The Morning Call (Sunday)

Bohannon recasts story of evolutiona­ry biology

‘Eve’ places women at center of mammalian developmen­t tour

- By Sarah Lyall

Author Cat Bohannon was a preteen in Atlanta in the 1980s when she saw the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the first time. As she took in its famous opening scene, in which a bunch of apes picks up a bunch of bones and quickly begin using them to hit each other, Bohannon was struck by the sheer maleness of the moment.

“I thought, ‘Where are the females in this story?’ ” Bohannon said recently, imagining what those absent females might have been up to at that particular time. “It’s like, ‘Oh, sorry, I see you’re doing something really important with a rock. I’m just going to go over there behind that hill and quietly build the future of the species in my womb.’ ”

That realizatio­n was just one of what Bohannon,

44, calls “a constellat­ion of moments” that led her to write her new book, “Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution.”

A page-turning whistlesto­p tour of mammalian developmen­t that begins in the Jurassic Era, “Eve” recasts the traditiona­l story of evolutiona­ry biology by placing women at its center.

The idea is that by examining how women evolved differentl­y from men, Bohannon argues, we can “provide the latest answers to women’s most basic questions about their bodies.” These include, she says: Why do women menstruate? Why do they live longer? And what is the point of menopause?

These are timely questions. Thanks to regulation­s establishe­d in the 1970s, clinical trials in the

United States have typically used mostly male subjects, from mice to humans.

(This is known as “the male norm.”) Though that changed somewhat in 1994, when the National Institutes of Health updated its rules, even the new protocols are replete with loopholes. For example: “From 1996 to 2006, more than 79% of animal studies published in the scientific journal Pain included only male subjects,” she writes.

That gave rise to the misconcept­ion that

“being female is just a minor tweak on a Platonic form,” Bohannon notes in the book and has had profound — and damaging — implicatio­ns for how medicine is practiced.

As she points out in “Eve,” antidepres­sants and pain medication­s are considered gender neutral, despite evidence that they affect women differentl­y than they do men. And it was only in 1999 that researcher­s began testing sex difference­s in the use of general anesthesia — discoverin­g, as it happened, that “women wake up faster than men, regardless of their age, weight or the dosage they’ve been given.”

“Women’s bodies have been understudi­ed and undercared for,” Bohannon said, speaking from her house in Seattle. “When we put the female body back in the frame, even people who don’t have female bodies have a better of idea of where we all stand in this huge evolutiona­ry story.”

Understand­ing “the biology of sex difference­s is going to help all bodies,” she added, including those of cisgender men and of trans men and women. “In the evolutiona­ry sphere, diversity is a feature, not a bug.”

Bohannon’s book might be brimming with science, but it’s written with a lay audience in mind. “While it is true that not everybody works around the sciences, everybody lives in a body,” she said. “How your lived experience of being freakin’ born and living your life is absolutely authentic and true and authoritat­ive, and you know better than anyone in the world what it’s been like to live in your body.”

The book is engaging, playful, erudite, discursive and rich with detail. It traces the history of women’s defining features to their origins — a series of Eves, as Bohannon puts it — going back 205 million years. Her first Eve, a small furry creature that looked a bit like a weasel and a bit like a mouse, belonged to the genus Morganucod­on. Affectiona­tely referred to as “Morgie” by Bohannon, who paints a vivid picture of her life among the Jurassic beasts 200 million years ago, she was the first mammal to nurse her young.

“Eve” is also replete with interestin­g, far-afield facts, many tucked inside

footnotes. We learn, for instance, that BritishInd­ian scientist J.B.S. Haldane, who coined the word “clone,” once composed a scientific paper from the confines of a trench in France, where he was stationed during World War I. (One of his co-authors was killed.)

We learn that the apes on “2001” were played by French mimes. And we learn that one of Bohannon’s ex-boyfriends, she writes, “lived alone with 12 guitars, a water bed and an old poster of Tori Amos.”

“Eve” is hard to summarize because it encompasse­s

many fields — evolutiona­ry biology, physiology, paleoanthr­opology and genetics, to name a few — and it is equally hard to pin down its author. The book may have taken Bohannon a decade to write, but it was a decade in which she also earned a doctorate from Columbia University on the evolution of narrative and cognition; got married; moved to Seattle; and had two children, a process she wryly describes as “a reproducti­ve journey.”

Advait Jukar, a paleontolo­gist at the University of Arizona who worked with Bohannon on the paleontolo­gical

component of “Eve,” called it a “remarkable and important book — one of the first times we’re telling the evolutiona­ry story of women to the general public through this lens.”

“Cat has dabbled in a lot of things throughout her life, and she’s written a lot of fascinatin­g articles,” Jukar added. “But her ability to talk to people like me, and to talk to molecular biologists and physiologi­sts and geneticist­s and piece all that together in a way that is both entertaini­ng and accessible, is a rare gift.

“She’s got a beautiful mind,” he said.

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 ?? CHONA KASINGER/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? “Women’s bodies have been understudi­ed and undercared for,” says author Cat Bohannon, who is seen Aug. 10 at her home in Seattle.
CHONA KASINGER/THE NEW YORK TIMES “Women’s bodies have been understudi­ed and undercared for,” says author Cat Bohannon, who is seen Aug. 10 at her home in Seattle.

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