This week, Sir Timothy Hunt FRS, FMedSci, Nobel Laureate and cell cycle research guru, whose discovery of cyclins and their relationship with protein kinases has been heralded as possibly the most significant discovery in biochemistry in recent times, resigned as honorary professor in the Faculty of Life Sciences in the prestigious University College London.  UCL have welcomed the resignation.

These events followed comments he made at the World Conference of Science Journalists (an excellent choice of audience) held in the Gangnam district (cue dancing) of Seoul relating to the role of women in Science. He said “Three things happen when they (female scientists or “troublesome girls” as Hunt has put it) are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”. His apology was shallow: “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. I just meant to be honest, actually”. This contradicted his earlier statement that these were “intended as light-hearted and ironic”.

Obviously these comments have caused significant annoyance across both male and female members of the scientific community, and stand in opposition to a huge effort to recruit female scientists and to inspire young women to choose a scientific career.  In one Gangnam moment of madness, this Knight of the Realm and much respected British scientist has undone years of work by so many. They Royal Society itself, of which Hunt is a fellow, supports the L'Oréal and UNESCO  For Women in Science programme, which sets out “to promote and highlight the critical importance of ensuring greater participation of women in science and runs many workshops on the subject.  Hunt’s wife, Professor Mary Collins, is a leading immunologist and often speaks at workshops promoting women in science.  They first met when Hunt was her Director of Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Anne Glover, former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, said: “Tim Hunt seems to have been speaking about his personal problems in relating to women. What he describes is not my experience and I have never had a student – male or female, straight or gay – cry when their research was criticised.”

Yet the history of great male scientists making derogatory and insulting observations upon females is a highly populated one.  Some of the most celebrated scientists of the last 200 years have made extremely inflammatory comments.  Charles Darwin, in his book,  The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1896, p. 564), observed  that the male attains “. . . a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on hereditary genius that . . . the average of mental power in man must be above that of women”.

Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), a leading social psychologist and author of the highly influential The Crowd, stated that “Women . . . represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and . . . are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconsistency, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without a doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads”.

James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and, after Darwin, perhaps the most famous scientist in the world, defended genetic engineering  as a useful tool for a very specific reason, observing that “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great” He further elaborated, in his book Avoid Boring People (2007), that “Anyone sincerely interested in understanding the imbalance in the representation of men and women in science must reasonably be prepared to at least consider the extent to which nature may figure”.

As early as 1972, Elaine Morgan, in her book The Descent of Women,  observed that the inferiority of women was a major plank in Darwinian evolution, and that in order to combat this pernicious view, the entire theory of evolution must be re-evaluated.  Given that natural selection also gave birth to Eugenics through the work of Galton, described by Rudolf Hess as “applied biology”, and that by 1935, the USA, Germany,  Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland had sterilization laws enacted for those judged as weaker and racially impure individuals, Darwinian thinking as a philosophy has been shown to be deeply ingrained in many aspects of social engineering.  And these ideas are embedded as deeply among women as men, as a revealing study from Yale University has recently demonstrated.

Corinne Ross-Racusin et al. (2012, PNAS, 109: 16474–16479) sent an identical job application to 127 academics in research-intensive universities. Each application was assigned a randomly generated name, either male or female. Each academic received one application, and were asked to grade its quality in terms of competency, hireability and how happy the academic would be to mentor the individual. Academics consistently rated the ‘male’ applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the ‘female’ applicant even though the applications were actually identical except for the gender of the applicant. The academics also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male researchers were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.

What is interesting about this study is that both male and female researchers displayed gender bias. Thus whatever the underlying issue is in terms of sexist bias, it would appear to run deeper than the chromosomal makeup of the individual.  It is a societal issue, potentially re-enforced by Darwinian sociology, which is still hugely influential in so many fields, from competition as the best means of selection through to stereotyping qualities to each sex through sexual selection.

When I applied for my first lectureship in 1994, in ecology, only 3 of the 30 applicants were female, even though I was the only male in my undergraduate degree studying my subject. Having been awarded the lectureship I joined a biology department that consisted of three female academics and 18 male academics. Yet the head of my Department was female and extremely successful. Females generally outscore males in school and university examination diets. The reasons for low levels of female representation in academia are not obvious from my own experience. As a foster carer, I have noticed that almost all the social work department in my local authority are female. Our initial training course in fostering was run by an all-female team, with no male input. Primary schools are predominantly staffed by females. And so the issue is a complex one, differing across subjects.

Returning to Sir Tim Hunt, his observations, as pointed out by Professor Glover, most probably reflect more upon his own inadequacies than anything else. His comments are exeptional because they target women in science specifically. However the fact that he showed such poor judgement, in voicing such internal angst to a conference of journalists, in attempting to defend them, in his role as a Knight of the Realm and as a representative of powerful organizations such as the Nobelstiftelsen, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society (who awarded him the Royal Medal), is a serious and concerning situation.  These organizations should reflect upon this and act accordingly.  Hunt’s comments are simply unacceptable.

 More fundamentally, the issue of sexism in science must be examined and the role played by an adherence to flawed evolutionary theory should be revisited.  There is also no place for social Darwinism in today’s world.  Surely we should have learnt this by now. Diversification driven by opportunity, not selection, and evolution as a diffusive process, rather than a displacement process offers so much more understanding and equality to our world.