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Book Review: Inferior, Angela Saini

Summary

Very interesting book that challenges a lot of commonly held knowledge, explaining how scientists have continually made false assumptions when trying to understand human health, bodies and brains. I highly recommend this book.

Review

The books takes us on a journey from the dawn of the evolution and the documented misogynistic opinions of Darwin that seem to have prejudiced his thoughts and that of following scientists, up to the modern day and that way that science still seems to be prejudiced against correctly understanding women, their bodies, health and brains. Darwin’s views are of course viewed in the context of the prevalent Victorian attitudes towards women. However it is enlightening to read how often mistakes have been made in scientific research because of the perspective of mostly male researchers over the last centuries and how much bias there is in the fundamentals of sociological, biological and neurological research that still persists despite an enormous catalog of evidence to the contrary.

The book is full of evidence that smashes prevalent attitudes about women that we often believe to be based on “fundamental truths”. Take for example health, we are often told that men are the stronger species, despite the fact that we all know women live longer than mean. Obviously in regards of physical strength, the on average slightly larger male body results in generally superior strength. I was not aware that of the top 15 causes of death (health related and based on US data), 12 of them affect men more strongly than women, 2 affect both sexes equally and only 1 had a greater effect on women. Why is this? Well read the book to find out more, but maybe having two X chromosomes might not be the disadvantage previously believed.

There are a lot of enlightening stories in the book, but one I found very interesting was that about the “missing 142g” in a female brain. In the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th century one piece of evidence of the inferiority of women was that their brains could be seen to be lighter in weight than that of a male. Fighting against this idea seemed to be impossible for any female as they did not have access to the education or tools to formulate any arguments against this notion. One particularly frustrated teacher and writer called Helen Hamilton Gardener, decided to learn as much as she could about neurology to be able to counter the arguments, and ended up working alongside New York doctor Edward Spitzka. Eventually she got a letter published in the Popular Science Monthly, where she revealed all the experts she had worked with could not distinguish between a male and female brain, and that the cause of a slightly larger male brain was related to the slightly larger male body, pointing out that this also explained why elephant brains were larger than human males, yet they were not more intelligent. The conjectures of Gardener have since proven to be true and it is now accepted that brain weight alone has no link to intelligence. An interesting epilogue to Gardener’s story is that when she herself died, her brain was found to weigh the same as a male professor of neurology at Cornell, providing the last laugh to her.

I would highly recommend all people read this book, it is well written and I found it easy and enjoyable to read. The lessons of history and those still existing prejudices are quite shocking. I felt quite shocked when reading the first half of the book and the attitudes of Victorian scientists, but this turned into anger when hearing about the still existing prejudices of modern scientists (male and female).

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