Woman: an Intimate Geography (thoughts)
I’m starting to feel a bit better guys. :) I’m hoping that means I’ll be able to resume daily posting, but I’m just glad I feel well enough to write a review today! (Also, thanks to everyone’s suggestions, I got 7 different TV shows on DVD from my library last night, so I have lots of options for relaxation time!)
I’ve read a lot of books since I’ve been gone: it turns out that when I can’t read blogs or work much on my own, I have a lot more free time. ;) Of course, I never would have found all the books I’ve been reading if it weren’t for blogging, so don’t think I’m going to disappear any time soon! Anyway, my point is, for my review today I had a lot of titles to choose from, but I didn’t hesitate for a second. I knew I wanted to talk about Woman: an Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier, which I read for the Women Unbound Challenge.
To say that I loved this book feels like a horrible understatement. I believe every single woman should read this book. If I were a billionaire, I would buy a copy for each woman who could read English, and press it into her hands with fervent good wishing. I think Angier has done a wonderful thing for her gender, and I’m so happy that Ana encouraged me to read this one (I didn’t enjoy the other Angier book I’ve read, The Canon) all that much.
So what is this book? It’s a scientific, mainly biology-driven, celebration of being a woman. Angier has a different style than most science writers; she tends to go off on crazy tangents, tossing three metaphors into the same sentence, and making lots of odd jokes and comparisons. This drove me wild in The Canon, but in Woman it really works. It makes it feel as if you’re having a girls’ night with a fun scientist who wants to tell you everything there is to love about your gender. But don’t take my word for it; here’s how Angier introduces her book:
This book is a celebration of the female body-its anatomy, its chemistry its evolution, and its laughter. It is a personal book, my attempt to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling in to the sludge of biological determinism. It is a book about things that we traditionally associate with the image of woman-the womb, the egg, the breast, the blood, the almighty clitoris0and things that we don’t-movement, strength, aggression, and fury. It is a book about rapture, a rapture grounded firmly in the flesh, the beauties of the body. The female body deserves Dionysian respect, and to make my case I summon the spirits and cranks that I know and love best.
And seriously, who of us doesn’t want that?
Now, there are many delicious chapters in this book. The egg, the X chromosome, the clitoris, the ovary-these all get a chapter. The uterus and breast get two. Hormones, particularly estrogen and testosterone, get several. And if I could, I’d write a post thousands of words long telling you about all the amazing things I learned, about how much more I love each and every bit of my body now. But, I must be choosy, so I’m going to talk about my very, very favourite chapters, the ones I wish were somehow essays available for free online so I could make everyone go read them. That is, the ones on evolution. Here’s another passage from the introduction that will let you in on how Angier approaches the topic:
It makes a gal so alarmed, so lunatic really, to witness the resuscitation in recent times of all the fetid cliches that I, and probably you, my sisters, thought had been drawn, quartered, and cremated long ago. I have been writing and reading about biology and evolution for years now, and I am frankly getting sick of how “science” is pinned to our she-butts like donkey tails and hten glued in place with talk of hardheaded realism. I am tired of reading in books on evolutionary psychology or neo-Darwinism or gender biology about how women are really like all the old canards: that we have a lackadaisical sex drive compred to men and a relatively greater thirst for monogamy, and, outside the strictly sexual arena, a compartive lack of interest in achievement and renown, a preference for being rahter than doing, a quiet, self-contained nature, a greater degree of “friendliness,” a deficient mathematical ability, and so on et cetera back to the bleary Cro-Magnon beginnings. I’m tired of hearing about how there are sound evolutionary explanations for such ascriptions of woman’s nature and how we must fave them full square, chin up and smiling. I’m tired as well of being told I mustn’t let my feminist, pro-woman beliefs get in the way of seeing “reality” and acknowledging “the facts.”
Have you too, despite your pro-science, pro-evolution viewpoint, felt that much of what evolutionary science argues about women is bunk? Then you should read this book right now. The first time Angier shares an ‘alternative’ evolutionary theory is in the chapter “Mothers, Grandmothers, and Other Dames.” In it, she explains the ‘grandmother hypothesis.’ According to that, back at the dawn of humankind, sure there were hunters and gatherers, with men as the former and women as the latter. However, men’s hunting often didn’t bring in enough calories, and even when it did, the whole tribe benefited from whatever meat a man brought down-his family didn’t get a ‘bonus’ amount of food. So it was the abilities of the mother, as the gatherer, that affected whether her children had more or less to eat. But when the mother was nursing, she couldn’t gather as much. The men were off hunting, so she turned to her older female relatives: her own mother, maybe an aunt or two, an older cousin, etc. These women, who were past childbearing age, still played an incredibly important role in bringing up the young, in that they provided a cushion for the mother. So, the stronger a woman was after menopause, the more likely her extended offspring (aka grandchildren) were to survive, and we (women) became expected to live active lives post-menopause (unlike the other great apes and monkeys, who bear children pretty much until the end of their lives). Meanwhile, men became longer-lived as well, because most genes affect both genders. Also, as our lives got longer, our sexual maturity was delayed. So because older women were so important, our childhoods became extended, which in turn allowed for more intelligence and development. And since there were older women to watch and provide for the children, humans could venture into more difficult, non-child-friendly territory. Here’s Angier summing it up:
We usually assume that we got smart first and then had to have an extended childhood to cultivate the circuitry of that smartness, and then had to live long enough as adults to care for our smart, slow-growing kids. As Hawkes plays it out, the order of events is just the opposite. We got old, we got young, we got smart. She takes a thwack at the familiar figurine of Man the Hunter, questioning the role of the male in provisioning hte young and allowing children to be children. The original division of labor, as she sees it, was between childbearing women and post-menopausal women. Mothers bred what grandmothers fed. Through that compact, human fecundity and human mobility knew no limits.
Don’t you love that theory?! Doesn’t it sound just as plausible as the more ‘standard’ one? Perhaps even more so?
But even more than that hypothesis, I loved when Angier attacked evolutionary psychology for trying to support all those old stereotypes: “Evolutionary Psychology on the Couch.” First, she lays out the most important arguments:
- Men are more promiscuous and less sexually reserved than women are.
- Women are inherently more interested in a stable relationship than men are.
- Women are naturally attracted to high-status men with resources.
- Men are naturally attracted to youth and beauty.
- Our core preferences and desires were hammered out long, long ago, a hundred thousand years ago or more, in the legendary environment of evolutionary adaption, or EEA, also know 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.
In sum: higgamus, hoggamus, Pygmalionus, Playboy magazine, eternitas. Amen.
And then she demolishes them, attacking methodology, assumptions, etc. It was so wonderful to watch, and I was mentally pumping my fist in the air all the time and yelling “You go girl!”
My favourite bits from the chapter:
What does it mean if surveys show that women want a man who earns a living wage? It means that men can earn a living wage better, even now, than women can. Men still own and operate most of what can be claimed and controlled. They make up about half of the world’s population, but they own somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of the world’s wealth-the currency, the minerals, the timber, the gold, the stocks, the amber fields of grain. …If women continue to worry that they need a man’s money to persist because the playing gield remains about as level as the surface of Mars-or Venus, if you prefer-then we can’t conclude anything about innate preferences.
Do women find older men innately attractive? Is it the men’s alpha status? Or could it be something less complimentary to the male, something like the following-that an older man is appealing not because he is powerful but because in his maturity he has lost some of his power, has become less marketable and desirable and potentially more grateful and gracious, more likely to make a younger woman feel that there is a balance of power in the relationship? The rude little calculation is simple: He is male, I am female-advantage, man. He is older, I am younger-advantage, woman.
As we have seen, DNA studies of chimpanzees in the Gombe show that half the offspring in the group of closely scrutinised chimpanzees turned out not to be the offspring of the resident males. The females of the group didn’t rely on sex “finding” its way to them; they proactively left the local environs, under such conditions of secrecy that not even their vigilant human observers know they had gone, and became impregnated by outside males. They did so even at the risk of life and limb-their own and those of their offspring. …We don’t know why the females take such risks to philander, but they do, and to say that female chimpanzees “work less hard” than males do at finding sex is not supported by the data.
Men say they want eight partners in two years. Women want byt one. Yet would a man find the prospect of a string of partners so appealing if the following rules were applied: that no matter how much he may like a particular woman and be pleased by her performance and want to sleep with her again, he will have no say in the matter, will be dependent on her mood and good graces for all future contact; that each act of casual sex will cheapen his status and make him increasingly less attractive to other women; and that society will not wink at his randiness but rather sneer at him and think him pathetic, sullied, smaller than life? Until men are subjected to the same severe standard and threat of censure as women are, and until they are given the lower hand in a so-called casual encounter from the start, it is hard to insist with such self-satisfaction that, hey, it’s natural, men like a lot of sex with a lot of people and women don’t.
Consider Pinker’s philandering caveman who slept with fifty women. Just how good a reproductive strategy is this chronic, random shooting of the gun? …if we assume that a woman makes no effort at birth control-and this is a concession to the philanderer’s point of view, for there is archaeological evidence that the use of rudimentary forms of contraception is quite ancient-the probability [of conception] is less than one percent. …If, for example, a man were to spend a bit more time with one woman rather than dashing breathlessly from sheet to sheet, if he were to feel compelled to engage in what animal behaviorists call mate-guarding, he might be better off, reproductively speaking, than the wild Lothario, both because the odds of his getting the woman during her fertile time would increase and because he’d be monopolizing her energy and keeping her from the advances of other sperm-bearers.
Ok, this review is getting crazy long, but I really hope that I’ve convinced you to read this book! It’s thoughtful and fascinating and sterotype-challenging, and women-loving…what more could you need?
If you could have every woman read one book, what would it be?