email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Intimate" Violence against Women3 NBS of Julian DrewA Little PregnantA Natural History of RapeA Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning AutismA Stir of BonesAbout a BoyAdult Children of Emotionally Immature ParentsAgainst MarriageAlmost a PsychopathAlone TogetherAnatomy of LoveAngelsAnother CountryAnxious ParentsApples and OrangesBe Honest--You're Not That Into Him EitherBeing the Other OneBetrayed as BoysBeyond AddictionBipolar DisorderBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Breaking ApartBrief Adolescent Therapy Homework PlannerBringing Up ParentsBut I Love HimCaring for a Child with AutismCaring in Remembered WaysCherishmentChildren of the Aging Self-AbsorbedChildren of the Self-AbsorbedChildren, Families, and Health Care Decision MakingClawsCloserCold HitCoping With Difficult PeopleCouple SkillsCruddyDancing in My NuddypantsDivorce PoisonDoing ItDone With The CryingEcstasyEmotional ClaustrophobiaEmotional Fitness for IntimacyEmotional Intelligence at WorkEntwined LivesErotic PassionsEssentials of Premarital CounselingEvery Pot Has a CoverFacts About ADHD ChildrenFamilies Like MineFamilyFamily BoundFamily FirstFear of IntimacyFinal JeopardyFind MeFlashpointFor Lesbian ParentsForgive Your Parents, Heal YourselfGandhi's WayGeorgia Under WaterGetting over Getting MadGetting the Love You WantGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGirl in the MirrorGirl StuffGoing Home without Going CrazyHandbook of AttachmentHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHappiness Sold SeparatelyHard to GetHe's Just Not That Into YouHealing ConversationsHollow KidsHot ButtonsHot Chocolate for the Mystical LoverHow Families Still MatterHow to Create Chemistry with AnyoneHow to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Handle a Hard-To-Handle KidHow to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can'tI am Not Sick I Don't Need Help!I Don't Know How She Does ItI Hate You-Don't Leave MeI Only Say This Because I Love YouI'm OK, You're My ParentsIn the Mood, AgainInside the American CoupleIntrusive ParentingIt's Called a Breakup Because It's BrokenIt's Love We Don't UnderstandJakarta MissingKeeping Passion AliveKeeping Your Child in MindLet's Get This StraightLiberation's ChildrenLife's WorkLikely to DieLove JunkieLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLoving Someone With Bipolar DisorderLoving Someone with Borderline Personality DisorderLust in TranslationMaking the RunMaking the RunManic DepressionMars and Venus - Starting Over.Mating in CaptivityMom, Dad, I'm Gay.MotherstylesMurder in the InnMysterious CreaturesNecessary NoiseOdd Girl OutOpenOpening to Love 365 Days a YearOphelia's MomOrgasmsOur Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger SyndromeOut of the DustParenting and the Child's WorldParenting on the GoParenting Your Out-Of-Control TeenagerParents and Digital TechnologyParents Do Make a DifferencePassionate MarriagePlanet JanetPreventing Misbehavior in ChildrenProblem Child or Quirky Kid?Raising AmericaRaising ElijahRaising Kids in an Age of TerrorRaising Kids in the 21st CenturyRaising Resilient ChildrenRay's a LaughRelationship RescueRespect-Me RulesRomantic IntelligenceRoom For JSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSelf-NurtureSelfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedSex Addiction: The Partner's PerspectiveShidduch CrisisSickenedSingleSlut!Socrates in LoveSomeone Like YouSong for EloiseSpecial SiblingsSpiritually Healing the Indigo Children (and Adult Indigos, Too!)Staying Connected to Your TeenagerStaying Sane When Your Family Comes to VisitStop Arguing with Your KidsStop SignsStop Walking on EggshellsStop Walking on EggshellsStrong, Smart, & BoldSummer of the SkunksSurviving a Borderline ParentTaking Charge of AngerTelling SecretsThank You for Being Such a PainThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe AwakeningThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Birth of PleasureThe Brief Couples Therapy Homework Planner with DiskThe Bully Action GuideThe Burden of SympathyThe Commercialization of Intimate LifeThe CorrectionsThe Couples Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe DisappearanceThe Dream BearerThe Educated ParentThe Emotional RevolutionThe Employee Assistance Treatment PlannerThe EpidemicThe Ethics of ParenthoodThe Ethics of the FamilyThe Gay Baby BoomThe Good DivorceThe Guide for International Intercultural Couples and Families Intercultural MarriageThe Healing Journey for CouplesThe Hostile HospitalThe Husbands and Wives ClubThe Inside Story on Teen GirlsThe Introvert AdvantageThe Little FriendThe Love HexagonThe Moral Intelligence of ChildrenThe Neuroscience of Human RelationshipsThe New I DoThe Normal OneThe Nurture AssumptionThe OASIS Guide to Asperger SyndromeThe Other ParentThe Philosophical ParentThe Psychology of Parental ControlThe Real Rules for GirlsThe Reflective ParentThe Right to Be ParentsThe Secret Lives of WivesThe Spider and the BeeThe State of AffairsThe StepsThe Story of My FatherThe Velveteen FatherThe Virgin BlueThe Visitation HandbookThe Whole ChildTo Have and To Hurt:Two Is EnoughUnderstanding MarriageUnderstanding the Borderline MotherUnhitchedUp in FlamesWe've Got IssuesWhat about the KidsWhat Goes UpWhat Is Secular Humanism?What It Means to Love YouWhat Our Children Teach UsWhen a Parent is DepressedWhen Mars Women DateWhen Someone You Love Is BipolarWhen Someone You Love Is DepressedWhy Are You So Sad?Will You, Won't You?WomanWorking With Emotional IntelligenceWorried All the TimeYes, Your Teen Is Crazy!
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.
To discuss this book or the review you have just read, join the Metapsychology Discussion E-Mail Group by going to this URL: http://www.onelist.com/subscribe/metapsy-discussion