Woman: An Intimate Geography , by Natalie Angier. Houghton Mifflin, 398 pages, $25.
Let me make a guilty confession: Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography , is–after a great volume of poetry–my favorite sort of book. Science writing at its classiest and most readable refreshes me when I am weary of fiction and the ubiquitous memoir. And a book about women that looks like it could be a worthy successor to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex ? All I could say when asked to review it was: Yes!
Was my enthusiasm justified? Again, yes. I learned a lot from reading Woman , although I didn’t agree with Ms. Angier about everything, and once or twice I thought I caught her riding a hobbyhorse–with high style.
I learned that the vagina is really clean unless overcome by disease; that the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings while the penis has only 4,000; that bonobos (a gibbon-ish relative of ours) are sexual Olympians who use rubbing and stroking to orgasm to lubricate the daily frictions of tribal living; that “males are more like females than females are like males”; that even in pair-bonded species “adultery” is more common than fidelity; that no apes or chimps, our closest kin in the animal kingdom, are pair-bonded, let alone monogamous; that female chimpanzees “search high and low and risk life and limb to find sex with partners other than the partners who have a way of finding them”; that half their offspring are not the offspring of the resident males of their group. (All those females sneaking out of the family tree, hellbent on genetic variety and pleasure!) I learned that testosterone is the hormone of desire rather than aggression in women; that vaginas are far more diverse morphologically than penises; that breasts are even more miraculous than we may have thought (they can make high-grade milk even without a nutritious maternal diet); and that “the more intelligent the animal the deeper [her] passion.” (But perhaps I knew that already.)
Humans are complex emotionally because we are smart, long-lived, and have complicated brains. Those brains demanded and got complex reproductive strategies. Most anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists (“evo psychos,” Ms. Angier dubs them) have actually underestimated just how complex.
Ms. Angier writes wonderfully well. Her mischievous sense of humor is even more evident here than in her science columns for The New York Times . But the position of Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter for that paper has certainly given her access to the full spectrum of scientific research and researchers, from the nuttiest to the most sane. None of their antics are lost on her. She sees through the evo psychos who use their trendy “science” to plump for self-serving masculinist myths. She casts a critical eye on their “hoggamus hogwash” (she disputes “Hoggamus, higgamus–men are polygamous,” and implies that women are more likely to be polyandrous). She is the good-humored scourge; put her in a room with Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal , and she’ll tickle and sing rather than club and claw him to death.
She writes: “Evo psychos pull us back and forth until we might want to sue for whiplash. On the one hand we are told that women have a lower sex drive than men do. On the other hand we are told that the madonna-whore dichotomy is a universal stereotype.… Women are said to have lower sex drives than men, yet they are universally punished if they display evidence to the contrary … all the laws, customs, punishments, shame, strictures, mystiques, and antimystiques are aimed with full hominid fury at that tepid, sleepy, hypoactive creature the female libido. How can we know what is ‘natural’ for us when we are treated as unnatural for wanting our lust, our freedom, the music of our bodies?”
Natalie Angier’s prose, with its mixture of irony and metaphor-making, is surprising–like the research underlying her book. Just when you think she is indulging in the too-poetic, she undercuts it with a satirical jab.
She is my kind of feminist. Unlike, say, Catharine MacKinnon, she has a sense of humor about the war between the sexes. She understands that women and men need–and even occasionally love–one another, and she wholeheartedly supports a truce between the sexes, however shaky. She gives equal time to female and male researchers; you never get the feeling that she is about to announce that the male sex is obsolete and that we should all promote parthenogenesis for the future good of the species. Her writing suggests a happy acceptance of her own sexuality. Pleasure and pragmatism inform her take. She also has a healthy respect for menopause and for the extraordinary role grandmothers have played in human evolution.
Ms. Angier describes herself as “a utopian pessimist by nature.” Her concluding chapter, “A Skeptic in Paradise” calls for a “permanent revolution” in which women never give up the struggle to improve society for the benefit of children and families. She recognizes that we have made some changes but we have hardly made all the changes future generations will need for full equality between the sexes.
This is no less true for being obvious, but it is scarcely obvious to everyone. Ms. Angier encourages us to see that “mothering strategies are as diverse as mating strategies, and no one strategy is the one, the twenty-four carat, the alpha and omega of maternity.” She urges us to think about the extreme depth of human bonds, the complexity of human brains and of human culture, and to break free of the stereotypes that constrict both our imaginations and our problem-solving powers. She knows, for instance, that it is maladaptive for women to continue to blame other women for mothering differently from the way they themselves have chosen, for mating differently, or for choosing different life patterns and strategies. She sees the deep need for sororal unity in the midst of a diversity of choices unknown a century ago.
Woman raises interesting questions about the way science and scientific research reflect cultural biases. Ms. Angier takes the evo psychos to task for cloaking misogyny in pseudoscientific garb and calling it Nature.
She writes: “We don’t have to argue that men and women are exactly the same or that humans are meta-evolutionary beings, removed from nature and slaves to culture, to reject the perpetually regurgitated model of the coy female and the ardent male.… The thesis of sexual dialectics is that females and males vie for control over the means of re production. Those means are the female body, for there is as yet no beast as the parthenogenetic man.”
We never say it out loud, but all wise women and men know that these issues are the dark heart of sexual politics, the mating dance, and even feminist theorizing. We are hard-wired with the desire to pass along our genes to the next generation and to protect that generation so they can pass theirs (ours) along to the generation after that. How refreshing to find a book that sees through 30 years’ worth of blather about sexual politics and calls a gene a gene, a reproductive strategy a reproductive strategy, and a survival mechanism a survival mechanism.
We should never forget how complicated we are. Nature relies on flexibility as its main strategy of survival. We bipedal hominids will survive and thrive despite mistakes and wrong-turnings because we are, above all, flexible. Anything that threatens flexibility–whether cultural or biological–is bad for our survival. We have covered the earth with our sisters and brothers not by being static in our behavior and belief systems but by being incredibly changeable. In diversity is our strength.
It is the open-mindedness of Woman that is so beguiling. Natalie Angier encourages us to celebrate the diversity of human nature and to realize that the process of cultural evolution is only just beginning.
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