Testosterone Rex: Why everything you know about hormones is probably wrong

The relationship between biological sex and testosterone is not clear cut, according to Cordelia Fine's new book. 

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Imagine saying to someone you don’t like: “You’re fired”. Would the testosterone course round your body? Interestingly, in women the former is true, with their secretion increasing if they wield authority – something typically reserved for men. This is one of many examples demonstrating how the relationship between biological sex and testosterone isn’t clear cut, and much of it may be owed to gender roles, given by the psychologist Cordelia Fine in her new book, Testosterone Rex

As an evolutionary psychologist, I approached the author’s last volume, Delusions of Gender, with caution. Yet it’s one of few books to have really changed the way I think. I learned a lot about stereotype threat and cognitive performance. Most refreshingly, Fine showed the usual cold lexicon of biological science can be exchanged for a warm, often funny, tone without betraying any scientific rigour.

With Testosterone Rex, an opening anecdote about what to do with a leftover set of dog’s bollocks made it clear that on this count, at least, nothing had changed. The book is all the better for it. This is more than a guide to hormones. It’s also an urgent call for a wider conversation about gender expectations and the way we treat kids and adults alike. Plus it offers countless good rebuttals next time a troll tells you about “the science of gender differences”.

Meet Testosterone Rex: a once proud beast, now getting frail. This relic is the notion that Mother Nature crafted different brains for the different sexes and you are what you secrete.

In a nutshell, evolutionary psychologists generally stipulate that differences in the amount of time parents must invest in their children (i.e. nine months for women, followed by 18 years as a personal servant, vs five minutes for men) ought to have led women to become pickier about partners. This trend has actually been observed in other species - Charles Darwin originally dubbed sexual selection "female choice", with a few concessions.

According to this theory, women should be attracted towards men with resources, whereas men would be more likely to pick a mate on the basis of fertility. The patriarchy is sometimes explained as men competing with each other for status so they can get girls. Based on the delineated roles men and women played in hunter-gatherer societies, such theorists expect to see a risky, competitive and promiscuous male brain, and a cautious, nurturing, female brain. But, as so often with science, if it sounds that simple, it's probably not the whole story.

The first section of the book explores the rationale for this alleged split by delving into our ancestral past. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part, even if many limitations she cites with prior studies are illuminating. Fine notes exceptions to binary sexual selection strategies from around the natural world, but the case she eventually comes up with that is the time investment framework is more flexible, rather than altogether flawed. She goes on to argue elsewhere that the "men want looks and women want resources" model is skewed by an uneven spread of the latter. Yet the usual preferences are there, even when women have greater resources than men, such as in the case of the Bakweri. 

Similarly, research into American, Spanish, Jamaican and English populations finds high status women care more about the relative eminence of a partner than men. I was also perturbed by the implication evolutionary psychologists ignore culture given a) we frequently discuss it and b) cultural transmission of values is a huge area.

This isn’t to suggest Testosterone Rex is made of straw, as there still ultra-reductionists out there. But they would be considered a fringe movement.

More convincing is the section about the present day, which focuses on how vast differences in testosterone are only responsible for miniscule differences between men and women’s characteristics. Along the way, Fine shows how everything people think they know about testosterone is probably wrong. For example, assumed differences in competitiveness only exist in a narrow, and specific, range of cultures and contexts. The section showing those who gain, manage and control most of society (i.e. white males) are least worried about risk makes for entertaining and enlightening reading. Combined, these insights offer a rounded, and authoritative account of how much our ideas about sex differences rely on social construction. 

Changing social constructions can free women to act like men - and mess up as much too. According to Fine, the patronising view that the 2008 recession came from "too much testosterone" is as shaky as a mortgage-backed security. Bankers didn’t cause the recession because they’re men, but because they’re human. Women, she shows, can be as reckless in economic experiments.

This leads to a closing reflection on the future. No more, Fine argues, should we perpetuate gender myths and expectations by misunderstanding brains and behaviour. Her call to arms is inspiring. While I have gripes with aspects of her argument, I fully agree with its point. Regardless of any predispositions, the marvel of the brain isn’t how fixed it is, but how malleable. We are more than the sum of our cells - we are also all the gendered toys we played with, the expectations our friends and family had for us and everyone who said what we could or couldn’t do. In short, we are the world we grow up in. So let’s make a better one for the next generation.

Dr David S. Smith is a psychology lecturer at BPP University​. Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine (Icon Books, ISBN: 978-1785781612) was published on 2 March 2017. ​