'Testosterone Rex' Delivers an Anticlimactic Attempt to Extinguish Gender Myths

Light on science, heavy on smugness, Testosterone Rex, does everyone a disservice.

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds

Publisher: Icon
Length: 265 pages
Author: Cordelia Fine
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-02

With only 160 pages of non-introductory text, the idea that Cordelia Fine could unmake the "myths of our gendered minds" so quickly and easily seems not only naïve but arrogant. In the end, she stumbles unsuccessfully through a book that sets itself an undeniably tall order yet spends far too much time on mawkish personal anecdotes and the science of non-human animal sex. Sometimes a toy is just a toy and not an opportunity to smugly look down your nose at a busy retail worker offering a little boy blue safety scissors instead of pink ones. With such a timely topic and an unapologetically bold title, a reader is only left wondering what might have been...

Fine's book traces a reliable pattern -- with chapters rising and falling as she builds up brief bursts (often fewer than 20 pages) of scientific history and "analysis" before coming down, certain that she's slain some gendered myth central to what she calls Testosterone Rex but failing almost consistently to do so. Birds that can produce "broods" with more than one father hardly seem suitable case studies to unmake the titular myths behind T. Rex, which Fine describes as "that familiar, plausible, pervasive and powerful story of sex and society." After a whirlwind of scientific facts about everything from fruit flies to dung beetles to bonobos, Fine begins chapter three (with presumably straight face) by writing, "But although some writers apparently find the habit irresistible, within evolutionary biology it's generally considered rather bad form to attempt to explain the human condition by way of airy gesturing to superficially similar patterns in other animals." (A statement accompanied by a footnote in which a reliably self-aware Fine further explains why feminists find this practice "problematic").

Early in the book, Fine quotes a proverbial anthropologist, "I would not have seen it if I hadn't believed it." The quote may very well describe the self-reinforcing habits of those who look for evidence to support inaccurate views of sex and gender, but it equally describes Fine's tendency to only find what she wants among the data.

In her very first chapter, Fine aims to destroy the myth that evolution has provided women the space to be more reserved and "choosy" among competitive, promiscuous, eager males. She writes, "Proposed gains of female promiscuity include genetic benefits, healthier offspring, and the opportunity to set up sperm competitions that weed out inferior specimens." Are any of these "proposed gains of female promiscuity" discernible from the proposed gains of choosy, more measured females that Fine is trying to disprove? No. (A further proposed gain, "depleting local sperm stocks", may be the only one that stands this test, but it also comes under the disclaimer of "it's ... been suggested", a phrase that reeks of the anthropologist's quote from earlier).

Fine somehow then twists this into a relationship with the obvious evidence for the fact that yes, even females of a species are driven by the latent impulse to see their genes survive rather than their sister's. "Resources and rank matter for females," Fine writes, as if she hasn't just stated a fact anyone could've derived from a daily tabloid. What begins seemingly as a chapter to prove how promiscuity isn't the exclusive biological drive of males somehow finds itself wallowing in a self-satisfied narrative of how dominant women get better mates. One wonders about any reader that came into the book thinking otherwise.

"In short, neither promiscuity nor competition are necessarily the preserve of male reproductive success," Fine concludes this first chapter, as if she has made some great revelation that has slain a gender myth. Her argument for the first part of the claim emerges from a wash of non-human science while the last surely needed no apologist. She then follows this up with the groundbreaking, "...Males can be choosy too," before further teaching us that men sometimes turn down sexual partners!

Fine persistently confuses the distinction between individual "reproductive success" with overall "reproductive success". She writes, "On average, male reproductive success can't outstrip that of females, due to the simple fact that every offspring has both a father and a mother." Overall that's true, but overall isn't where these "myths" reside. Individually, a male may sire numerous children across a harem of women while each woman only has a single instance of "reproductive success" in this hypothetical. Overall the male contribution equals the female contribution by biological necessity but the contributions are of entirely different scales and lengths.

Chapter two is wasted on this silly exercise trying to demonstrate the odds of impregnating a woman, much less a hypothetical year of one hundred individual inseminations. Fine ventures into this very hypothetical only to disavow it on the very logic she seems to reject: that male competition permits choosy women ("the theoretical possibility that a male could produce dozens of offspring if he mated with dozens of females is of little consequence if, in reality, there are few females available to fertilize, and competition for them is intense"). But don't worry, dung beetle females don't show a preference for the smarter versus the more "masculine" (whatever masculine means for a dung beetle). So ta-dah! Myth unmade. Or not.

As a brief aside to Fine's argument that "on average" a promiscuous man and a promiscuous woman are still likely to produce the same number of offspring separately in a lifetime, it's worth contemplating whether most individuals would find a margin as wide as seven children negligible. (She then even undercuts the figures she's provided for her own point by saying, "It's not very easy to come by data providing good information about men and women's reproductive variance.") Nothing in chapter two dispels any myth other than what Fine seeks to construct the data to show. A study shows men more willing to have sex when prompted by a stranger? No, their answers can't be trusted. Give me more reliable dung beetle research.

Fine makes a lot of conclusions prefaced by a multitude of variations on "In short" or "To be clear" while being too short and never clear. She seems quite satisfied with having delivered a handful of useless anecdotes mined from evolutionary biology about everything from dunnocks to dung beetles, but might've spent a bit more time on actual research related to, say, humans in her effort to unmake the myths of "our" gendered minds. Assuming, of course, that the "our" of the title is meant to refer to humans.

If Fine's attempt to unmake the gendered myths boils down to claims like "...neither sex has the monopoly on characteristics like competitiveness, promiscuity, choosiness, or parental care", perhaps she was successful. However, for most people who've watched a film or attended college, they might not have needed 200 pages to tell them women can be choosy, promiscuous, or competitive also, or that men have paternal instincts. After all, what could we say about the myths of our gendered minds without this bounty of studies on masculine beetles and rats that live "peaceful stress-free lives"? We'll never know.

Testosterone Rex is a disappointing and floundering answer to an always-timely subject. It's so much more disappointing because the book could have been so much more in the right hands. Instead, it's full of useless personal stories better left out in editing, but worse than those are the string of smugly condescending and ignorant asides about everyone who might disagree with Fine's argument (or even who might've done a better job making it). Near the end she writes "...Testosterone Rex has not survived," that's simply untrue, but if it is now or ever will be true, it owes no thanks to Fine.


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