Women’s inventions have been neglected by evolutionary researchers

Inferior book coverInferior: the True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It
by Angela Saini

This is such an important book. It’s not the first on this topic but it’s the one that has managed to take off and get the message out there (partly thanks to the brilliant Jess Wade, who has been campaigning to get this book into school libraries).

Saini interrogates the claims of scientists about the differences between the sexes. She explains what we do and don’t know about whether men and women’s different positions in society are the result of physical biological differences, or hard-wired differences in ability, or if they’re the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of society and culture being skewed.

Are men’s and women’s brains really wired differently? It’s a very complicated area of science, and despite some excitable newspaper headlines, we don’t yet know for sure. It appears that there is more variety within each sex than there is between them. And importantly, even if there are physical differences, we have to be extremely careful about extrapolating reasons for those differences.

Can we learn about our ancestors from anthropologists’ studies of 20th-century hunter-gatherers? A limited amount, yes, but the surviving hunter-gatherer communities are all very different from each other. The only real conclusion we can reach is the variety of what human beings – and women particularly – are capable of.

But that hasn’t prevented more than a century of evolutionary research being skewed to ancient hunting habits (because men were presumed to have done most of the hunting) and often ignoring or downplaying other human activities such as gathering food and childcare (which were assumed to be wholly female activities). Which has knock-on effects including that theories about the development of human language are largely based around hunting and it is only recently that scientists have begun to question whether a more likely scenario for language development is the need to pass information from mother to child.

Saini demonstrates how centuries of male dominance in both science and society has led to bias in everything from what experiments are performed, to who performs them and the many effects of omitting half the world population from important studies (for example, in medical experiments almost all human test subjects are male, leading to many unexpected side effects in women when drugs come to market).

“What digging sticks, [baby] slings and food bags all have in common is that they’re either wooden or made of skin and fibre, which means they break down and disappear over time. They leave no trace in the fossil record, unlike hard-wearing stone tools that archaeologists have assumed were used for hunting. This is one reason, says [anthropologist Adrienne] Zihlman, that women’s inventions, and consequently women themselves, have been neglected by evolutionary researchers.”

A shocking amount of what we supposedly know about humans comes from studying animals, particularly chimps, bonobos and gorillas. This is flawed on many counts, not least that even studies of other species can be guilty of sexism in what is studied and how it is interpreted. In one egregious example, a 1948 study of fruit flies mating was used as evidence that (human) men are more promiscuous than women. In 2012 a paper was published demonstrating how very flawed the fruit-fly study had been. But decades of scientists had used the 1948 study as a basis, finding similar patterns in other species and ignoring social reasons for those patterns like male violence (the line that Saini draws between male pigeons pecking their mates on the neck to control them, and female genital mutilation in humans, is terrifying and deeply upsetting).

Of course, studying humans is impossible to do without there being any influence from society. Saini details one famous experiment from 2000 on newborn babies that appeared to demonstrate that boys are more mechanically minded and girls more social from birth. But while the newborn babies might have been free from social influence, the people designing, conducting and drawing conclusions from the study were not. Saini speaks to the graduate student who did the actual work, who likens it to “a science fair project”. She talks to other scientists in the field, including some who have replicated the study with very different results (no gender difference could be found). And she interrogates how the paper’s conclusion was a big leap into an area of science (sex hormones) with no proven connection to the actual experiment performed.

“Plasticity and entanglement suggest that, like London cabbies memorising street layouts, culture can have a knock-on effect on biology. We know for example, that playing with certain toys can actively impact a child’s biological development…Playing action video games or with construction sets, for instance, improves spatial skills. So if a young boy happens to be given a building set rather than a doll to play with, the stereotype of males having better spatial skills is physically borne out. Society actually ends up producing a biological change.”

All this evidence-unearthing and myth-busting can be enraging, but thankfully Saini doesn’t stop there. She demonstrates how to question scientific conclusions without losing faith in the scientific method. She writes calmly and rationally with plenty of references at the back of the book to support everything she says. And it’s not all negative. She reveals more recent, less-well-known studies that actually look at women, whether they’re repeating old experiments under fairer conditions or studying areas that have barely received any attention in the past (what is the point of menopause?). She explains how studying people who were born intersex is giving us important insights into which biological differences are actually related to sex, and what the sex hormones really do.

Saini explains all of this well, and she is careful to be clear when the answer is unknown. Like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science you can learn a lot from this book about what makes good science, but in this case it isn’t the flawed use of statistics that we’re being made aware of, it’s the deep roots of sexist assumptions. It’s a vital lesson for everyone to learn. It’s empowering for women and girls to be told that we really can do everything a man can and that we have historical significance too – science says so! It’s important for men and boys to be told how much of what society and culture says to them is untrue, including stereotypes that are harmful for them. And there are so many fascinating details to find along the way.

Will we ever conclusively know whether human language developed because we needed to share information about what was safe to eat, or if it was about how to evade predators? Maybe not. But by remembering to include 100% of the human population when gathering the evidence, we stand a greater chance.

Published 2017 by 4th Estate.

Source: Waterstones, Clifton.