Festival of Ideas Does Feminism

On Thursday evening I attended two feminist-themed events at the Watershed in Bristol. Both of them were organized by the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

First up was science journalist, Angela Saini, promoting her new book. Inferior, expansively subtitled, How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, is all about how gender bias, sometimes unconscious and sometimes not, has been a feature of science over the years. Mostly the book is about biology, because this is an area in which men have used dubious science to claim superiority over women. This has been going on for a very long time. Aristotle has a lot to answer for, and Darwin was no better.

The biggest problem area is evolutionary psychology, where people make the most bizarre claims. Saini focused on the question as to why human women (uniquely among primates, but not the entire animal kingdom) live for a long time after they have ceased to be fertile. Many people on Twitter and Facebook reacting to my posts mentioned the sensible idea that older women are useful to society and it is good to keep them alive. There is an alternative theory (developed by men) that old women are ugly so there is no need for them to be fertile, and consequently they have lost the ability to breed.

Those of you who are on social media may have seen this week’s joke evolutionary psychology theory: that women have evolved to become bisexual because men love watching lesbian sex.

It doesn’t take much to poke fun at this stuff, but it is useful to have someone like Saini around to work on the more serious bad science. Fans of Cordelia Fine will doubtless love her book. I’m looking forward to it too, but I can’t read it just yet because the event only had a limited number of pre-publication copies and they sold out.

The reason why I was late getting in the queue is that I’d made a couple of new friends. One is a psychologist from Boston who understands the need to consider trans issues in her work. I’m hoping to learn a lot more about what she’s doing next week. In the meantime I’m going to check out the work of Charlotte Tate, who is also doing good work in this area.

My other new pal is Virginia Bergin, a Bristol-based writer of YA science fiction. Her latest book, Who Runs the World, is a pretty obvious candidate for the Tiptree. My chagrin at not having heard of Virginia before was mollified slightly by the fact that Virginia had no idea that Bristol had an SF&F community. We plan to rectify both of these issues.

The second event featured anti-FGM campaigner and Women’s Equality Party parliamentary candidate, Nimco Ali. She’s an amazing person who has done a huge amount to get the UK authorities to take FGM seriously. I recorded a brief interview with her after the talk which I’ll air on my June 7th Women’s Outlook show.

My thanks are due to Nimco for helping me understand what was going on in Rome as successive emperors attempted to ban child castration. It all makes much more sense now.

Now if only we could get the UK to ban surgery on intersex children.

2 thoughts on “Festival of Ideas Does Feminism

  1. I tend to turn the “why do human women cease to be fertile?” question on its head (“Why don’t chimps or orangutans have an infertile period?”), after doing the maths! Namely:
    – A zebra has a foal. 1 to 2 years later mother zebra drops dead. This does not matter, since the foal is now a yearling and/or sexually mature and can survive without mum.
    – A chimpanzee has a baby. 1 to 2 years later mother chimp drops dead. Her infant also dies, because a 1 to 2 year old cannot survive without its mother. (It won’t be weaned for another couple of years).

    It takes 9 years to get a from bouncing baby chimp to completely independent of its mother. By staying fertile right up to the end, chimps condemn their final baby to death. Curtailing that fertility early would increase junior’s chances of survival.

    Human kids take aeons to raise AND we tend to have multiple kids on the go at one time (unlike the zebra). Adding a mere 15 year menopause onto the lifespan of Ms Cavewoman enables the survival of her last baby, plus the 4 year old and 8 year old she already had when that baby was born. It’s the other long-childhood primates which are weird – not us! 🙂

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