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Atlas Interview: Angela Saini

Science in the Grip of Gender, Race and Mansplaining

Interview: Seza Özdemir

English translation: Tibet Yılmazer

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Debates over the identity, body, career and place in a society of women, retain their relevance both in the social and political space and on the street. Furthermore, along with refugees, immigration, different cultures and economic crisis, debates over racism and the concept of race continue to dominate the order of the day. Anyways, what does science say about these subjects? What did it hitherto say to society about these subjects, moreover what can it say to us in the future? The books titled Superior and Inferior published this year in Turkish by Minotor Kitap, and written by the award-winning science journalist Angela Saini, known for her work on the reflection of concepts like women, race and mansplaining in the field of science, contains interesting answers for readers who are to pursue the aforementioned questions.

In her book Superior, Angela Saini traces the concept of “race” in science from its beginnings to the present, and through interviews with geneticists, anthropologists, historians and social scientists from all around the world, reveals the scientific studies which are breeding racism, concurrently drawing attention to the fact that “racist” viewpoints and biases in scientific studies haven’t fully disappeared. In turn, Inferior, while questioning the representation of women in the field of science, examines studies made about women’s bodies, brains and roles in human evolution, and compares them with recent studies. All the while, revealing the part played by science in the perpetual image of women based on gender roles and prejudices focused on the differences between men and women, she shares recent scientific studies, which indicate true power, creativity and productivity of women, with her readers.

“Gendered oppression runs deep, and its roots are political, cultural, and social. If we want to combat it, we need to look at why societies and states remain committed to patriarchy.”

Seza Özdemir: Today, even in a country such as ours, Adam and Eve's story is still sacred for most people, and opposition can be found even to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory being taught in schools. At the very beginning of Inferior, reading about the correspondences between Darwin and Caroline Kennard, and witnessing how Darwin’s sexist approach was criticised is interesting. You say that Darwin was a man of his time (the Victorian Age), and add that “Evolutionary theory, despite what Charles Darwin had written about women, actually offered great promise to the women’s movement.” (p. 25) Indeed, evolutionary theory in itself has great importance for its destruction of the Genesis story. Could you explain a bit about what it provided to the women’s movement? In addition, how would you evaluate contemporary studies of modern evolutionary biology in regard to their contributions to the women’s movement?

Angela Saini: In the nineteenth century, evolutionary biology revolutionized how some people imagined the history of humanity. Of course, it overturned religious beliefs that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, to serve as a kind of companion to him – and in so doing, offered a place for women that was potentially more than just about being a wife and mother, that a woman existed in her own right, with independent agency irrespective of a man.

Remember, this was a time when women in many countries weren’t considered proper citizens, without the right to vote, and were often legally dependent on their fathers or husbands. Religious beliefs about a woman’s ‘natural place’ had helped to define laws governing marriage, so the evolutionary theory was in that sense a complete upheaval. For women’s rights activists in the mid-nineteenth century, this was a chance to assert their place in public life, to work alongside men in the same jobs with the argument that we had all evolved together, and that there was no natural reason to prevent women from having equality with men.

But of course, male scientists at the time were no less sexist than anyone else in power and they instead began using spurious, pseudoscientific biological arguments to claim that a woman’s place had still evolved to be at home as a nurturer and carer. Darwin himself thought that women were less evolved than men and that they were intellectually weaker by nature. In the second half of the twentieth century, as women entered the sciences in much larger numbers and became professors, these myths about female biology were finally rewritten. In the 1970s and 1980s, pioneering evolutionary biologists like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty challenged sexist myths in their fields – including the claim that women were naturally chaste, or that women selflessly always put their children above themselves. They reminded fellow scientists that women are not simple creatures, all somehow biologically destined for lives of household drudgery.

S.Ö.: Along with scientists such as Robert Trivers, Frank Marlowe, and Baron-Cohen, who identified the scientific findings against women’s favour under the effect of bias, you also made interviews with feminist scientists like Kristen Hawkes. A quotation from your interview with Hawkes made me think, Hawkes says, “If you’re really paying attention to biology, how can you not be a feminist?” Do you think the feminist perspective should always be taken into consideration in scientific studies?

A.S.: I think everyone’s perspectives should have a place in science. The problem comes when only a narrow subset of people with a particular shared set of experiences are the ones doing research. The risk of bias becomes enormous, as we can see from the historic sexism and racism in Western science. With more points of view – from women, from minorities, from everyone from all walks of life – we have a better chance of asking better questions and challenging our biases.

The most important thing to remember is that science has always been political. The scientific academies of Europe excluded women as a matter of course from the beginning. The Royal Society in London began to admit women as members only in 1945 – the year my father was born. We only really get to the scientific truth when we recognize how politics affects how scientists work, and interrogate this. If not, we’re doomed to perpetuate the scientific errors of the past.

S.Ö. : In the book, you mention studies countering the claim that there is a difference between the brain of a woman and that of a man, such as “empathising–systemising theory”, stating that these sorts of studies set off with some biases, but that the brain actually has no differences. At this point, you mention the concept of “neuro-sexism”, which we have also seen in the works of Cordelia Fine and Gina Rippon. Could you expand on this concept?

A.S.: Neurosexism is the idea that brain research is affected by a social bias that means neuroscientists look for significant differences between the brains of men and women while neglecting the vast amount of similarity that exists. We are in the very early days of understanding the brain, and it’s disturbing how much effort has gone into proving gender stereotypes are based in biology using what is very often shaky evidence. The British neuroscientist Gina Rippon is a hero in this regard, challenging so many absurd and outdated claims – such as the idea that men have larger brains than women, and that this makes them somehow smarter.

To some degree, the field is already starting to improve. I’ve noticed that there is far less breathless hype around neuroscience studies these days, and there has been a reckoning in the field with regard to the limitations of brain scanning technologies, and lots of work showing how open they are to error and misinterpretation. You are less likely these days to see papers making the bizarre, essentialist claim that women’s and men’s brains are fundamentally different – people are generally better aware that we differ far more physiologically as individuals than we do based on our gender or sex.

“Personally, writing the chapter on menopause helped me appreciate the beauty and strength of growing older. In an era in which youth is prized in women and we desperately all want to stay young, it helped me remember the value of old age – and the countless generations of grandmothers who helped bring us all into existence. I’m no longer afraid of menopause.”

S.Ö. : You tackle menopause widely in the book, a topic rarely mentioned and talked about. In addition, “the grandmothers hypothesis” is indeed inspiring in this respect. In the book, you state: “However controversial it might be, her research has helped bring older women into the evolutionary frame. A door has opened to a completely different and more positive way of thinking about ageing. And today it forms part of a wider body of work questioning whether menopause should, in fact, be welcomed rather than feared.” (p. 229) Today, while the young population is increasing fast in Asia and the Middle East, the opposite is taking place in Europe. Considering this, what may be the contributions of understanding “the collaborative grandmothers” and their potential better?

A.S.: Statistically, we know that the presence of a grandmother on average increases the likelihood that her grandchildren will survive and live longer – and scientists believe this may be one reason why humans have evolved to live so long into our infertile years compared to other primates. This is also something many of us might recognize from firsthand experience. For instance, my mother-in-law has played a huge role in raising my own son, as has my father-in-law.

We are a particularly social species, and when it comes to humans there is a lot of truth in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. We don’t live in isolation and we rarely, if ever, raise our children alone. We need each other, and different generations have their own skills and talents to offer that village. Personally, writing the chapter on menopause helped me appreciate the beauty and strength of growing older. In an era in which youth is prized in women and we desperately all want to stay young, it helped me remember the value of old age – and the countless generations of grandmothers who helped bring us all into existence. I’m no longer afraid of menopause. The fact we as humans live so long shows that we have more to give the world, and biology shows the possible evolutionary effects of this phenomenon. Menopause is just another natural stage in human life, and as meaningful as every other.

S.Ö.: Freedoms and the acquired rights of women have suffered serious losses in different regions of the world. Examples of these are, the current changes in the abortion law in the USA, the political discourse in Turkey as “the most important career of woman is to give birth”, the struggle of Iranian women against the mullahs, and the prohibitions of girls’ education and women’s employment in Afghanistan, etc. When you consider these sorts of social and political regressions, how effective do you think what scientific research says to societies about women and gender stereotypes is?

A.S.: Science should not be the battlefield upon which we fight for our rights because science itself is often contested – in the nineteenth century, some scientists claimed that women who went to university would see their reproductive capacities suffer. For me, good, rigorous science is only a reminder that any claims about women’s weakness or inferiority are not based in fact, but on prejudice. And prejudice can affect even the most rational of us, even the best scientists.

Gendered oppression runs deep, and its roots are political, cultural, and social. If we want to combat it, we need to look at why societies and states remain committed to patriarchy. This is what I’ve tried to do in my latest book, The Patriarchs, which is out in spring 2023.

“It can take very little for our latent prejudices to surface – we saw it during the Covid-19 pandemic when, early on, there were some bizarre suggestions that certain races might be less likely to catch the virus than others.”

S.Ö.: In Superior, we see that, even if the concept of “race” has no important meaning according to the current biological taxonomy of the species, this concept occupied the agenda of past scientific research for a long time. What about today? In the afterword of the book you say, “Intellectual racism has always existed, and indeed for a chunk of history, it thrived. I believe it is still the toxic little seed at the heart of academia. However dead you might think it is, it needs only a little water, and now it’s raining.” (p. 291) How could it be possible for racist viewpoints to be influential again in science despite the distance contemporary science has covered?

A.S.: Racism would have died out long ago were it not for the fact that it serves people’s immensely powerful and destructive worldviews. Racists don’t care what biology does or doesn’t say; they will manipulate facts in their favour because they are committed to their ideological position which gives them power over others. If you look at racist literature today, it is almost identical to what was written by racists and white supremacists in the nineteenth century. Much of my research involves looking at how scientific claims are used by ethnic nationalists and the far-right, and it’s remarkable how pseudoscientific and simplistic these claims still are. But they remain influential because some people would rather believe these myths.

But it’s also important to remember that racist bias exists in all of us to some degree because the world still teaches us all to despise the ‘other’, to fear migrants, and to be suspicious of foreigners. It should come as no surprise that there are even people in academia who hold these views and that it warps the way they think about the science of human difference. It can take very little for our latent prejudices to surface – we saw it during the Covid-19 pandemic when, early on, there were some bizarre suggestions that certain races might be less likely to catch the virus than others. Of course, this isn’t true, but it revealed that these racist myths are in only a very shallow grave. And this is why scientists have long been used as a tool by those with political motivations – we need only look to the Nazis in Germany, or eugenicists in many countries in the early twentieth century.

S.Ö.: Highly important studies have been recently made in social sciences within the scope of both gender and racism, and new departments have been founded in universities such as ecofeminism, animal studies, Women’s, Gay and Lesbian, Gender, Feminist and Queer Studies; Race, Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies. What do you think of these studies and developments? Could the intellectual development created by these studies allow us to position ourselves out of the binaries of the East-the-West, woman-man, white-black, etc?

A.S.: I hope we can move towards a scientific way of understanding the human difference that appreciates our complexity as unique individuals, as well as recognising our shared single humanity. For me, a much more reliable and accurate science of human difference would study people at the individual level, not at the far cruder group level, because it’s at the individual level where we see the majority of human differences. Beyond that, we are one remarkably homogeneous species – more genetically homogeneous even than our evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzee. We are one species and we are billions of individuals.

The problem is when we insist on people being easily categorized. Many of us are not easily categorized – racial categories differ hugely among countries, for instance. What different fields of study in the social sciences do is remind us of those whom we have marginalized, and how we might bring them back into the centre, into the visible everyday tapestry of human life. Maybe one day we will achieve a society in which nobody is othered when we recognize the breadth of human gender expression and when we have sciences that incorporate non-Western knowledge systems. Since moving to the United States in 2021, I’ve been learning more about some Indigenous cultures here and their completely different relationship with the natural world, systems which see nature as part of us rather than something separate. I would love to see that breadth of understanding woven into modern-day biology.

S.Ö.: Finally, I want to talk a bit about your coming book The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule where you explore the roots of what we call patriarchy. What is at the core of patriarchy for you and what can the history of patriarchy teach us today?

A.S.: It was remarkable to me that there has never been much interrogation of how societies originally came to be as gender unequal as they are today. We just take male domination as given. In reality, there is a complex history there – a gradual build-up over millennia that has brought us from a world with huge social diversity in gender relations to where we are now, a world with oddly similar patriarchal laws and codes. I found that one of the biggest drivers of male power historically was the adoption of patrilineal systems of marriage thousands of years ago, in which women leave their childhood families to live with their husband’s families. Patriliny isolates women and makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse over time. Over time, these patterns became translated into gender norms, religions, and much later into state legislation around marriage.

It is more accurate to say that there are many patriarchies than just one patriarchy – because male domination takes different forms depending on where you are. And we mustn’t forget that there are still many matrilineal societies in Asia, Africa and the Americas in which women hold significant power and privilege. Patriarchal marriage is not universal. There have always been alternatives, and we can also invent new ones – we can build better societies that don’t alienate people and try to keep all of us safe from harm.


Angela Saini

She is an award-winning science journalist and author. Works of Saini, who continued her career in science journalism after finishing her education at Oxford University and King’s College London, in the fields of engineering and science, were published in outlets like The Guardian, National Geographic, Science, Wired, The New Humanist and New Scientist. Furthermore, she prepared radio and television programmes for BBC. She was given awards by the Association of British Science Writers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In their years of publication, her books Inferior (2017) and Superior (2019) were deemed to be the “book of the year” in many places in Europe and America, and gained a large universal readership since then, as evident by their translation to many different languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, Russian and Chinese. Saini also has another book titled Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, published in 2011, and a book titled The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, which is to be published in 2023.

Seza Özdemir

After graduating from the department of English Teaching at Yıldız Technical University, she worked as a culture and art reporter, editor for art magazines and proofreader for a few years. As a freelance translator, she translated articles and advertising copies. She has written book reviews and critics for various book supplements and internet portals. Since 2015, she has been working in book publishing as an editor and translator.

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