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There is an inbuilt survival toughness that women have and men don’t: Angela Saini

On the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and The New Research That’s Rewriting The Story, spoke of the feminist perspective changing attitudes within scientific research.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 26, 2018 18:27 IST
Supriya Sharma
Supriya Sharma
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Jaipur Literature Festival,Jaipur Literature Festival 2018,JLF 2018
“Darwin used the word ‘intellectually inferior’ in reference to women, and this is where the title of my book comes from,” says science journalist Angela Saini.

When English biologist Charles Darwin published his seminal On the Origin of Species (1859), he was widely criticised and ridiculed for his theory of evolution. The founder of evolutionary biology, otherwise methodical and objective in his pursuit of facts, however, had a blind spot when it came to gender.

“Darwin used the word ‘intellectually inferior’ in reference to women, and this is where the title of my book comes from,” says science journalist Angela Saini. The British author’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and The New Research That’s Rewriting The Story (June 2017), highlighted the gender biases that have plagued scientific studies and the new research by women that is reviewing old theories.

For Jaipur Literature Festival full coverage, click here

“Darwin assumed men and women are born different, and that this is why women don’t have positions of power. It should have been obvious to him that women in Victorian society didn’t have the same opportunities as men,” says Saini. This sexist bias was not limited to evolutionary biology and it still continues in other science fields.

Things only began to change when women started entering the sciences in greater numbers and became professors in the 1950s. Women scientists began to challenge research that supported gender-based division of labour. “Evolutionary biologists like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty revisited these experiments and asked old questions in new ways from a historical, social context,” says Saini.

In her book, Saini speaks to scientists — men and women — in evolutionary biology, neuroscience anthropology and psychology to separate fact from fiction. Her findings are fascinating and depressing in equal measure. Her conclusions range from exposing the depths of gender discrimination to the weak scientific bases for sex differences and common gender stereotypes.

For instance, far from being the weaker sex, studies reveal that women are biologically better survivors and tend to outlive men. “World over, the life expectancy of women is higher, they have more flexible immune systems which gives them an edge when it comes to fighting diseases,” she says. “There are obvious physical differences. Women have the reproductive equipment, and men on an average are taller and have more upper body strength. Perhaps because of this or perhaps because of patriarchy we describe men as the stronger sex,” she says. “It is a topic that is still in very early days of research, but we can be sure that there is some biological inbuilt survival toughness that women have and men don’t.”

Watch: In conversation with journalist Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story

Saini dispels the common cultural myth that men are programmed to cheat while women are intrinsically monogamous. “Sexual behaviour is very contingent on social custom and culture within our society,” she says. “Sexual drive between men and women is not that different.”

Social conditioning and moral policing of female sexuality within patriarchy has created the myth of the coy, chaste female. In her book Saini refers to two experiments conducted at two different time periods to prove this point.

In the first, conducted in 1978 at the Florida State University, volunteers propositioned men and women to have sex with them. The men, almost entirely, said yes. “The women however entirely said ‘no’. This was taken as further evidence that men are promiscuous and women are not,” says Saini. When the experiment was repeated by German researchers in 2013 in a safer, controlled environment, it turned out that women weren’t unwilling to have sex with strangers. “In 1970s there was a risk involved in saying yes to a strange man. Not just fear of rape but social stigma,” says Saini.

Scientists who question long-held gender biases often face a vicious backlash. Though Saini received positive reviews, she is often attacked on social media by people who haven’t even read her book. “I think there will always be that element,” she says adding that women too internalise the bias. “We are all affected by cultures we live in and we bring them to our research,” she says.

Saini believes both sexes will gain from applying the feminist perspective to how new scientific research is conducted. “In the 1970s, women like Sarah Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty were already starting to change things. Very many experiments are being revisited, very many theories are being revisited. We’re getting a very different picture now of women’s minds, bodies, and their place in evolutionary history than we had before because better research is being done.”

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First Published: Jan 26, 2018 18:27 IST