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Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong
Submitted by Francesca R
6th June 2018
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong

It hasnít been very politically correct for quite a while to suggest that females are the evolutionary inferiors to males, so those with reputations tend not to, or (as with Harvardís Lawrence Summers who consequently became ex-Harvard) are pilloried if they do. But this has been distinctly less the case in the realm of science and scientists. Most of whom are still male, and almost all of whom once were. Stats like these shouldnít matter according to the advertised bias-free evidence based scientific method; it wonít be unfairly loaded against women even if itís men doing the science, but its answers will go where the facts point. And indeed, maybe it would give a scientific explanation for why itís mostly peopled by fellas.

But Angela Saini doesnít buy this notion and she argues that science has long been sexist. Ms Saini is a science writer and broadcaster and engineering graduate and apparently she was the only girl in her A-level chemistry and maths classes. Your reviewer took both of these subjects (a few years before the author probably) and also studied chemistry at university and she recalls being in something more like a one in four minority for the latter. Today women graduate in greater numbers than men in most subjects that include some sciences. But the profession beyond academia is still not very girlie (and your reviewer helped this statistic by quitting science for financial markets, although that isnít either)

Studies such as one published at Yale in 2012 where test-subject scientists (male and female) tended to reject more identical job applications if the senderís name was female, would seem to corroborate Ms Sainiís charge. History doesnít help the neutrality case either: Londonís Royal Society was founded in 1660 but took almost three hundred years to admit its first woman member. Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes but was barred from Franceís Academy of Sciences because she was a she. Other female scientists have seen an award (or the authorship of a paper) go to a male colleague even though it was she who did the real work. Conclusions seem to have been drawn about womenís suitability for the discipline before much data were in. But the sexism charge isnít restricted to lab access, professorships and honours of distinction; the authorís main concern is with scientific theory that hints or declares that women are evolutionarily inferior in one way or another. The problem with that, she argues, is it isnít true.

Charles Darwin stuck firmly to his belief in the intellectual superiority of men until his daysí end (he had theory and evidence to go with, of course). In the eyes of scientific feminism this was a rather tragic failure to grasp the opportunity that Darwinian evolutionary theory had only just offered for the first time in history, to invalidate religiously founded ideas of patriarchy that had previously cast women as inferior (and still do all over the place). That ball was dropped because it simply replaced those with sciencey equivalents. And Ms Saini concludes that science didnít have its eye on it anyway. Meet the new boss-guy / same as the old one.

Darwinís belief, painstakingly researched no doubt, was that competition to attract mates is what pressed the males of most speciesóhuman includedóto evolve faster, get bigger, stronger, cleverer, better-looking, and fundamentally become superior, in some all-pervasive outworking of the peacockís tail effect. Although this seems to assume that picking the best male from the resulting beauty pageant is childís play rather than womanís play, and requires no specially honed faculties if itís own. And other biologists have tended to view peacocksí tails and analogous phenomena as wasteful ďarms racesĒ that have instead decremented bodily fitness for zero-sum pulling power (another aspect of fitness, yes, but not one deployable elsewhere in peabird life).

Ms Sainiís book is a dissection of how sexism has supposedly become woven into the fabric of common scientific understanding, and is a decent argument why it should not be. Her aim is to attach social and cultural origins to ostensibly hard wired sex differences. Scientific enquiry should certainly not shy away from politically sensitive subjects of gender difference, and should be welcomed in as an objective counterweight. But, Saini argues, if itís biased that actually means itís not properly scientific. Simon Baron-Cohenís landmark study of day-old infants published in 2000 concluded that boys would rather look at a mobile and girls would rather look at a face. This produced a highly influential and wide ranging treatise on sex differences at birth (female: empathetic, male: systematic) from its author two years later, perhaps including more than could be inferred from what a group of newborns might have spent a bit longer gawking at. But the experiment has not been repeated (in part because itís difficult to get permission to test such subjects), and also the experimenter knew the gender of many of the babies she tested, which flouts a requirement for test blindness.

Boys used to perform better at maths with statistical significance, but now that pattern has reversed and in many countries girls do. Ms Saini argues plausibly that this indicates cultural or social drivers, not biological ones. But when boys were scoring higher there was a lot of assumption that it was biologically wired natural ability. The notion that hunting (mostly a male preserve though not exclusively) drove the inception of language (and with it expanded brain capacity) in males first, doesnít seem all that compelling to the author compared to, say, the need to figure out how to cooperate in the complex raising of children (mostly a female preserve historically, though again not exclusively). Especially when it is considered that hunting was never a very reliable source of calories for a family anyway compared to gathering or fishing. And one reason advanced for why males, rather than females, have hunted is the counterpart to their ability to sire comparatively vast numbers of children with rather little effortóhunting is more dangerous to life, and males are actually more evolutionarily expendable from the reproductive process. That kind of superiority might suck.

In pursuing her cultural/social origin of sex differences in species, Ms Saini advertently or otherwise pushes home how one brings oneís priors to the party; hypotheses just sound so much more plausible if theyíre what suits, feminist or patriarchal. For example, post-menopausal women retain evolutionary benefit according to a ďgrandmother hypothesisĒ, helping their next of kin to reproduce via division of labour and thus promoting lineage even after they are no longer bearing kids themselves. An alternative explanation is that more senior ladies were deselected as reproductive partners by men due to age-related (un)fitness and consequently their mothering ability evolved away as a result and they are now an evolutionary irrelevance (and humans are an exceptionally rare case where the female of the species lives beyond her reproductive years) Polling shows more women preferring the first hypothesis, whereas the other comes from (male) biologist Rama Singh and is more favoured by, well, others.

Ms Sainiís book was written because she claims that it is not easy for science to be gender unbiased going forward without an account and reconciliation of its sexist past, and an understanding of the cultural ways in which this came to pass. And feminism is good for science, she says, because quite a bit about things that mostly or only affect females have simply not been bothered with as much in research, which is a disservice to all. But data that powers research showing non random gender gaps remains more publishable and memorable/citable than that saying no difference. If not so much in journals any more, then still in the Daily Mail.
Angela Saini

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