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.

Review: Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

Before we get to the excellent Delusions of Gender, which I can’t believe it took me so long to read, a word about my blogging habits. I have been (sing it with me if you know the words) the worst blogger ever. My commute, while not bad for New York, is a time-killer, I’m trying very hard to be as social a butterfly as my introverty brain and publishing job budget will permit me, and recently I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to learn to pronounce Russian personal pronouns. They are harder to pronounce than you’d think. All this has meant that I’ve had even less time to blog than I’ve generally had since moving to New York. I am trying to figure out how to deal with this. I may take a blogging break. I may become like the lovely and wondrous Trapunto, and just be the best commenter you ever saw, all over the blogosphere. Who knows, y’all. If you have any genius suggestions about how to budget blogging time, please tell me. I love you and believe in your wisdom.

And now, Cordelia Fine!

Delusions of Gender is a book you’ve probably heard of if you spend a lot of time reading Nymeth’s blog. As ever when she loves a book, she advocates for it most awesomely, and in the end you give in and get it at the library and then you are like, …Why didn’t I get this sooner? After four years you’d think I’d have learned my lesson on this and that I would just get all the books Nymeth loves, but I have a dumb brain, I guess? And took a year to read Delusions of Gender? Ner.

It is hard to know what to say about Delusions of Gender when Nymeth and, more recently, Proper Jenny have covered it so eloquently and thoroughly! But nevertheless I will try. Delusions of Gender is that irresistible species of thing, an intelligent, thoughtful, occasionally snarky debunking of foolish people who are using bad scientific methods to prop up nonsense stereotypes. I love snarky debunkings of things, but I especially love snarky debunkings of sexism disguised as science. Cordelia Fine starts with studies of social interactions, studies that claim to prove that women are more empathetic, less aggressive, kinder, better at reading your mind with their uncanny woman powers, and what have you. This was all well and good and fun to read about because I love reading about Studies. Prime a woman to think about the stereotype that women are bad at math, and she’ll do worse on a math test. Stereotype threat hurts everyone, y’all.

I read the second third of the book while on a picnic that also featured wine, so it’s possible I’m biased, but it seemed to me that the second third of the book was way the awesomest. In the second third, Cordelia Fine takes on studies of brains and the things they purport to show about gender. Although I think of myself as a slightly cynical person and a fairly critical thinker, I was a little shocked at the shabbiness of the science in these gender experiments. The sample sizes are often tiny (because brain scans are expensive), the results are contradictory and/or do not replicate (but those studies don’t get published because they are boring), and neuroimaging technology and research is still very young, so sometimes researchers get overexcitable about what results are statistically significant and what ones are not.

ALSO. I learned about this excellent (well, very bad. do not do it. but excellent for me to know about) thing called reverse inference. This is a thing, in fact, that I already knew about from life (it’s basically, “Witches burn; wood also burns; therefore witches are made of wood”), but here’s what it is in neuroscience: It’s when you do an experiment, and in the course of the experiment the amygdala lights up, and you know the amygdala also lights up when someone is scared, so you are like, This proves that my experiment causes people to feel fear. Well, no. It just proves that your experiment causes people’s amygdalas to light up. We do not understand brains very well so who even knows what that means? And it turns out that a very lot of neuroscience studies dealing with gender do this reverse inference thing.

My favorite was when Cordelia Fine spent several pages detailing the shocking behavior of one Louann Brizendine (of Yale, Harvard, and Berkeley! Not some fly-by-night nonsense person!), whose book about gender differences cites lots of bad science and — well, look at this:

We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, “All of the therapists who showed these responses happen to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.

!!! And this is not a one-off! Brizendine does the same thing again not two pages later, citing another all-women study to prove that women are good at emotional mirroring. She probably does it a lot more times in her book, but Cordelia Fine has other things to do than spend a whole book making fun of Louann Brizendine.

(Fortunately for us all, Mark Libermann does not. Check it out if you want to feel righteously indignant — and who doesn’t want to feel righteously indignant?)

The final third of the book — also very good but not as good as the second part because less neuroscience and I love neuroscience because I LOVE BRAINS — is about how human people are awful at not passing on gender stereotypes to their children. And that is fine! says Cordelia Fine (whoa, I did not do that on purpose, y’all, I swear that just happened), as long as we recognize that this doesn’t suggest that gender stereotypes are hardwired into our brains. It just means gender is super important in the world, and children live in the world, and their brains are made for learning. A good bit:

Once children have personally relevant boxes in which to file what they learn (labeled “Me” versus “Not Me”), this adds an extra oomph to the drive to solve the mysteries of gender. Development psychologists Carol Martin and Diane Ruble suggest that children become “gender detectives,” in search of clues as to the implications of belonging to the male or female tribe. Nor do they wait for formal instruction. The academic literature is scattered with anecdotal reports of preschoolers’ amusingly flawed scientific accounts of gender difference: “One child…dangling his legs with his father in a very cold lake, announced ‘only boys like cold water, right Dad?’ Such examples suggest that children are actively seeking and ‘chewing’ on information about gender, rather than passively absorbing it from the environment.”

Interesting, right? This book is ALL THE INTERESTING THINGS.

Now I feel like reading more books about gender. If only some lovely person, someone who had been complimented extravagantly and often in this blog for her wonderful reading taste and who, say, had read a very lot of books about gender essentialism and other gender issues for her thesis which I’m sure was super fascinating in its own right, if only some person fitting that description would say, “Oh Jenny. Now that you have finished Delusions of Gender, and wish for more awesome gender books, the awesomest if you are in the mood for X is this book, and if you are in the mood for Y it is this book. I will instruct you about all the good gender books.” I don’t know who could possibly do that. I just wish that would happen.

OR if anybody knows of some awesomesauce neuroscience books I would be interested in that too. Whatever you’ve got.