Jane McCredie

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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,

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