Interview with Angela Saini

«We have to understand that who we are is biological, social and cultural»

Scientific journalist and author (United Kingdom)

Angela Saini

When Angela Saini (London, 1980) was sixteen, she was elected president of her school’s first scientific society. She was thrilled and organised a workshop to build and launch miniature rockets which, in the end, was attended only by her and her chemistry teacher. «If you were the geek growing up, you’ll recognise how lonely it can be. If you were the female geek, you’ll know it’s far lonelier», she explains in the introduction to her book Inferior: How science got women wrong – and the new research that’s rewriting the story, published by Beacon Press in 2017.

«If from the second you are born you are treated differently depending on your gender, how can you know the behaviour that you display is natural or not?»

Angela Saini is now a renowned British science journalist, trained in science and engineering. She was awarded a 2012 Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, and is currently a contributor to various media and the host of science outreach programmes on British Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. Last year she was chosen as UK’s most respected journalist.

In Inferior, Saini takes a look at how science has understood the differences between women and men across disciplines: neuroscience, medicine, anthropology, and evolutionary biology. This book is born from the desire to know and disseminate science-based knowledge about gender differences based on studies published in this field. The work was internationally recognised with awards such as the Physics World Book of the Year in 2017.

Saini – whose first book, Geek nation: How Indian science is taking over the world, was published in 2011 – has returned this year with another work in which she examines the role of science in the spread of racism and racial stereotypes: Superior: The return of race science. Taking advantage of Angela Saini’s brief visit to Valencia in March, when she took part in the Science and Gender Conferences of the Alfons el Magnànim Institution and the Cañada Blanch Foundation, we were able to talk to her about how science has dealt with issues such as gender and race, subjects that are not exempt from controversy and which Angela Saini has discussed extensively.

I would like to start with an idea that is present in the Spanish subtitle, which is a little different from the English version: How has science undervalued women historically?

Well, in lots of ways, really. We have to look at the history of science to understand what science says about women. At the birth of modern European science, Western science – so I am talking about the Enlightenment here – there was the assumption that women were intellectually inferior. And this is why scientific academies did not include women. Women were bad for membership because it was just thought that women were not central to even the idea of doing science, because they were not intellectually capable of doing it. So for those two or three hundred years, there is an establishment that is doing research into what it means to be human, what it means to be a woman. Why should that surprise us then that they say that women are intellectually inferior? It could not say anything else!

«I do think there is some biological aspect to gender. I do not think it is purely cultural. And I do not think many people do these days»

In your book you delve extensively on this question and on how the behavioural differences between men and women have been studied. Are we really as difference as we usually think we are?

I think we have to accept that there may be differences, but it is very difficult to understand those differences as natural when we are such social and cultural creatures. If from the second you are born you are treated differently depending on your gender, how can you know if as an adult the behaviour that you display is natural or not? We cannot raise children in the backyard, so, given that you will never ever be able to separate those two things, how much can science really tell us then about the difference between nature and nurture? This is why I do not like the terms nature and nurture, because they imply there are two separate things and we can separate them and that is how we get to the biology of it. You do not get to the biology that way. If you give a child certain toys to play with, their brains will be exercised in that direction. If you work out in a gym, your body will be bigger. Animals do not do this [laughs], so how can we assume that anything we see in terms of behaviour or how we look is natural and that we can somehow distil it down to those basic elements. We have to understand that who we are is biological, social and cultural.

Anyone who has children or who is in contact with children can see that they internalise gender roles from a very early age, even when parents make an effort to not influence them one way or another. But it does not matter how hard you try, girls seem to end up preferring dolls and pink clothes. This has often been used as evidence that there is a biological component to this behaviour. What do you think about it?

We have to remember that pink used to be a boys colour a hundred years ago. It was considered like a toned down version of red. And red was masculine, it represented virility. So, if we see a girl who loves pink, it is impossible for that to be natural [laughs]. And it is not just about parenting, it is about everything. For example, my son’s grandmother is a doctor. All or almost all the doctors that he knows in his life are women. But he still said to me last year, when he was four years old: «Mommy, men are doctors and women are nurses». Because he thought that this is how the world is divided, because of all the other things that he had consumed, it was not enough to have the evidence of his own life. So, however hard we try to take these stereotypes away, they are still there. In the long run we have to try and make society more open and free and fair so that our children do not feel constrained by these old-fashioned characters.

Photo: Jesús Císcar

In your book you talk about Michael’s case. He was born with ambiguous genitals due to a rare condition and was «assigned» to be female, despite being genetically male. But as you explain in Inferior, he developed an interest towards traditionally male toys and activities. Finally, as a teenager he discovered the truth, understood how everything fit together and decided to continue living as a man. In this case, the behaviour he developed in his childhood cannot be explained only in cultural or social terms, because he was raised as a girl. What are the biological components of gender identity?

I do think there is some biological aspect to gender. I do not think it is purely cultural. And I do not think many people do these days. Certainly in neurological sciences most scientists agree that gender is not just fully a construction. And actually that has done damage in the past, to think this way in the cases of intersex children, who were just assigned a gender at birth in the assumption that that would be fine, somewhat. I think we have to accept that there are some aspects of biology there, but to what extent? It is difficult. Society understands that it is not binary, it is not just male and female. I may share typically male interests and typically female interests, and most people are that way. I do not like to think of gender as a spectrum. I think it is more like a kind of mesh or a fabric. We are all a mix of different things, I think there are very few people who are purely that extreme male version of male and very few people with that extreme female version of female as stereotypes tell us.

In her book Delusions of gender, Cordelia Fine coined the term neurosexism to talk about bad neuroscience, made from stereotypes. Do you agree with this concept?

I do, I do. This is not just present in neurosciences, it is also in psychology, biology… This is a system of thought that we all perpetuate, even I myself. When I was at university and I was the only girl in my engineering classes, I just thought I was different from other women. I did not think that women had made different choices and there were cultural reasons or social reasons. I just thought that I was different from other women and that is the danger of this way of thinking, that we look at the world around us and we assume that whatever inequality we see is somehow natural, when actually there are so many other explanations for the inequality that exists.

«Society understands that gender is not binary, it is not just male and female»

But beyond behaviour, there are other biological differences depending on sex, some that affect our health, our life expectancy, for instance. In this sense, do you think that the gender perspective is necessary in research?

I think the gender perspective is important, but I do not think we should assume that just because there are average differences between men and women that we are two different distinct types in every sense. Yes, there are some things in which this type of thing applies, for example reproductive systems. A man – a biological man – cannot give birth, that is a biological part, and that is distinct, there is no grey area there. Yes, there are average differences. We know men have on average twice the upper-body strength of women. But there are many women who have more upper-body strength than some men, there are many women who are taller than some men. Psychologically, the overlap is almost complete. So, I think we need to resist this urge to say that either we are all exactly the same or we are all exactly different.

One of the problems that have been pointed out in medical research is the fact that clinical trials have been carried out mainly with men. Could this be a problem when studying the effects of drugs and treatments on women?

Yes, it was a problem, but if it had been a huge problem we would have women dying everywhere, right? If women were so different from men and they had not been included in trials, then we would all be dead right now. It was not completely pointless to only study men, because we’re not so different.

I found an example in your book which I think is quite surprising, regarding the conclusion of two researchers about the same hunter-gatherers tribe, the Hadza. They were Kristen Hawkes, who supported the «Grandmother Hypothesis», and Frank Marlow, who supported the «Patriarch Hypothesis». How can two researchers draw apparently opposing conclusions based on the same object of study? Can research conclusions be influenced by the gender of the scientist?

Yes, I think they can. And also by the gender perspective of the scientists. There are many men who have also worked on that. In fact, the phrase Grandmother Hypothesis was invented by a man. So, it is really about gender perspective, about where you start your assumptions from. In evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology, there is a lot that we do not know. We do not know how we lived in the very distant past, so we project our ideas from the present onto the past – and we do that routinely. It should make us think again.

In Inferior you also discussed Bateman’s experiment with the Drosophila fly, which may have perpetuated the idea that of the bigger reproductive cost to women that explains why men are unfaithful and women tend to monogamy. Why was Bateman’s work so successful?

I think Bateman’s paradigm does hold for certain species. The question is, is it appropriate for all species? And there is a lot of evidence that it is just not. But it just became such an orthodoxy within science. It was just assumed that this just has to be true. But you only have to look at the history of science, you only have to look at the history of female sexual repression to know that how can it possibly be the case of women are naturally chaste, when we use such elaborate and brutal ways of controlling female sexuality. Why do we do that? Why do we perform female genital mutilation in millions of girls? Why do we physically stop women from having sex if they are not going to have sex anyway? It just does not make any sense. And who are these men having sex with? [laughs]. The fact that there is so much resistance to it is the fascinating thing here.

«It is true that there is a lot in evolutionary biology that is of help in feminism. I think feminism, as well, is good for evolutionary biology»

The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers is one of the scientists who contributed to the dissemination of Bateman’s paradigm, and you devoted several pages to him in Inferior. In a recent interview with Mètode, Trivers said: «It is strange that feminists should reject evolutionary biology when we offer so much research they could use». What do you think about this statement?

Well, it is true that there is a lot in evolutionary biology that is of help in feminism. I think feminism, as well, is good for evolutionary biology. About her colleague, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Trivers said in the 1970s that she should stay home and not work, which is ridiculous because she is such a talented biologist, equally as talented as he. She is the one who has offered the feminist perspective to evolutionary biology and has improved evolutionary biology as a result. It is quite hypocritical now of him to say that feminism has a lot to gain from evolutionary biology when forty years ago he was telling a feminist evolutionary biologist, a Darwinian feminist, to go home and look after her children.

What Trivers indicated is that women tend to understand human behaviour better than men.

It is all still stereotypes, I do not think it is okay to make that claim unless you have evidence for it. What evidence do you have that men are less empathic, that men are less caring? These are again heavily socially-mediated things. We expect women to be caring, society imposes these expectations on them. So, if they behave that way, can we really say it is biological? What proof do we have it is biological, and not just a product of society and culture? There are so many layers of expectations on women. If he [Trivers] has evidence this is biological, that this is something that is innate to us as human women, then I am glad to see it.

Photo: Jesús Císcar

You have just published Superior, a book about how race science understood the concept of race. I found the subtitle disturbing because you say that race science is coming back. Have these ideas returned?

Yes, they have returned. One of the arguments that I make is that they never went away. We imagine that race science stopped at the end of World War II, once the Nazis had abused it. But it survived in its original form in certain margins of academia. Ideas about race never fully left us. You only have to look at medicine, you only have to look at population genetics, certain fields in which we use the same ideas but we just use different terminology. So I think it is very much still alive.

In Inferior, you cited Sally Linton, who said that science was the product of «white Western males, during a specific period in history». This could be applied to science views about women, but also about race.

At its inception, as I said, women were considered inferior to men. But also non-white people were considered inferior to white people. That was a given in the Enlightenment. Voltaire believed it, Hume believed it, many of the Enlightenment philosophers believed it. They just took it for granted, they did not even question it. And how could they believe any different? We had slavery, there was colonialism. European explorers were going out to the rest of the world and allowing people to be killed at their own hands in the understanding that this was somehow part of evolution. The superior races were designed to survive and inferior races could not survive. It is all built into the system, so the white male was kind of superior and everybody else was inferior, including women. I am not saying that we still live with that, but certainl science is built upon that hierarchy.

«The danger of this way of thinking is to look at the world around us and assume that whatever inequality we see is somehow natural»

How has science approached the matter of race?

Superior in some ways is similar to Inferior, but in some ways it is very different, because while there is some biological basis to sex, there is no biological basis to race. Race is such a social construct. So how does it operate within science then? It is just crazy categories: some people have three races, some have five races, some have dozens, some have hundreds. People now have thousands. It is all about trying to impose some kind of order on something that does not even exist, and that is something that I find fascinating. Again and again, through decades and decades, you see scientists trying to make something real out of something imaginary and failing and thinking «we are not trying hard enough, let us just keep trying». I see medical researchers now using senseless categories in biological research and not being able to find the genetics that they need in order to make these senseless categories feel biologically real. But they just do not see it because race has become so real to us. This is the power of culture, of social ideas, of political ideas. We live a certain way and we feel it to be biologically natural, when it was never natural! Even though these categories are only a few hundred years old, we think they existed before time.

This Mètode monograph is devoted to the collaboration between science and Nazism. What lessons can we extract from that period?

Nationalism is the kind of the raison d’etre for racism now, for scientific racism. It has become so intertwined with scientific racism across the world. In India, the religious nationalists use scientific arguments to claim that the Hindus are somehow the natural, rooted inheritors of civilization there. In China the widespread view is that they did not emerge from Africa, that the Chinese people evolved separately from anybody else, from their own Homo erectus, which again is because of nationalism. And in Russia there is this very common idea that they are also not African in their roots. So I think it is all deeply wrapped up in nationalism and people on the far right need science to bake the claims that they are making. They have always done it. The Nazis did it and people are still doing it now, without a doubt.

© Mètode 2019 - 102. Science and Nazism - Volume 3 (2019)