Sometimes it seems like smug people like to point smugly to science to justify their smug opinions about their superiority. Alas, many of these people turn out to be men declaiming the natural inferiority of women. As much as some men would like you to believe it, however, “science” doesn’t prove that women are naturally inferior to men. As Angela Saini explains in her book of the same name, “science” backs up what many of us have observed for millennia: it’s complicated, y’all.
Inferior references Delusions of Gender, which I also read recently. Whereas Cordelia Fine’s book is about the perceived differences between men and women (particularly neurologically), Saini is more interested in examining scientific explanations that have historically been used to justify the view that women are somehow the “inferior” sex. So, while there is some overlap between these two books, they by and large have different theses.
Saini takes us right back to Darwin and his theories of natural selection and sex selection. She explains how Darwin, as important as his writing was for the development of the theory of evolution, nevertheless maintained sexist views about the role of women—and people like Caroline Kennard challenged him on it. From here, Saini starts to examine certain apparent biological differences between men and women—such as the fact that “females get sicker but males die quicker.” Finally, Saini confronts outright myths and misconceptions that have propagated across science and history, and she tackles how it’s difficult to determine how much of our sexual and social mores are biological or cultural in origin.
My overall impression of this book is that much of what Saini says here won’t be, overall, that surprising if you’ve been interested in this topic for a while like I have. Nevertheless, what makes Inferior so interesting is the amount of detail. There is a wealth of knowledge here. It is, as she says in her introduction, a resource that you can refer to if you need specific evidence when you’re trying to refute someone’s annoyingly essentialist arguments (though I’m not sure I have the memory to actually remember these studies off the top of my head, sadly).
The last few chapters are fascinating in their facts about the diversity of human sexuality. I loved learning about various cultures that have matriarchal elements to them, particularly when it comes to sexual behaviour and infidelity. For example, I hadn’t heard of the Mosuo “walking marriage” before. Saini does a good job highlighting these various departures from what we consider “normal” from our stunted Western perspective without exoticizing or fetishizing them.
I do wish she had been somewhat more critical of evolutionary psychology in general…. Saini admirably criticizes specific experiments in evolutionary psychology, and she is quick to point out how various biases (cough, old white guys, cough) can taint results. Yet she doesn’t really delve into the problematic nature of evolutionary psychology in general.
Saini demonstrates that even with the amazing tools of scientific method available to us, we need to be careful about the conclusions we draw, the theories we publish, and the statements we make about so-called “differences” between sexes. We are so obsessed with creating categories and labels and putting people in boxes, when the reality is that we are complicated, and that there’s a lot more to our bodies than certain chromosomes or specific hormones might determine.