Book review by Mary Manning.
Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society (W.W. Norton, 2017) presents a premise that is bold in both its ambition and its execution. Testosterone Rex is Fine’s shorthand for the set of scientific premises of the brain, hormones, and other bodily phenomena that have been used to justify or excuse masculine behavior and undermine equality between the sexes. With a Ph.D. in Psychology and a professorship at the University of Melbourne, Fine’s academic credentials are strong, and this is her third science book for mainstream audiences. Her humor and her ability to distill complicated scientific studies into prose for non-specialist readers makes this book an important foray into unpacking the actual science of gender as opposed to the preconceptions that have accumulated over time in our society.
Fine divides Testosterone Rex into “Past,” “Present,” and “Future,” with the intent to chart scientific perceptions of gender over time. She begins by showing how, in the past, science predicated on incomplete data suggested a definite split in gendered behavior. For example, Angus Bateman’s 1940s studies on sexual selection using fruit flies supposedly demonstrated that male reproductive success increased with promiscuity. Yet Fine demonstrates that Bateman selectively interpreted the data he gained by breeding the fruit flies, and had thus obscured the notion of female agency in reproduction. The “Past” section continues by arguing for the flexibility of human behavior against the stereotypes of men, able and willing to pursue any and all sexual encounters, and women, more cautious about their coupling because of the high risk of choosing a poor mate.
The chapters in the “Present” section argue over and over that scientific studies bear out the truths of the social construction of gender. Fine disrupts the link between biology and behavior, as described below, and demonstrates how science has come to view gender as an active process. In addressing studies about the presence of testosterone in the brain, she again disputes biology’s influence in favor of the view that social context influences choices more than having high or low levels of testosterone. The last chapter in “Present” discusses financial risk-taking, a subject where research on gender’s role is still in its relative infancy. Because existing studies did not include women among their subjects, and their results were equivocal, this chapter demonstrates that much research remains to be done. In concluding, Fine’s view of the “Future” recaps her previous chapters in an effort to present the holistic impact of the information she conveyed, but she ends with a call to consider our values in advocating for gender equality. If the science no longer bears out differences between men and women, what stops us from achieving equality now?
Indeed, Fine’s true contribution here is offering painstaking critiques of studies that have presumed masculinity as a default and where their data then proves unreliable because of this bias. Testosterone Rex, as a feminist science text, aims to reframe the debate before it can proceed any further. The perfect example of this comes in Chapter 4, titled “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” Where scientists embarked on studies to measure behaviors that they believed were inherently gendered and generated by distinct hormone levels, they actually found that women and men engaged in similar behaviors at similar rates. New research has further suggested, according to Fine, that brains of the different sexes compensate through different means to reach similar behaviors and results. In context, Fine’s effort to thread the needle of this information feels revolutionary.
Any resistance that arises to Fine’s arguments may be the result of her tone, which could seem bitter or inappropriate to a reader not already on board with her premise, or her willingness to frame chapters with anecdotes about her family and friends. There are certainly chapters so densely packed with conclusions drawn from many different studies that it can be hard to follow her train of thought or truly evaluate her claims, especially when she moves between discussing studies about animal behavior and studies about human behavior. However, because her goal is to stitch all of this specialist research together for non-specialist audiences, Testosterone Rex proves to be an excellent primer in current state of research on the science of gender.
Mary Manning has a Ph.D. in Art History, which allows her to professionally obsess about paintings and/or nineteenth-century France. She currently lives in the Cleveland area and has spent the last two years working with local history organizations on projects that allow them to do more and serve more people.