Reading Inferior was an eye-opening experience for me. Angela Saini, a British science journalist, unpicks science as we know it with regards to the evolutionary history of humankind and how women’s influence on evolution has been purposefully sidelined. She brings forth arguments that challenge the assumptions about women’s bodies and minds. Angela uses scientific studies as examples to disprove the common albeit misguided narrative that goes around about women, spanning across cultures and geographies. As the subtitle sets out the purpose of the book clearly, Inferior examines the existing narrative of stereotypes and cultural biases against women and puts it on the right course. I’m confident that Angela Saini has been successful in achieving this objective.
Inferior comprises eight crisp chapters starting with challenging the biological foundations of women’s inferiority to men to discussing the differences at birth between the two genders to underscoring the importance of women’s work in the hunter-gatherer societies and their role as an alloparent in the form of grandmothers. The style of writing is scientific and follows an ‘argument, counter-argument’ structure with each argument backed by popularized scientific claim and each counter-argument debunking the myth by providing ample evidence rooted through science. This approach to topical study is also evident in Saini’s previous book, Geek Nation, where she traveled the length and breadth across India to uncover the underpinnings of “geek” origins in the country.
The strength of Inferior lies in its scientific rigor and body of work. Saini has a knack of unraveling science in a simple format that a layperson can not only grasp but also engage with. Three stereotypes that stood out for me the most:
Brain Size & Intellect: Saini notes that differences in brain size between men and women shouldn’t be correlated with intellect. I support her assertion. It’s pertinent to note that stigma against men works on an individual level, however, the stigma against women works on the community level, wherein, if a girl fails at a mathematics problem, it’s not that girl who is academically weak at maths, it’s misconstrued that all women are mathematically-challenged! In a quest to be published in established scientific journals, researchers and scientists fuel the existing stereotypes, even reinforce them, to meet their ends. The differences that these research findings emphasize upon are untrue, untested, and fallacious at best. Using science as a garb to spread stereotypes is a practice that has gone unchecked with many scientists now.
Woman, The Gatherer: Angela’s assertion on the role of women as gatherers of the hunter-gatherer society directly challenges the ‘Hunting Hypothesis’ which states that human evolution was primarily influenced by the activity of hunting, dominated by males (ergo, women had no role to play in shaping our evolutionary history). However, as Saini sheds light on, women provided the majority of the nutrition in their communities by gathering plants, tubers, small animals, even inventing digging sticks to make their gathering efforts easy. They were mobile, active, and hardworking, used aids such as dogs to help them hunt. Language and intellect did not develop due to hunting as the popularized hunting hypothesis propagated but due to childcare which involved both men and women.
Hormones & Behavior: Saini notes that the scientific works done on biological differences used to explain social differences can be disputed since there is no evidence to suggest that hormones are interrelated with a particular type of behavior. Sexuality does not exist as a binary entity, it must be defined on a spectrum. This implies that hypothesizing about the “softer” side of females and “aggression” of males has nothing to do with how and what type of hormones are present in men and women. It is both nature and nurture that determines the behavior of a particular individual.
Overall, Inferior expands the existing knowledge in the field by bringing forth groundbreaking evidence to topple the status quo regarding preconceptions about women’s intellect, competence, and capability. In a simple yet compelling format, Saini has raised a voice that needs to be heard and disseminated to stifle the misperceptions against women.
As my final assessment, Inferior should not be seen as a standalone piece of research but as an amalgamation of various researchers’ work distilled together using the lens of an objective and critical eye. Inferior adds legitimacy and credibility to a topic that deserves to be understood without any biases or prejudices. In terms of readability, you are bound to get drawn to the text as it keeps you engaged and intellectually stimulated with each chapter solidifying the base for you to question your own schema and cultural stereotypes about men and women.