Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds

Cordelia Fine

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds
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Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds

Cordelia Fine

Winner of the 2017 Royal Society science book of the year

Testosterone Rex is the powerful myth that squashes hopes of sex equality by telling us that men and women have evolved different natures. Fixed in an ancestral past that rewarded competitive men and caring women, these differences are supposedly re-created in each generation by sex hormones and male and female brains.

Testosterone, so we’re told, is the very essence of masculinity, and biological sex is a fundamental force in our development. Not so, says psychologist Cordelia Fine, who shows, with wit and panache, that sex doesn’t create male and female natures. Instead, sex, hormones, culture and evolution work together in ways that make past and present gender dynamics only a serving suggestion for the future - not a recipe.

Testosterone Rex
brings together evolutionary science, psychology, neuroscience and social history to move beyond old ‘nature versus nurture’ debates, and to explain why it’s time to unmake the tyrannical myth of Testosterone Rex.

For fans of Fine - whose Delusions of Gender ‘could have far-reaching consequences as significant as The Female Eunuch’ (Viv Groskop, Guardian) - and thousands of new readers, this is an upbeat, timely and important contribution to the debate about gender in society.

Review

My favourite statistic from this book is that given ‘optimal breeding conditions’ in a typical hunter-gatherer society a woman has the potential to bear nine to twelve children across her lifetime, whereas common mythology holds that during that time a man could father hundreds of children.

In actual fact even if a man were to have sex with a hundred fertile women in a year (which in itself is not likely in this day and age, let alone in a hunter-gatherer society) only about three would become pregnant. This means the estimated number of offspring for males given ‘optimal breeding conditions’ is around twelve to sixteen – roughly the same as that of women. This puts paid to the myth that it is just in the biology of a man to want to sleep around and spread his seed while it’s in a woman’s ‘nature’ to be monogamous and chaste.

Cordelia Fine uses the phrase ‘Testosterone Rex’ to refer to the outdated concept that it is due to our hormones that ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls will be girls’. This is an idea that dominates our culture and is unquestioningly perpetuated by many scientific studies into the differences between men and women. Fine has surveyed a vast amount of scientific literature into this subject and with great humour and intelligence she successfully kills the myth that sex differences are purely ‘biological’ or ‘innate’ and goes on to show how these ideas of difference have been used to perpetuate gender inequality.

I found her critique of highly respected scientific and psychological studies into gender difference both fascinating and scary – it put the subjective nature of science, which so many regard as objective, into stark relief.


Kara Nicholson works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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