When E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975, he probably wasn’t looking to pick a fight with feminists, at least not specifically. He was looking at bugs and birds, and positing that some animal behavior—including humans’—was innate, and that therefore social structures could not be solely the product of culture and environment. By arguing that biology is destiny, Wilson was offering an alternate worldview to that of cultural determinists like anthropologist Margaret Mead and psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose theories so influenced ’70s political thought.
But Wilson’s theories were immediately seized upon by people who saw in his new evolutionary psychology proof that, well, boys will be boys. After Wilson’s books were published, scientists started churning out studies suggesting that human gender stereotypes were not merely the product of culture, but were hard-wired into our genetic code through natural selection. They cooked up evolutionary explanations for the “coy female,” the philandering alpha-male, and the madonna/whore dichotomy.
The studies remained largely academic until 1992, when evolutionary psychology hit pop culture, namely in Helen Fisher’s book The Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce. Among other things, Fisher gave national play to the theories of academics who posited that men cheat because natural selection has favored the “philandering caveman” who spread his genes around relentlessly to many women. Conversely, the theory went, women are more monogamous because, unlike men, they can have only one child at a time; natural selection has favored women who are more choosy and look for exclusive sex, preferably with men with resources. Fisher traced humans’ “unconscious tendencies” to cheat or to marry back to the inception of human social life in Africa 4 million years ago.
The book landed Fisher on the talk-show circuit, and she was quoted in grocery-store-shelf women’s magazines as an expert on why men seem destined to cheat and why women are attracted to older men. The appetite for such stuff was enormous, and it only intensified when then-New Republic writer Robert Wright published The Moral Animal.
Wright was adamant in his insistence that gender differences are the product of natural selection. He offered evolutionary “proof” that men are more promiscuous than women and are naturally attracted to youth and beauty because younger partners allow them to have babies well into old age. Women, on the other hand, are naturally monogamous and attracted to high-status men with money, according to Wright, because of their limited window of reproductive opportunity.
But Wright took his theories to a higher level, particularly when he suggested that the madonna/whore model dated back to the cave man. Wright had the nerve to counsel women on how to find a husband—which all women should naturally want—on the basis of his read of evolutionary psychology. He wrote, “If you want to hear vows of eternal devotion right up to your wedding day—and if you want to make sure there IS a wedding day—don’t sleep with your man until the honeymoon.” The idea, of course, was that even if you were once a whore, you should transform yourself into a madonna for the sake of catching a solid man, who would be seeking a chaste wife as a guarantee of his children’s paternity.
Wright offered absolutely no evidence for his theory that “loose” women had trouble catching husbands, and some feminists cried foul. When they did, though, Wright accused them of being uneducated ninnies. “Not a single well-known feminist…has learned enough about modern Darwinism to pass judgment on it,” he wrote in The New Republic.
So along comes Natalie Angier with her new book, Woman: An Intimate Geography. Although better known as a New York Times reporter than a feminist icon, Angier knows a thing or two about modern Darwinism, and she uses her knowledge to take some good solid whacks at Wright and his fellow “evo psychos.” Angier is not the first writer to point out that evolutionary psychology, as it has been sold to the general public, has some huge blind spots. What makes Angier’s book different from earlier feminist defenses—aside from its marketing—is the fact that she comes to the subject as a journalist, not a scientist. By writing accessibly, she provides a much-needed counterweight to the likes of Wright and his colleagues, and she pillories them with their own tool.
Angier uses new science to look at an old machine: the female body. Using real-world examples, she provides a compelling rebuttal to much of what has been written about the genetic origins of gender stereotypes, as well as many myths about female anatomy. Taking on one of Wright’s theorems, Angier deftly debunks the notion that men are attracted to youth and beauty solely because of their relationship to fertility.
She trots out women with a condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), a condition that makes their bodies immune to the effects of testosterone—and thereby makes them tall, buxom, clear-skinned, and, often, gorgeous. As a result, Angier says, AIS women tend to be disproportionately represented among models and pinup girls. But guess what? They are infertile. Angier calls them “Cheaters,” whose beauty has no relationship to their ability to bear children. She finds delicious irony in the notion that men’s ideal female is a barren one.
Angier also refutes the notion that women are naturally monogamous by pointing out that female chimpanzees—our close relatives—cheat like crazy. For a long time, scientists thought female chimps, like human females, were the more faithful of the species and, they reasoned, less libidinous. But then the scientists discovered that the paternity of half the females’ offspring didn’t match up to their “husbands.” As it turned out, the females weren’t lacking in sex drive—they were just sneaky. (Similar studies in human blood groups have found that about 10 percent of children are not sired by the men who think they are the fathers.)
As for whether natural selection favors men who philander, Angier simply does the math—something Wright and his colleagues apparently never did. She figures that the “philandering caveman” who slept with 50 women had less than a 1 percent chance of impregnating any of them. Scientist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy tells Angier, “In a chimpanzee, maybe one in 130 copulations results in a conception, and that’s copulations around the time of ovulation.” Monogamy, as it turns out, actually raises men’s chance of hitting the reproductive bulls-eye, and it’s a lot safer than risking life and limb by cheating with someone else’s girl.
Not all of Angier’s book is aimed at rebuffing the evo psychos. In using the evolutionary biology framework to look at women’s bodies, Angier attempts to undo some folklore about the female reproductive system. She demonstrates just how much has been learned since women flocked to the sciences in the late ’70s and began to look at not just how things like menstruation work, but also why. They are questions no one bothered to ask until the early part of this decade, and the emerging answers are part of the reason why Angier’s book is so interesting.
In a chapter titled “Circular Reasoning,” she wonders why women even have breasts—at least in their current form. Other lactating mammals have the glands but not the globes, and human women’s breasts are hardly a practical feature. Fisher proposed that large breasts evolved as a signal to men of fertility, but Angier looks at the evidence and suggests that breasts are merely accidental appendages that have little or no correlation to reproductive potential.
To illustrate the point, she profiles a scientist who puts hats on finches. It turns out that female finches are more attracted to male finches in white hats than to males in red hats—for no reason at all. Just as there are no biological reasons for the white hat attraction, Angier suggests that there may be none for the “aesthetic breast.” Its form has little to do with function. Men just think they’re pretty.
Despite its publisher’s comparison to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Gail Sheehy’s Passages, Woman is a real science book, chock-full of androgens, chromosomes, genetics, and anatomy. It’s funny, counterintuitive, and literary. But the writing—oh lord, the writing! At times, Angier’s book feels like 400 pages of Glamour magazine. Perky little factoids on the “clitoral balance sheet” are laced in with tales of her own orgasms, the conception of her child, her thyroid problems, her first period.
Popping with exclamation points, Angier cries, “Hecate, no!”; “the frisson of it!” and offers little missives on “the Great Wall of Vagina”; Mother Nature, the “beloved, cavalier, monomaniacal bitch”; and “Lady Estradiol.” After a while, the chirpy banter is a little exhausting.
The book’s other real downfall is that early on, Angier says that it is aimed at “gals”—which is a shame, because men might find it interesting, particularly the end, when she talks about the fact that motherhood—parenthood—is an acquired art, not an innate behavior, one that men can learn just as well as women given the chance. She criticizes women for failing to let men in on the action—and then sniping at them for their lack of parental interest: “If women expect men to dive into the warm, rich waters of body love and to feel the tug of baby bondage, we must give over the infant again and again. Between feedings, between breasts, play touch football, baby as pigskin—pass it along.”
Yet with Woman being heralded as a new feminist manifesto, it’s unlikely that too many men will risk getting spotted reading it on the Metro. In the end, Angier is preaching to the choir—but it’s a fine sermon nonetheless. CP