Overview - Inferior by Angela Saini

That women have historically been under-represented in the public sphere, including the fields of business, politics, and science and technology over the years is undoubted. But in addition to being both under-represented and under-recognized in science, (or maybe because of it), the “scientific research” regarding women may not have been performed, over the centuries, in an entirely objective manner. This is what science journalist Angela Saini discusses in her thought provoking book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong - and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story.

No less a person than Darwin, Saini outlines, was, reflecting the societal attitudes of the time, of the opinion that women are “inferior intellectually” to men. The subsequent discovery of sex hormones seemed to provide a mechanism for the biological differentiation between the sexes. With more and more research, the realization that these are not unique to either sex have kept on changing the biological narrative, but a lingering shadow of innate biological differences between the sexes, while considerably diminished, has still not been completely dispelled. Interestingly, as far back as around Darwin’s time, i.e. the late 19th century, women were pushing back against this narrative of biological imperative of differences between the sexes.

The biology of certain diseases, as well as that of mortality has, new research is showing, some relationship with the genetic makeup of the sexes, in particular due to X- or Y-linking of certain phenotypes. Medical research having focussed solely on males in the past has resulted in a lack of understanding of where females differ as a result of their biology, leading to inefficient treatments. However, a greater understanding of the differences is improving the understanding in this context.

In the context of behavioural differences between the sexes, particularly during childhood, the question of what parts (if any) of those behaviours are biological, and what have been culturally absorbed, is a hard question to unentangle. The longstanding hypothesis that “women have better social skills and men are more mechanically inclined” was claimed to have been proven by pshychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (a cousin of the actor, but that’s neither here nor there). However, subsequent criticism of his experimental procedure, and more research in the field seems to cast doubt on this hypothesis. Saini discusses both sides of this debate, and outlines that it is not a settled question, but lists a growing body of evidence on the other side of the argument. This particular discussion in this book reminds me of some of the things I read in Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence: All That Matters (my overview of that book is here), regarding the work that has gone into decoupling the genetic vs environmental contributions to human intelligence, as well as the reproducibility issues in certain psychology experiments, both of which have echos in Baron-Cohen’s experiment.

In addition to looking at behaviour through the perspective of psychology, looking at the brain through the perspective of neuroscience has been another avenue which has, in the past, shown sexual dimorphism. However, greater recent understanding of the techniques used, like fMRI, seem to suggest that the between group variablity between the two sexes isn’t as pronounced when the within group variablities for each of them are considered independently.

Anthropology and primatology are two fields which offer windows into the “past” of our species. The study of ancient peoples, and where applicable, extant hunter-gatherer tribes gives an insight into what the “natural tendencies” of humans pre-civilization might have been. And studies of primates other than ourselves, which are evolutionarily our closest cousins, can also give further insight into the same. However, while conventional wisdom in these fields focussed on examples where males and females conformed to what humans have, for centuries, considered traditional male and female roles, later observations of almost opposing behaviours in terms of, say food acquisition by males vs females in the !Kung in East Africa and the Ache in eastern Paraguay; or very different male vs female dynamics between our two closest primate cousins the chimpanzees and bonobos suggests that the story is not as uniform as the intial observations suggested.

In addition to all these aspects, Saini further outlines new research on the percieved differences between the sexes in attitudes towards sex and sexuality, and of how difficult it is to decouple any biological impulses therein from the cultural and societal structures that are in place weighing down on both sexes to act in certain specific fashions. Finally the book rounds off with a discussion of the grandmother hypothesis, which attempts to understand the existance of menopause, a phenomenon not observed in many species closely, or even distantly related to humans.

For a lot of the topics discussed in the book, the science on those isn’t completely settled, or in some cases, might not even be completely settled for some time. However, the increasing presence of female scientists on the scene working on these topics has definitely brought a new perspective to them, which formerly had been lacking. In addition to all the new development in the science of sex differences that Saini outlines in the book, I think a major takeaway is also the importance of diversity among scientists, to bring in new perspecitves that would not even be considered in situatations of homogeniety of the scientific community. Another point it underscores is how, in certain fields, despite the claim of science to be objective, it is hard to avoid intrinsic biases unconciously creeping in to hypothesis, or conclusions drawn from observations. I think this book is an absolute must read, as much for the research Saini outlines as for just this realization of how much diverse perspective matters in every human endevour, science included.