A note from Managing Editor Joy Fowlkes: Several weeks ago, my roommate and I sat paralyzed, eyes glued to the screen as June (Offred) fetched a copy of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex for her Commander in the third episode of the final season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite all of the feminist and queer theory I’ve studied over the years, I somehow avoided the revelation that Darwin’s conclusions were not always so friendly to the female sex. So when the episode ended, I did what any young millennial would do: I Googled. That is how I learned of Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. Saini is a gifted science journalist, so it comes as no surprise that her book is incredibly empowering, chilling, and gripping. She previously spoke with us about her newer title, Superior: The Return of Race Science.


A Difference at Birth

Girls and boys, in short, would play harmlessly together, if the distinction of sex was not inculcated long before nature makes any difference.

—Mary Wollstonecraft,

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792

“We live in jeans, don’t we? They go with everything!” coos the mother. Her six-month-old daughter is wearing the tiniest pair of jeans I’ve ever seen, and she herself is dressed head to foot in denim.

We’re sitting together in the baby lab at Birkbeck College in central London. It reminds me of a nursery, but a somewhat unusual one. A purple elephant decorates the door to a waiting area full of toys. Downstairs, meanwhile, a baby might be hooked up to an electroencephalograph that monitors her brain’s electrical activity while she watches pictures on a screen. In another room, scientists could be watching a toddler play, examining which toys he happens to choose. Meanwhile, in this small laboratory that I’ve been invited into, a baby is being gently stroked along her back with a paintbrush. She’s the thirtieth infant to be studied so far in this experiment.

“She really just likes sitting and watching, taking it all in. I’m happy sitting and observing, myself,” her mother continues, bouncing the girl on her knee. Researchers suspect that human touch like this has an important impact on development in the early years. They just don’t know how or why. So the goal of today’s experiment is to measure how touch affects a baby’s cognitive development. It’s one of countless ways in which children are affected by their upbringing, slowly shaped into the people they will become.

Cute though babies are, studying them this way is not as much fun as it might seem. It’s almost like working with animals. The challenge is to come up with clever experiments that get to the heart of their behavior without accidentally reading too much into what an infant does. A stare can be meaningful or mindless, while even the most charming a smile may just be wind. In this case, the researchers are using a paintbrush to run their touch experiment because that’s the only way to control for parents stroking their children in different ways. With a brush, you can be sure it’s the same every time. 

Unfortunately, the baby’s bottom lip begins to quiver and she erupts into tears. It’s clear the paintbrush doesn’t measure up to real touch. This is one result that can’t be used.

“This is what baby science is. Trying to get a signal out of the noise,” laughs Teodora Gliga, a psychologist at Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, who carries out research in the baby lab. Gliga’s work focuses on how children develop in their early years, in the tradition of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget who, from the early twentieth century, observed his own children and famously realized that many of the assumptions scientists had made about early development were wrong. Babies aren’t blank slates. Instead, he believed they are preprogrammed with their own ways of organizing knowledge about the world. The simplest example of this is a newborn’s instinctive reflex to suck.

But this is just the start, scientists are realizing. The aim now is to figure out exactly how smart children are at birth, and what this means. One other use of baby research is to investigate differences between boys and girls. If children really are preprogrammed in some way, is the programming different depending on the sex? Do little girls prefer dolls dressed in pink because they’re female or because society has taught them they should prefer dolls and the color pink?

Plenty of research has already been done. We know that around the age of two or three, children start to become aware of their own sex. Between the ages of four and six, a boy will realize that he will grow up to be a man and a girl that she will be a woman. It’s also by then that children have some understanding of what’s appropriate for each gender according to the culture they’re in. American psychologist Diane Ruble and gender development expert Carol Lynn Martin have explained how, by the age of five, children already have in their heads a constellation of gender stereotypes. They describe one experiment in which children were shown pictures of people doing things like sewing and cooking. When a picture contradicted a traditional stereotype, the kids were more likely to remember it incorrectly. In one instance, instead of remembering that they had seen a picture of a girl sawing wood—which they had—some said instead that they’d seen one of a boy sawing wood.

Some parents are acutely aware of the problem. The mother of the baby I’m observing in the lab today tells me that she’s a researcher with a PhD and she would like her daughter to have a PhD one day, too. Along the way, she’s trying to avoid exposing her to gender stereotypes that might harm her sense of what she’s able to do. “I’m not averse to pink, but we’ve tended to buy navy and blue things,” she tells me. Someone offered to sell her a dolls’ house recently, but she refused to take it. “I’d rather have something more neutral,” she adds.

Researchers like those at Birkbeck College have realized that one of the most effective ways for scientists to sift nature from nurture, the biological from the social, is by studying children so young that they haven’t yet been exposed to society’s heavily gendered ways. “I don’t think that studying adults tells us anything about sex differences. It tells us something about the lives those people lived. It’s more about their experiences than about the biology of it,” explains Teodora Gliga.

“The earlier you go in development, the closer you are to nature.”

Excerpted from Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini, (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission by Beacon Press.