Books that changed my mind

6 April 2017
Two members of the University community talk about books that influenced them
She's the Professor and Associate Dean dedicated to advancing gender equality. He's the award winning researcher finding new treatments for a range of brain disorders. Both were influenced by books they read early.

Rae Cooper

Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Undergraduate) at the University of Sydney Business School Rae Cooper (PhD ’03) is dedicated to advancing gender equality. Her research has been published in leading journals, with her current focus on flexible working and gender equality in work and careers. Her reading on the subject
started early.

Damned Whores and God's Police (1975)

Written by Anne Summers

I first read Damned Whores and God’s Police* as I tackled one of my first undergraduate essays. The essay was on the place of women in Australian society and I would have been 17 or 18 at the time. My copy, which I have to admit I borrowed and have never returned, was well worn by its owner by the time I got it.

It was one of the first academic-style books that I owned and, having been the first in my family to go to university and having very recently moved from a country area, this made me feel somewhat sophisticated. Since then, its pages have yellowed further and its cover shows all the signs of moving with me through undergraduate studies, my doctoral research and from share house to share house, until finally landing in my academic office at the University of Sydney.

I had read a number of the great feminist tomes before reading this one, but they had all seemed rather abstract to me as a young feminist. This book really made me rethink many of my assumptions about Australian society – about our institutions, history and culture. Anne’s argument is that Australian society, its institutions and norms are steeped in sexism. Australian women have been typecast as either civilising angels or troublesome shrews since the first Europeans stepped on Australian soil. She argues that these two images of women persist and continue to marginalise women and limit their ability to participate fully in society and public life.

We’ve come quite some way in the past three decades, particularly in relation to women’s and girls’ education, but there is still considerable work to be done.

A lot has changed in my life since I first read this book but Anne Summers’ arguments still resonate intensely with me and I proudly call myself a feminist.

*Anne Summers (PhD 79) was a highly engaged and influential University of Sydney student. Damned Whores and God’s Police was the first book ever accepted by the University as a doctorate.

Michael Bowen

Dr Michael Bowen (BA(Hons) ’10 PhD(Research) ’14), works to develop new treatments for brain disorders such as addiction and autism. In 2015 he was awarded the Rita and John Cornforth Medal for PhD achievement in the University of Sydney’s Alumni Awards, as well as the 2015 NSW Premier’s Prize for Early Career Researcher of the Year and the 2016 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher. This book helped shape his thinking.

The Selfish Gene (1976)

Written by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is perhaps better known these days for his vocal atheism. However, for me, his greatest work is his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which was written very much by Dawkins the biologist and masterful science communicator.

I was 16 when I stumbled across this book, trawling through one of the many bookcases in the family home. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins excels in explaining the gene-centred view of evolution, arguing that selection occurs at the level of the gene but can give rise to, and be mediated by, the behaviours of the organism in its environment.

A major focus of my work is trying to understand the neurobiology of social behaviour. I use this information to help develop new treatments for dysfunctional social behaviour, a core feature of many brain disorders. I can trace the start of my passion for this area of research back to reading The Selfish Gene. Dawkins’ extremely accessible presentation of complicated concepts and ideas gave me the foundation I needed to expand my reading to more advanced texts, such as the work of British evolutionary theorist W D Hamilton, among others.

These works gave rise to a massive change in the way I thought, and continue to think, about complex behaviours. They went from being almost mystical to being firmly based in biology and the physical world. I learnt that the capacity of humans to act in ways that benefit others has its basis in evolution, but also that we haven’t evolved to always do what is in the best interest of the survival of ourselves as individual organisms.

As Dawkins put it: “Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” And I am dedicated to that pursuit.

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