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Can We Talk About Feminist Epistemic Values Beyond Gender? Lessons from the Gut Microbiome


I examine the feminist epistemic values in science, presented by Helen Longino, and their role in framing microbiome causality in the study of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In particular, I show how values presented as feminist give an alternative view in scientific theories—focusing on ontological heterogeneity and mutuality of interactions rather than simplicity and one causal direction—when looking at relations between organisms and microorganisms, and between organisms (particularly humans) and their environment. I identify two approaches in microbiome study, an immunological approach that looks at the microbiome pathogenicity and an ecological approach that studies the microbial activity and functions. I show the puzzles stemming from the traditional background beliefs of the immune self and germ theory in the study of IBD causality. Furthermore, I argue for the benefits of a shift to the ecological view of body-microbe interrelations. I conclude with the benefits and advantages of feminist values over traditional ones, both in creating new ways of understanding organisms’ physiology and immune systems and for future biomedical studies involving microbiome causality.

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  1. 1.

    Elizabeth Anderson (2004) demonstrates this in her case study showing the bidirectional influence of facts and values. She presents the research on divorce done by Stewart et al. (1997), where the researchers explicitly state their background interest as well as their research questions. Doing so, they show how their background interest serves as the framework for pointing to the object of inquiry and for the decision of what types of data to collect (Anderson 2004).

  2. 2.

    This analysis is of scientific practices in general and not of specific cases of bad science where the evidence is rigged to match the hypothesis. Therefore, the chosen evidence, in accordance with the background beliefs of the scientists, can still refute the hypothesis.

  3. 3.

    For more information see the link to Elinav Lab: http://www.weizmann.ac.il/immunology/elinav/.

  4. 4.

    For more information see the link to Dutton Lab: https://sites.google.com/site/theduttonlab/.

  5. 5.

    I do not argue for the causality of the epistemic values. I argue that they are consistent with the background beliefs and that the relationship is of mutual influence. Thus, in this relationship, the feminist epistemic values are better in the ecological approach than the immunological regarding the causal explanation in IBD. I thank an anonymous reviewer for clarifying this distinction.

  6. 6.

    The dialectical approach in biology is consistent with some of the feminist heuristics, but it is nonfeminist in part because it does not give the same attention to relations of dominance. I thank the anonymous reviewer for emphasizing this point.


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Many thanks to Roberta Millstein and James Griesemer for their encouragement, guidance, and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Also, to Helen Longino for inspiring conversations and to the Griesemer/Millstein Philosophy of Biology Lab and the UC Davis Philosophy Department for thoughtful comments and discussions. Special thanks for Zachary Piso for his thoughtful comments on later drafts and to the anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Tamar Schneider.

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Schneider, T. Can We Talk About Feminist Epistemic Values Beyond Gender? Lessons from the Gut Microbiome. Biol Theory 15, 25–38 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-019-00335-5

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  • Epistemic values
  • Germ theory
  • Immune-self
  • Microbiome
  • Mutuality of interactions
  • Ontological heterogeneity