Angela Saini: Disappointed by Darwin

Are women more nurturing than men? Are men more promiscuous than women?
Did Charles Darwin really believe that females are inferior? Why are humans and killer whales among the few mammals that undergo the menopause? Taking us on an eye-opening journey through science, Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story challenges our preconceptions about men and women. In her book, science journalist and engineer Saini challenges the notion of biologists who claim women are better suited to raising families or are more empathetic, while men are more rational and have better motor skills. Inferior was published in 2017, was named the Physics World Book of the Year and voted runner-up in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Angela Saini will be the key-note speaker at the 5th national conference on gender and science, which will take place 30th October 2018 at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

What was your primary motivation to write the book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong?

I wanted women to know what researchers were writing about them, about their minds and bodies, and how much of it they could really trust. We get fed a lot of myths and stereotypes about sex differences and I wanted to understand them, see what was correct and what wasn’t.

How long did it take you to write the book considering you had to analyse so many studies and researches?

It took a full year of solid writing and research, not doing anything else, and a year or so on each side of that doing preliminary research and editing. I had to focus on high-profile and highly cited studies and researchers because there is just so much work out there.

The issue of sex differences seems to be one of the hottest topics in scientific research. Your book attempts to dismantle the myth that the gaps between men and women are given by biology, that women are better at multitasking and are more empathetic, that men are more rational and more promiscuous, that men and women’s brains are structurally different, etc. What is the relation between nature and nurture in your view?

Nature and nurture are not separate, they work together. How we raise someone and treat them affects their biology. So if we raise boys and girls differently, they will behave differently and make different choices. If we treat them the same, they won’t seem so different at all. But of course, we live in a highly gendered culture, so that’s difficult.

One of the topics in your book deals with the fact that women live longer than men and recover faster when they fall ill. Science is yet to find out why. What is your personal view of this issue?

I have no personal view. All I can do is tell you what the scientists know and don’t know. So far, they think it may be because being child-bearers means women have stronger and flexible immune systems to cope with that, but there are other factors too.

Were you not a bit afraid of negative feedback, especially from the academia?

I haven’t had a single piece of negative feedback from scientists, and all the reviews have been positive. But that said, I have received some backlash from strangers on social media, mainly from people who haven’t read the book but disagree with my ideas.

It becomes transparent in your book there have been biased studies resulting in inaccurate results while studying gender. Do you think reasons for this vary with the course of time?

Most societies remain gendered and sexist, so the reasons haven’t completely gone away. We struggle against the same problems now as we did twenty or thirty years ago. But at least we are more aware of them now.

What was personally your most surprising discovery?

That the psychological differences between are actually so small. I expected there to be solid evidence that, for example, men are slightly better at maths and women are more intuitive because society tells us there is. But here isn’t. Psychologically we are very similar, and cognitively, we are almost identical.

How did you react when you learned about Charles Darwin believing women were intellectually inferior to men?

I was disappointed. Darwin is a scientific hero, a giant, and it’s sad that a man who was so careful in his research could make such elementary errors when it came to sex and gender. But to be fair to Darwin, he was a man of his time. His ideas on evolution may have been revolutionary, but his attitudes to women were solidly Victorian.

We don’t live in Victorian times anymore and many argue that women in the Western world have equality ensured by laws and the reason why their representation is lower in science, politics, leading positions etc. have to do with biology and sex differences. What would you say to this argument?

Laws do not guarantee equality in real life. There is still everyday sexism, gender pay gaps, discrimination and bias even in the most egalitarian societies. We can know for sure that biology cannot account for all the sexual inequality we see in the real world, and while that is the case, we cannot be judged as though we are on a level playing field.

If you met Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, who said that one reason for the scarcity of women among scientists may be due to “issues of intrinsic aptitude,” how would you argue to convince him of being wrong?

I would give him my book to read! Hopefully that would help inform him.

You often stress “having good science is important.” What do you mean by good science and why is it important?

Good science is thorough, peer-reviewed, published in reputable journals, and replicated. Some science doesn’t meet these conditions and we should treat it cautiously.

What would you like the reader to learn from reading your book?

Firstly, to understand the science better, and to feel emancipated by that. And secondly, to understand how to read science critically, and not assume that everything you read must be correct because a scientist is saying it.

Angela Saini is a science journalist, broadcaster and author. She presents science programmes on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. Her writing has appeared across the world, including in New Scientist, the Guardian, The Times and many others. She has a Masters in Engineering from Oxford University, and a second Masters in Science and Security from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

You can follow Angela Saini on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AngelaDSaini

To learn more about the 5th national conference on gender and science follow the Centre for Gender and Science on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NKCgenderaveda/