Aristotle on Women's Teeth, Revisited

After referring to the philosophical cliché of Aristotle’s pronouncement that women had fewer teeth than men in my last post, I decided to look into the subject a little more closely. After all, it was not quite believable after all that someone as obviously intelligent as Aristotle could have made such an elementary mistake, even that long ago.

Probably the most familiar version of this little factoid comes from Bertrand Russell: “Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths” (Impact of Science on Society, Ch. 1).

The actual story may, however, be a bit more complicated. For example, one classical scholar, Robert Mayhew, suggests in his book The Female in Aristotle’s Biology: Reason or Rationalization that the diets of women in Aristotle’s time and place may have been deficient in vitamins C and D, which may have caused them to suffer from scurvy, osteomalacia (softening of bones), and osteoporosis, and thus, perhaps, loss of teeth.

Another possibility is that, since women’s jaws (and the rest of their heads) are smaller than men’s on average, they may have fewer wisdom teeth in many cases. If that happened to be true of the women whose teeth Aristotle investigated, if he did in fact count any women’s teeth, including his wives’, he might have had empirical support for his statement.

Of course, there are counterarguments against these counterarguments. Is it actually the case that women suffered more from vitamin C and D deficiencies in ancient Greece than men? And presumably the number of wisdom teeth in the mouth of the average person was the same in those days as it is now; what is the variation in that number among modern people? One answer is that about 35% of adults do not develop wisdom teeth. Wikipedia, always ready with the inside info, reports that “agenesis of wisdom teeth in human populations ranges from practically zero in Tasmanian Aborigines to nearly 100% in indigenous Mexicans. The difference is related to the PAX9 gene (and perhaps other genes).” But this does not say anything about a possible sexual difference in the number of teeth.

A recent study performed to determine whether men’s and women’s teeth were different enough to enable expert observers to “sex” teeth alone found that there were no regular observable differences between male and female teeth; I suppose that this is also true of the numbers, though the report I found of this study didn’t mention that.

In sum, the best conclusion I can come to without doing extensive research on the subject (hey, I have other things to waste time on!) is that, although the number of teeth varies among individuals, women and men have on average the same number: 32, counting wisdom teeth. Why Aristotle thought otherwise we really cannot tell at this point, I think.


qedd© Jon Johanning 2011