Testosterone Rex

Myths of Sex, Science, and Society

[Amazon Link]

My book-reading method these days is to read two concurrently: one picked off my own shelves by my book-picking script, the other obtained from the University Near Here Library with my retiree borrowing privileges (either off its shelves or via the efforts of its stellar Interlibrary Loan staff).

This one, by Australian feminist Cordelia Fine, was mainly picked because of the title. I'd read no reviews. It's short and accessibly written. And (good news) although Cordelia Fine self-identifies as a feminist, she's not a particularly strident feminist. She's also kind of funny in spots. Yes, a non-strident feminist with a sense of humor. Apparently, they exist in Australia.

And this book won the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize for this year. So it's not awful.

Ms. Fine argues, roughly, against the following hypothesis: Men and women differ not just in their obvious reproductive functions, but also at the neurophysiological level. This difference has its roots in Darwinistic evolutionary processes, which decreed that guys not only must go out and hunt for dinner, but also (uh) download their genes to as many offspring as possible (in competition with the other guys). Meanwhile, the womenfolk stay home and take care of the babies, and know their place.

Therefore, the feminist demands for gender equality are fundamentally misguided and futile, since such inequalities are hardwired into our brains. Women are more risk-averse than men, prefer to take on nurturing roles rather than participate fully in the competitive world of the testosterone-driven marketplace, the modern equivalent of hunting wildebeests out on the African savannah.

Ms. Fine does her best to take this apart. She's helped out by some of the science-popularizers on the other side, who incautiously overstate the evidence, pay attention to only a convenient selection of the research, overgeneralize, and generally dumb things down.

She makes a decent argument (as far as I know) that in some cases, testosterone determinism has its causality backwards. Sexists that we are, we'd like to think that more testosterone chemically drives males to increased risk, innovation, and success. But (at least some research shows) that testosterone levels spike after guys have successfully negotiated, wangled, and out-competed.

She also makes some very good points about risk. Specifically: "risk" is not just one thing. There are physical risks, health risks, financial risks, social risks, sexual risks, … Consider a guy who is risk-averse in one area (no red meat or tobacco for me, thanks) but willing to bet the farm on some long-shot financial venture. Is his testosterone selectively firing, or what? That would be a neat trick for a small molecule.

So Ms. Fine scores a number of points. But even a dilettante like me can note a couple of problems. She argues, correctly, that there's a lot of intra-sexual variation in these sexual differences. Statistical differences between men and women in their behavior and preferences don't say anything about any particular man or woman.

But: yes, we knew that. This is an argument for treating and respecting individuals as individuals, not just as members of their various pigeonholes. Does that mean statistical arguments are invalid? Of course not. Yes, Mary might be taller than Mark. But if you have 100 Marys and 100 Marks, you can safely bet, on average, the Marks will be taller. Fine belabors one bit of obviousness while ignoring the larger, equally obvious, underlying point.

I mentioned that Fine is insightful when she observes that "risk" is not a simple unidimensional thing. However, that insight is thrown out when she starts lecturing on sexual "equality". She seems to think "equality" is "just one thing", rather than a mosaic of different measures and inclinations. She (therefore) overestimates our ability to socially-engineer a sexually-egalitarian society by (for example) cutting down on the gendered marketing of toys to the kiddos.

Also: while I was reading the book, I looked up some science-based criticisms/reviews: here and here and here. You should check them (and their links) out for an alternate argument.

And (it so happens) while reading, I noticed this bit of research out of my alma mater: Testosterone Makes Men Less Likely to Question Their Impulses. (With an illustration: some guy with a tattoo of the molecular structure of testosterone on his arm. No doubt an impulse tat.)

Hotheaded, impulsive men who shoot first and ask questions later are a staple of Westerns and 1970s cop films, but new research shows there might be truth to the trope.

I'm not sure how Ms. Fine would feel about that observation "as a feminist".