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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 regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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Spotify, Netflix and now shared driverless cars: why don’t we own anything anymore?

With shared self-driving cars on the horizon, companies are forcing us into a minimalism that is profitable for them, but questionable for us.

For decades, the answer to all our collective self-doubt, anxiety, and existential sadness has been to buy, buy, buy. This was particularly evident during the Nineties and Noughties, which, in terms of business, were all about mass production, mass consumption and, inevitably, mass accumulation.

Companies targeted the general public with the message that without owning their latest fad – no matter how trivial it appeared – we wouldn’t be as productive, as beautiful, and, perhaps most frightening of all, as happy. And although material objects took up physical space, they certainly didn’t fill the metaphorical void.

It didn’t take long for artists to respond to the socio-economic ennui. Movies, in particular – from The Truman Show to, more strangely and recently, Disney’s Wall-E – critiqued mass consumption and consequent possession-hoarding. Literature, too – perhaps most famously Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which was later adapted for film – studied the monstrous nature of hypercapitalism and the beasts it produces.

Despite being some of the most visually provocative commerce-related works to date (and despite anti-capitalist cinema becoming a genre in itself), they didn’t stop our needless purchase-making and endless consumption.

Aside from the self-proclaimed “minimalists”, that is. In a rally against the monopoly of McDonald’s, malls, and mass consumption, the reactionary lifestyle movement arose somewhat organically. A typical modern minimalist isn’t an artist with a penchant for sparse work, but instead somebody who, in an attempt to get back-to-basics, threw out unneeded wares and pared down to the absolute necessities. For their bodies: a few basic shirts and trousers, a basic pair of shoes. In their households: a dining table, some chairs, a fold-up bed. No excess. Minimalists professed that this alternative way of living made them feel happier, and by unshackling themselves and their homes of all the stuff they’d accumulated over the years, they consequently felt far freer. Maybe not free in the absolute sense of the word, but freer nonetheless.

Fast forward a few years to 2018 and minimalism has become something of an online trend, with people sharing tips on ways to declutter and downsize. It has become a lifestyle. We go on digital detoxes and follow the anti-clutter guru Marie Kondo. These changes go beyond the physical and into the digital world – old files, data, and the hundreds of undeleted emails you have are perceived to be just as burdensome as the unused blender stashed in the cupboard. It is mindfulness over matter.

Inevitably, commercial businesses are buying into the vogue of reduction, too: their message for consumers is to no longer to purchase and own wares, but to subscribe to and rent them instead. Ownership – of music, films, cars, and even office space – is, apparently, so last decade. And what you do own, you should “share”: put your flat on Airbnb, for example, or rent your car to Uber or Lyft.

“Flexibility”, “choice” and “ease” have become the tropes of modern marketing. The likes of Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Apple, and Amazon proclaim that our lives could be simpler, smoother, if we trade ownership for non-permanence. And it’s not just entertainment-orientated businesses, either: even the way we travel has begun to fundamentally change. With London’s Santander bike programme, Uber taxis, and, in future, shared self-driving cars, the rent-on-demand and subscription model has superseded outright buying.

It’s not like we’re paying any less for the inadequacy: we’re still handing over a sizeable chunk of money every month to a small handful of wealthy, unaccountable businesses. Whoever we’re subscribing to and renting from haven’t struck gold so much as a goldmine: they earn more while handing over less.

The culture has shifted, in a subtle and violent way, from one of accumulating too much to one approaching a forced minimalism, which is just as expensive, competitive and decadent as before. Perhaps even the minimalists who appear on Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (which is currently, and somewhat ironically, streaming on Netflix) wouldn’t agree with everybody being strong-armed into a way of life where we are progressively losing more and paying more for the privilege.

Thom James is a writer based in London.