For many years we men – if I might presume to speak on behalf of the larger, hairy-chested member of the species, which is, in most cases, male – have solaced ourselves with the thought that, although we are incapable of walking in high heels or waxing our legs without shrieking, we are at least blessed with a sense of direction and an instinctive knowledge of where the back of our car ends and a brick wall begins. That has been our singular, irrefutable claim to superiority. And now it has been refuted.
The debunking emanates from California and, tempting though it may be, we should not discount it on that ground alone. While it is true that the natives of that state are, by and large, barmy – something, I think, to do with the herd instinct which draws people of similar characteristics and dispositions together and provides a measure of mutual comfort (in this instance the assurance that mental inadequacy is quite normal and nothing to be feared) – not every inhabitant is certifiable. We should, therefore, give the benefit of the doubt to the team from the University of Santa Barbara who conducted experiments on 45 men and 41 women at six gatherings of a large farmers’ market.
The team asked the men and women to indicate, using a compass, the direction of a stall from which they had bought a particular food earlier in the day. Result/ the women were much better at pointing in the right direction. Nor was that all – the women’s memory excelled at pinpointing where they had bought high-calorie foods, such as a doughnut, compared with, say, a stick of celery. “It was a dramatic effect,” says Max Krasnow, one of the researchers. “Memory for the high-calorie foods, like honey and avocados, was as much as four times as accurate as memory for the low-calorie foods like cucumber and lettuce.”
What are we to conclude from this, other than that our initial fears were founded? There are men and women on the payroll of Santa Barbara University who would not look out of place in one of those sanatoriums that caters for the bewildered? First, say the researchers, women are just as good as men at navigation and spatial awareness, but only when there’s a doughnut involved. In this, they resemble elephants. “Traditional methods to test navigation talents have neglected to explore the crucial calorific motivation of chocolate, cake and other high-calorie foods,” says Mr Krasnow. It’s odd that we have overlooked this all these years. Male drivers who have entrusted a female passenger with the task of map-reading and ended up in a lake, would have reached their preferred destination with ease had they first arranged for a chocolate éclair to be placed there.
How did this disparity between the sexes come about? Well, says the team at Santa Barbara – a number of whom believe they are standard lamps and look down on those who insist that they are themselves mink-lined pouffes – its origins lie deep in man’s past.
In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, men hunted mobile prey, while the women collected plants. Therefore, women remember the location of plant foods more accurately than men. Evolution has designed women to excel at hunting down the most fulfilling food.
This same theory could explain much else that has puzzled anthropologists. Why do women talk for hours on the telephone? Because, while picking berries and nuts, they nattered away like starlings. Men, on the other hand, were silent hunters, who had learnt from experience that shouting while creeping up behind a woolly mammoth gave the game away.
Why are women obsessed about the size of their bottoms? Because, in stooping to pluck mushrooms, other women could make an assessment of their buttocks and pass bitchy comment accordingly. Men, on the other hand, would not bend down in the vicinity of a charging woolly mammoth.
Why are women hopeless at tackling spiders and other creepy-crawlies? Because millions of years ago, back in the African savannah, they learnt that you could get a nasty bite while carelessly gathering bananas. Men, on the other hand, were flea-ridden and proud of it.
Why are women good at multi-tasking? Simple/ there are all kinds of nuts and berries and various ways to pick them. Woolly mammoths, on the other hand, come in only one variety and can only be killed with a spear – pioneering attempts to strangle them with bare hands having failed.
Of course, many other mysteries of womanhood remain unsolved. Why do they wear funny shoes? Why do they look silly when they are running? Why can’t they throw a cricket ball? If the folks at Santa Barbara know, they aren’t letting on.