Putting Women at the Center of Human Evolution

The 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 begins 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 whistle-stop 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 percent 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 under-studied and under-cared for,” Bohannon said, speaking via Zoom 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.”

Another impetus for the book came in 2012 when Bohannon, then a graduate student at Columbia, watched a different movie: Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” a prequel to “Alien.” In one scene, an archaeologist, played by Noomi Rapace, asks her spaceship’s “surgery pod” to help her remove the hideous alien squid with which she’s been involuntarily impregnated.

“Error,” the machine says. “This medpod is calculated for male patients only.” As risible as that was to contemplate — who sends highly-trained scientists into space along with medical equipment that works on only some of them? — it was all too familiar to Bohannon.

“When I got home from the movie theater, I realized we needed a kind of user’s manual for the female mammal,” Bohannon writes in “Eve.” “Something that would tear down the male norm and put better science in place.”

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 the British-Indian 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 Ph.D. 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.”

She was born in Atlanta. Her parents — a psychology professor and a pianist — divorced when she was young, and her early life was restless and peripatetic, with her interests careering between the sciences and the arts.

While a student at Butler University in Indianapolis, Bohannon temporarily dropped out to join the Revolutionary Anarchist Youth Group in western Massachusetts, and eventually studied poetry with the British poet Andrew Motion at the University of East Anglia.

After a temporary move to Marseille, France and an equally temporary engagement to a French Moroccan biologist, Bohannon relocated to New York and joined several bands, playing the keyboard and guitar. She later enrolled in an M.F.A. program at the University of Arizona and married and divorced a musician. (After the marriage broke up, she said, she lived for three months in her car in a parking lot near the University of Arizona football stadium.) She wrote a lot of poetry, “mostly about science or using scientific literature,” she recalled.

She then went to Columbia, earning an M.F.A. in creative writing before embarking on her Ph.D. Her thesis involved writing computer programs that “analyzed parts of speech in many thousands of novels over the last 400 years in the English language, and treated them as my subject pool to ask cognitive questions,” she explained.

At one point, Bohannon also worked as the unofficial poet-in-residence at Plastination City in Dalian, China, where bodies were being preserved and displayed as art by plastination’s inventor, the German anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens. “Shipwreck,” an essay she wrote on von Hagens’s work, was published in The Georgia Review in 2005. It piqued the interest of the literary agent Elyse Cheney, who took her on as a client.

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,” he 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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