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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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.