, maturity, and intelligence.™™42 Rather than focusing only
on differences, then, might we not stress the similarities in human
preferences? What is the basis for singling out the divergences towards
the middle or end of the preference lists?43 If we refrain from doing so,
might we not be led to look for evolutionary explanations of our sim-
ilarities, for our common desires for honesty and reliability, for exam-
ple, rather than our differences? And might we take these similarities as
evidence of something other than sex and gender “ for example, an
interest in compensating for a general human vulnerability?
Our evolutionary history is open to more than one interpreta-
tion. The popular story that Wright and Low repeat begins with the
elementary conditions necessary to sexual reproduction. This story

Low, Why Sex Matters, pp. 79, 83.
Robin Goodwin, ˜˜Sex Differences among Partner Preferences: Are the Sexes Really
Very Similar?,™™ Sex Roles, 23 (9/10), 1990, p. 510.
See David M. Buss et al., ˜˜A Half Century of Mate Preferences: The Cultural
Evolution of Value,™™ Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 2001, p. 499.
Bojan Todosijevic et al., ˜˜Mate Selection Criteria: A Trait Desirability Study of Sex
Differences in Serbia,™™ Evolutionary Psychology, 1, 2003, p. 119.
According to Buss™ research, women™s interest in a mate™s financial prospects ranked
between eleventh and thirteenth out of eighteen characteristics. For men, a mate™s
˜˜good looks™™ ranked eighth and fifteenth out of eighteen characteristics. See ˜˜A Half
Century of Mate Preferences,™™ p. 499. Todosijevic notes that ˜˜there is not a single
trait referring to physical appearance in the upper third of the list.™™ See ˜˜Mate
Selection Criteria,™™ p. 122.
136 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

features resource-providing, promiscuous men and sedentary, cau-
tious women who bear and nurture children. Men look for young,
healthy mates and women look for signs of resource control. Men
and women are not only necessary to our evolutionary history in
this story, but its stars. In contrast, a story that we might write, relying
on Hrdy, Roughgarden, Zuk, Hawkes, and others begins with the traits
and behaviors necessary to social inclusion. This story features indi-
viduals who are interested in sex for the social integration it fosters “
and hence for the ultimate reproduction it allows “ but who are also
wary of its costs. Individuals cannot reproduce unless they are part of
the crowd, so to speak, and membership in the crowd requires all sorts
of couplings as well as the practical knowledge of when to mate and
when not to. The revised story also features resource-providers whose
specific sex and gender identities are important parts of the evolu-
tionary plot-line only when their childbearing years are over. And here


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