The King Is Dead

Testosterone Rex[This review originally appeared in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 7, No. 1.]

If Cordelia Fine had not become a psychologist, she could have had a great career as a humor writer or stand-up comic. In Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society she not only dismantles the myth that hormones are destiny, but also provides her reader with witty observations, some of which can be put to good use in puncturing misogynists. For example, she reports that, when she is identified as the author of a book on how the brains of men and women don’t differ much (Delusions of Gender), people usually look startled and ask her if she’d deny that there are other differences between the sexes.

“I’m always tempted to fix my interrogator in the grip of a steely gaze and pronounce briskly, ‘Certainly! Testes are merely a social construction.’”

Her sense of humor coupled with her excellent writing makes it easy for readers to grapple with the serious science she discusses in Testosterone Rex, science that thoroughly debunks the myth that the greater presence of testosterone in man explains inequities between the sexes in society. And once we realize that testosterone isn’t the problem, she concludes, the issue becomes whether we really want sexual equality. While she says she’s never heard anyone say, “[W]e’ve had sex inequality for thousands of years and I kind of like it,” I suspect she knows that is the real reason the testosterone myth has such staying power.

The “men can’t help their biological destiny” explanations are rooted in junk science, and Fine systematically points to the research that destroys them. She starts with a fruit fly experiment conducted by Angus Bateman in the 1940s that purported to show promiscuous male flies had more reproductive success. This was considered the gold standard for explaining promiscuous men/monogamous women for a half century.

But a recent re-analysis of Bateman’s data found “no serious statistical basis for his conclusion” that female reproductive success didn’t increase with promiscuity. In fact, Fine tells us, if he’d done the same analysis himself, he could have been the first to show reproductive benefits from female promiscuity.

Then there’s a point very relevant to the current fight to protect women’s reproductive rights in the U.S.: Human sex is not just about reproduction. Fine quotes anthropologist Jonathan Marks on that subject:

“To confuse human (cultural) sexuality and (natural) reproduction is classically pseudo-scientific. Of course sexuality is for reproduction – if you’re a lemur. If you’re a human, sexuality is far more than for reproduction; that is what evolution has done for human nature.” According to Fine, Marks goes on to observe, “if you imagine sex to be biological rather than bio-cultural, you’re probably not going to have much of it.” Not only is Fine funny on her own; she also has a gift for finding humor in other scientists.

In her chapter on sex differences in the brain, Fine points out that even “quite marked” ones seem to have little effect on actual human behavior. She observes that “sexual differentiation of the brain is proving to be messier, more complex, and variable than previously appreciated.” Moving on to risk-taking, she discusses how many studies “reflect implicitly gendered assumptions about what risk taking is.” In a given culture, some activities could well be much riskier for women than for men, and in many cases, men may be more familiar with the topics covered in the surveys.

In discussing risk, Fine also brings up a study that looked at race and ethnicity as well as gender and found something very interesting: “Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first impression seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.” That study also found that the “white males who were particularly cavalier about risks” were the ones who were rich, well-educated, and politically conservative, Fine notes.

Fine provides a detailed discussion of hormonal activity to raise the point that the interaction of these things is complex. “[T]he amount of testosterone circulating in the bloodstream is just one part of a highly complicated system – the one that happens to be the easiest to measure.” The amount of testosterone measured by most tests “is likely to be an extremely crude guide to testosterone’s effect on the brain.”

Fine notes that in discussions of how to increase sex equality in the workplace, “[C]astration has never been mentioned as a possible solution. (Not even in the Top Secret Feminist Meetings where we plot our global military coup.)” This isn’t just for ethical reasons; the truth is, it won’t work. “What would work, the research instead suggests, are major and sustained interventions on status, experience, and what a particular situation means to the individuals involved.”

Reading Testosterone Rex makes clear that a supposedly feminist joke needs to be retired. We can no longer blame “testosterone poisoning” for bad male behavior. It’s not hormones that make men act badly; it’s culture.

In her concluding chapter, Fine makes the point that the real puzzle in human development is how sex creates the different reproductive systems “while allowing the differences in men’s and women’s behavior to be non-essential: overlapping and mosaic, instead of categorically different; conditional on text, not fixed; diverse, rather than uniform.” Most gendered behaviors are social constructions, though the term “construction” implies just how robust they are. “They’re not easily torn apart and reconstructed in hew ways,” Fine points out.

But regardless of how societies approach gender inequality, the time is long past when they can use testosterone as an excuse. Or, as Fine puts it, “It’s time to stop blaming Testosterone Rex, because that king is dead.”

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