National Book Award finalist
A New York Times notable book
"A tour de force, a womderful, entertaining and informative book." —Abraham Verghese, New York Times Book Review
After fifteen years in print, Woman remains an essential guide to everything from organs to orgasms and hormones to hysterectomies. With her characteristic clarity, insight, and sheer exuberance of language, bestselling author Natalie Angier cuts through the still prevalent myths and misinformation surrounding the female body, that most enigmatic of evolutionary masterpieces. Woman is a witty and assured narrative with a reliable grasp of science.
The Karo Batak are traditional farmers who live in small villages scattered along the highland plateau of North Sumatra, Indonesia. They lead tough, subsistence lives, wear brightly colored clothing, and are rarely exposed to Western media, and the men have a thing for women with big feet. This last detail may seem whimsically beside the point, but as anthropologist Geoff Kushnick of the University of Washington argued in the September 2013 issue of Human Nature, the Karo Batak preference for large-footed women doesn’t square with certain Darwinian notions about the traits men seek in their mates.
According to the glossier and more emphatic strains of the research enterprise called evolutionary psychology, men and women have evolved to consult very different internal checklists when choosing a romantic partner. Women are said to want a provider to help them raise their children, so they look for signs of status and wealth in a man—handiness of spear, bulginess of wallet. Men, by contrast, want a mate with a long reproductive career ahead of her, so they scan for hallmarks of youth and nubility: shiny hair, bee-stung lips, perky breasts. And because a woman’s feet tend to widen with every passing year and parturition, evolutionary psychologists posit that foot size should also figure into the male nubility monitor, and that men are likely wired to find dainty feet more appealing than their haggish, Sasquatch counterparts. Sure enough, a number of cross-cultural studies appeared to confirm the small-foot preference, lending a bit of scientific cachet to the old Fats Waller lyric “Don’t want you ’cause your feet’s too big.”
Yet as Geoff Kushnick discovered, Karo Batak men were refusing to sing along. When he showed 159 of them a set of five silhouettes of a woman in which all details remained the same except for the size of her feet, the men judged the one with the biggest feet as more attractive than the other four. In addition, the men actively disliked the image of the woman with the tiniest feet—the very picture that men in previous studies had, on average, deemed the most fetching. As it turned out, the Karo Batak were not alone in their predilections. When Kushnick revisited the cross-cultural preference surveys in detail, he found that while small feet prevailed in aggregate, there was considerable cultural variation: the less urban the population, and the less its exposure to Western media, the likelier its men were to appreciate images of women whose feet had been significantly enlarged.
The foot results echoed studies that had called into question another piece of evo- psycho dogma: the purportedly universal appeal of the wasp waist. Men everywhere were said to prefer women with small waists relative to the width of their hips over women with chunkier, boxier forms. After all, nothing cries “young female in the full flower of her estrogenic powers” better than an hourglass figure, right? But here, too, researchers found exceptions to the rule, benighted cultures in which the men claimed to like the thick-waisted women, and to find the cinched-in women with their “ideal” waist-to-hip ratios a bit sickly looking. Again, the contrarian men were from remote cultures with scant exposure to Western media, Beyoncé, and Spanx. Research like his, Geoff Kushnick wrote, “has implications for the concept of universality espoused in some versions of evolutionary psychology” and calls into question “the notion that one size fits all.” Perhaps, just perhaps, Kushnick bravely postulated, human mating preferences are “flexible,” responsive to local circumstances, rather than preordained by one’s chromosomal makeup. Hard as it might be for Westerners to fathom, men in subsistence societies just may favor the appearance of sturdiness and surefootedness over a head-to-toe package of “youth signifiers,” the lovely semiotics of Lolita en pointe.
I bring this up because Woman deals at length with some of the more complacently tendentious claims about male-female differences that have emerged from evolutionary psychology—that women are coy and fastidious while men are ardent and promiscuous, for example, or that women are just not as obsessed with power and achievement as men are, and, hey, that’s a good thing, especially if it means more homemade red velvet cupcakes for the school bake sale. Since Woman was first published, the application of Darwinian ideas to the study of human behavior has itself speciated into an array of different schools, some of them quite creative and sophisticated. The researchers call themselves evolutionary anthropologists, human behavioral ecologists, evolutionary developmental biologists, or simply scientists. They view humans as very smart animals with a long, messy past, and they are devoted to decoding the complex interplay between biology and biography, genes and culture, individual variability and hominid continuity. Many of these evolutionary scholars will express reservations in private about the subdiscipline of evolutionary psychology and its penchant for intellectual overreach, the ease with which its most ardent proponents will spin a highly preliminary finding into a grand saga about the deep evolutionary roots of male-female differences. Still, it can take courage to speak out against the proclamations of evolutionary psychology, which is why I characterize Kushnick’s questioning of the “one size fits all” model of human mating preferences as brave. When confronted by results that cast doubt on their core convictions, or by skeptics who question their interpretation of a given data set, evolutionary psychologists can be remarkably tetchy and thin-skinned. They will accuse their critics of ignorance, of not believing in evolution, of letting their political opinions cloud their scientific judgment, or all of the above. David Buss, a patriarch of the evo-psycho industry, has compared himself to Galileo defending truths as incontrovertible as heliocentricity against the forces of darkness. In 2012 Alice Eagly and Wendy Woods, respected psychologists steeped in Darwinian theory, published a lengthy and abundantly footnoted report entitled “Biosocial Construction of Sex Differences and Similarities in Behavior.” They discussed the considerable variability of psychological sex differences across cultures and throughout time, and they noted the challenge that such variation posed to “essentialist” beliefs about male and female nature. That elicited a predictable response in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, in which Barry Kuhle of the University of Scranton slapped down Eagly and Wood as “gender feminists” whose thinking “needs to evolve.” And their feets are probably too big, too.
The debate over evolutionary psychology is no mere parlor game. Many people have taken its more diaphanous and peremptory claims all too seriously, and some of those people wield influence. When Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, famously suggested in 2005 that the lack of women in the upper tiers of science might have less to do with sex discrimination or the difficulty of combining motherhood and career than with women’s innately inferior math skills and the relative weakness of their competitive drive, a number of critics observed that Summers’s position sounded suspiciously EP. By the gospel of EP, women are the sane and balanced ones, humanity’s multitaskers, so of course you’d expect to find them comfortably ensconced beneath the great middling bulge of the cognitive bell curve. Men, on the othe...
"...a remarkable document of universal interest.... a tour de force, a wonderful, entertaining and informative book." -- Abraham Verghese
"...dazzling.... What you'll see through her eyes will startle and amaze you." -- Marilyn Yalom The New York Times
"The revolution already has a manifesto in the form of the ebullient Woman: An Intimate Geography. There are other female-positive books hitting the stores - but it's Angier who most decisively lifts the concept of the human female out of its traditional oxymoronic status. You gotta love a self-described female chauvinist sow who writes like Walt Whitman crossed with Erma Bombeck and depicts the vagina as a Rorschach with legs. Woman is a delicious cocktail of estrogen and amphetamine designed to pump up the ovaries as well as the cerebral cortex. " Time Magazine
"In Woman, Angier wields her poetic scalpel to explore female biology, and the result is awesome."—Dr. Susan Love, Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book
"[Angier] is my kind of feminist. Unlike, say, Catherine MacKinnon, she has a sense of humor about the war between the sexes. .... 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."—Erica Jong, The New York Observer
"O joy, O rapture unforeseen! Natalie Angier's fascinating book about the female body is a hilarious romp through, well, our innards. In a deliciously irreverent, energetic, and clear writing style, she demystifies and de-mythicizes women's anatomy and biological workings. Along the way, Angier leaves no metaphor unexplored....She reveals the mysterious universe of women's bodies for even the most scientifically impaired souls. Like the evolution she describes, Angier is self-selecting in what she writes about, but her passion for what make us gals tick is infectious. Her explanation of chromosomes veritably sings. Woman: An Intimate Geography will leave the reader, male or female, in sheer awe of the complexity and power of women's bodies."— Ms. Magazine
"A delightfully mischievous yet serious book on the biology of the female body. Mischievous in that the science is interpreted in terms of modern feminism. It is a great read." — Phillip Sharp, MIT professor and Nobel laureate
"A delighted and delightful book, scientifically intelligent, politically astute, and replete with the intense complexity and fascination of biology. The writing is wonderful and the humor and sensibility are as rare as they are welcome."—Perri Klass, M.D.
"Woman is so captivating I couldn't put it down. It is jam-packed with fascinating, carefully researched facts I never knew before about how we women work. Best of all, Angier's abundant sense of humor and colorful writing style make this an irresistible read for everyone interested in women's bodies and women's health."—Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., Strong Women Stay Young
"In this witty, learned, adventurous book, Angier gives feminism a cheerful, evolutionary twist. Her deflation of the 'new science of evolutionary psychology' is a brilliant combination of hard science, humor and common sense exactly right."—Katha Pollitt, The Nation
"Angier has brought both her considerable intellect and wry sense of humor to this book. The result is brilliantly accessible and wonderfully subversive."— Dr. Christiane Northrup, Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom
"Having occupied a woman’s body for nearly sixty years, I didn’t think any book would have much to teach me. How wrong I was!" — Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, ethologist and author of The Hidden Life of Dogs
"Passion and intelligence meet in a gorgeous book about what it means to be a woman today, yesterday, and forever. Herein lies a fund of knowledge beautifully conveyed, as well as questions that have yet to be answered." Kirkus Reviews
"It's hard not to sound effusive about Woman: An Intimate Geography, since it's fabulous. Angier's book contains more facts about women than anything I've read since the Boston Women's Health Collective published Our Bodies, Our Selves in 1973. My advice about Woman is, get three copies, one for the beach, one for the bathroom and one to read under the covers with a flashlight." Elle
"To read Woman is to banish the gods of negative body image. It is transformative in the way Our Bodies, Our Selves was in the '70s, and no less radical. In fact, if Our Bodies, Our Selves has become the bible of women's bodies, let Woman: An Intimate Geography be our Shakespeare." Mirabella
"It's exhilarating to follow Angier's subversive logic as she dismantles the misogynist mythologies once advanced as the scientific gospel of the female body and replaces them with theories more congenial with the female soul....Angier's brilliant and witty fantasia will inspire women to believe in their powwers." Boston Globe
"One knows early on one is reading a classic—a text so necessary and abundant aand truuuuue that all efforts of its kind, for decades before and after it, will be measured by it. ... After a careful reading of this essential book, men should pass it along to someone they love-—their sons, daughters ... lovers and spouses. For a fresh look into the life's sciences ... and the pure pleasure of language in service to the facts of life, Angier's Woman is as good as it gets."— Thomas Lynch, Los Angeles Times
"The chief manifesto of the new 'femaleist' thinking, this ebullient and provocative treatise on women's bodies reads like a mixture of Walt Whitman and Erma Bombeck."— Barbara Ehrenreich, TIME cover story, "The Truth About Women's Bodies"
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