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How Science Got Women Wrong: Angela Saini's witty book debunks gender stereotypes

Researchers have often fitted the evidence to their theories, rather than the other way round.

There are a few things we just know about the difference between the sexes. Men are strong, tough, prone to promiscuity but better at parking; women are more empathetic, less intellectual, better suited to caring roles and less interested in casual sex. Some of these views are so ingrained that they seem natural, immutable and preordained. Others are supported by superficially convincing evidence – either from human history (where’s the female Mozart, eh?) or the animal kingdom (chimps live in male-dominated groups, you know). But many of our most firmly held assumptions do not stand up to detailed scrutiny.

As Angela Saini shows in this accessible, breezily written book, researchers have often fitted the evidence to their theories, rather than the other way round. We see men as “strong” but only because we define the word in a way that flatters them. For instance, men can lift heavier weights on average; but they also suffer from diseases caused by the lack of a second X chromosome. Women, on the other hand, have stronger immune systems – problematically so, as they suffer higher rates of some autoimmune diseases – but they generally live longer. So what is “stronger”: being able to open a jam jar or not dying?

Or take the theory of sexual selection, which has been used to suggest that women are programmed to be, in Saini’s words, “choosy but chaste”. After all, huge quan­tities of resources go into pregnancy and childrearing; a single ejaculation doesn’t compare. Naturally, women should be less up for it than men.

This received Darwinian wisdom was bolstered by the scientific establishment throughout the 20th century, starting with Angus Bateman’s observations of fruit flies in 1948. “None of the females were short of offers, but the least successful males suffered routine rejection,” Saini writes. “It confirmed Darwin’s long-standing theory that males of a species . . . are more promiscuous and less discriminating, while females are pickier.”

Bateman’s work was popularised in the 1970s by other scientists, culminating in a 1978 Playboy cover line: “Do men need to cheat on their women? A new science says yes”. By the late 1990s the psychologist Steven Pinker was using the theory to defend Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair.

Others have taken the idea even further and suggest that sexual selection might explain why men dominate public life. “Male humans sing and talk more in public gatherings, and produce more paintings and architecture,” the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller wrote in 2000. “Men give more lectures. Men ask more questions after lectures. Men dominate mixed-sex committee discussions.” He argued that, as with the peacock’s tail or the song of the nightingale, men have evolved to be better at these things because it helps them attract a mate.

At this point, I started laughing uncontrollably. One doesn’t wish to be sexist, but come on: only a male scientist could think that women are sexually attracted to men who ask questions after lectures. Miller probably thinks that what gets women really hot is men who say, “This isn’t a question – more an observation” (be still, my beating heart). How many people have ever slept with a man because he dominated a mixed-sex committee discussion?

It feels much more likely that scientists such as Miller have retrofitted biological explanations for cultural phenomena – for the existence of patriarchy, essentially. Not least because, as Saini explains, the original fruit-fly experiment had glaring flaws. Bateman kept track of the number of offspring produced from each pair by introducing mutations, such as tiny eyes or crinkly wings. But some of these mutations might also have affected the flies’ viability. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he got a pass for his sloppy experiment because his findings bolstered the consensus. Bateman’s research
is also debunked in the neuroscientist Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex, which makes an excellent companion to this book.

Even so-called popular science can be intimidating but Inferior is never arcane or self-important. It is full of gems, including a section on mate-guarding which confirms my own, cherished belief that pigeons are bastards. (Male pigeons don’t let their mates sit next to other males on a ledge; they peck them until they move to a higher, more ­uncomfortable bit of the roof.)

Saini has also spoken to groundbreaking scientists such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, whose studies of langurs – leaf-eating Indian monkeys – provided a corrective to the endless invocation of chimpanzees in trying to explain human behaviour. She found that, far from being “choosy but chaste”, female langurs could give Samantha from Sex and the City a run for her money. (They protect their babies from being killed by strange males by having sex with as many partners as possible. Males will not risk killing an infant that might be their own.)

Hrdy’s choice of research area was undoubtedly influenced by her gender, and Inferior subtly makes a compelling case for diversity. It is easy to mistake the dominant view for objectivity, and a homogeneous group of scientists can struggle to identify, much less correct, their own blind spots.

As for the non-existence of a female Mozart? It’s quite hard to write an opera when you’re busy making the dinner.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong - and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story
Angela Saini
Fourth Estate, 280pp, £12.99

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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