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Neither Fish, Nor Peacocks, Nor Elephant Seals.

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society

By Cordelia Fine

New York: W.W. Norton, 2017, 266 pp., $26.95, hardcover

Kingsley Browne, a Wayne State University law professor-turned-evolutionary psychologist, claims,
Despite the frequent assertion that the gaps that favor men (although
not those that favor women) are results of invidious social forces,
the truth seems to be somewhat more basic. If the various workplace
and non-workplace gaps could be distilled to a single word, that word
would not be "discrimination" but "testosterone."


He crystallizes the meaning of testosterone as the king--or rather, kingmaker--among those who see almost all differences between men and women as biological, universal, and impossible to change. According to that view, the gender gap in earnings and other disadvantages women face in the labor market are largely caused by men's much higher testosterone levels. Those, in turn, serve as the pathway through which men's greater inherent competitiveness and risk-taking affect behavior.

That men are assumed to be inherently more competitive and risk-taking than women follows from an old theory of sexual selection in evolutionary psychology. It concludes that those prehistoric men who best competed against other men for potential mates (as bull elephant seals do), or for the attention of potential mates (as peacocks do with their tails), gained an evolutionary advantage by winning those competitions, and therefore left more offspring.

Prehistoric women, on the other hand, couldn't gain much from such sexual competition, because their ability to drastically increase the number of their offspring was limited both by the relative scarcity of eggs compared to sperm and by the much greater reproductive time and effort investments they had to make. Thus, Browne and his like-minded colleagues would argue, greater competitiveness and risk-taking by the male sex is an evolutionary adaptation, part of our "hard-wired" sexual differences.

Cordelia Fine's new book, Testosterone Rex, refers to Browne's quote, but by the time the reader comes across it (on page 129), Fine is well on her way to dismantling that simplistic theory and dethroning that imaginary king. Testosterone may be a useful hormone, but not one we should look to for an explanation of our current and past gender arrangements.

She is a careful and methodical scientific dethroner. Her book is a tour--and a tour-de-force--of the rapidly growing body of research that highlights the weaknesses in this simplistic theory of human sexual selection. Human and other animal studies disprove many of its main tenets: that it is mostly men who compete; that women seldom take risks; that sex roles show no variety within a species and are not affected by ecological, environmental, or--among humans--economic or cultural factors.

The book puts testosterone back into its proper place. For an example, consider the cichlid fish of East Africa, which at first seems to prove that testosterone is indeed king. Only a small number of male cichlid fish win a breeding territory, and when they do, their beige coloring develops dashing red and orange blotches and "intimidating" black eye stripes. They spend their days wooing and then inseminating female fish and fighting other males. They have bigger testes and higher circulating testosterone levels than nonterritorial cichlid males.

What happens if such a territorial cichlid fish is castrated? If testosterone is the power behind that throne, castration should mean that the territory gets a new ruler. But that is not what researchers found. Rather, when a castrated fish is put into a tank with an intact, nonterritorial male cichlid, the castrated fish continues to dominate, although less strongly.

In contrast, a territorial, intact cichlid fish can be demoted simply by placing him into a tank with a larger territorial male; and a nonterritorial cichlid fish can be promoted by putting him into a tank with females and smaller male fish. In a short time he will change color and develop the larger testes that allow for a greater production of testosterone.

Thus, in this study, the higher testosterone levels of the territorial male fish were not the cause of their dominance but a consequence of it, and not even strictly required for dominance to continue.

Humans are not fish, of course; nor are we peacocks or elephant seals, both animals to which we are sometimes compared by the essentialist school of sexual selection--because the latter two species, at least, match simplistic sexual selection theories better than humans ourselves do. Fine's purpose in presenting these research results, and many others, is to bring nuance and scientific analysis back into the kind of cocktail-party evolutionary theorizing Browne's quote exemplifies. For more such nuance, consider Fine's discussion of risk-taking, which we tend to associate with gambling, stock markets, skydiving, rally-racing: domains that are mostly coded male.

But is this association because risk-taking is indeed a masculine characteristic? Or is it at least partly because we do not perceive the risks women take as risks? Because our basic understanding of risk-taking is implicitly gendered, female risk-taking is often invisible. Giving birth, for example, is an extremely risky activity. According to UNICEF, in 2015, the lifetime maternal mortality rate was one in 3,300 for high-income countries, and one in 41 in low-income countries.

Fine marshals the evidence on risk-taking from many studies, which demonstrate that risk-taking behavior is not only domain-specific--gamblers might buy life insurance; skydivers might never play the stock market--but also culture dependent. Men are no more risk taking than women in small-scale farming communities in Chile, or among the matrilinear Khasi in India, or among the patriarchal Maasai in Tanzania. And in direct contradiction to the old theory of sexual selection, it is not only women who are attracted to certain types of risk-takers. Rather, men's and women's preferences are similar.

In western culture, women are more likely to take risks in certain domains, such as social situations, than men. The choice depends in part on what is deemed culturally appropriate for women. If the expected benefits and costs of taking a particular risk differ between men and women, then their choices demonstrate gender differences, even if men's and women's underlying attitudes toward risk are identical. For example, consider the risk an employee takes by requesting a raise at work. That women are less likely than men to ask for a raise does not necessarily mean that women are more risk averse: research shows that the chance of such a request being approved is smaller for female than for male employees.

How people evaluate risk also matters. Those who have knowledge of a particular field tend to judge it less risky than those who don't. So, experts will appear to take more risks in their fields, even if both they and the nonexperts have the same attitudes toward risk. Because many surveys of risky activities ask about typically male fields such as motorcycle-riding, sports betting, or financial investing, their results may be inaccurate because of men's and women's different knowledge bases. Fine asks what would happen to the gender gap in risk-taking if research questionnaires asked how likely respondents would be to:

* Bake an impressive but untried souffle for an important dinner party?

* Risk misogynist backlash by writing a feminist opinion piece?

* Train for a lucrative career in which they would probably experience sex-based discrimination and harassment?

What Fine does for risk-taking she also does for competitiveness. She notes that women do compete in those domains and/or cultures in which their gender roles allow them to. In our culture, we associate competitiveness with fields in which men are more likely to compete, such as sport, while ignoring it in fields in which women also (or perhaps especially) compete, such as college admissions. The benefits and costs of competition are not necessarily the same for men and women, given the societal gender-norm differences.

All this clearly demonstrates how outdated views are of risk-taking and competitiveness as almost exclusively masculine. But Testosterone Rex has more to say to bring the reader up to date.

Fine emphasizes the plasticity of the human brain and its ability to learn and change. In contrast to the old evolutionary psychology theories, we do not possess rigidly hard-wired and utterly distinct male and female brains, doomed to eternally repeat the supposed gender norms of some distant era in the Pleistocene. Rather, the human brain adapts to the gender norms and roles of different cultures. And it does this in the context of evolutionary development systems consisting not only of our genes but also of our physical, ecological, and social legacies.

Consider studies of the humble rat: mother rats lick their pups' anogenital regions. The higher testosterone level in the urine of male pups triggers more intense licking from the mother. This additional licking, in turn, affects the development of sexual differences in the areas of the pup's brain linked to mating behavior. Fine points out how remarkable this is: maternal care plays a critical part in creating "something as fundamental as male sexual behavior" in rats. But why not? As she notes, genetic material is not the only stable and enduring material that development can use.

What does this example have to do with human development? Replace anogenital licking with gender socialization and the tendency of young children to turn into gender detectives, and the connections become clear: instead of more intensive licking, human boys get the color blue and the toys associated with male gender roles. Instead of less intensive licking, human girls get the color pink and the toys associated with female gender roles. Fine addresses the question of whether gender-neutral toys really matter if a society wants to reach a higher level of gender equality. Some people feel we are being ridiculous and should just let "boys be boys and girls be girls." However, if the meaning of "boys" and "girls" is shaped by the toys, then they matter a lot.

Testosterone Rex is eloquent, funny, and full of useful data and research references. It is indispensable in our self-protection toolkits for those cocktail-party moments when we are told that testosterone is the channel through which presumed Stone Age gender roles still rule our lives. The book's weaponry is scientific, and so is much of the language it uses. That doesn't make it particularly light reading, and some chapters could have benefited from minor rearrangements and clarifications. Nevertheless, this book is the place to go when you need to find the most recent studies and evidence demonstrating the downfall of Testosterone Rex.

Reviewed by J. Goodrich

J. Goodrich is an economist with a special interest in the interpretation of social science research. She has written for the American Prospect, Ms, and Alternet. She writes on politics, economics, and women's issues at the blog http://echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com/.
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Title Annotation:Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society
Author:Goodrich, J.
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2017
Words:1782
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