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American Journal of Philology 126.3 (2005) 458-460

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Robert Mayhew. The Female in Aristotle's Biology: Reason or Rationalization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. xii + 136 pp. Cloth, $28.

Aristotle says quite a lot about sexual difference and the characteristics of male and female in his biological works, especially the Generation of Animals. He is interested in the purpose of sexual difference in those animal species that display it, because he knows that many plants and some animals are not sexually differentiated and hence that sexual difference is not necessary for generation. He distinguishes between the principles that are male and female and the animals that have these principles. He defines male and female according to whether they generate in themselves or in another and explains that this ability depends on whether they are able to concoct semen from the ultimate nutriment (), which depends in turn on an ability to heat the blood. He discusses the generative organs of male and female, the contributions each makes to the process of generation, and the factors that determine whether a given animal offspring will be male or female. In all of this, he considers the views of his predecessors and tries both to salvage what he believes to be correct and explain his rejection of many claims. At the same time, Aristotle is working out his views on the relation between matter, form, and final causation, and on natural substances and the transmission of form. There is a lot going on in the discussions of sex and its operations in the biological works, but relatively little attention has been paid to it in the philosophical literature. For these reasons a book on the subject of the female in Aristotle's biology is a welcome contribution.

Mayhew treats a range of issues in separate chapters: sexual difference in bees and wasps, the contributions of male and female parents to conception, the analogy drawn between eunuchs and females, Aristotle's scattered comments about anatomical differences (other than in generative organs) between male and female, and differences in character that might be based on biological differences. The discussion of these issues might be interesting, particularly if they could be connected, but Mayhew often fails to bring out what is at stake philosophically in, for example, Aristotle's discussion of the sexes of wasps and bees or in his references to the similarities of eunuchs to women.

The argument of the book is directed not so much to the content of what Aristotle says as to the motivation behind his various claims about the female. Mayhew wants to argue that while Aristotle's conception of the female is, in general and in many details, false, it is the product of honest (if mistaken) science and not of misogynist ideological bias (1–2). Each chapter is intended to address two questions. First, what exactly does Aristotle claim? Second, is there any evidence that Aristotle's claim, and the arguments in support of it, are the product of rationalization? (6). Mayhew's answers to the first of these questions are generally accurate and helpful; he cites the important passages, sets them in context, and often says something sensible about how we should interpret them. The second question, about rationalization, is much more problematic.

On the one hand, Mayhew sometimes uses it to untangle the complex of [End Page 458] commitments that Aristotle certainly brought to questions of sexual difference: a commitment to observational accuracy, but also to undivided form, to the priority of form over matter, and, doubtless (in my view, although not in Mayhew's), a more or less unreflective commitment to the priority of male over female. In the chapters on entomology and on the contribution of male and female to generation, Mayhew succeeds in distinguishing various scientific and philosophical concerns that lead Aristotle to say what he does, and which are probably sufficient to explain his views without supposing that we have to assume a bias against the female to explain those views.

On the other hand, Mayhew construes the question...