It is rare that I read a book that changes the fundamental ways that I view things. Such a book is Woman, An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier. In it, Angier talks about female anatomy, a fair amount of physiology, and then speculates (based on scientific studies and principles) why women evolved the way they did.
For instance, the fact that a woman's ovaries contain a limited number of eggs is often interpreted as meaning that her reproductive, and therefore functional, life is limited. With menopause, she is spent. (Unlike men, who can produce sperm seemingly forever.) Common wisdom says that we now far outlive the time nature intended us to live. Angier goes on to show, through primate studies and anthropological studies of less developed societies, that older females have a valuable, even critical role in society, at least in primitive societies, and with a bit of thought, we can see a parallel role in our own society. In primitive societies, they gather food, and help care for children. The upshot: a woman can breastfeed her baby for a long period if there is someone else able to help care for older children and gather food. (It takes 13 million calories to raise a child!) In other animal species and primates, the infant is weaned early and left to forage for its own food. Here, the increased period of dependence allows the luxury of brain development that has led to the advanced, if troubled, species we are today.
Men, on the other hand, were hunters, but not the primary food providers that we are led to believe. Women's labor fed the family, day-to-day foraging took care of that. Men's hunts, hit-or-miss as they were, were more about socializing, cooperation, bonding with individuals outside the family unit.
In short, she takes common "knowledge" and turns it on its head. This book is full of stuff that makes you go "omigod", as the scales fall from your eyes and you see clear truth. Now, I felt that way about Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, a book Angier frequently takes to task. It is all a matter of taking the facts and trying to interpret them, so her slant is just that...a slant. But all the same, it is important to challenge the stultifying conventional wisdom, to challenge in particular, the gospel of certain evolutionary biologists.
What am I talking about? How about this. Women are passive and men are aggressive. The truth is women are plenty aggressive, but they have been trained from an early age to channel it differently. So today, a physically strong woman may not put up a defense as she is beaten by a short, flabby, but smug male, because both are brainwashed to believe that male strength always trumps female.
Or this: Women are natural parents, and men are humorously clumsy around infants. Angier contends that men are as nurturing as women, but rarely get a chance to develop that side. Women breast feed and stroke and bond to the infant; they spend more time with their babies. She says "Men can love babies madly, and the more they sit and smell and clutch their babies against them, the more sensorily embellished the love becomes. How often, though, does the average father sit and rock his baby against his naked breast? Not often enough, and not nearly as often as the average mother does. Mothers tend to monopolize their babies. Of necessity they must hold their infants to breastfeed, and so they get in the habit of holding, and they are reluctant to let go. Too often a father's contact with his baby is restricted to those times when the mother is tired and wants a break, and so it becomes a chore and a duty to him rather than a rite. He keeps his shirt on. He's buttoned up. The nerve endings of his flesh detect the baby's frequency only faintly. And the mother watches the father to make sure he is doing everything properly. She is the baby expert, after all, and he is forever callow, a babe in the woods. Women chortle about men's clumsiness in holding babies, their fumblings, their bafflement. The nusery is still the mother's domain. There, she is poobah. Yet if we want men to do their share and to shine at it, it's unfair to give the m the handicap of our doubt, to practice a reverse form of discrimination" 'We suckle; you suck.' 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."
Rat studies show that a male rat put in a box with a litter of newborns will quickly nurture, herd and lick them, things he won't do in the presence of a female.
In the chapter "Of Hoggamus and Hogwash", she starts with the ditty by William James
Men are polygamous
This is an old concept, a "truth" if you will, at least among evolutionary psychologists. And yet it does not hold water if one examines primate groups or many human societies. Could it be that rather than being a basic human tenet, it is a societal constraint designed to allow a man to control a woman? In some societies, pregnant women have sex with many men, and each of those men is a foster father, if you will, to the infant, increasing its chances of survivial if the biological father dies.
She takes on some cardinal premises of evolutionary psychology:
1. Men are more promiscuous and less sexually reserved than women are.
2. Women are inherently more interested in stable relationships than men are.
3. Women are naturally attracted to high-status men with resources.
4. Men are naturally attracted to youth and beauty.
5. Our core preferences were hammered out long, long ago, hundreds of thousands of years ago, in the legendary Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA, also known as the ancestral environment, also known as the Stone Age, and they have not changed appreciably since then, nor are they likely to change in the future.
There is little evidence for any of these theories (in fact, much of the "evidence" is based on studies of gay men and lesbians.)
What of the fact that many women seek a man who is a strong earner? She sees it as a reflection that even today, men make more money for equal work than do women, and men control the vast majority of the world's wealth.
As far as sex drives are concerned, she again turns to societal constrains rather than natural inclinations to explain. She quotes Barbara Smuts "If female sexuality is muted compared to that of men, then why must men the world over go to exteme lengths to control and contain it?" I had difficulty with this concept in college. Fortunately, the Summer of Love came along, ushering in a few good years of sexual equality, and I didn't have to try to quash my sexuality when it was at its most urgent.
What about the "fact" that women are more interested in getting married than are women? There are millions of men out there who can dispute that fact. Angier posits that early men would fight over women, but as fighting and war became more efficient, fighting over a woman could get you killed. It became easier to claim a woman, to "mate guard" if you will, through marriage, a theory that definitely makes it advantageous to the man to get married.
This book is candy. Angier's writing is interesting. At first I was a bit put off at the way she plays with words, obviously entertaining herself, letting others along for the ride, and certainly not dumbing down her vocabulary. I just finished reading it, yet already feel that I should read it again, to pick up all the stuff I missed.
But I can't. No time. Angier's The Canon is waiting by the bed.
Don't take my word for it. If you are comfortable, you can go here and read most of this fine book.
What she says is compelling. I can't do it justice here, but can only scratch the surface. I think every woman (who wants to understand herself) should read this book, as should every man who wants to understand women.