For Christmas I was given Inferior, a book by Angela Saini which investigates the current scientific consensus on sex differences in humans. Overall I found it absolutely fascinating – full of intriguing examples from foreign cultures and difference species. It makes explicit some of the fallacies built up over centuries around female inferiority, and how those cultural ideas influenced ‘unbiased’ science. The prose itself was compelling – I finished the book in less than two days, primarily because I couldn’t put it down. Saini has a skill for finding the most illustrative and compelling examples, and then gives explanations in the words of the scientists who discovered them.
My only complaint is that there is an undeniable bias in the rhetoric. Studies which support the old patriarchal view are presented skeptically, with their potential failings explicit. Work for the other side, on the other hand, is generally presented as undeniable fact. Male scientists who step outside their own realm of expertise are castigated, while female scientists who do so are lauded – as long as their conclusions are pro-feminist. On the other hand, in some situations the science is murky and Saini acknowledges this. She always presents conflicting views, both from the researchers and their peers.
Incidentally, despite this book being non-fiction, there was a villain. Dr Trivers, whose research suggests that females are naturally chaste, or at least less interested in sex than males, appears to be a complete tool. In one story about photocopying an article, he mentions the feeling of his testicles pressed against the Xerox machine – why has he included this? Would he have said it to a male interviewer? (Would a male interviewer have included it in the book?) In addition to the sexual harassment, Dr Trivers has also failed to read a well-received research paper, written by a scientist who he admits is good and reliable, which contradicts his own research. That is odd enough – that a researcher would fail to read a response to his own work – but additionally, Saini explicitly asked him to read it. He admitted that he knew about it – even denigrated it – and still has not read it. Is this because this paper is written by a woman? Saini bravely does not rise to the bait here and accuse him of sexual bias, as I do.
Below are a collection of the highlighted tidbits I learned while reading this book:
- Evidence of Sex Bias
- In a study published in 2012, Corinne Moss-Racusin and a team of researchers at Yale University sent out applications for a job as a laboratory manager. Every resume was identical except for the name – one versions had a typically feminine name, and the other a typically male name. Scientists – regardless of their own gender – rated the ‘women’ as less competent and less hireable. They were less willing to mentor the women, and offered lower starting salaries. (Pg 5)
- Married women with children in the US are a third less likely to get tenure-track jobs than married men with children. (Pg 6)
- A 2016 paper looked at how men and women perceived competency in their peers. Students in a biology class were asked to guess the grades of their classmates. Male grades were overestimated – by men – by .57 points in the GPA scale. Women showed no such bias. (Pg 7)
- This is not genetically baked in, because other cultures have different results. In Bolivia, 63% of scientific researchers are women. In Central Asia, over half the researchers are women. (Pg 8)
- Sex hormones aren’t as binary as we might think: horse testes are the best known source of estrogen (Pg 34), and women with slightly higher than usual levels of testosterone neither look nor feel less feminine than those with normal levels (Pg 36). On the other hand, research from 1980 onward suggests that sex hormones do alter the brain as we develop, though the extent to which that effects us is unclear. (Pg 76)
- In 2011 census in India showed that there were 7 million fewer girls than boys under the age of six This is thought to be due to voluntary abortions after learning that a fetus is female. That was such a problem that it was actually made illegal in 1994. (Pg 40)
- Some hospitals in South Asia have 80% of child patients that are male, because the girls are simply not brought to the hospital when they are sick. (Pg 41)
- Across every society, women live about 5 to 6 years longer than man – and this has been true for centuries. We don’t really know why, but it has been hypothesized that female hormones play a role in strengthening the immune system. Supporting this is the fact that women are more likely than men to have autoimmune diseases – in the US, over 75% of people with autoimmune diseases are women. (Pg 46-49)
- Despite extensive research into the physiological differences between the sexes, until 1990 it was common for medical trials to be carried out exclusively on men. (Pg 58)
- Subtle and prolonged differences in the ways we are treated can affect the brain. In the 1970s and 1980s, research suggested that the ration of boys with mathematical genius to girls with mathematical genius was 13 to 1. Since then, the ratio has plummeted to 4:1, or even 2:1. This suggests that the difference is not inherent, but learned. Furthermore, in some communities women out-perform men on this scale – Latina kindergartners, for example, outperform their Latino classmates. (Pg 117-118)
- Many birds thought to be monogamous have recently been shown to have a penchant for cheating. Female bluebirds will leave their nests and fly considerable distances at night to mate with other males. Some scientists have rejected this finding, insisting that the females are being raped (though personally I can’t see how the male rapes the female into flying a “considerable distance”). (Pg 116)
- At Florida State, researchers had participants walk up to people (strangers) on the quad and propose a date or casual sex. The women were significantly less likely to agree than the men, and usually had a strong negative response (“Who do you think you are?”). The men were more likely to say yes to casual sex than to a date, and would often apologize if they refused sex. This was taken to show that men are naturally more promiscuous than women. But in 2015, two researchers questioned those results. They concocted an elaborate ruse where testees come in to a lab to participate in a dating study. They were shown ten photographs of people who “were interested in going on a date or having sex with them in particular.” If they agreed, they were told, they would go out in a safe location and the date would be filmed. In this situation – where the moral and physical risks were greatly decreased – 97% of women agreed to a date with at least one person, and almost every woman agreed to have sex. (The men all agreed to a date and sex with at least one woman). (Pg 174)
- Researcher Alan Bateman wrote an influential paper about fruit fly mating which indicated that females were passive, choosy receivers of attention, while males were promiscuous. Several years later, Patricia Gowaty began to suspect some of these findings. She looked more deeply into Bateman’s paper, and found multiple potential spots of error. She also tried to replicate his result, and found instead that females were just as likely to approach males as vice versa. She wrote a paper about this, which has yet to be read by some of the most influential researchers in the field (including Dr Trivers), even though they are aware of the paper and otherwise consider her a solid researcher. (Pg 174-178)
- Pigeons clump together for warmth in the winter. They are in mated pairs, and when they huddle together the male pigeons always sit in the middle of the set, so that they are between their mate and any other male. If there are three pairs, this becomes impossible – the middle male can’t keep his mate from both the other males at once. So he engages in ‘mate-guarding’ behavior, and pecks her until she backs up a few steps out of the huddle. The male pigeon would rather have his mate cold, tired, more likely to get ill than next to a male. If, in the night, she sneaks back into the huddle, he’ll peck her again until she is out. Question: Why go to such extreme lengths (we see such behaviors in humans as well) if the females do indeed have minimal sexual appetite? (Pg 180)
- Our two closest relatives, chimps and bonobos, exhibit markedly different behaviors. Male chimps are violent towards their partners, and will even kill a potential partner’s child to make her more likely to have sex with them. Bonobos, on the other hand, are run by the females. Though they are smaller than the males, they work together as a team to control the males. (Incidentally, the idea that female bonobos were in charge was rejected for many years by male researchers who couldn’t believe it). Females spend 2/3 of their time building relationships with other female bonobos. (Pg 200-205) What this means for humans is that it was not written in stone that males should be the dominant sex – not even with them being larger!