Any List with Bill Bryson
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
I was flabbergasted to find myself on the short list for the Royal Society 2020 Prize for Science Books. That's just the honest truth. You can see why just by looking at the other authors on the list: Gaia Vince, Susannah Calahan, Jim al-Khalili, Camilla Pang, and (OMG) Bill Bryson. The subjects, too, are breath-taking: how the body works (The Body); the importance and progress of physics (The World According to Physics); the collective nature of human intelligence and its importance to our evolution (Transcendence); a scientific guide to human behavior and decisions (Explaining Humans); and a shocking investigation into a foundational experiment in psychiatry (The Great Pretender).
The aim of the Royal Society in awarding this prize is to foreground books that translate the complex topics of science into a form more accessible to the public than they are in the scholarly literature. Each of these books, however, also knits together the scientific findings in a way that synthesizes them into insights that transcend the individual strands.
Well, I would never have presumed to categorize myself into this kind of company. The idea that I was on any list with Bill Bryson, long one of my heroes, was extraordinary feedback for me. Wow.
I will say, however, that I do think The Double X Economy synthesizes scientific material into a badly needed update for the public and does so in a way that transcends many different strands in a wide array of disciplines. In the process, The Double X Economy serves society by putting to death some of the most harmful "folk science" claims made in defense of male dominance.
Importantly, the first criterion for the Royal Science Prize is that the book has to be solid science. This is an important warrant of quality for me because the things I debunk in the book are strongly believed by many people and, no matter how out-of-date the myths may be, are still being pumped into the collective wisdom through social media.
I have been intensely dismayed that very few reviewers or journalists covering the book have asked about these parts of it (the recent interview at the University of Chicago being a refreshing departure), instead focusing on issues that are well-travelled territory, such as women's career advancement and the pay gap in the Western nations. I do cover those topics, and offer fresh material on each of them that I think is more explanatory than the excuses usually made, but I believe that when people think that's all the book's about, they say to themselves, "Well, I don't need to read any more on this subject!" and file my much-broader book into a bin marked "been there, done that." The reviewer in the New York Times, who clearly had selectively skimmed the book, has been the most painful example of this mistake.
Here are some of the allegedly scientific claims that I explode in this book, simply by reporting the most up-to-date knowledge:
That male dominance is natural to humans
That male dominance is good for our species
That male competition is generally a good thing
That mothers, as mammals, naturally withdraw from the world in order to care for babies—and that such behavior is good for children (or anybody else)
That fathers are the essential input for species survival because of momentary squirts of sperm
That mothers are non-essential except as vessels for said sperm
That males are the natural providers for our species, while females are just freeloaders
That human females must like male dominant behavior because they choose aggressive males for mates
That male aggression is part of our biological package and therefore can't be changed
That male aggression is necessary to protect females, who are naturally smaller, weaker—and cowards
That males originated everything useful, like taming fire and inventing tools
That males win things like Nobel prizes and chess tournaments because they are intrinsically superior to females
and, the ever-favorite, females are born with inferior brains that make it impossible for them to do math.
Why were all these topics relevant? Every one of them is used to justify barriers to women's economic participation.
(BTW, I also go after more sociological/historical explanations for women's economic subjugation, such as they were too weak to use plows and they were originally subordinated by capitalism, both of which are pure bullshit.)
Answering all these counterarguments to the need for gender equality in the economy took me a long time. I tried to maintain neutrality in each case as I went through the evidence, as I normally do in my research, because I was so worried that if I got any of it wrong or misrepresented anything, the error would be used to tank my overall argument. It was an even greater challenge because I had to cross from one discipline to another many times and often had to "call" contradictions between disciplines, as well as controversies within them, in order to move forward with my explanation.
I always knew it was a risky business. The recognition from the Royal Society tells me I did a decent and honest job of representing a very wide swath of scientific research. I don't expect to win this prize. I am in staggeringly impressive company on this list. But the recognition of the short-listing alone is one of the biggest honors of my life.
For readers interested in learning more about the Royal Society shortlist, there was a good panel discussion among the authors, courtesy of Waterstone's, that took place last week and is now available online. (I am on the second panel, beginning about 45 minutes in.)
The awards ceremony is open to the public and will occur next Tuesday, November 3. You can register for it here.
NOTE to Americans: The Royal Society is the preeminent scientific organization in Britain. Founded in 1660, its members have included the likes of Isaac Newton and Steven Hawking.