Inferior by Angela Saini

Read: 3 September, 2018

In my early 20s,  I got involved with the Atheist Movement(TM). I was primarily attracted to the purity of science, and to the freedom to treat people equally and with respect without culturally/religiously motivated bigotry.

After a little while, however, I started to notice that the Atheist Movement(TM) suffered from many of the same problems that the “regular” world faces, only people were looking to science to justify the same old belief systems and bigotries. When someone asked “Why is the atheist movement so dominated by white people?”, someone else would ask “What is it about black people that makes them more superstitious?” A similar question would be asked about women.

Whenever someone tried to address the original question in a different way – “What is it about the atheist movement that makes it unappealing to POC and women?” – there was a knee-jerk reaction. “The atheist movement isn’t hostile to POC and women!” the claim would go. “We don’t have religion, so we’re welcoming to everyone! It’s just that POC and women aren’t as logical and rational as white men, so atheism doesn’t appeal to them as much!”

Disillusioned, I eventually gave up on the Movement(TM). And so there was one less woman in the Atheist Movement, and I suppose that proved their point. After all, if I had the ability to think rationally and logically, surely I would enjoy debating the mental faculties of my sex as much as white men do!

My personal experience is perfectly captured by Inferior. Saini goes through the tremendous amount of research that has been done to prove women’s weakness, their docility, their inherent monogamy and low libido, their mental inferiority. That is, when women factor into the picture at all – also covered is evolutionary research that seems to forget that women are part of the species at all. Much of this science, of course, done at a time when women were formally excluded from academia and research societies.

Saini doesn’t simply hand-wave away science of this time. In fact, she takes great care to present it fairly, and to explain how it might seem plausible given the studies conducted or with the information that was available. (In fact, if anything, she perhaps wastes too much energy making excuses for sexism – when she explains away Darwin  as “a man of his time”, she is neglecting to mention that Caroline Kennard was also a person of her time, the same time, and yet perfectly able to perceive the fundamental flaw in Darwin’s thinking with regards to biological sex differences.)

She discusses the errors in methodology, the unexamined assumptions, and even later research that show different results. The result is a more complicated, but more mature, picture of humanity – one where the sexes are more similar than they are different, and one where culture and technology can overcome whatever differences might persist.

This is an important book, and a well-researched one, with a compelling writing style.

Contact by Carl Sagan

Read: 22 November, 2012

Ellie Arroway is the director of the controversial Argus Project, which scans the skies for any evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial beings. After years of failure, finally, she receives a series of prime numbers that could not have been generated naturally.

The movie version with Jodie Foster was one of my favourite movies in my early teens, so Contact has been on my reading list for a while. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my hopes.

The writing style was very detached, telling the reader about the characters – sometimes even very private details – without ever allowing us to ever really get to know them. There were also fact-checking issues that I found rather jarring, such as when visiting France, Ellie sees a sign for the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) and she reads it “as the Russian word for beer, with the middle letter inverted left to right.” Thing is, that would be pronounced “Veer” in Russian, not “beer.” And, in any case, the Russian word for beer is “pivo.”

I also felt that Sagan’s agenda was too forward. I get that there are very few female scientists in literature, and those that do make it are generally socially awkward or “mannish.” So I really do appreciate that Sagan gives us a highly competent female scientist while still being very feminine. And, of course, Saga is very blunt about the extra hurdles in Ellie’s career path that her male colleagues don’t need to deal with. But the constant reminders of her gender, of her application of makeup, of her dress, of her choice in jewellery, of her lovers (and sexual rating of nearly every male she meets) served the opposite purpose, actually making me feel self-conscious about my gender.

The discussions of religion were interesting, but the “now we’re both searchers!” ending felt too contrived. The “moon landing denier” stand-in – Michael Kitz – was frustrating and, I felt, unnecessary. The difference between most moon landing deniers and Kitz is that Kitz actually has a lot of political power. For him to concoct such a crazy and baseless pseudo-explanation for “what really happened” simply does not make sense. After spending two trillion dollars, why would the governments of the world just suddenly change their minds and all work together to erase the experiment?

I’m glad that I’ve finally read Contact and can, at last, cross it off my list, but it was a struggle to keep going. After seeing the amazing movie that they made from it, it was a disappointing read.

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The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Read: 10 October, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth is a fantastic introduction to the theory of evolution. Although marketed towards adults, I think it’s really more appropriate for a tween/early teen level, to provide a solid foundation in evolution.

The book is written in Dawkins’ approachable language, and he explains difficult concepts in a very simple and easy to understand way. Illustrations are well chosen and well used to emphasise his points.

The only real downside is that the preface dwells a bit too long on the Creationism issue. While terribly satisfying for the True Believer, it would be a turn off for someone neutral or leaning towards Creationism and interested in learning more. It’s a shame, although perhaps no more damaging that having the name Richard Dawkins printed on the cover.

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Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Read: 17 November, 2009

The thing that struck me the most about this collection of stories is that it could have been classed as travel narratives just as easily as horror. I found it so interesting to read about exotic locations while at the same time getting a wonderfully-crafted suspense story!

Don’t Look Now

I wanted to read this story after seeing the excellent movie with Donald Sutherland, and it certainly didn’t disappoint! The pacing is delightfully slow with great suspense-building, and the story has one of the most fabulous final lines I’ve ever read.

Not After Midnight

A schoolmaster holidays in Crete, hoping to work on his painting. But while there, he notices strange things starting to happen… An interesting story about madness and paranoia as the schoolmaster becomes obsessed with fellow vacationers.

A Border-Line Case

Shelagh’s father dies, his final words some kind of plea, or perhaps an accusation. Confused and racked by guilt, she decides to find Nick, the estranged best man at her parents’ wedding, to learn more about her father’s past. This story was excellent, a crazy psychological “mindfuck” with a great twist ending.

The Way of the Cross

A group of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem meet with disaster. This is possibly the most character-focused story in the collection, but also the least interesting.

The Breakthrough

This is a story of science gone awry. The main character gets a new job with a team of scientists trying to find a new energy source. He quickly realizes that something far more sinister is going on. An interesting story with some really great lines, though not the best treatment of scientific ethics.

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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Read: 26 July, 2008

Overall, I loved this book. Dawkins is a wonderful writer and I think I would have enjoyed his style regardless of the subject matter. The only major flaw that irked me was his habit of veering off into tangents, but even this was made bare-able by not only his writing style, but also by the fact that most of his tangents were just plain interesting. Dawkins makes his case even stronger, in my opinion, by fulling admitting to and even going out of his way to point out the limits of his own personal knowledge. At several times during the book, he will say that he suspects one thing but does not know for certain, showing an inquisitive and flexible mind, both humble and confident. It’s a refreshing break from the average writer who seems all too sure of her/his omniscience.

With all that out of the way, I’d like to address a couple of issues with the book. The first is with Chapter Four or “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” I found the whole chapter to be a disappointment. Dawkins takes the question of “if there isn’t a god, how did everything fall into place so perfectly to produce us?” and tries to answer it with science. This points him in an awkward and unnecessarily defensive position because the question itself is not a legitimate one (something he never once says outright). It’s like asking “how did my parents know to have sex at just the perfect time to conceive me?” It assumes that we are an end result, a goal that the universe has been working towards – rather than the more accurate assumption that the universe is merely ambling along in one of billions (to pick an unrealistically small number) of possible ways and we just happen to be a bi-product (one of many possibilities) that happened to emerge. There is nothing special about the production of us, whether as individuals or as a species.

Another quibble I had with the book is that Dawkins repeats multiple times that natural selection gets rid of negatives and keeps positives, which is just sloppy. What about the vast majority of mutations, which are just neutral? Or mutations that have both positive and negative expressions?I understand the need for brevity and keeping things simple, but this is a major point and something that a lot of Dawkins’s opposition can’t seem to grasp.

And the final detail that I took issue with is his statement that “[monogamy] is what we expect, and it is what we set out to achieve.” Is it? Maybe he’s right, I don’t know. Maybe monogamy really is the default. But that’s not what even the quickest glance around the diversity of human societies in the world today will tell me. Many societies involve one man and several women, some even involve one woman and several men. If monogamy truly is the natural default, why isn’t this expression universal? Like I said, maybe he’s right – but because his statement was counter-intuitive, the existence of polygamous societies should have been addressed.

With all that said, this was a fabulous book and I am very glad that I’ve read it. It ought to have stayed on topic a little better, but that’s okay. There were no parts of the book that I felt weren’t worth reading and that’s more than I can say for most books.

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