Louise's Feminist Musings

Notes on feminist news & issues

Sexism in Research Revealed: watch BBC Horizon

Very interesting this documentary about what makes us human. In it an age old scientific assumption, that women’s large pelvises make them walk insufficiently, is proven wrong. (The whole documentary is interesting, but the part about the pelvis starts around 24 min.)

This assumption lies at the heart of the explanation for human babies’ helplessness when they are born. It has been taught to students for generations until a female scientist thought it sounded a bit fishy (see here a result of feminism: the existence of female scientist and the raising of awareness of sexism). The idea is that if women were not such insufficient walkers, they could let babies grow a bit more inside of them and then the babies would come out better prepared for life (like animals usually are).

What is shown here is that in fact the woman’s metabolism has a limit. A growing baby needs exponentially more energy with time and is born when it needs more energy than the mother’s metabolism can produce.

And the fact that babies come out at this early stage is a good thing. What is shown in the first part of the documentary is that what makes us different from chimpansees (who share 99% of our genes) is cooperation and fair sharing (however, I must say I have doubts about whether the experiment was fair: the chimpansees were locked up separately and had separate rewards from the start. I hope they did other experiments as well). From this the conclusion is drawn that people need culture and that babies need to soak up culture, therefore, the fact that they are born early makes it possible for it to interact with other humans. Otherwise it would not learn how to navigate in our culture.

I don’t know if I accept this last thing on the basis of just these experiments, but what you see is the blatant sexism in the assumption that women are insufficient walkers and would be too wobbly with larger pelvises (the reasoning being: women don’t walk the same as men so there must be something wrong with women… and nobody questions this reasoning), and a more hidden sexism in the way the facts of childbirth are explained negatively. It is assumed all the time that something must be wrong about women and childbirth, when the explanation that Horizon presents here shows that nothing is wrong, but that in fact it is an advantage that babies come out as early as they do. It is what enables our culture to exist and develop.

What also crossed my mind is that if cooperation and fair sharing makes us special then our economic system based on greed and egoism, and our systems based on hierarchy, are very primitive indeed. But that is taking it a bit too far, drawing that conclusion from these few bits of information. Still, it makes one think.


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