Jul 16, 2013

Non-Fiction Quartet: Primates, Unmastered, Bad Pharma and Paleofantasy

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks — The author of the excellent Feynman is back with another graphic biography of renowned scientists: this time, Ottaviani turns his attention to Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birutė Galdikas, the three women chosen by Louis Leakey to study primates in the wild.

At a meagre 133 pages, this group biography is not exactly in-depth, but then again it’s not supposed to be. Much like in Feynman, Ottaviani gives readers a thoughtful introduction to these primatologists’ lives and work, and points us towards resources for further reading at the end. And despite its brevity, Primates does a good job of raising interesting questions about gender, the nature of scientific research, conservationism, the colonialist attitudes that shaped these women’s work, etc. It also does a wonderful job of capturing each scientist’s passion and individuality.

The Madame Curie Complex, which I read for Ada Lovelace Day last year, raised some interesting questions regarding Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas, and reading Primates reminded me of them. The reasons why Leakey decided to send women to do field research on primates included essentialist assumptions about them being “naturally” more suited for the job because they were more patient. I probably don’t need to tell you that I don’t buy into the idea that male and female researchers are inherently different; however, did social expectations impact these women’s work? Was their willingness to be out in the field doing research year after year, instead of coming back to further their academic careers, shaped by expectations about working women? How did gender tie in with Leakey’s decision to send untrained (to begin with) observers to the field, on the grounds that too much knowledge would taint their data? Were people more inclined to cast young women into the role of the non-expert?

Primates doesn’t really provide answers to any of these questions, but it was interesting to revisit them through Ottavini’s smart writing and Wicks’ illustrations. Some examples of the art:

And here’s a proper review from Finding Wonderland.

Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel — This is a very personal account of how living in a sexist world has shaped one particular woman’s erotic imagination, and of how she was able to reclaim her sexuality despite that. I decided to read Unmastered based solely on this interview with the author, which remains one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. The book is a bit different than you might expect: this is not a scholarly work along the lines of Hanne Blank’s Virgin, but rather a first person account told in short vignettes.

However, this approach is actually what makes it work: Angel makes absolutely no assumptions about how other women will experience sexuality; instead, she focuses on her own experiences and asks herself several difficult questions. Unmastered is more about exploring these questions than arriving at concrete answers, but again, this is part of what makes it work. We’re all in the process of figuring out how to balance our beliefs with our experience of living in a very complex world, and I’m more drawn to writers interested in grappling with these questions than to those who attempt to provide ready-made answers.

One of the most interesting aspects of Unmastered is its exploration of how traditional gender roles take on an erotic dimension in Angel’s imagination. Angel describes how the dominant understanding of men as the subjects of desire and women as the objects becomes a part of her own experience of desire: she’s aroused not only by her partner’s body, but by her own as seen through his eyes. Being desired by him, and being capable of arousing his desire, becomes a central part of how she experiences sexuality. As a feminist woman, Angel is keenly aware of the uncomfortable underpinnings of this experience, but she’s also very careful not to slip into shaming. We’re all raised in a patriarchal society that eroticises women’s bodies to a greater extent than men’s, and that predominantly exposes us to depictions of sexuality from a male point of view. Although Angel is careful not to generalise beyond her own experience, it’s not surprising that women would be affected by this.

Being willing to analyse these experiences is important, but as Angel points out, it’s equally important to remember that we’re free to reclaim whichever bits of our socialisation make sense to us, as that’s how every aspect of who we are is shaped. Nothing about the people we become develops in a vacuum, so realising that something probably came about due to worrying cultural influences doesn’t mean we have to purge ourselves from it. With this in mind, instead of worrying that her private experience of desire makes her a bad feminist, Angel learns to conceive of her growing comfort with the complexity of her sexuality as a truly subversive act.

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre: it’s time to admit that I’ll never get around to writing a full-length review of this book, even though I loved it nearly as much as Goldacre’s Bad Science (and some of you might remember that that was a whole lot). The good news is that I’ve already told you about Bad Pharma, sort of: remember when I went to see Goldacre speak last year? Like I said in relation to The Geek Manifesto, the talk did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the book — not because the book lacks substance, but because it was a wonderful talk.

Bad Pharma is a book with a relatively simple thesis and a very detailed elaboration, which is exactly the right balance for a work of this sort. You don’t want to just take Goldacre at his word; you want to see the evidence and decide for yourself. Here’s a quote that summarises Bad Pharma’s main argument:
Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefit of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that benefit the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.
As I’ve said several times before, I like seeing critiques of science that come from people who demand more and better science, rather than from people who are perhaps inclined to throw away the baby with the bathwater. Goldacre believes that when used effectively, the scientific method is the best tool we have to make sense of the physical world, with obvious implications for drug manufacturing and progress in medicine. The problem lies exactly with the “used effectively” bit — we fall short of this ideal much too often, not necessarily because specific individuals set out to be dishonest, but because there are systematic problems with the architecture of information in medicine. As Goldacre puts it,
[T]his is not just a book about bad people. In fact, it’s possible for good people, in perversely designed systems, to casually perpetrate acts of great harm on strangers, sometimes without even realising it. The current regulations — for companies, doctors and researchers — create perverse incentives; and we’ll have better luck fixing those broken systems than trying to rid the world of avarice.
There are two ideas from the book I’d like to highlight: one, Goldacre draws attention to the fact that even though the Declaration of Helsinki (a set of principles regulating experiments with human subjects) clearly states that research volunteers should benefit from the treatment tested on them, economic disparity means that this is often not the case:
But even at best, volunteers come from less well-off groups in society, and this creates a situation where the drugs taken by all of us are tested — to be blunt — on the poor. In the US, this means people without medical insurance, and that raises another interesting issue: the declaration of Helsinki, the ethics code which frames most modern medical activity, says that research is justified if the population from whom participants are drawn would benefit from the results. The thought behind this is that a new AIDS drug shouldn’t be tested on people in Africa, for example, who could never afford to buy it. But uninsured unemployed people in the US do not have access to expensive medical treatments either, so it’s not clear that they could benefit from this research.
Two, Goldacre mentions some very interesting studies that shows that people’s beliefs about the extent to which they’re influenced by close contact with sales reps are often completely off the mark. We’re not exactly the best at assessing our own impartiality, which means it’s a good idea to play it safe.

Ben Goldacre is clearly interested in the intersection between science, journalism and ethics, and that’s one of the things that draw me to his work. I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.

Lastly, I read Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live. This is a book not unlike my beloved Beyond Human Nature or Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You, although the focus is a bit different. Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist, debunks the idea that once upon a time human beings were perfectly adapted to their environment, and that the way we live our lives now is at odds with how we’re “supposed” to live. The corollary of this idea is that whatever arrangements we allegedly had in the Palaeolithic (in terms of diet, exercise, gender roles, child-rearing, and so on) are natural for human beings, whereas everything else is a harmful and artificial modern invention. (Curiously enough, these ideal ancestral arrangements always seem to mirror 1950s gender politics.)

As Zuk says in the introduction,
It’s common for people to talk about how we were “meant” to be, in areas ranging from diet to exercise to sex and family. Yet these notions are often flawed, making us unnecessarily wary of new foods and, in the long run, new ideas. I would not dream of denying the evolutionary heritage present in our bodies—and our minds. And it is clear that a life of sloth with a diet of junk food isn’t doing us any favors. But to assume that we evolved until we reached a particular point and are now unlikely to change for the rest of history, or to view ourselves as relics hampered by a self-inflicted mismatch between our environment and our genes, is to miss out on some of the most exciting new developments in evolutionary biology.
Like I was saying just above in regards to Goldacre, it’s exciting to see someone who really knows her science address the pitfalls into which even the most well-meaning researchers often fall. Personally I believe that making sense of human beings in evolutionary terms makes perfect sense, but I’ve come across enough ideologically loaded just-so stories to automatically cringe when I see the words “evolutionary psychology”. A healthy dose of scepticism is not a sign that one denies evolution — on the contrary, it’s the belief that we were once adapted to our environment but have tragically departed from that perfect equilibrium that betrays a deep misunderstanding of what evolution is and how it works. To quote from Zuk once again,
I see nothing wrong with trying to explain the psychology or behaviour of humans using an evolutionary framework. I do, however, find that people have a hard time viewing themselves dispassionately, and when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we have a regrettable tendency to see what we want to see and rationalize what we already want to do. That often means that if we can think of a way in which a behavior, whether it is eating junk food or having an affair, might have been beneficial in an ancestral environment, we feel vindicated, or at least justified. It’s different from “my genes made me do it”, but the end result—that we are trapped, perhaps regrettably, in a web of behavior that we inherited from our ancestors—is the same. What I am arguing in this book is that such an approach misses the real lessons of evolution, not only because it is specious to suggest that our genes dictate infidelity, but because that trap does not exist.
Bottom line: we are flexible and adaptable, and we’re not tragically doomed to live our lives a certain way Lest We Go Against Nature. If anyone had any doubts regarding that, Zuk’s sharp and accessible writing will set them straight.

(Have you posted about any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. You might be interested in this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/timc

    It's the latest Infinite Monkey Cage, where they discuss what makes science science, and Ben Goldacre is one of the panelists.

  2. Primates looks like my kind of non-fiction!

  3. Rosario, thank you so much for the link! That does sound right up my alley.

    Kathy: Primates is a ton of fun. I know you like non-fiction in the graphic medium, and this is a good one to pick up :)

  4. I nearly bought Bad Pharma when I was at the independent bookstore in Portland for vacation earlier this month. I nearly, nearly did, and then I bought Janet Malcolm's essays instead.

    (Have you read Janet Malcolm? I feel that you would love her.)

    (I know I will also love Ben Goldacre -- I keep waiting for my library to get his books in, and they keep not doing it!)

  5. I listened to the audio for Bad Pharma a couple of weeks ago and found it informative, yet disturbing. Really glad I came across it.

  6. A few here I need to read. I'm particularly curious about Primates -- shades of my old life before editing.

  7. These all sound fascinating. I especially appreciate what you said about being drawn to authors who advocate for better science rather than throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

    Do you think Primate would be accessible to a kid (age 9)?

  8. Jenny: I've not read Janet Malcolm, but you know I always listen to your recommendations, so I shall fix that asap!

    Kristi: "Informative yet disturbing" is pretty much the perfect way to put it.

    Beth F: I actually didn't know that!

    Stephanie: Yep, definitely! I'm not sure if it's being marketed to younger readers, but it's a really accessible book. And if s/he likes it, you can always get them Feynman next :D

  9. On Unmastered: what Angel describes when she talks about becoming aroused by seeing her own body through her lover's eyes—I've heard that described as "spectating." I think it's a hellishly useful word.

  10. Thank you, Clare! It IS very useful to have a term for it.

  11. I heard Ben Goldacre on the podcast that Teresa recommended, On the Media, and it was fascinating - I think they took quotes from this talk you went to as your quote is word for word what I remember hearing in the podcast. I had my brother listen to it, too - he'll be graduating med school in a year and will have all those pharmaceutical companies saying all those shady facts to him soon enough...


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.