nonfiction

Book Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

It’s no great secret that women have been left out of a lot, if not most scientific research in the past, from behavioral studies to medicine- because why bother? They’re totally basically the same as men, right? Except wrong, and that has had serious, often deadly, consequences for women all around the world. I’ve read a few books on this topic in the past few years; Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017) was the latest on my list. It’s a short book; what’s it’s not short on is science and information that’ll make you think.

For most of recorded scientific history, women have been left out of research and studies. There was no need to study them, (male) scientists thought, and the reasons were many: there was no difference between men and women, scientifically. Women could get pregnant and medications might harm the developing fetus, so better to leave them out and just assume the medication worked on them in the exact same way it did men (uh…sorry ‘bout that, dead women). Science already knew how women were different than men: they were passive, subservient, incapable of understanding difficult scientific concepts like men, and less intelligent, with their tinier lady brains…if you’re not screaming by now, check your pulse.

Angela Saini shines a light on the myriad ways that science has ignored women (and not just human women! Why bother studying the females in ANY species, amirite?!!??? *screams again*), and the new research- oftentimes spearheaded by the women who are beginning to engage in research in larger numbers than ever before. This new research isn’t without its detractors, often men who still cling to the juvenile idea that women are just weak, limp creatures incapable of engaging in more than cleaning and child raising and cooing over big strong men, but it’s shoving science in a direction that it should have gone ages ago.

I enjoyed this, but it’s pretty deeply scientific and not the most casual of reads- to be honest, it often read like listening to my biologist husband speak (which isn’t a bad thing!). It was a little bit of a slow read for me, both because I was busy getting stuff done around the house and because I kind of wanted to digest all the information thrown at me. While I knew from other reading that women have long been left out of medical trials and health-based research, I hadn’t really known that scientists hadn’t bothered studying the behavior of female chimpanzees, bonobos, even female birds were left out of the research for a puzzlingly long time, simply because scientists assumed, “Oh, they’re just out there mothering. They’re built for mothering, they just want one single mate to be strong providers with strong genes for their babies, and they’re no more complicated than that.” Shockingly, it turns out that lumping all female creatures into one ladyparts-means-THIS pile is incorrect (and you’re going to be so grossed out by how many dudes are offended by the fact that they got this wrong, and who straight-up seem to scoff at Ms. Saini for questioning them on this). There’s a lot on animal research in the second half of the book, which didn’t interest me quite as much as the medical research bits, but I’m glad I read it, so that I better understand the depths to which half the population has been ignored in all facets of science.

Interesting book, though infuriating to read in terms of subject and how arrogant male scientists have been throughout history.

Visit Angela Saini’s website here.

nonfiction

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal- Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach. Reading Stiff set off a fascination about what happens- or can happen, if we so choose- to our remains after we die, and has introduced me to so many other excellent books (such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William Bass and Jon Jefferson). Her Bonk was hilarious and made me admire her courage to insert herself into the research process, if you will. I always meant to get to her Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W.W. Norton Company, 2013); I may have checked it out of the library once but time got away from me and I had to return it unread. When I saw it as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book by an author with flora or fauna in their name, I knew Gulp‘s time had come.

Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor, and she’s out to make sense of the world and present her findings in a way that will keep her readers laughing out loud long after they turn the final page. In Gulp, she goes on a quest to look deeper in the system of tubes that makes up the human alimentary canal: its function, its processes, its ability to produce gas so pungent, it could floor an elephant. If you have even the least bit of curiosity about fecal matter (why do we poop so much? How long can we really hold it? Why do some animals eat their own poop?), digestion (what’s the deal with how long it takes? How powerful is stomach acid?), saliva (why do we swallow our own without a second thought but can’t get anyone to swallow their own spit after first having spit it into a cup?), and gas (what’s the volume of a human fart? What exactly makes some farts smell worse than others?), or you have kids who think poop and farts are hilarious and would love to regale them with factual information about these things, you’re going to want this book.

Gulp is filled with so much random trivia about human bodies and nature, most of which is completely inappropriate to talk about in polite company, but which makes me love Mary Roach all the more and think that she must be a fantastic person to hang out with (if you’re a friend of hers, know that I’m deeply jealous). Despite having owned cats for the past fourteen years, I didn’t realize they’re primarily monoguesic, which means they stick to a single type of food. If you have an outdoor cat (which is generally recommended against, for reasons of health and safety; mine are strictly indoors) and they consume outdoor critters, for example, they’ll tend to eat either mice or birds, but not both. One of my housecats will eat canned cat food (though she’s picky about what kind), and will gladly accept offerings of fish or chicken, but she wants nothing to do with anything else. The other cat will eat cat food (his own, the other cat’s), any type of carb, vegetables (like carrots from my salad, or the green bean he stole off my plate and then shot me a filthy look as he consumed it under the piano bench as I yelled, “Hey!”), which makes me wonder whether he’d be a mouser or a birder or more of a junkyard cat who gets his calories ransacking the neighborhood garbage cans.

There are a lot of laughs in here, because Mary Roach really goes whole hog when it comes to research projects, and I deeply admire her for that. Example: after noticing that the facility that prepares human fecal matter for fecal transplants uses Oster brand blenders to blend their fecal samples in order to prepare the material for transplant, she actually emailed Oster for a comment, which they declined to give. (I mean, they could have mentioned that they were proud that their products are being used in exciting new medical technology bound to change lives around the world, but I guess it’s understandable that they don’t necessarily want their product associated with, well, poop.) This was only one of the many places I actually laughed out loud. If you’ve read any other of her books, you know Ms. Roach makes heavy use of asterisked footnotes, which are usually packed full of humorous tidbits, and Gulp is no different in this.

Eventually, I’d like to get to the rest of Ms. Roach’s oeuvre, but I’m entirely swamped with reading material right now and so this will have to be good, for now. Gulp is a joy to read. Heads up if you’re squeamish, though: she doesn’t shy away from much at all, but that’s the mark of an excellent scientist and investigator, I think.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books? Do you have a favorite? Stiff was my first and remains my favorite; I don’t know if I’ll get around to Packing for Mars, since anything about space tends to freak me out. Although, with the humorous way Ms. Roach presents things, I might be able to handle it…

Visit Mary Roach’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.