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26 June 2024

Cat Bohannon Q&A: “We can actually make the world a bit better”

The academic and author on Jaws, Artemisia Gentileschi, and the fertility culture wars.

By New Statesman

Cat Bohannon was born in 1979. She is a researcher and author with a PhD from Columbia University in the evolution of narrative and cognition. She is best known for her bestselling 2023 book Eve.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being bathed in the sink in our little house near Atlanta, Georgia, and my mother telling me next time would be the “big girl tub”. It was one of those sinks shaped like a seashell – I remember the feeling of the ridges on my back. But I told that story so many times as a toddler, with all the adults so impressed, that I don’t know how much of the original memory is retained… either way, I can still feel the ridges.

When were you happiest?

Oh, come on…

Who are your heroes?

I declared that I would marry Michael Jackson on my fifth birthday. (It didn’t work out.) My hero now is Paul Farmer.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

How the new science of sex differences is changing our understanding of the human story, and why it matters.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I don’t know of any woman who’d say she’d like to live in the past – not if she’s being serious and actually thinking about it. But I’d be fascinated to live in a world in which artificial wombs were real: non-harmful, fully functional and easily available to all social classes. That’s a long way ahead, I’m afraid, but it will be a very different place to be female.

What book last changed your thinking?

All books change my thinking – it’s temporarily living inside someone else’s head! When I was younger, Francisco Varela’s Intimate Distances. More recently, Noreen Masud’s A Flat Place.

Who would paint your portrait?

On a romantic day, Artemisia Gentileschi. On an honest day, Cindy Sherman (and not in paint).

What’s your theme tune?

Maybe Jaws? The manosphere seems to think so!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti told me not to do an MFA (a master’s in fine art). Do anything but, he said. Be a line cook, be a scientist, be a social worker – art is made of the world. I didn’t follow that advice, initially. But later, yes.

What’s currently bugging you?

The global slide into fascism? That everyone seems to think it’s cool to ask women to have babies they don’t want to have? (Culture wars centre on whether they can be forced, but the asking is remarkably A-OK.) Also, that I’m jetlagged?

What single thing would make your life better?

This is starting to feel like therapy.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

To have been born the daughter of some random billionaire and then directed
a firehose of money at all the amazing researchers doing good and important science in the biology of sex differences, women’s and girls’ health, and how better to mobilise these findings in ways that actually reduce suffering around the globe… But would I be that chick, if I’d been so born?

Are we all doomed?

We’re all mortal. So technically, yes. But for the fate of the human world, I do think we have enormous capacity for change. We can actually make this place a bit better. We’ve done it before.

“Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution” by Cat Bohannon is published by Hutchinson Heinemann

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine