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.

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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 associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape