On The Biology, and Bouquet, of Women

In Nigeria, the word for vagina translates to mean dirt. But don’t expect Natalie Angier, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for The New York Times, to settle for such a crude depiction of the female anatomy. She consulted a scientist who studies “the eco-system of the vagina—if you can imagine that”—and learned that it is “the cleanest orifice in the body.” As it turns out, “a healthy vagina has an acidity roughly like that of a glass of red wine or very similar to a cup of yogurt—although I don’t think Dannon is going to pick up on that slogan.”
    In a lecture matching the bold prose of her most recent book, Woman: An Intimate Geography, Angier mixed fresh observationsabout women’s bodies with a sharp critique of some claims made by evolutionary psychology. She was one of the speakers during a week-long program in March on human nature and human rights, sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum.
    While writing the book, Angier attended hysterectomies, gynecological exams and egg-harvesting sessions to find out firsthand “what everything looked like inside” and to replace the textbook images of the “ram’s head” she had memorized growing up.
    “I have to say I was very impressed by how beautiful everything was.” From an aesthetic standpoint, her favorite parts were the fallopian tubes, which resembled pink “feather pens or sea anemones.” They are “amazing organs. If one tube on one side of your body happens to be lashed down by endometriosis, the other fallopian tube can reach clear across to retrieve an egg from the opposite-side ovary.” Angier was also impressed to learn that a mother stores cells of fetuses for decades inside her body, “so you have this kind of permanent imprint of every baby that you’ve borne.” 
    Though it offers rich material for a writer, society is still “squeamish about female sexuality,” Angier has found. In 1998 she wrote for the Times about a new book on the medical history of the vibrator, which was invented in the 1880s to “help relieve” female patients of assorted maladies. “It was a fascinating book. It had citations up the wazoo. But the editors started freaking out. At the same time, we were hearing about ejaculation on Gap dresses, and we were hearing about Viagra. But hearing about Victorian ladies being brought to climax by their doctors—that was really disgusting.”
    What aroused the ire of some scientists about Woman was not Angier’s frank descriptions of female sexuality but the two final chapters of the book. There she takes on the more zealous proponents of evolutionary psychology, which Angier defines as the systematic study of the evolutionary basis for all social behavior. Although Angier is an avowed Darwinist who’s been writing about evolutionary theory for two decades, she also has become increasingly interested in biology “from a female perspective,” as more women have entered the field.
    Evolving technologies such as DNA-typing have contradicted old assumptions about the sexual complacency of females across species, she noted. One study showed that almost half of the offspring in chimpanzee groups were fathered by non-resident males. “The female was sneaking away”—at great risk—“to mate with males from some surrounding group.” Scientists have also revealed evidence of wide variations in mothering abilities and offspring survival in our primate past, suggesting that “females are playing for higher [evolutionary] stakes than had been appreciated” by scientists who emphasized the risk-taking natures of men versus the safe, nurturing natures of women.
    While this research was emerging, however, evolutionary psychology began to become popular, resuscitating “all the old clichés about human behavior.” Angier finds much to criticize, for instance, in David Buss’s widely publicized mate-choice surveys, which conclude that women look for men with ambition and resources, while men seek mates with youth and beauty. Though the surveys drew respondents from 33 countries, they all were conducted at universities, which were unlikely to provide a representative sampling. When different researchers reanalyzed the data, they also found that women’s preference for male status declines in countries with higher levels of “gender egalitarianism.” So does men’s desire for younger women.
    Even the “hourglass figure” purportedly preferred by males over the millennia doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, Angier noted. Reporting in Nature, researchers tested this hypothesis on a tribe in Peru that “has not been saturated with images from the West.” Shown pictures, the men thought the women with smaller waists than hips looked sick. They preferred “women who were chunky up and down the body.”
    Tired of hearing her complain about the inadequacies of evolutionary psychology, Angier’s husband pressed her to address the topic in her own book. She did so reluctantly, having heard horror stories of the vehemence with which some scientists defended their positions. After Woman was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine, one letter-writer called her “an embittered, middle-aged fem-crank with an attitude, trying as so many women in your position do to explain away one of those pervasive, bio-cultural patterns that in effect say that you’re just not a player anymore.” 
    Angier challenged her critic’s notion of what it is to be a “player,” noting that some evolutionary anthropologists “now argue that senior females may have played a pivotal role in evolution by [keeping] young children fed when mothers are too busy nursing [babies] to gather food.” 
    Angier said she actually is heartened by recent signs that “evolutionary psychology is starting to change [with] more criticism coming out—a debate about the premises of it and a desire to improve its rigor and address its weaknesses.”
    And ultimately, she said, feminism “might be found to have an evolutionary basis, too—that is, as an expression of a female desire for autonomy, to control the means for reproduction and access to resources. Those are issues that have concerned feminism and happen to have concerned most female primates, as well,” Angier concluded. “Rather than being a political movement outside [the mainstream of] science, one could argue that it has as much scientific basis as anything else.”

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