Historically, science has gotten plenty wrong about the female sex, often due to the biases of those conducting the research. That fact in itself is not all that surprising, but the sheer volume of the misguided thinking that journalist Angela Saini chronicles in her new book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, is often astonishing. Here are just a few examples:
• Charles Darwin, writing in 1881, said, “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually.” The letter was addressed to Caroline Kennard, who lived in Boston and was active in women’s rights at the time. At a meeting, she had heard someone make the argument that women were inferior to men, that this was “based upon scientific principles,” and seemingly was written in one of Darwin’s books. She had written Darwin hoping this person had been mistaken.
• A few years later, in an 1887 issue of Popular Science Monthly, former surgeon general William Hammond wrote, “I have seen many cases of girls whose nervous systems have been wofully [sic] disturbed in the endeavor to master algebra, geometry, spherical trigonometry, and other mathematical branches of knowledge that could not be possibly of any use to them.”
• And as recently as 2015, the scientific journal PLOS One had to had to fire one of its reviewers after he suggested that the female authors of a paper had to add one or more male authors to help prevent “ideologically biased assumptions.” No doubt, the reviewer was unaware of what men have historically said about women in the name of science.
A little misinformation can go a long way. Saini’s book explains historical scientific perspectives on women in the context of today’s research, and in the process, she deconstructs myths and misperceptions, like intelligence differences between men and women and sexual dimorphism in the brain. Recently, Science of Us spoke with Saini about her book. The following is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
When you were writing this book, what were the truths about women — or the things we accept as truth as a society — that you wanted to tackle?
Well, for me, what I really wanted to understand is, “What does science say about women?” Because I think different societies have different views on women, and different women have different views about themselves, so it’s a complicated picture. It’s impossible for me to say that society just thinks this about women, because that would just mean getting into stereotypes of the culture that I happen to belong to, or somebody else happens to belong to.
But what science says about women — what surprised me is that this is also a complicated picture. The biological story that we get about women, I was stunned to learn, is actually full of controversy, and is a scientific battleground in many ways. The picture is not very clear. And perhaps that’s to be expected, because you’re studying human biology and behavior, and it’s complicated. As individuals, we vary so much. And the picture is again complicated by social and cultural factors, so the biology becomes very blurred, and the whole science of women has been affected, over hundreds of years, by the baggage of the scientists who were doing the research. As far back as Darwin — Darwin brought his Victorian male view to his presumptions about women, and to some extent, we still do that to this day.
I think part of it is unavoidable. We have certain stereotypes and assumptions in our head that are incredibly difficult to lose. My book’s been out for a few weeks and there are people who insist, “No, my son is very different from my daughter. He does this, she does this. My wife is rubbish at parking.” I get a lot of comments like this, because we are so wedded to this idea that sex differences run really, really deep. And what I wanted to do when I set out to write this book wasn’t to bust that myth, but just to understand — how deep does it really go? What does the science actually say?
I don’t think I’ve provided a library of truths here, because that’s not how science works. Science is a process and it gets towards there slowly, but what I really want to do is pick apart the arguments and controversies.
Is there anything in particular that came across as surprising to you when you were writing your book that made you go, “Oh, this is false, so why do people still believe this?”
The thing is, the picture is complex because as individuals we exhibit so much difference. So if you take a group of people and split them down the middle, and look for differences between those two groups, you will always find them. Because statistically, we are all so different. And this is what complicates the picture.
If you go out looking for sex differences, sooner or later, depending on the group of people that you’re looking at, you may find something. Some groups, looking at exactly the same thing, find no sex differences — other groups looking at exactly the same thing, find sex differences. But the fact is that when large scale studies into psychological sex differences have been done, the differences are very small. This is quite well accepted now, and has been for a long time.
For instance, in intelligence, the average intelligence of men and women is the same. And yet very often in society there’s this underlying assumption or this underlying bias that makes us believe that that’s not the case. It’s a shame we still carry this baggage, and that we still treat women differently from men given that we know the psychological differences between them are so small.
When writing the book, did you just go where the science led you or were there certain things you wanted to look into specifically?
Well, the area I actually started with was menopause. I was just fascinated by the fact that there are such wildly different competing theories to explain menopause — that a group of men in Canada can say, on the one hand, that menopause happens because, on average, older men don’t find older women attractive. And then on the other hand, what is the prevailing hypothesis at the moment? The grandmother hypothesis. There is a lot of research, which has been done by women, which says that no, actually, the reason that women have such longevity after we become infertile is because grandmothers are so important, because of their role in caregiving for their grandchildren. There’s such different accounts for the same thing.
And I found that fascinating, because it made me think, “Is there bias at play here?” And one researcher told me that, yes, there probably is some bias. You’ve read the book, so you saw in there that he did admit, “Yes, perhaps we do veer towards certain theories because of our sex.” And to me, that was incredibly important, because what does that say about science? It says that theories and hypotheses can exist that vary depending on the sex of the researcher.
And then to take that premise and to look at other areas of science and what it says about women – I thought that if it could happen here, then it must happen in other areas. And it certainly does, across lots of different disciplines. Neuroscience, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and I think the most problematic are those in which there is very little evidence, hard evidence, or data, but there is a lot of speculation. So, particularly evolutionary psychology suffers from this, because actually we don’t know how we lived, or how we evolved, over hundreds of thousands of years.
I wanted to ask you about sexual dimorphism in the brain, that the brain develops structurally different depending on one’s sex, and whether that’s true or not.
We’re at a very early stage of understanding the brain. It’s such a complex, complex organ, and we know so little about it. Even the most sophisticated brain-scanning techniques can’t tell us everything. So, of course there’s more research to be done.
Certainly there are suggestions that there are differences in terms of white matter. Whether these differences mean anything — and by that I mean whether they mean we think differently, or whether there are psychological differences — that is the important thing here. And the fact is that when we study psychological sex difference, we see very little gaps between men and women. So, even if there are structural differences in the brain, the question is, what does that mean? If we can’t see differences psychologically, then perhaps it doesn’t mean anything.
But that doesn’t mean people should stop doing research into it. Of course scientists have to keep researching the topic, and perhaps they will find more differences in the future. But it’s very early to start speculating about what those differences mean, because we just don’t know the brain that well.
I had that same thought when you were going through the research. Even if there are structural differences, it apparently doesn’t have any behavioral impact.
Yeah, I think the problems lie for people who look for structural differences in the brain, then correlate those structural differences with psychological differences without actually looking at what studies on psychological sex differences say. When they resort to stereotype to explain the structural differences that they see, that’s when the problems start. Because the stereotypes aren’t where the science is at. The stereotypes are just stereotypes. So we need science on all sides. We need to think of this as a rounder, more complicated problem.
What I really wanted to do with this book was navigate that territory, and understand what the patterns are — and I wanted to this to be a book not just about men and women. I really wanted the book to be about how science works, and why we should question more when read about studies in the press, and really interrogate what we’re told.
Science is a process rather than a stream of facts. Things can go wrong. We can get misleading results, we can get misleading hypotheses, misleading speculation. But I think in the end, and I think this is a story that I lead up to, there are a lot of people who are correcting mistakes of the past.