Book Review: Inferior

Book Review: Inferior by Angela Saini

Disclaimer:  I received this Uncorrected Page Proof as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  Some material may be changed in the final product, due out 5/23/17.

Inferior

Today there was a news story about a member of the European Parliament arguing against equal pay for women on the grounds that “they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”  Unsurprisingly, this MEP was male.  Equally unsurprising was the tongue-lashing he got from a fellow MEP who happened to be female.  But while it’s unusual for a theoretically respectable politician to say these things in public nowadays, it is a current of thought that stretches back to at least the ancient Greeks.  And often science has been misused to justify such attitudes.

This book is mostly about the science of sex differences (that is, “how are men and women different?”) and how that science has been interpreted over the years to justify sexism and resistance to social change on the subject, but also about contrary evidence and theories that paint a more egalitarian picture.  The author is an award-winning British science journalist who was assigned to write a piece on menopause but found enough material for this book.

The book begins with Charles Darwin claiming that women were less evolved than men for reasons.   Then it covers multiple subjects such as brain imaging and primatology on the way to the riddle of why women don’t just die when they become infertile.  (The last has two major competing hypotheses named “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and “The Patriarch Hypothesis”; all the scientists that have gone on record as supporting the latter are male.)

There’s a reference list for each chapter, and will be an index in the final product.  There may be illustrations in the published version; there were none in the proof copy.

A repeated theme of the book is the suggestion that many sex difference researchers started from “essentialism”, the basic assumption that men and women are different in fundamental ways, and then did their research in such a way as to disproportionately focus on the ways the sexes are different, rather than similar, and sometimes even finding differences that don’t appear to actually exist.  It’s also notable that several male researchers come across as dismissive of research done by scientists (particularly women) whose results contradict their own theories.  One, for example, admits that he’s never studied bonobos himself, but clearly  the research results found by a woman must be wrong since it’s different from what he learned by studying chimpanzees.

The writing is clear and concise, and should be readable by bright high school students on up (although some parents may find parts of the subject matter, such as the existence of intersex people, uncomfortable.)  Recommended to those interested in science, feminism and the intersection of the two.

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

Note: This is the sequel to The Lives of Tao and this review may contain SPOILERS for the previous volume.

The Deaths of Tao

Millions of years ago, the Quasing crashed on Earth.  They could not survive in Earth’s atmosphere, and were forced to piggyback inside the native lifeforms.  They managed to survive until a semi-intelligent lifeform appeared.  Since then, the Quasing have guided the humans to create a civilization advanced enough to achieve space travel so that the aliens can get back home.  However, a while back the Quasing split into two factions.  The Genjix consider the humans a servant race to be used and discarded; humanity owes everything it has to the Quasing, and must be prepared to have it taken back.  The Prophus (“betrayers”) think of the humans as partners and want them to have free will.

Now, the Genjix are within sight of achieving one of their major goals–which will have the side effect of wiping out the human race as we know it.  The embattled Prophus and their human allies must find a way to survive and if possible stop this plan–even if it means being stranded on Earth forever.

We have six viewpoint characters in three pairs.  Roen Tan is a former computer whiz who is now the partner of the title character Tao (who used to be the partner of Genghis Khan, among other things).  He’s turned into one of the top agents of the Prophus, but has gone off the reservation for the last couple of years chasing down leads to the latest Genjix plan.

Which has led to a separation from his wife Jill Tan, a Washington, D.C. political aide.  Her partner is Baji, who previously inhabited Roen’s trainer Sonia.  Jill is fighting her own battle against Genjix-sponsored legislation that fits into their world domination plans…somehow.  Something in the complex bill is a deadly trap, but what?

Meanwhile, Genjix Council member Zoras has exhausted his current vessel, and now enters Enzo, a specially-created and trained ubermensch.  Enzo has been designed from birth to be the perfect vessel for one of the Holy Ones, smarter, stronger and more ruthless than any mere human.  Unfortunately, he is well aware of this, and is determined to demonstrate this superiority, which clashes with Zoras’ master planner mindset.  They are in charge of the latest Genjix project, which is achingly close to completion, if they can just hold off the Prophus a little longer.

This science-fiction thriller is fast-paced with interesting characters and a premise that allows both good guys and opponents to show up in surprising ways.    The Quasing being behind almost every event in human history (except the rise of Hitler; that was all us) does get a bit tiring–I’d have liked to have seen that humans have some initiative for positive action.  The Genjix are even behind global warming!

The bad guys indulge in a bit of torture, as well as murderous medical experiments.  There’s also a lot of conventional military violence.

The ending really shakes up the status quo, and Mr. Chu promises that things will get even worse for the characters in the sequel–I’m looking forward to that.

Recommended to SF thriller fans and secret history buffs.

Book Review: Headstrong

Book Review: Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

This is a collection of short biographical sketches of women who made advancements in various scientific fields.  According to the introduction, it was inspired when the New York Times ran an obituary of Yvonne Brill that listed her home cooking as her most important accomplishment, followed by being a wife and mother.  And only then mentioning that she was an award-winning rocket scientist that made it possible for satellites to adjust their orbits.

Headstrong

And it is true that scientists who happen to be women have often been downplayed or outright ignored in books on the history of science.  So in the interest of making these scientists more widely known and giving role models to women and girls interested in the sciences, Ms. Swaby picked fifty-two stories to tell.  One of her criteria was that they had to be dead, so their entire body of work could be assessed; she points out that this made her list less ethnically diverse as women of color and those outside the Europe/America culture area have been even more hampered in pursuing science careers, though strides have been made in recent decades.  Also, she chose to write about Irène Joliot-Curie rather than her mother, as Marie Curie is the Smurfette (the one woman who gets to be in the club) of science books.

Ms. Swaby suggests reading one entry a week, but reviewers have to step up the pace, so I did it in two days.  The biographies are divided by scientific fields such as medicine, physics and mathematics (Florence Nightingale was listed under the last category for her advances in statistical analysis.)  The women profiled go from Mary Putnam Jacobi, who did a medical study disproving the then popular theory that a college education made women infertile to Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.

Many of the stories are bittersweet; the women had to fight to even be allowed to study, were denied paying jobs in their fields, denied credit for their work, denied promotions, titles and awards–and these are just the ones who persisted!  Things have improved over time, but one can see where systemic sexism has slowed advancements in science and technology.

It should be noted that some of the women in this book did work or had opinions that are still controversial,  Certain readers may object to their inclusion, despite their prominence.

While the book is written for adults, the language is suitable for junior high students on up.  It may be an uncomfortable fit for some male readers, but that’s the way it goes; growth is painful sometimes.  Elementary school readers may enjoy Girls Research more; see my review of that book.  The volume comes with endnotes, a bibliography for further reading, index, and credits for quotes used.

Highly recommended to science fans and those wanting a quick introduction to scientists they may not have known about before.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was involved.

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