Look, I am no seismologist. But I cannot agree with the people of the Malaysian province who claim that a recent fatal tremor was nothing short of divine retribution.
The tribal folk in the neighbourhood of Mount Kinabalu say that local deities – the aki – took violent exception to a group of streaking European tourists,and in particular a young British woman who loosened her girdle and shook her naked breasts at the mountain. They say that the spirits quivered in corresponding outrage. They say that the great earth mother was so outraged that she uncorseted herself and wobbled the peaks with such fury that 18 people died.
I think on the whole that this is mumbo-jumbo, and that there is a perfectly good scientific explanation. And yet, I am afraid that we in 21st-century Britain are in no position to snigger at the tribes and their fit of irrational indignation. We have our own mystery gods these days. We have our own chthonic powers, and when someone is deemed to have said or done something to cause offence to the great and implacable Moloch of Political Correctness, then the priests and priestesses of that religion will sometimes react with a vindictiveness – and a total lack of reason – that is in itself a kind of anthropological marvel.
Take the case of that great and good man, Professor Sir Tim Hunt. This world-famous British biologist has consecrated his life to the study of cells, and in the early Eighties he was looking at some sea urchins when he made a breakthrough. He discovered cyclins – crucial proteins that help somehow with cell development. He has won the Nobel prize and just about every other award; and last week, at the age of 72, he was giving a light-hearted, off-the-cuff speech to some scientific journalists in Seoul. Those remarks have prompted such global outrage that he has been stripped of honorary positions both at University College London and the Royal Society. In an interview at the weekend, he said that he was “finished” and that his career was at an end.
What did he say, to make the plaster fall off the ceiling? Why did the seismograph yaw so crazily? Well, he was speaking flippantly, ironically – or so he thought – about men and women working together in the lab. Or rather, he spoke about his own experience. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
Now the first two observations are surely uncontentious. Men fall in love with women, women fall in love with men. It’s been going on a long time, and thank goodness, because otherwise our species would die out. It is the third point – about crying – that has earned him the wrath of the Twittersphere, and the most venomous hatred.
The first question to ask, when someone is accused of saying something unacceptable – even in a semi-satirical way – is whether or not that statement is true. Is there any foundation to this casual assertion, that women cry more readily than men?
Well, yes, there is. Some men cry at the drop of a hat: Churchill was famously lacrimose. But the world’s leading expert on crying, Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, has shown that women on average cry 30-64 times a year, while men cry only between six and 17 times a year; and the Dutchman also claims that women cry for an average of six minutes, while men cry for only two to three minutes.
All sorts of biological explanations are offered. Men are said to have differently shaped tear ducts, for instance, and can therefore retain the tears for longer before they splash down the cheek. Women are said to have more prolactin, a hormone associated with weeping. I would have thought that all this stuff could be filed as the latest stunning discovery from the University of the Bleeding Obvious.
Whether you say it is a function of biology or social expectation, it is a fact that – on the whole – men and women express emotion differently. There is, in other words, a gender difference, and it should not be an offence to say that.