Interview with Angela Saini: How Science Got Women Wrong
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Why are humans and killer whales among the few mammals that undergo the menopause? Are men more naturally promiscuous than women? And did Charles Darwin really believe that females are inferior? Science journalist and engineer Angela Saini set out to read everything she could find on these and other questions, aiming to discover the truth about gender differences and similarities from the scientific point of view. What she uncovered is that science is not always as objective as it likes to pretend – and that the ‘truth’, when it comes to men and women, is impossible to pin down. Bookwitty caught up with Angela Saini at Ilkley Literature Festival.
In the Acknowledgements section of your new book, Inferior, you thank your editor for ‘taking a punt on another book on sex and gender’. What does Inferior give the reader that rivals don’t?
I was nervous about writing a book on sex differences because so much has been written already. My answer was to approach the topic journalistically, not with prior assumptions but with a genuine desire to understand the facts, the controversies and the reasons why scientists say the things they do. For that reason, because I have tried so hard to be balanced, I think it offers something fresh -- an insight into the story behind the science as well as the science itself.
What was the spark for the book?
Ultimately, I wrote it because I wanted to know the facts. We are bombarded with so many stereotypes and mixed messages. As a woman, I just wanted the truth. Of course, the truth turned out to be pretty complicated.
You have said that the kernel of the book was an article on the menopause, which you wrote for the Observer in spring 2014. What did the article conclude?
I was surprised that conflicting theories existed that seemed to follow gender lines. A group of male researchers claimed that women experience menopause because older men don't find older women attractive. The leading hypothesis, however, says that women live so long into their infertile years because grandmothers are vital to the survival of families. Why do both theories exist? That is what fascinated me.
Your bibliography cites around 300 papers, articles and books. How long did it take to research/write Inferior?
Around two years in total, including one year of doing nothing else. For that time, I was entirely focused on it.
What was your most startling discovery?
Sadly, that this area of science is so deeply susceptible to bias. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since scientists are only human, but prejudice has tainted research for centuries. Modern science was overwhelmingly male-dominated until relatively recently, as well as operating within a male-dominated society, and this affected what even the greatest scientists told us about women. Even Charles Darwin argued that women were intellectually inferior to men . . .
Yes! Reading the book, this was among my own ‘most startling discoveries’. Charles Darwin believed that ‘women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually’. How did such a great genius arrive at such an extraordinary conclusion?
I think we forgive Darwin a great deal because of his wonderful genius. We forgive him for being so sloppy in his pronouncements on women, also, because he was a Victorian male and most Victorians really did see women as the weaker sex. Many male Victorian biologists thought the same. I think he is the perfect example of how even the wisest minds can be affected by prejudice and lazy thinking when it comes to gender.
Your book stresses that there are far more biological similarities than differences between men and women. But did you come across any important differences – other than the fact that women give birth?
Yes, of course there are some obvious differences, such as in average height, average upper body strength, and hormones. Women also have a surprising survival edge over men from the moment they’re born—an edge that scientists are still trying to get a handle on. Men with one X chromosome also tend to suffer from more X-linked diseases.
Then, of course, there is the fact that women go through the menopause, whereas men remain fertile. And that the female brain is on average five ounces lighter than the male brain. And contains more grey and less white matter …
Men also experience a loss of fertility as they get older; for women it is just more abrupt. And any difference in brain size or weight between the sexes is purely down to relative body size. A small man will also have a smaller brain. On structural differences, I think the jury is out. We simply don't know enough about the brain to draw meaningful conclusions.
I was also stunned to discover that ‘until around 1990, it was common for medical trials to be carried out almost exclusively on men’. What are the implications of this?
As far as we can tell, there may be a few certain drugs to which women respond differently to men, mainly for reasons to do with body mass and hormones. Having only tested many drugs on men means that, for these few drugs, women may have suffered more adverse reactions. Fortunately, this imbalance in clinical trials is already being corrected–thanks in large part to activism from women’s health campaigners.
Scientist Robert Trivers believes that ‘females must be choosier and less promiscuous in selecting a mate than males because they have a lot more to lose from making a bad choice’. This seems to be backed up from data on Internet dating sites, such as Tinder (not covered in your book). What is your view?
How we behave sexually is not just a product of our biology, it’s also a product of how we are taught to behave and what society expects from us. Many of us (though not all of us) happen to live in a society that judges women differently on their sexual behaviour, that demands that we are less promiscuous otherwise we are labelled ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’. As long as that’s the case, we can't assume that women are naturally, innately less promiscuous, that this is somehow hardwired into us.
On the other hand anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey think that women are ‘endowed with an insatiable sex drive’, which has been systematically suppressed over the centuries. Practices of ‘mate-guarding’ including burqa-wearing, Chinese foot binding, and, most horrifically, female genital mutilation (FGM), all fall into this category. Yet women often choose to follow these practices. What, if anything, might be done?
Again, in patriarchies, women often behave in ways that may not appear to be beneficial to them, but they have little choice if they’re to survive. FGM is incredibly damaging to girls, both physically and psychologically, yet if they are not cut, women in certain societies cannot get married because men want to marry girls who have been. So what choice do women have? Exercising damaging choices in a world that gives women few options is not true choice at all.
What do you hope is the number one take-away for readers of your book?
I would like readers to come away from my book with a healthy scepticism about what they read in the press and even in scientific journals about the differences between women and men.
Banner image courtesy Contenidos Educativos Digitales, Uruguay