Angela Saini on Reporting the Origins of Patriarchy

Emily Hughes

Angela Saini is a 2015 winner of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award and the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story” and “Superior: The Return of Race Science.” Her latest book “The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality” (Beacon Press) explores roots of gendered oppression throughout human history. How did male domination come about? Was it biological? Was it due to catastrophic moments in history that were driven by militaristic adventures? Or was it due to more subtle social, political and historical factors over a prolonged period of time? What might the future hold for patriarchal regimes such as those in Iran and Afghanistan? Saini spoke recently to Emily Hughes of the AAAS Kavli awards program. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Angela Saini
Science journalist and author Angela Saini | Henrietta Garden

Q: I found myself confronting my own preconceptions on nearly every page as you grappled with the crucial question: How did male dominance arise? I’m curious what experiences you brought to this story, and if you noticed any personal biases when you were reporting?

A: I honestly didn't know what I would find when I started looking at this story, because there isn't a very big literature on it. The last big book looking at the origins of patriarchy was Gerda Lerner’s “The Creation of Patriarchy,” which is almost as old as I am now. And it was really only looking at ancient Mesopotamia and Assyria.

What I've tried to do is much more cross-cultural and global. I wasn't prepared for anything, and every single thing that I learned challenged me. There was part of me that was hoping that it would be simple, that there would be this one moment that would explain it all. And there wasn't, of course. It turned out to be much more complex.

But then I leaned into that complexity. I thought, well if that's what the evidence says, then let's just go with that. And as an explanation, it might feel less straightforward, but it's more satisfying, because it gives you a history you can actually touch and hold and feel. It is something that you can understand rather than resigning yourself to this idea that patriarchy is somehow natural.

Q: What was it like navigating all of that as you were writing the book? 

A: It was tricky. This has been a difficult book to write. Unlike my other works, which I wrote within a year and a half or two years, this took me more than three years. And I was thinking about it for a long time well before that. I’ve been thinking about it since “Inferior” came out.

I wanted it to be comprehensive, but also accessible. I wanted the stories to be interesting for people to read because, ultimately, I'm still a journalist. I wanted it to feel compelling and offer a history people could relate to and be sympathetic to. I wanted readers to not feel anger or hatred at the end of it, but hopeful.

Q: You mention that you've been thinking about this since “Inferior.” Did you know you wanted this book to look different than “Inferior”?

A: I think it had to be different because “Inferior” was really about the research around sex and gender differences. And this is about answering a historical question, which is how did male domination come about? It may seem on the surface to some people a biological question, but, depending on your perspective, it doesn't really have a biological answer. It is a product of historic, social, and political factors over a very long period of time, depending on where you are in the world. So “The Patriarchs” had to be a history book, although there is a lot of science, archaeology, and anthropology in there.

I think it still sits in the tradition of “Inferior” and “Superior” because they were also books that engaged with the history of these ideas. They were about how scientists were affected by the politics of their time, and why they came to the conclusions they did based on the social ideas around them and their own biases. And then why their work was sometimes less about real science, and more about their own prejudices.

"The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality" book cover
Saini's latest book "The Patriarchs" | Angela Saini

Q: At one point in the book, you say you need to stop yourself “from being swept away by the dramatic story-lines” offered by your sources. Can you give an example? Were there points in your reporting when you felt pulled in a particular direction that never panned out?

A: Ever since ancient DNA research has reinforced the theory that there was large movement over a period of time of people from the Eurasian steppe into Europe (tallying to some degree with what archaeologist Marija Gimbutas put forward in her ideas around matriarchy and patriarchy), I've noticed a lot of scholars in archaeology and in genetics have been swept into this narrative about there being this catastrophic moment in history in which Europe became patriarchal. This idea is of an almost militaristic invasion which changed societies in Europe. It is a very attractive, simple, clean storyline, which feels almost like a Hollywood drama. You really have to hold yourself back from it because, of course, social change doesn't happen in real life in such sudden ways.

What surprised me was just how often scholars I read and spoke to, experts in the area, kept wanting to push these dramatic storylines, even when they went counter to their own evidence base. We like to think scientists don't over-hype, but again and again I saw over-hyping. And that worries me slightly because I don't think researchers are always aware of what impact that has on the public and how they think about these things. This is a profoundly important thing to get right, this story about male domination and how it came about. We all have a responsibility to present it in a balanced, even-handed way.

Q: You've done so much reporting on mis- and disinformation. Do you feel like there were techniques you pulled from that experience that helped you reorient yourself when you were given these dramatic narratives?

A: To some degree. I do think the modern spread of misinformation and disinformation, particularly online, tends to be by fringe actors, often outside academia, who cherry-pick their evidence and present their theories in dramatic and emotional ways to appeal to people's feelings.

And while the kind of things I was covering didn’t go quite so far in mimicking the misinformation and disinformation tactics of the worst kind of bad-faith actors out there, I think working in that space has definitely given me a much more critical eye when it comes to reading even the scientific literature. I'm just slightly suspicious of everything and everyone. I think most journalists have that instinct to not take anything at face value, to always ask a few more questions. I've never really let go of that.

Q: You share some familiar history with a lot of unfamiliar and surprising details. What surprised you the most? Are there details that drastically redirected your narrative?

A: This was a journey of learning for me, right from the beginning all the way until the end. And it changed how I thought about the world and how I feel about power – individual power and status -- and the need we have as humans to pursue it. And whether that will ever be something we can relinquish. It destabilized a lot of how I thought prior to writing the book.

I think perhaps my biggest takeaway was that the social systems that we feel are so rigid and fixed are far more precarious than we imagine. That may seem scary, but it actually made me hopeful because it reminded me that things don't always have to be this way. We can change them if we want to. We see that people have changed how they live so often in human history. We don't have to accept anything as inevitable.

Q: That leads me to my next question. Your book, ultimately, ends on a hopeful note. What inspired that for you?

A: The final chapter looks at Iran and the 1979 revolution. I wrote that before the current protests, but then after the protests started, I was looking at it again and thinking: here are people, in my own time, giving up their lives for freedom and equality. And I cannot but be hopeful about that. Men and women in Iran are laying down their lives for this. You can’t escape the sense of solidarity, support and love. How inspiring it is. I couldn't but then weave that into the afterword at the end, because that message is so important – however bad things seem, we are still pushing against the status quo. We’re always fighting back, and that is the story of humanity: to never stop looking for a better way to live.

Q: Since you took that more social science approach, you deal with a lot of uncertainty, particularly when discussing issues like the matriarchal myth which posits a prehistoric matriarchal past. Do you think public conversations around COVID-19 have shifted the general reader’s ability to grasp and accept more gray area in science reporting?

A: I have noticed over the last five or six years that people are not looking at science as this kind of repository of certainty. They understand that scientists get things wrong, that there is bias in this process, that we don't always know everything straight away, that it takes time, and that there is a back and forth that happens. I think the pandemic helped illuminate that scientific process for people.

It can be confusing at first, because I think it does sit at odds with the way that we talk about science as being always certain and having facts that we have to accept. Scientific uncertainty can create public mistrust if we're not careful. But ultimately, knowing that scientists get things wrong and that’s okay because that’s how they learn, is a much healthier way to understand how science works.