Book Re­view

Boys will be boys and girls will be girls, right? In her new book Testos­terone Rex, psy­chol­o­gist Cordelia Fine ar­gues that it’s time to scrap gen­der stereo­types for good

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents -

Q&A with psy­chol­o­gist Cordelia Fine and the nom­i­nees for the 2017 Well­come Book Prize

What is Testos­terone Rex?

I use this as a nick­name for the fa­mil­iar story that tells us com­pet­i­tive, risk-tak­ing mas­culin­ity has evolved for re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess, and it’s there­fore built into male brains and fu­elled by testos­terone.

I thought Testos­terone Rex was a good nick­name for two rea­sons. ‘Rex’ means king, and this view seems to give an ex­pla­na­tion for why men still tend to have more power and wealth than women. And sec­ondly, the set of ideas that Testos­terone Rex is based on is now sci­en­tif­i­cally ex­tinct.

What are the prob­lems with this view?

One prob­lem is that Testos­terone Rex is based on an out­dated ver­sion of evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, which as­sumes that sex­ual com­pe­ti­tion is only im­por­tant for males. This idea came from the ob­ser­va­tion that re­pro­duc­tion is cheaper for males than it is for fe­males. In hu­mans, for ex­am­ple, the fa­ther can sup­ply just a sin­gle sperm, while the mother will pro­vide months of ges­ta­tion, plus labour and breast­feed­ing. So the risks of com­pe­ti­tion for sta­tus, re­sources and mates are only worth it for males.

But the economics of re­pro­duc­tion turn out to be much more nu­anced than this. Sex roles are di­verse and dy­namic, and a fe­male’s rank and re­sources can make a big dif­fer­ence to her re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess, par­tic­u­larly in mam­mals.

The Testos­terone Rex view also as­sumes that male and fe­male ‘adap­tive be­hav­iour’ – ways of be­hav­ing that would have in­creased re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess in our evo­lu­tion­ary past – is locked into our sex chro­mo­somes and hor­mones. But even in other species, these adap­ta­tions can dis­ap­pear or even flip be­tween ‘mas­cu­line’ and ‘fem­i­nine’ when some­thing rel­e­vant in the en­vi­ron­ment changes. Con­sider what this means for hu­mans. We in­herit a rich cul­ture with norms, val­ues and ex­pec­ta­tions that can and do change over time, and the en­vi­ron­ment in which we de­velop is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to that of our an­ces­tors. To­day, we have con­tra­cep­tion, equal op­por­tu­nity leg­is­la­tion, pa­ter­nity leave and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, all of which have af­fected our gen­dered be­hav­iour.

How im­por­tant is testos­terone in shap­ing gen­der dif­fer­ences?

When we think, ‘men are like this, women are like that’, testos­terone seems like an ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion since males are ex­posed to much more of it than fe­males.

But male-fe­male dif­fer­ences in ‘mas­cu­line’ traits like risk-tak­ing and promis­cu­ity are much smaller than dif­fer­ences in testos­terone lev­els, so there isn’t a sim­ple re­la­tion­ship be­tween testos­terone level and mas­culin­ity. This fits with what we know about testos­terone. The lev­els in the blood are just one part of a com­plex hor­monal sys­tem, and testos­terone is just one of many fac­tors that feeds into de­ci­sion-mak­ing and be­hav­iour.

What does this all mean for how we think about gen­der?

The be­lief that dif­fer­ences be­tween the sexes are large, fixed and deeply bi­o­log­i­cal is not help­ful if we’re go­ing to have a more bal­anced so­ci­ety, whether that’s more boys play­ing with dolls, more dads car­ing for kids, or more women in sci­ence and se­nior lead­er­ship roles.

But also, when­ever we de­bate gen­der equal­ity, in the back­ground is al­ways the idea that nat­u­ral lim­its will be set by the fact that males, not fe­males, have evolved to com­pete for sta­tus and re­sources, and fe­males to care. The sci­ence is now show­ing that the fun­da­men­tal as­sump­tions be­hind this are un­der ques­tion – Testos­terone

Rex is dead, and it’s time to find a suc­ces­sor.

“The be­lief that dif­fer­ences be­tween the sexes are large, fixed and bi­o­log­i­cal is not help­ful” TESTOS­TERONE REX BY CORDELIA FINE

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