Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty were pioneers. Yet their work is still contentious—and their contribution all too often ignoredby Angela Saini / July 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I set out to write a book on what science tells us about women—a topic as controversial as it is vast—there was one person I knew I had to meet. So I found myself on the sun-drenched road to Winters, a town in California’s western Sacramento Valley. Here, a picturesque walnut farm is home to one of the most incredible women in science, a thinker whose work one researcher told me reduced her to tears. Anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, now professor emerita at the University of California, Davis, can reasonably be credited with transforming the way biologists think about females.
“Everything I am interested in, initially, it’s personal,” she told me as we parked ourselves in deep couches outside her study. Now in her seventies, Hrdy came from a conservative American family which made its money from oil. “I grew up in South Texas, a deeply patriarchal, deeply racist part of the world.” The juxtaposition between this and her current liberal Californian life could not be starker. But it’s also no accident.
She admits that she was timid as a young woman; not a revolutionary by temperament. Growing up in the politically-charged 1960s shaped both her and her thoughts about science. Studying primate behaviour during fieldwork in India, she discovered how powerful females could be, even in male-dominated species. This eventually lead her to write her seminal 1981 book The Woman Who Never Evolved, a beautiful and thorough account of female sexual agency, cracking wide open the longstanding notion that females are naturally passive and coy—as many biologists at the time believed.
For her groundbreaking ideas, Hrdy has been described as the original Darwinian feminist. Along with other female scientists at the time, she is credited with shaking up the male establishment in evolutionary biology and daring to present something new—something that, despite the evidence in her favour, still not everyone wants to accept.
Her later works explored how children are raised, making the powerful case that humans did not evolve to have mothers as sole childcarers, but that we are unusual in being a species that breeds cooperatively. “The nuclear family is fairly new as an invention. People don’t realise that. They think of Adam and Eve… they assume that it was natural. It’s not,” she said.