The Bitter Scientific Battleground That Is a Woman’s Body
June 27, 2017
By Angela Saini
This essay appeared originally on Powells.com.
As a lifetime geek (you’re welcome to inspect my membership card—it comes in the shape of an engineering degree), I’ve long been a devoted worshipper at the altar of science. I’ve attended nerd nights on two continents. I’ve spoken at Google. I even wrote a book about geek culture in India. For me, as for millions of others, there’s no better way of understanding the world than the scientific method.
So imagine my horror when I finally learned that science wasn’t the perfect world of lab-coated, bespectacled good folk that I had always imagined it to be. Underneath the whiz-bang discoveries that populate the science pages, there are deep, dark problems that threaten to undermine public confidence in research—and that show it’s possible for bad, biased research to survive and thrive.
The process of my disillusion began when I was asked by a British national newspaper to write a feature on the evolution of female menopause. This is something of a hot topic in some corners of the scientific community. Becoming infertile in old age is common in the animal kingdom. What’s highly unusual is living beyond infertility. Indeed, this is so rare that we share it with only a handful of other distant species (none of them primates), including killer whales. The leading hypothesis for the evolution of menopause in humans is that the help and wisdom of grandmothers is so crucial to the survival of families that their very existence is living proof. This ‘grandmother hypothesis,’ however, has been challenged over the last couple of decades by a small but vocal number of male scientists who believe that the reason women become infertile as they enter older age is that too few men of any age find them attractive. Older men prefer younger women, they say.
The controversy created by these two competing explanations for menopause triggered a fascination in me about what else there might be in research on women that causes disagreement. As I soon found, there’s plenty. From whether or not our female ancestors hunted and/or stayed at home, to whether women are less promiscuous than men, there are huge bodies of research that are full of competing ideas and feverish squabbles. Women’s bodies and minds are a bitter scientific battleground.
In some ways, we should expect nothing less. Society itself, in its powerful fights over abortion and equal pay, reflects just how much women’s bodies are a political minefield. Social scientists have long insisted that science reflects the cultures to which it belongs, which means that consequently it can never be truly objective. We can’t help but see the world through our own lens, as much as we try not to. Humans are too imperfect to conduct the scientific method perfectly.
A perfect example is the father of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin. An intellectual giant, he was nevertheless entirely Victorian in his views on women—views which too easily spilled over into his science. He claimed that the female of our species was the intellectual inferior of the male, because women were not quite as evolved. Of course, this sounds nonsensical to modern ears. But at the time, it was quite widely accepted and repeated by his male biologist colleagues. Looking at some published research today, it’s difficult not to spot the same vein of sexist thinking running through theories on sex difference and female biology. If society isn’t yet equal or fair, then can we expect scientific research to be? The answer, clearly, is no.
It is an issue that ignited recently in the run-up to the March for Science, which took place in Washington, DC, and other locations around the world on Earth Day, April 22. Months before the big march took place in the capital, a few of the organizers began to complain that diversity issues should be incorporated into the ethos of the event, especially since the Trump administration has been seen not only as anti-science but anti-women and anti-minorities. This issue has become particularly high-profile recently following claims of sexual harassment by a number of prominent scientists across the country. A small number of scientists, however, expressed their view that promoting a diversity agenda would only muddy the waters. According to them, science is rational and objective, which puts it above the murky level of petty identity politics.
There is a hubris in science that comes from the widespread assumption that scientists are somehow free of prejudice. An experiment is an experiment, whether you are male, female, black, white, or blue, they say. But this attitude ignores the reality of how science is conducted, especially when it comes to human biology and behavior. There are countless points at which bias can creep into the process: study design, for instance, may focus on a particular group that happens to show the characteristics the researcher may want to see; hypotheses that simply can’t be tested may rest on dodgy assumptions and sexual stereotypes; and when scientists speculate about what the evidence before them might mean, in some disciplines, such as evolutionary psychology, this can occasionally be only slightly more scientific than gazing into a crystal ball.
What we took to be scientific truth a hundred years ago is often revised and qualified. Science isn’t a continual string of new facts—it’s a journey towards a better understanding of ourselves and the universe. And mistakes are made along the way—they must be, because making mistakes is the way we imperfect humans learn.
Indeed, one of science’s bigger problems is the general failure to understand this. Scientists live under the halo of being society’s ultimate “experts.” The refrain we often hear from the ivory towers of science is that its bad eggs are not indicative of science as a whole, that research itself—however deplorable the sexist words or behavior of a few people—is immune to sexism. That may well be true of certain disciplines, such as theoretical physics or astronomy (although the argument can certainly be made that having fewer women does damage to good research by not exploiting the full talents of a population), when studying human biology and behavior, we can’t always be so certain.
My own research for my new book, Inferior, has certainly been a wake-up call. I have looked into specific high-profile scientific studies to see just how far bias and prejudice can creep into published work. What I found is that research on women has not just been tainted by the Victorian sexism of the past. We live with it to this day. There are scientists who continue to claim that women’s brains being on average a little smaller than men’s brains doesn’t just reveal something about relative body size, but also about sex differences in intelligence. Others state that the ‘male brain’ is better suited to mathematics, while the ‘female brain’ is predisposed to enjoying coffee mornings with friends. There are those who say that we are not only very different, but that we have evolved to be different because men are naturally promiscuous hunters while women are born to be chaste, modest caregivers. All of this has been powerfully challenged in recent years by other scientists—many of them women—who have painstakingly gathered evidence that reveals that women and men are actually as strong, strategic, and intelligent as each other.
It’s a fevered battleground, which mirrors the gender battles we see in wider society today. For me, these scientific debates are deeply important because they inform how we see ourselves. We consider science to be objective; we give it priority over the facts. But what we need to better understand is that while science does have the power to provide us with reliable facts, these facts are sometimes still a matter of scientific debate. The old ideas we’ve been clinging to for decades may yet be swept away by new ones.
I’m not an apostate. I still love science, and I particularly admire the researchers who have devoted their careers to correcting mistakes within their fields. I have been honored to interview some of those attempting to rewrite the narrative to make it more accurate. They include such hardworking, brave thinkers as anthropologists Sarah Blaffer Hrdy—herself the author of many brilliant books, including Mothers and Others—and Kristen Hawkes; animal biologists Patricia Gowaty and Amy Parish, and neuroscientist Daphna Joel—all pioneering women who are painting a new portrait of women that looks wildly different from the one that Charles Darwin had hanging on his wall.
For me, researchers such as these epitomize what is great about science. When we challenge our assumptions and question the stereotypes we live with, when we see science not just as a method but as a body of knowledge that sits in a historical and cultural context, that is what makes for the best, most reliable research.
About the Author
Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist whose print and broadcast work has appeared on the BBC and in the Guardian, New Scientist, Wired, the Economist, and Science. A former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, she won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Kavli Science Journalism gold award in 2015. Saini has a master’s in engineering from Oxford University, and she is the author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World. Follow her on Twitter at @AngelaDSaini and visit her website.