Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/May 1882/A Reply to Miss Hardaker on the Woman Question

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 21 May 1882  (1882) 
A Reply to Miss Hardaker on the Woman Question
By Nina Morais Cohen



TO classify phenomena as manifestations of a universal law is the intellectual pastime of the nineteenth century. The finding of a Rosetta stone which shall be the key to a bewildering maze of details is a mental rest to the thinker. Hence, a theory which settles a much-vexed question by a scientific ipse dixit is met with a murmur of admiration and a sigh of relief. But those who profess to hold a commission from Science should not the less be bound to the "scientific rule of deducing no principle which facts will not prove." What Science says, facts will corroborate, but they will not always wait upon the interpretation of her devotees. About fifty years ago a gentleman of high scientific attainments proved by irreproachable mathematics that no steamship could cross the Atlantic, for by no expedient could a vessel be built which could stow away enough fuel to propel itself to so great a distance. Today the gentleman might take as an ordinary trip the journey he proved impossible.

In the March number of "The Popular Science Monthly" Miss Hardaker invokes Science to testify to the natural and irrevocable mental inferiority of the female to the male. A statement of this kind, coming as it does when woman is struggling for every step in her intellectual advance, is peculiarly baneful to her. To cover ancient prejudice with the palladium of scientific argument is to unite the strength of conservatism and of progress in one attack. An examination of the accuracy of the paper, "Science and the Woman Question," may not, therefore, be ill-timed.

Two propositions underlie Miss Hardaker's argument. They are as follows:

1. A large amount of matter represents more force than a small amount. Hence man is superior to woman in body and brain (page 579).

2. "All human energy is an exact equivalent of the amount of food consumed and assimilated." Man, by reason of his larger organs, eats and assimilates more food than woman does. Each of his organs, including the brain, is therefore capable of acting with proportionally greater energy. Hence, "men will always think more than women" (page 583).

Collaterally our author finds that the demands of maternity must cause a large subtraction from the smaller amount of mental energy which women would otherwise exert, and, as the result of her fundamental propositions, she draws the startling conclusion that "unless woman can devise some means for reducing the size of man, she must be content to revolve about him in the future as in the past" (page 581).

Before entering upon the question by means of her own original and scientific method, Miss Hardaker makes the following statements: "Students of physiology see that a final and conclusive law can not be drawn from differences in brain-weights and measurements, because of the present imperfection of data." But the superior power of the male brain, like the superior power of the male muscle, is shown conclusively by its product (page 578).

The figures which begin Miss Hardaker's argument are those which all speculations regarding the brain take into consideration. These figures are quite complete enough to indicate distinctly that the average male brain is always larger than the female. Miss Hardaker herself states that "all accepted authorities agree that the average male brain exceeds the average female brain in weight by about ten per cent" (page 578). Now, if the principle that bulk is power were admitted, the measurements obtained would be nearly, if not quite, conclusive of the natural superiority of the male: it would not have been reserved for Miss Hardaker to make the discovery. Miss Hardaker can not afford to dismiss brain-measurements as incomplete evidence, for these statistics become the keystone of her own logic when she endeavors to prove man's mental superiority because of his excess of brain.

The student, however, does not reason as Miss Hardaker reasons. He, as well as she, possesses the historic fact that the product of the masculine mind has always been greater than that of the feminine. He might, therefore, find that, as the male brain has been more productive, it is the better organ. Upon this point Miss Hardaker contends that not only can we reason to the general quality of organs from their respective products, but we can actually arrive at a knowledge of their structure by such processes of logic. "We do not examine a muscle," she says, "to ascertain its internal structure" (page 578). If this were true, the occupation of the anatomist would be gone: the valvular arrangement of the heart, the cellular formation of the lungs, would have been disclosed by an observation of the externally perceptible operations of these organs. The truth is, that we can never reason from product to structure until after we have internal evidence of the functional relations between the structure and product of the class of organs to which those under test belong; nor can we without such knowledge even reason to the general quality of two organs by their different product, unless our comparisons are made under the same environment. For instance, take two pairs of lungs: let one respire at sea-level, the other at the top of Mont Blanc. Their absolute product would be no estimate of their relative capacity. Still, the physiologist would have little difficulty in eliminating the effect of difference of circumstances in his calculation, because his complete knowledge of the lungs and of the influence of atmospheric pressure enables him to allow for differences of environment. But no such allowance can be made in estimating the normal power of the male and female brain which have always acted in different mental atmospheres; for the relation of structure to function as regards brain has not been accurately determined.

It is because of this lack of knowledge regarding the precise connection between brain-structure and thought, and not because of imperfection in the data of measurements, that students refuse to draw therefrom the law of brain capacity; and thinkers will not infer the capacity of male and female brains from their products, until the different influences acting upon men and women can be eliminated. While anatomy is unable to solve for us the enigma of sexual brain-power, we may have recourse to comparison under similar environment as the key to our problem. This method of discovery Miss Hardaker, with a perversity remarkable in a disciple of modern science, is laboring zealously to prevent.

"We need not," she says, "ascertain the meaning of brain-size by experiment; we can arrive at it by analogy. All other organs (under the same conditions) work in proportion to their size. Is there any good reason for making an exception of the brain?" (page 578). Now, even if all other organs work in proportion to their size, the fact that the brain is exceptional, in the nature and in the variety and complexity of its functions, would render the argument from biceps to brain as questionable as that from marble to zinc. There may be properties in common, but in the production of forces the similar effects of these common properties may be wholly vitiated by others peculiar to only one of the objects compared. Besides, size is not always a gauge of organic capacity. Does the large eye see better, the large ear hear more, the large nerve feel more keenly? And, if, all other conditions being equal, they might do so, the incalculable variation of condition renders the size test of no practical value at all. This, however, is a phase of the subject to be discussed later, when we shall endeavor to show that, although we agree with Miss Hardaker that a larger brain means something, it does not necessarily mean a "greater amount of thinking in a given time." And, here we throw in, as interesting facts, that woman's smaller heart beats faster than man's larger one; that her circulation is to his in swiftness as ten to nine; and that, according to Miss Hardaker's figures, and to some celebrated authorities, the proportion of brain to body is larger in woman than in man.

But to meet Miss Hardaker upon her own ground in the discussion of her fundamental propositions, we shall waive, as she has done, all sexual differences, of physical or local environment, and all analogical inferences, and proceed to compare the male and female brains upon a supposititious level of like conditions. She proposes to prove, on quite new and highly scientific grounds, that absolute weights and measurements are, after all, the ultimate tests of capacity. It may be deemed singular that the profound students who have preceded Miss Hardaker some of whom were undoubtedly scientists should have entirely overlooked the beautifully simple conclusion she formulates, thus: "If mass represents force, the larger the brain, the larger the power." The reason why students have been so blind to Miss Hardaker's discoveries is quite as simple as the discovery itself. It is because her premises are false.

A large amount of matter does not represent more force than a small amount, nor does it represent any force at all. There is an elementary law of physics which declares that the momentum of a body equals its size multiplied by its velocity, and this may lead to the supposition that matter itself is force. But matter in a state of inertia is not power; it becomes powerful only when acted upon. The same force acting upon different bodies imparts velocity in the inverse ratio of their masses; and, since velocity as well as size is a factor of power, it follows that a force which imparts a greater velocity to a smaller body gives it as great a momentum as a larger body obtains when acted upon by the same force; for the velocity in the latter case is feebler. Even admitting (what Miss Hardaker does not appear to claim) that potential energy may be proportionate to size of mass, we see that potential energy can only be evolved by an appropriate force acting through or upon the mass, and, to make the potential energy of a large mass do more work than that of a smaller one, the force applied must always be greater. Hence, not the size of the body, but the strength of the impelling force, is the ultimate test of its power. A glance at obvious facts will show that size is not the gauge, that weight may indeed be a direct impediment to the evolution of force. The avoirdupois of the fat boy is a clog to his energy; the fast runner wins by his light weight; the champion oarsman reduces his flesh.

In applying her theory to the brain, one fact which Miss Hardaker herself states is sufficient to tell very disastrously against her conclusion that larger brain-weight means larger thinking power. "According to Gratiolet, the male brain can not fall below thirty-seven ounces without involving idiocy, while the female may fall to thirty-two ounces without such result" (page 578). Here are two brains precisely of the same quality, one thirty-seven ounces the other thirty-one, an absolute difference of six ounces. Yet these six ounces represent just nothing. Indeed, give the woman thirty-four ounces and leave the man thirty-seven, his three ounces more are simply a minus: thirty-four is rational thought, thirty-seven irrational. In this instance a small amount of matter represents more power than a large amount. It would seem that the true law must be sought elsewhere than in the grocer's scale.

But the impelling force which Miss Hardaker omits in her former statement is supplied in her next assumption: "All human energy is derived from food. Man eats more than woman because his larger size requires him to do so, a larger proportion of nourishment is sent to his brain; hence men think more than women." A look backward at our elementary law of physics will show that Miss Hardaker's second conclusion is as weak as her first. To repeat that portion of our law which bears upon this argument, we find that the same force acting on different bodies imparts velocity in the inverse ratio of their masses, and it is therefore clear that, in order to make the large machine run as fast as the small one, fuel must be supplied to the former more freely. The explosive force that sends the tiny rifle-ball at the rate of twenty miles a minute could not overcome the inertia of the missile discharged from the Krupp gun; a proportional force to each would send each just the same distance. Now, granting all the premises of Miss Hardaker's second proposition, that male and female eat in certain fixed proportions, that a certain fixed amount of that proportion goes to nourish relatively proportioned brains, the only logical conclusion is that the larger brain, supplied with more blood, would in a given time do heavier work, but not more work, than the smaller one supplied with less blood. Under these circumstances the momentum of the larger brain would be greater than that of the small brain; their velocities equal. Without his extra supply of blood, man's brain could never overtake woman's in velocity indeed, without this additional stimulus it might not be able to move at all. The theory that the smaller brain is propelled more easily, might explain the quickness of perception and of fancy which, according to Miss Hardaker, are womanly traits.

Such reasoning, however, is at best mere theorizing, for it applies the simple laws of mechanics to the intricate and so far inexplicable structure of the brain, making no allowance for complications which would divert the action of the law. It may be true that blood is the primary motor of the brain; but there are many other elements besides the size of brain and body, or even the amount of food assimilated, which measure the quantity of blood sent to the brain. The problem is by no means, as Miss Hardaker has tried to make it, an easy sum in simple proportion which the school-boy may solve standing on one foot. Omitting altogether a consideration of the superior blood-circulation of women as a class, overlooking entirely the probability (indicated by the data of the idiot question heretofore discussed) that proportion of brain to body is an element in the capacity of the former, the individual rapidity of circulation, the richness of food in brain-making material become important terms of our problem. The opium-eater, the wine-drinker, the consumer of brain-stimulants, certainly drive more than a proportional share of blood to the brain. At the same time there is always a personal equation to vary the proportional action of food-supply. The brains of Moses and Mohammed were stimulated by prolonged fasts. The circumstances of travel, temperament, companionship, wealth, the passions, music, art, dancing, machine-stitching, and a thousand others, which can never be averaged, often exert an adventitious influence on the appropriation of fuel for thought. These influences are entirely independent of food-consumption and brain-size; they defy the application of any law of mechanics.

But Miss Hardaker's scientific argument, if true, proves too much; for if men, the greater consumers, think more or even better because of the large size of their bodies and the larger power of their digestive organs than women do, then it must follow that the larger and healthier men as a class must think, if not more, at least more profoundly, than smaller and less robust men. Yet the bulk of the world's thought has not been done by men of superior physique or even of superior health. Aristotle, Napoleon, Jeffrey, Thiers, were short in person; Shakespeare, Buckle, Comte, were delicate in frame; Descartes and Bacon were always sickly; Heine wrote his best while in physical agony; Newton and Spinoza were slight in form and of medium height; Herbert Spencer's health has always been precarious; Mrs. Browning was a life-long invalid; while, unfortunately for a theory based upon superior digestion, Goethe and Carlyle were confirmed dyspeptics.

The instances here crted are by no means exceptional. Indeed, the seeker for data under this head will find that, instead of larger and more healthy physiques evolving a larger average amount of mental power than smaller and less robust ones, the contrary result is emphatically true. As a matter of fact, the circumstance of superior muscular development seems unfavorable to great exertion of the mind. The demands of the body itself are in large men imperative. The waste of the system must be repaired, and the first draughts of energy must go to this purpose. Afterward, though the potential energy represented by the food consumed may still be stored up, there is little power or little inclination to apply that energy to thought. The college student who is most active in the field, who has the greatest height in his stockings, and the biggest biceps, is rarely at the head of his class. Not Wly does the larger body require more in proportion for its nourishment, but the forces which effect this nourishment are not easily turned in other directions, and it is, therefore, a natural sequence that the body must dwindle as the power of the mind increases. The savage Teutons, whose great bodies affrighted the Romans of Caesar, have become the civilized possessors of less bulk and more knowledge. Human energy appears not to be harmonious, but to run in grooves. Thought produces thought, and the energy once sent to the brain is the direct cause of a new demand for supplies. In like manner, the arm that is developed by work needs a larger amount of food for its maintenance. This is the explanation of the historic fact that physical and mental powers have never been proportionally cultivated, but always at the expense of each other. The profound thinker and the superior pugilist are rarely united.

But, even if it is true that the larger and healthier physique affords more blood for brain-use, it does not follow that the larger the supply the greater the amount of brain-work possible. The argument assumes that the brain has no limit to its activity except in the quantity of blood that ban be prepared for it. But it needs no scientific education to know that there are other influences which limit the thinker's activity, and that these limitations are somewhere in the mysterious recesses of the brain, or in the forces of which the brain is the organ. The physical health of the brain-worker may be perfect, his digestion unimpaired, his power to assimilate food the same, and yet he may not be able to concentrate his thoughts or carry on a complicated train of reasoning. The defect is not in his body that is as healthy as ever; nor is it in any of the processes of blood-making these go on as before. The trouble lies in the brain itself, whose capacity for work is measured by some hidden standard of its own, and which gives warning when a cessation of brain-work is imperative. The body is a furnace whose power of consuming fuel is greater than the capability of its boiler the brain to generate power. To keep the latter in good working condition, something more is necessary than building and feeding the fires. A supplementary but important consideration is, whether the steam beyond a certain point will not be productive of unpleasant consequences in the form of an explosion.

In the discussion of the collateral question, that of the effect of maternity on brain-power, Miss Hardaker's scientific logic takes its most amusing form. "The necessary outcome of absolute intellectual equality of the sexes," she says, "would be the extinction of the human race. For, if all food were converted into thought in both men and women, no food whatever could be appropriated for the reproduction of species" ( page 583). What Miss Hardaker really means by this last highly scientific axiom it is impossible to guess. She can not mean that, as all food is converted into thought in men, women must cease to be mothers in order to imitate his food-conversion. Whatever Miss Hardaker may intend by her impossible supposition, the fact that maternity does make large draughts upon the energy of woman is not to be overlooked. But, unless it can be shown that the mental activity of man is ceaseless, that his manual labor diverts no blood from the brain, that his imaginative and reasoning powers keep steadily at work year in and year out, limited only by supply of food, it does not necessarily follow that women must fall behind men in the brain-work of a life-time. Both men and women need mental rest no brain-worker can keep at the top of his speed for ever; and women whose duties as mothers divert their energy from the brain may overtake men in their voluntary holidays. This fact will have more concrete significance when we reflect that the professional brain-workers in both sexes are in the minority, and that women who are such are usually unmarried, or mothers of small families. At the same time, the labors of men who form the great masses of population are not more stimulating to brain-culture than the vocations of their wives. But, granting what is probably true, that woman as a whole can never show as much mental product as man, because some of her time and energy must be devoted to motherhood, still she may be quite as capable of production. Therefore, any reasoning which excludes women as a class from the advantages of equal mental training with men, on the ground that they must be the mothers of the race, is forcing the activity of women into one channel, and rendering all other efforts (such as the writing of a scientific article, perhaps) unnatural and unwomanly.

But suppose the whole of Miss Hardaker's argument to be founded on true premises, and all her conclusions to be just and accurate, it may yet be pertinently asked, Cut bono? Miss Hardaker would slam the educational doors in women's faces because, being smaller, they are unfit to enter the select retreats of Brobdingnag. But, if justice is to prevail in the rules of admission, the woman who possesses a brain of fifty-six ounces is entitled to precedence over the great majority of males whose brains weigh only forty-nine and a half. Should the environment be more favorable to the woman whose brain-weight is forty-four ounces, she can claim the advantage over the larger male brain whose environment is less favorable. Then, too, the applicants for entrance must be subjected to the test of an eating-match, and the dyspeptic must consent to suicide or rejection. All this must be done, for, although Justice carries her scales, she is blindfolded. She can only weigh brains, food, environment, but can not see the sex of suitors for admission into the new academy. Miss Hardaker must be aware that, were every element in her assumptions true, some women must be greatly superior to the average men, although the highest point reached by the male could not be obtained by the female. Miss Hardaker would, perhaps, object to having the doors of journalism closed against her, because she can never think as profoundly as Lord Bacon, or because in general woman's literary production has not made so fair a showing as man's. It is not long ago since this sort of reasoning militated strongly against the publication of any article that might be signed with a woman's name. But science not the false science which answered Miss Hardaker's invocation, not the science which would confine the negro to slavery because of his small brain and small mental achievement true science says that, if woman's power is to be judged by her work, she must be given a fair field for its display. To clear the race-course for the man, and to block woman's road at a certain point, because we feel intuitively that she can go no further, is by no means consistent with modern scientific methods. If the line of woman's power is marked, let her discover the fact, as Bacon thought all scientific truth should be discovered by experiment. The discovery will not long be delayed; the law of the survival of the fittest will not be abrogated. But, if it should be found that the mental steam-ship of the female can, after all, store enough fuel to cross the ocean of reasoning, it would give woman the inestimable benefit of correcting the possible errors into which a professed enemy of her sex has fallen. It would demonstrate that, like Mr. Darwin's pea-hen, women have remained inferior to their mates, not because of natural defect, but by reason of external circumstances. A just trial is the whole demand of the reform philosophy.

In the Royal Society, many years ago, it is said Charles II asked an explanation of the fact that a fish in water had no weight; that water plus a fish was no heavier than water without a fish. The wise gentlemen of the Royal Society (presumably males of large bulk) were much agitated over the problem, and gave many scientific reasons for the remarkable phenomenon. It was a wiser man (though not of so scientific a turn of mind) who, instead of giving his reasons why the fish had no weight in its own element, tried the experiment and found, to the surprise of the scientific gentlemen, that a practical test was of more value than any quantity of learned but ill-founded speculation. Perhaps it will not be out of place, by way of parallel to Miss Hardaker's triumphant demonstration of "the reason why," to cite the testimony of a prominent instructor, whose evidence tends to show that her scientific impossibility may be affected by some elements which she has not considered. "So far as my observation and experience go," says President Magill, of Swarthmore College (a gentleman who for ten years has been the instructor of about three hundred students of both sexes), "there is absolutely no difference in the average intellectual capacity of the sexes, under the same training and external influences. The valedictorians of our classes have been almost equally divided between the sexes, with a slight and accidental preponderance in favor of the young women."