This post is the first of a new series of guest posts. We are delighted to welcome Lyndsay Jarvis to be our first guest blogger.
Lyndsay lives in Aberdeenshire and likes linguistics, science fiction and prodding things to see how they work. She is a mum to two boys and discovered she was autistic when the elder was diagnosed in his teens.
Cordelia Fine is a psychologist, a writer and a feminist who has lived in North America, Britain and Australia. She is currently a Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.
Testosterone Rex is the third book Professor Fine has written on gender and neuroscience. I was very much looking forward to reading it, as I enjoyed her other work, so I was very happy to get the opportunity (and the free book! Many thanks to the publishers!) to write this review.
The book is “popular science”, written for the layperson. I found it fairly easy to read although there are a lot of references and quite a lot of technical language. Fine is aware that this can be a bit heavy and writes with a light touch and lots of humour; I laughed out loud frequently while reading this. The writing is clear and effective but sometimes rather too elaborately phrased. Several times I had to re-read complex sentences more than once before the meaning became clear.
Fine has split the book into 3 sections: Past, Present, and Future. In the first section she looks at how and when general ideas about the effects of testosterone on our brains and behaviour arose – such as that there is a significant divide between male and female and this can be explained by differing levels of testosterone. Then she demonstrates that developments in scientific understanding mean these ideas should be critically re-examined. There is a particularly interesting section on the natural world which made me reconsider what I thought I knew about sexual competition; it turns out it’s a lot more complicated than the standard idea of aggressive males fighting for female attention.
In the Present section Fine considers how we define “male” and “female” characteristics and shows that contemporary research reveals that testosterone is only one aspect of a complex structure involving both nature and nurture to construct our identities. Autism is not specifically discussed but I read these chapters while thinking of Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” theory that it is a result of high levels of testosterone in the womb. Fine indirectly demolishes this; she discusses research showing that so-called “male” traits are not correlated with biological masculinity, and that while there are some differences which can be attributed to sex, none are substantial and there is a big overlap between men and women. She says “there are no simple links between a specific brain characteristic and a particular way of behaving. Instead, how we think, feel, and act is always the product of complex assemblies of neural effort, in which many different factors act and interact.[i]”
Fine looks at how many studies have been flawed because of unexamined and stereotypical assumptions about masculine traits, which was an issue raised by critics of Baron-Cohen. She writes about the harm that has been done to women and to men – to society as a whole – by over-simplifying sex differences and classifying men as competitive, logical risk-takers and women as timid, empathetic nurturers. I wonder what she made of the timing that brought this book out mere months before the infamous James Damore Google memo, which used bad science and cherry-picked statistics to suggest that women aren’t found at high level or significant numbers in STEM industries because they’re biologically wired not to be as interested in technical matters. This book certainly provides plenty of rebuttal.
The final section, Future, is the shortest and the most explicitly feminist. Fine asks, since we now know that many of our assumptions about sex differences are wrong and harmful, what should we do? Is it too much trouble to change the way we think and behave? Do we patiently wait for society to catch up with the science? “Maybe it’s time to be less polite and more disruptive.[ii]”
Overall, I found this book a great read, engaging and thought-provoking. I will definitely read it again and would recommend it to anyone interested in evolutionary biology and gender studies.
[i] Page 93
[ii] Page 195