Review: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

Note: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect the content of my review. The book is just so honestly extraordinarily good.

Before I read Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine’s last book before Testosterone Rex, I thought that I had a pretty good grip on what it would contain, given that I already agreed with her arguments; and then when I actually did read it, it blew my mind straight out of the back of my skull and onto the wall behind me, and that was five years ago and I’ve been tucking splattery bits of brain back into my head ever since.

Testosterone Rex

Well wouldn’t you know it, here we are five years older and I made the exact same mistake when I was picking up Testosterone Rex. I thought, “I already agree with Cordelia Fine, and I’ve read a book by her about gender and science. I undoubtedly know what this book is going to be!” But then my reading experience was as follows:

YES. MY MIND WAS FRESHLY BLOWN. BLOWN ANEW.

Whereas Delusions of Gender focused on brains primarily and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female, Testosterone Rex is about evolutionary biology and development and how they do not supply us with a clean binary divide between male and female. I loved this book so much I couldn’t shut up about it even to the person I bought it for for her birthday and desperately needed to conceal it from until birthday day arrived. I kept starting to tell her awesome things I learned from the book and then awkwardly pretending to lose my train of thought.

Okay, so what are some of the gendered science narrative that Cordelia Fine is countering in this book? (I hear you ask.) Pretty much everything that suggests men are this way and women are that way and it is always immutably so due to having evolved that way. Men have a greater penchant for risk! A disinterest in monogamy!

A desire to acquire showy possessions and high status in order to attract women! A lesser ability to nurture and feel empathy!

All because of evolution and testosterone!

Let’s take just one example, the claim that men are more prone to risk-taking than women. If you’d asked me ahead of reading Testosterone Rex whether this claim was true, I’d have said that yes the science showed men are bigger risk-takers but that no it wasn’t an inherent biological thing but was instead about socialization. If you’d pressed a little bit, I might have been able to come up with one of the points Fine makes, which is that surveys of risky behaviors likely tend to focus on areas that are traditionally male-dominated (due, again, to socialization) such as sports betting, fast motorcycle riding, or major financial investments.

Fine does go deep on the question of the gendered assumptions inherent in how we assess risk, pointing out complication after complication for the idea that men take risks and women tend not to. For instance, pregnancy is twenty times more likely to result in death than skydiving,1 yet women do it all the time. Or here’s another thing: Women do perceive the world as being inherently riskier than men perceive it as being, but this disparity disappears when you control for ethnicity.

Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.

IT IS ALMOST AS IF SOCIETAL ROLES ARE IMPORTANT DETERMINANTS OF BEHAVIORS AND ATTITUDES.

Here’s something else I didn’t know: When you divide risks into categories by type (one study Fine cites broke it out into gambling, financial, health, recreational, social, and ethical risks), there’s no correlation between a high level of risk-taking in one domain with a high level of risk taking in the others (see also).

To see the problem this creates for the idea of risk taking as an essential masculine trait, ask yourself which group are the “real” men, or show a properly evolved masculine psychology: the skydivers, or the traders? . . . . The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule that people are fascinatingly idiosyncratic and multifaceted when it comes to risk.

The whole book is like that. Wherever Fine encounters a simple, intuitive-seeming precept that would seem to explain gendered difference, she massively complicates the picture. Gender won’t account for the difference, genes and hormones give an incomplete picture, and every word in the original precept was miserably inexact to begin with. Watching Fine take these gendered claims painstakingly, methodically, devastatingly to pieces should rank among the great works of art that humanity has ever produced.

One of the chapters in Testosterone Rex begins thus:

Sometimes these days I’m introduced to people as an academic who wrote a book about how the brains of men and women aren’t that different. Disappointingly, the wide range of reactions to this brief biography has yet to include You must be Cordelia Fine! Would you sign this copy of your book that I carry around with me?

That would be me. That would be my response. I would also probably burst into tears and propose marriage. Y’all, for real, buy a copy of this book. Buy a box set of this and Delusions of Gender. Buy twelve. Distribute them to your loved ones. Absolutely everyone in the world should read it. You’ll thank me later.

  1. Not anywhere in the world. Pregnancy in America.
  • Very interesting and provocative points about risk taking. And the other points you mention, although I note you omitted the studies that show men tend to prefer chunky peanut butter and women smooth peanut butter. Nature or nurture?

  • Jeanne

    Will this book explain to me why two children, raised (consciously) the same way for the first five years of life, would do things like play with the same toy dinosaurs differently? I thought it was nature for sure when my second child made the dinosaurs fight when they met, rather than breaking them up into family groups and making them visit each other for play dates, like my first child had done.

    • MumsyNK

      Yes! Cordelia Fine will explain this SO MUCH in Delusions of Gender as to leave you blushing for having asked the question! (Well, it left me blushing. I do blush easily.)

  • MumsyNK

    Seconded. Seconded so much that I have to rest between chapters to process all the implications. My brain cannot handle so many implications in one go.

    • Hahahaha, yeah, I had the same thing! I had to read a few sections twice to make sure I was getting what’s up.

      • MumsyNK

        Btw, your GIF game has never been better.

  • Citizen Reader

    First things first: I have requested a Cordelia Fine book from the library and if my mind is also blown I will buy it and pass it around!
    Now, thank you for your fine postscript pointing out the risk of pregnancy in AMERICA. Having had two pregnancies, every time I tell people it was actually safer (per maternal death rate) for my mother to have me in the 70s than it is for me to have kids now, they don’t believe me. Or when I tell them our maternal death rate is shocking for how much we pay for health care. (Here’s a brief overview, which mainly talks about how things are reported differently now, but even with more reporting, this is still a bad trend, methinks: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/has-maternal-mortality-really-doubled-in-the-u-s/).
    Okay. I got a wee off-topic. Sorry. Will have to read the Fine book to see if that is a gendered thing–overlong and personal sharing–or not. 🙂

    • HOORAY! I think you will like it! I hope you like it! It’s really good! And yes, I totally sympathize on the maternal mortality thing. People have really clear ideas about some topics and will not accept new evidence to the contrary — Cordelia Fine, to tie everything back together, gets into this cognitive stubbornness in both of her gender books.

  • Sarah Says Read

    Ooooo I need this. I mean I’ve heard of Delusions of Gender before and it’s even on my Amazon wishlist but I’ve never gotten around to it and damn it sounds like I’m missing out.

    • YOU ARE MISSING OUT SO MUCH. When I discovered Cordelia Fine had a new book out this year, I just about had a heart attack (of joy). She is just so great. You will love her.

  • Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh this sounds incredible. Non-fiction takes me forever to read, but I’m going to attempt this one b/c daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

  • Well, I freaking love the title, first of all, but I wonder if I shouldn’t read Delusions of Gender first.

    • I don’t think you have to read them in an order! They’re both wonderful and you can read whichever one you want at any time because they will never not be great.

  • I’ve been on the fence about reading Cordelia Fine because Delusions of Gender sounded elementary to me (I don’t mean that in a braggy way! Just because I’ve been immersed in that topic for years, kwim?) But I’m thinking I’ll look into Testosterone Rex, because it sounds like it’s coming from a really interesting and kinda different angle. Thanks for this review!

    • I definitely know what you mean! I think some of the stuff in Delusions of Gender would be familiar to you, particularly in the final third or so of the book? But the first sections — in my recollection, I haven’t reread it in a while! — get into areas where I already agreed with her but she still taught me a lot of new things? She goes really deep into the flaws in neuroscience papers on gender, even peer-reviewed ones. It’s good! I recommend them both very much!

  • Ca4ole

    Hi there, looks like a good one! It would be great if you added your review to the Books You Loved: April collection over at Carole’s Chatter. If you would like to join in the fun please schedule a reminder for the first Wednesday of each month (NZ time). Cheers!

  • Aarti

    YESSSSSSSS. I am so glad. I cannot wait to have my mind blown as well and then send you a tweet that is @readingtheend Cordelia! SQUEEEEEEE!!! [bomb emoji]

  • Kristen M.

    This is the perfect time for you to put this in front of my eyeballs because I just read the cute little Women in Science book and was furious when it switched from “here is this smart and capable woman whom everyone sat at the feet of and listened to” to “and once again this brilliant woman didn’t get a lab/get paid/get the Nobel Prize because of society’s shit”. I started thinking about gender and how it wasn’t possible that some things were nature because they’ve done complete flip-flops through time. But if they were nurture-y, the women would have been nice and stupid and quiet like they were raised to be. My brain totally didn’t want to stay in my head over this issue so I think I need to read Cordelia Fine.

  • I am so glad to see this review from you right now because I have been having a quiet fume for the last 24 hours over a recent episode of This American Life all about testosterone. (It’s actually from 15 years ago, but they reran it a couple of weeks ago, and I was getting caught up on my podcasts yesterday.) It played into every single stereotype you can think of without offering any sort of counternarrative. I just kept thinking this can’t be right, and this is just one person’s experience, perhaps born of socialization. This sounds like what I need to wash it out of my brain.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    This sounds fantastic! I hope that a) you get your brains put back in before she publishes her next book and b) get to meet her some day and possibly propose marriage.

  • I just read and had my mind blow by Delusions of Gender, but even though it contained occasional surprises for me throughout, I felt it got a little repetitive and so was hesitant to pick this up. Reading your review though, I’ve reconsidered. I think that reading Delusions of Gender made me much better informed and able to argue against sexist stereotypes and I’d love to be able to do that for the topics covered by this book as well.

  • Alley

    Intellectual brain splatter, you say? Well now I have so many more books I have to read (well, two. Two more that I need read from this. I am ready for blown minds.)

    Also A++ gif use

  • I just read Delusions of Gender, and completely agree with you – I went in thinking I knew what she was going to say (so almost didn’t even read it!), and then I found it so fascinating that I started talking about it at the supper table with my kids, who got very tired of it quickly. But hopefully they got the point.
    I didn’t know she had another one out equally as wonderful!
    I love this: “Watching Fine take these gendered claims painstakingly, methodically, devastatingly to pieces should rank among the great works of art that humanity has ever produced.”

  • 12758

    Her previous book Delusions of Gender was rightly criticised in the official monthly publication of The British Psychological Society by reviewer Prof Simon Baron-Cohen who wrote:

    “So how does she deal with experimental findings that show either prenatal or neonatal influences on sex differences? Here, her main strategy (arguing that sex differences can be made to vanish by using the trick of manipulating social psychological variables) just doesn’t apply. So she is forced to adopt a different strategy, namely, dissecting the experiments that purport to show prenatal or neonatal influences, to reveal that such experiments are flawed and therefore incorrect in their conclusions. This is Fine’s last-ditch attempt to make sex differences go away.”

    “Being a co-author of some of these experiments I can examine her criticisms with the benefit of close knowledge of the studies she discusses, and found errors in her critiques. For example, in our newborn study (Connellan et al., 2001), which showed that girls look longer at a human face and boys look longer at a mechanical mobile, Fine attempts to dismantle this evidence by saying we should have presented both stimuli at the same time, rather than one at a time, since one at a time might have led to fatigue-effects. However, she overlooks that it was for this very reason that we included counter-balancing into the experimental design, to avoid any risk of such order-effects.”

    “Secondly, she argues that the experimenter may not have been totally blind to the baby’s sex because there might have been ‘congratulations’ cards around the bed (‘Congratulations! It’s a boy!’). However, she overlooks that it was precisely for this reason that we included a panel of independent judges coding the videotapes of just the eye-region of the baby’s face, from which it is virtually impossible to judge the sex of the baby. Fine is right that our newborn baby study needs to be independently replicated, given its importance for establishing a human sex difference in the mind at a point in development before culture has had a chance to have any influence. But it is an example of where Fine’s scholarship shows some shortcomings, where details are overlooked in order to fit her biology-free theory of human sex differences.”

    “Although we would all like to believe in Fine’s extreme social determinism, efforts to explain (purely in terms of social variables) why neurodevelopmental conditions like autism, learning difficulties, and language delay affect boys more often than girls lead to the ludicrous position of blaming these conditions on sexist factors in society (or in parents). And extreme social determinism has major difficulties explaining why left-handedness is more common in boys (12 per cent) than girls (8 per cent). In contrast, a moderate position that recognises that – over and above the important role of the social environment – biology may also play a small role opens up all sorts of lines of inquiry (e.g. into the effects of prenatal hormones and genes). Autism runs in families and many genes have been implicated, and it may turn out that some of these are relevant to why it is sex-linked.I have also been impressed to see consistent correlations between amniotic fetal testosterone (FT) levels and measures of social development across 10 years of follow-up studies of a cohort of typically developing children we have been tracking, whose mothers all had amniocentesis during pregnancy (Baron-Cohen et al., 2005). An extreme biological determinism would be equally ludicrous, since there is no doubt that social variables can amplify and interact with such biological effects.”

    “Fine is of course obliged to try to find fault with these hormone studies, challenging, for example, whether FT in the amniotic fluid reflects FT in the brain. Again she overlooks that if we could measure FT in the brain in an ethical way, we would. FT in amniotic fluid is the next best ethical option, and it seems to be showing us that FT is associated with sex differences in the mind.”

    “Ultimately, for me, the biggest weakness of Fine’s neurosexism allegation is the mistaken blurring of science with politics. Her book reads as a polemic about the implicit political bias underlying the science of sex differences. However, this ignores that you can be a scientist interested in the nature of sex differences while being a clear supporter of equal opportunities and a firm opponent of all forms of discrimination in society. One endeavour need have nothing to do with the other. Fusing science with politics is, in my view, unfounded”.