i have a seminal contribution for you…

September 16, 2010 at 6:59 am | | science and the public

I really think this is a joke: old-man baiting, if you will.

In response to the discussion on whether the word “seminal” is sexist as well as sexual, there are two points to be made, and I would also like to offer a potential solution. First, seminal carries forward the homocentric view of scientific research from a time when males were predominant and considered more important researchers in science. Consequently, it is a sexist term unless one is talking about physiological or related dynamics.

As for seminal being seen as a sexual term, I am not sure that we should necessarily eliminate all such terminology from the dialog in science just because it refers to “sexuality.” One need only look at the extensive literature that conflates birth sex with gender. The question “What is your gender?” is incorrect unless you are doing research on gender identity. The correct question is “What is your sex?”

Many individuals incorrectly conflate the word “sex” with sexuality. Consequently, numerous scientific papers, research surveys and discussions misuse gender as an equivalent to birth sex or natal sex in response to the aforementioned difficulty.

I propose the following solution, that I have used for years. When suggesting that a particular piece of research is “seminal” simply replace the word “seminal” with the word “seminovarian.” Everyone gets equal play. Of course, we could take up the question of which should go first, but that’s another letter to the editor altogether.

Tarynn M. Witten
Richmond, VA

I mean, this is getting hilarious.

But maybe this isn’t a joke. First of all, it turns out that the first letter was serious (see “Only Males Respond“). Also, this second letter makes be think that it’s from some liberal-arts student, mostly because it is terribly written. The rambling tangent on “sex” vs. “gender” is very academic, and I can tell that the author likes using the thesaurus: what “dynamics” are related to sperm physiology? Flagellum switching?

Maybe I should be more sensitive. I don’t like the fact that females have been second-class citizens (if citizens at all) throughout our history. But when it comes down to it, sexual references are funny. And I will giggle like a middle-school boy every time.

UPDATE: Oh shit. Dr. Witten is a bio prof at VCU. Which means she probably knows a lot more about dynamics than I ever will. Oops.


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  1. I sincerely hope Ms. Witten is being ironical.

    Comment by Chemjobber — September 16, 2010 #

  2. I’ll wager that Dr. Witten has not been using the term “seminovarian” for years. Dr. Mano Singham, poster of “Only Males Respond”, might be worth looking into if you want to mock a modern academic.

    Comment by Dirk B. — September 16, 2010 #

  3. That woman is probably a lot of fun to be around.

    Comment by Paul — September 17, 2010 #

  4. This reminds me of the angry series of letters in Physics Today about ten years ago concerning the appropriateness of using the term “rule of thumb”. Turns out that has its origins in rules about wife beating!

    Comment by Douglas Natelson — September 18, 2010 #

  5. Rather, it was claimed so. Really that’s not the origin of the phrase, but that didn’t stop anyone from arguing.

    Comment by Douglas Natelson — September 18, 2010 #

  6. Doug, were any of the letters tongue-in-cheek?

    Comment by sam — September 19, 2010 #

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