Inferior [Angela Saini]

Source: Brooklyn Public Library ebook

Start Date: 2019-08-15

Finish Date: 2019-08-18

Goodreads link.

Chapter Takeaways

Chapter 1: Woman’s Inferiority to Man

  • It turns out that Darwin was a raging sexist and insisted that women had evolved to be inferior to men.
  • Meanwhile, Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton had prepared a beauty map of Britain, compiled by ogling women across the country and rating them.
  • Despite Darwin’s sexism, early feminists were delighted with Darwinism, seeing it as a weapon against Biblical sexism.
  • Eliza Burt Gamble abused Darwin for saying that being big and strong meant that gorilla’s were not as evolved as humans, but that being bigger and stronger meant that human men were more evolved than human women.

Chapter 2: Females Get Sicker but Males Die Quicker

  • All things being equal (no foeticide, infanticide, or neglect); women have lower mortality than men at every age.
  • Hypothesis that the female immune system is able to turn itself on and off easily because of pregnancy.
  • However, the flipside of this is that when it goes wrong, it goes catastrophically wrong and turns into an autoimmune disorder, and women are more susceptible to autoimmune disorders than men.
  • Drugs are persistently tested primarily on men, for the good reason that you don’t want to do trials on pregnant women.
  • But even results that show different reactions to drugs between men and women have to be first assessed to see if it’s a sex difference, or just a size difference (since women will on average be smaller).

Chapter 3: A Difference at Birth

  • Discovering that the experiment done to see if babies preferred a mobile or a human face; and how it differed by gender, and gave rise to the empathising-sytemising theory was amazingly flawed:
    • Experiment design itself was bad; the experimenter knew the gender / sex of the baby and it was not a double blind (if that’s the correct term) experiment
    • The experiment was done by a graduate student with almost zero experience, and the guide collected the credit
  • There was a confusing paragraph in this chapter which went: “… three areas that show a statistically marked difference…. gender identity, … sexual orientation… and childhood play behaviour.” I’m not sure what she was testing against, exactly. Boys versus girls, low testosterone vs high testosterone, what?
  • “The size of that sex difference is about two standard deviations. The sex difference in time playing with dolls versus trucks is about the same as the sex difference in height.”
  • Getting back to empathising-systemising, Mellisa Hines finds a sex difference of half a standard deviation.
  • The argument that men have a higher variability of IQ than women, is at least partially covered by the fact that more males than females suffer from mental disability / retardation; which goes back to the Chapter Two insight of men being more fragile.
  • Fausto-Sterling: “Maybe the toy difference is also not a perfect experiment because the kids are being socially conditioned to specific toys outside the lab.”

Chapter 4: The Missing Five Ounces of the Female Brain

  • Has a delightful story of how Helen Hamilton Gardener fought all her life over brain-to-body ratio vs absolute mass; and donated her brain to science after her death, upon which it was discovered that her brain weighed the same as the brain of the brain collection’s founder, Burt Green Wilder.
  • The next delightful story is about how inaccuracies in fMRI resolution mean that even a dead fish’s brain will light up on an fMRI, so the differences between male and female brain fMRIs should be taken with a pinch of salt.
  • Also, neuroplasticity means that there’s a risk that when you study women vs men’s brains, the brains might already have been altered by social conditioning, so even if there is a difference, it’s not an innate biological one.

Chapter 5: Women’s Work

  • Introduced to Prof Hrdy. We also learn about how female hanuman langurs are promiscuous, which is an evolutionary adaptation to male hanuman langurs murdering langur babies whom they know not to be theirs.
  • Humans have much higher fertility than other great apes.
  • The maternal instinct is not a 100% present.
  • Introduced to alloparenting – childcare beyond just the actual mother and father. Grandparents, siblings, caregivers etc. One study shows that older siblings have the most positive effect, followed by grandmothers, fathers, and grandfathers.
  • 1976: the “Man the Hunter” evolutionary hypothesis says that humans evolved to be hunters, primarily men, and women ended up inheriting the hunter evolutionary traits eithout doign the work. Also proposes that language evolved to help pack hunt coordination and brains developed from protein rich meat.
  • Evidence against this: hunting provides less calories than gathering.
  • Sally Linton (Sally Slocum): Woman the Gatherer hypothesis, says that brains and language evolved as a response to childcare responsibilities.
  • Gathering tools are made of wood / fibre and so leave no archaeological trace but hunting tools (metal / stone) do.
  • Other evidence against: hunting vs gathering patterns over the world are just too varied to say positively that either one is more calorie providing or more / less risky than the other on a general basis.
  • The Agta tribe of the Phillipines has women hunters too.

Chapter 6: Choosy, Not Chaste

  • Describes the “males are promiscuous because they can spread about their sperm, women are choosy/ chaste because they are stuck with a single egg to gestate” hypothesis and how it came about in fruit fly research.
  • My old fave Geoffrey Miller comes in for criticism  here, for suggesting that creativity, conversation, writing books, etc; are all the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail and that women are evolved to not do so.
  • Brings back the hanuman langur study to point out empirical evidence against the female chastity hypothesis.
  • Similarly nightingales, bluebirds, chipmunks, and some insects.
  • A 2013 redo of the Florida State University study of whether men and women would respond to a direct propositioning, did not replicate.
  • Even the fruit fly experiment didn’t replicate, and had basic problems like the offspring of promiscuous females dying off early because of unsuitable mutations.

Chapter 7: Why Men Dominate

  • Discusses female genital mutilation. Points out that it is painful, unhealthy, and mutilating for women, and unpleasant even for the male sexual partner. The only purpose it serves is to make it too painful to have sex with anybody. (My point of chutiya behaviour as opposed to harami behaviour.) Uses this as a launch point to discuss how culture can keep unsuitable going anyhow; and to talk about patriarchy as culture.
  • “The common thread that unites species in which females are particularly vulnerable to male violence is females being alone. An orangutan female, for instance, will travel alone with her dependent young almost all the time. Female chimpanzees, adds Barbara Smuts, spend three-quarters of their time alone, with no other adults present.”

Chapter 8: The Old Women Who Wouldn’t Die

  • Dives deep into menopause, and how odd it is that menopause hits so early before the rest of aging.
  • Discusses the “grandmother hypothesis” to explain for this: that menopause is evolutionarily suited because it turns women from mothers to alloparenting grandmothers who can devote their parenting skills to their grandchildren.
  • I briefly thought of the “Just NO MIL” subreddit and how they would shudder at hearing this.
  • Bedlam used to have two statues at the entrance, Raving and Melancholy.

Overall Notes

  • I enjoyed this much more than I did Cordelia Fine’s books. It seemed much more… professional? I thought Fine’s books were great at tearing down bad hypotheses, but a little hand wavy when it came to showing evidence for her own point of view. This book doesn’t have those faults.
  • Chapter 7 in particular seems to be a push to say “Well, the science was based on shoddy experiments, so the sex differences we see are attributable not to biology but to culture. Time to turn the study over to the sociologists.” Which is okay at a high level principle, but it is a bit of psychological wrench to have to let go of a thoery that neatly explained everything, and then have to wait for sociologists to do their slow work of teasing out cause and effect from the complicated and messy sociological realities. Some relevant quotes here:
    • Every problem has a solution that is simple, elegant, and wrong – H L Mencken.
    • In that moment, he doubted if there could be any mental state more cruel than the desiring of real meaning from circumstances that lacked definitive or useful answers. – Mitch Cullen, A Slight Trick of the Mind
  • And in general, it reminds me of the EconTalk episode about how we are addicted to knowing things, even if those things need not be true. Having to go from “Biology explains this!” to “This is a job for the sociologists and we may never have a clear explanation” is like cold turkey for certainty.

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