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Inferior - Angela Saini *****

There are times when a book comes along that is perfectly timed for the zeitgeist - and that's true of Angela Saini's Inferior. Most of the educational and scientific community would, I'm sure, protest their absolute lack of gender bias - but the fact remains that the scientific establishment is still predominantly run by men, even if in some disciplines there are more female students and postgrads than male. And some scientists tell us that there is evidence to underline why this is the natural order, due to brain differences between males and females.

Saini systematically pulls this assertion apart, showing how many of the apparent brain differences (and even physical modification of the brain) can be the result of cultural influences. It's not that there are absolutely no male/female differences in the brain, but they are small - in fact significantly smaller than the differences from individual to individual, a comparison that should mean that they are considered insignificant.

After a shocking opening, demonstrating just how recently women's brains were genuinely considered inferior - Saini is able to quote Darwin in a letter making it clear that he believed this to be the case - it's not surprising that we get a lot of material showing how unfair this is. The only danger when this is done is of using the same type of dodgy data to make the counter argument. So, for example, a couple of times we are told that girls are, in fact, better at certain intellectual activities at some ages than boys - but clearly, given the lack of difference in brains, this too is presumably not a real distinction, but a cultural imposition.

We also see some remarkable bias in the development of anthropological ideas, pushing through to evolutionary ones. Saini shows us how a 1960s symposium put across the idea that 'man as hunter' was the driver for civilisation, while totally ignoring the arguably more significant roles of women that went in parallel with this and would have to have been at least equally important in any shaping of our evolution and civilisation. It does seem shocking that scientists could get it so wrong in the modern era - and its hard not to see these errors pushing through into a sustained gender bias that should be incomprehensible with a proper, object scientific viewpoint.

This is strong and thought-provoking stuff. If anything, Saini holds back in certain areas. While she points out the horrors of female genital mutilation, she only mentions in passing the way that some cultures, often driven by religion, still impose strictures on women that are accepted in the West because we don't like to be seen as racist or intolerant. Whether we talking about the culturally imposed wearing of a headscarf or large scale restriction of female independence, as long as these are tolerated it's hard to see that opinions can be universally changed. 

There were a couple of small scientific issues. Those who insist on a strong distinction between the male and female brain often using evolutionary arguments. As Saini begins to pull this apart she makes the statement 'For every difference or similarity we see, there must be some evolutionary purpose to it.' But this suggests a non-existent directed nature for evolution. And while natural selection makes it more likely that many changes will stay in a species if they have a benefit, it's entirely possible for changes that don't have a benefit to be kept, because no better alternative displaces them. There are plenty of oddities in the human body which, frankly, could be designed better - they don't have a purpose. Similarly there was significant focus on other primates to make observations on human evolutionary biology. But these are species that have changed as much genetically from our common ancestors as we have. I'm not sure how much we can learn about human evolutionary gender differences from a species we split from millions of years before Homo sapiens existed. But in both these cases, the impact is relatively small on the argument.

I can imagine some readers will say that surely it is no longer necessary to make these points - we're all aware of them. You only have to look at the kind of society portrayed in a 1960s-set drama like Mad Men to see how much we've moved on. And we do, for instance, have more major political parties led by women than men in the UK at the moment. But the reality is that there are still unnecessary distinctions being made. We do see examples of women being treated as mental and social inferiors, or being segregated because of their gender. In some areas of science, there are still strong advocates for theories that probably should have been left with the Victorians. So this is a book we certainly need.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. "a couple of times we are told that girls are, in fact, better at certain intellectual activities at some ages than boys - but clearly, given the lack of difference in brains, this too is presumably not a real distinction, but a cultural imposition."

    I remember the eleven-plus exam in the UK, which decided how fit children were for a more academically rigourous education on the basis of the series of exams, including an IQ test (this was Cyril Burt's heyday). It was found that girls at that age consistently scored higher. But it could not possibly be the case that girls were better placed than boys to benefit from a grammar school education, so their threshold was adjusted accordingly.

    I don't see how this could have been the result of cultural influences

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    1. My point is that if you argue that there is no significant difference in ability between male and female brains, and hence apparent difference are not inherent, you can't then make use of apparent differences in testing to make a point. There's every possibility that there were things about the 11 plus that made it better suited to those who had been brought up as girls, as opposed to female brains.

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