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.