Book review

"Woman: An Intimate Geography,"

Topics: Books,

Simone de Beauvoir probably would have agreed with Natalie Angier’s theory of feminism — with one exception. De Beauvoir believed women were the biological runners-up in the gender wars; Angier, the stylish, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, takes the contrary view. In “Woman: An Intimate Geography,” she argues that women’s bodies are complex, versatile and powerful, and that they often surpass men’s. To prove her point, she takes us on a tantalizing, witty journey through female biology, debunking many entrenched stereotypes and myths and a lot of questionable science.

Equipped with an eye for detail and a sure grasp of science, Angier maps the female body — eggs, uterus, breasts, hormones, brain — enlisting a remarkable array of studies and little-known facts, as well as examples from history and literature, to offer a feminist take on biology. She explains, for instance, that the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, twice as many as the penis. “All this,” she gloats, “and to no greater purpose than to subserve a woman’s pleasure. In the clitoris alone we see a sexual organ so pure of purpose that it needn’t moonlight as a secretory or excretory device.” She details the power of estrogen on the brain and heart and the complexity of the female chromosome, which boasts thousands of genes, compared to the male counterpart’s puny two dozen.

Though Angier toys with some fringe theories about women’s biology, including one that suggests female orgasms enhance fecundity, she saves her most trenchant arguments for the evolutionary psychologists, offering a refreshing rebuttal to the gender stereotyping of Robert Wright (“The Moral Animal”) and David Buss (“The Evolution of Desire”). Women, these writers believe, are innately less interested in sex, less aggressive and more invested in relationships than men are. Angier unearths numerous exceptions and alternative explanations. DNA studies, for example, show that female chimpanzees risk “life and limb” and the lives of their offspring to cheat on their possessive mates. And if women have lower sex drives than men, Angier argues, you can’t blame biology: Cultural mores across the centuries have punished women for their carnal interest.



Unfortunately, Angier has a propensity to engage in cheerleading about everything female, and the result can be sisterhood mush. In a chapter on menstruation, she implores women to celebrate this rite of passage together: “When your daughter or niece or younger sister runs to you and crows, ‘It’s here!’ take her out for a bowl of ice cream or a piece of chocolate cake, and raise a glass of milk to the new life that begins with blood.” Moments like this make you wonder whether you’re reading an early edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Still, this is a minor quibble about a meaty book. Angier challenges readers to question assumptions about women’s bodies and minds. She prods us to understand biology as a feminist tool. And her book provides the analysis and the ammunition with which to do just that.

Maggie Jones has written for New York, Mirabella and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Los Angeles.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>