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Bucking a trend, exemplified in magazines as apparently disparate as Ms, Time, Journal of the American Medical Association, and Elle, I am not going to rave about Natalie Angier's self-described "scientific fantasia of womanhood (p.xiv)." Woman: An Intimate Geography is a factoid-crammed celebration of femaleness that is as entertaining and inspiring as it is frustrating and annoying.
The book is about the female body, from its smallest bits (X chromosomes and eggs) to its distinctive processes (menstruation and menopause) to its location in a social context (love). Individual chapters are dedicated to the clitoris, the uterus, the ovary, the breast, estrogen, testosterone, female aggression, and muscles. In the penultimate and theoretically strongest chapter Angier debunks "the cardinal premises of evolutionary psychology" - according to which women are less interested in sex and more interested in stable relationships than men are, and which hold that humans today are governed by desires little different from those we might imagine our Stone Age ancestors to have had. Angier demonstrates that there are competing and far more plausible non-selection explanations for just about any stereotypical male/female differences the "evo-psychos" (her term) claim are inescapable and unrevisable.
Good science writing is hard. One must have a firm grasp on the science in question and the skill to successfully convey complex and esoteric facts to a reader whom it cannot be assumed is able to tell her myometrium from her Montgomery's glands. (Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out.) Angier's preferred strategy is to describe biological processes by way of plotted narratives in which the relevant bits and pieces (the egg, the clitoris, the ovaries, etc.) each assume distinctive personalities. Recounting ovulation, for example, Angier writes, "they [the ovaries] are like starlets at an audition, their heads stuffed with dreams. . . . [A] decision is made. One of the contending follicles is chosen for the part (p.166)." This is all very cute; but what does it really mean to say that the clitoris "knows more than the vagina does (p.72)?" Attributing intentionality to non-intentional entities is a familiar trope in children's stories aimed at a kind of proto-explanation, but Angier's deployment of it in a book ostensibly about science is problematic. Scientific literacy in the U.S. is so appalling as it is, that the last thing we need is galloping anthropomorphism. And sometimes the use of the intentional idiom begs important questions. Witness: "A fetus certainly knows how good its life is (p.92)."
The narrative approach has its benefits, of course. Angier's language is zippy, in places - delightful. And she is able succinctly to render vivid a wide range of inner goings-on with a minimum of jargon. However, the narratives Angier uses to simplify and liven up uncontroversial science -- for example, the process of ovulation -- are hard to distinguish from the just-so stories she invents, sometimes for sheer fun, sometimes to replace alternative hypotheses about more controversial matters she doesn't much care for. In one speculative flight of fancy, Angier floats a "physical justification" for "the legendary female intuition (p.26)." Noting that (i) "a preponderance of genes situated on the X chromosome seem to be involved in the blooming of the brain (25); (ii) "genes that dictate the output of essential brain signalling chemicals . . . also sit on the X chromosome; and (iii) a woman's brain, in contrast to a man's, is 'mosaical' in the sense that it is "a chessboard quilt of mother squares and father squares (p.25)," she says, "Let us toy with the idea that . . . we [women] have comparatively more gray-doh to pinch into shape, a greater diversity of chemical opinions, as it were, which operate subconsciously and which we can synthesize into an accurate insight (26)." And in Chapter 4, a wide-ranging discussion of the evolutionary point or pointlessness of the clitoris and female orgasm, Angier presents a compelling "Wouldn't-it-be-nice-if-this-were-the-real-explanation" story despite admitting that the paucity of evidence for her view.
Angier weaves together an impressive range of data and theory, from molecular biology, psychology, archaeology, and evolutionary psychology. Given the very different assumptions and motivations of each of these areas of inquiry, it is inevitable that the resulting picture will be full of tensions. However, Angier's thoroughly postmodern method of juxtaposing very different styles of thinking about certain phenomena has its point. She is happy to entertain competing hypotheses, to take something from here, and something from there, and then see what the whole arrangement looks like from different perspectives. This is free thinking at its best. And while it may not always result in hypotheses you'd want to bruit with your biology friends, it does underscore an important epistemological point: often, what we accept as facts are the things we want to be facts. Sometimes the desire is evidence-driven and sometimes it is not. About those things we know so little, why not opt for the 'explanation' that coheres with our view of how we would like things to be?
To be fair, Angier is generally careful to indicate where she is just speculating, playing a hunch and where she is not. However, as she herself notes later, "it doesn't hurt to find strength wherever we can (235)." If a putative explanation strikes us as attractive, if it makes us feel better about ourselves, then why not adopt it? Well, the problem lies in the intellectual recalcitrance encouraged by wishful thinking. My primary criticism is that the very thing that makes the book 'accessible' - Angier's expository style and strategy - also serves to obscure the difference between fact and fantasy for an audience already ignorant or unreflectively suspicious of the biological sciences.
Social epistemology may or may not be part of Angier's agenda, but the book would make an interesting case study in a feminist or social epistemology class. While the book is motivated in part by the question, "What would theories look like if women got their hands of the data?," it's philosophical interest goes beyond that. (And in any case, Angier is just as likely to reject a female scientist's view as she is a man scientist's.) We are provided with dozens of detailed examples of past and present theories and invited to draw our own conclusions about why some have found favour and others haven't. We are encouraged to speculate about why some questions never seem to get asked and why some hypotheses never see the light of day.
Angier's "Fantastic Voyage" through the female body, read with the right ironic distance or a suitable degree of anti-gullibility, is an entertaining antidote to a long history of misinformation about and outright hostility to women's bodies. As Angier says, "we [women] have borne more illegitimate metaphors than we have unwanted embryos (p.x)." Perhaps we can afford to try on some new ones.
Susan Dwyer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she directs the Masters Program in Applied and Professional Ethics.
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