Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds By Cordelia Fine Icon Books, 256pp, $29.99 In the late 19th century, French craniologist Gustave Le Bon set out to find a biological explanation for the inferiority of women’s intelligence, something he saw as “too obvious to be contested even for a moment”.
“One cannot deny, of course, that there exist highly distinguished women, who are greatly superior to the average man, but these are cases as exceptional as the birth of a monstrosity of any kind, such as, for example, a gorilla with two heads, and are in consequence of no relevance whatsoever,” he wrote.
Le Bon’s quest to find a scientific basis for women’s intellectual shortcomings led him to examine hundreds of human skulls held by the Paris Museum of Anthropology, ranking them by size as a method of establishing relative intelligence. His analysis of the male skulls neatly matched the racial hierarchies of the time, with “savages” having the smallest skulls and “civilised men” the largest. Parisian men, obviously, ranked highest of all.
Le Bon’s rankings, however, were reversed when it came to women. Parisian women ranked right at the bottom, below even the females of “uncivilised” races. A sizeable proportion of them were closer to gorillas than to the average man, he wrote.
Apart from a clear predilection for comparing women with gorillas, Le Bon demonstrated a quality that has been part of much scientific discourse before and since: the use of an apparently scientific analysis of differences between the sexes to reinforce an existing social order. (For the record, the average difference in size between male and female skulls is simply a reflection of different body size.)
For Le Bon, those skull measurements demonstrated the folly of educating women which, he wrote, would put the foundations of civilised society at risk.
Feminist scholars have identified similarly essentialist thinking in many more recent scientific studies of sex and gender. American biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, for example, has been questioning scientific assumptions about everything from sex-specific brain structure to the influence of the so-called sex hormones for more than 30 years. “Aggression, violence, crime, riots, war: we owe all these and more to that simple cholesterol-like molecule called testosterone,” she wrote in 1985. “Or so some would have us think.”
Melbourne psychologist Cordelia Fine belongs squarely in the same sceptical tradition. In her 2010 book, Delusions of Gender, Fine skewered some of the wilder claims made by neuroscientists about our so-called gendered brains, coining the term “neurosexism” in the process.
Now, like Fausto-Sterling before her, she has turned her scientific mind to that often wildly hyped “essence of maleness”, testosterone. In Testosterone Rex, Fine details the claims made on behalf of the hormone, said to be responsible for everything from the global financial crisis to hotted-up cars and the dominance of men in engineering faculties.
A multitude of (usually male, though not always) scientists make walk-on appearances in the book, propounding on the fundamental differences between men and women and why any attempt to resist them would be futile.
One neuroscientist laments that testosterone has had a bad press when “it’s responsible for a huge amount of get-up and go, of innovation, of drive, of motivation, of excitement”.
“Without testosterone there would be no humans to have a history,” he writes.
Fine’s reply to this is: “Now there’s a conclusion to inspire the reverence the testicle deserves … at least until you realize the same fact applies to oestrogen, carbon and even that dullest of elements, nitrogen.”
A Scottish psychologist writes of the lingering effects of our hunter-gatherer past encoded in the hardware of our brains from the longago days when it “was useful for men to be hunters and women to look after babies”.
While stressing people should be free to make counter-stereotypical career choices in our modern world, he appears to channel Le Bon in declaring attempts to encourage more women into science and engineering careers are likely to fail because they “deny human biology and nature”.
Fine’s response comes with characteristic humour: “I have to say that none of the many mathematicians and scientists I know do their research in a way that brings to mind a caveman chasing a bush pig with a spear, but of course things may be done differently in Glasgow.’’ She doesn’t argue that the brain is asexual or that we shouldn’t study sex differences in the brain, but she does warn that resulting conclusions about sex roles and the natures of men and women can be based on the flimsiest of evidence.
There’s plenty of evidence in this book to support a more complex view of what it is to be male or female, as Fine questions why we have come to think of biological sex as “a fundamental force in development that creates not just two kinds of reproductive system but two kinds of people”.
“The real problem is how sex (usually) creates essentially different reproductive systems, while allowing the differences in men’s and women’s behaviour to be non-essential: overlapping and mosaic, instead of categorically different; conditional on context, not fixed; diverse, rather than uniform.’’
We humans tend to like simple categories, particularly binary ones, but as this book makes clear that kind of approach is an abject failure at representing the fabulous diversity of actual people. is the author of Making Girls and Boys: Inside the Science of Sex.
In Testosterone Rex,