I’ve now finished Cordelia Fine’s newest book, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society. I’ve also read her earlier work, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, so I’ve polished off both of her highly-regarded books on sex differences in behavior. Both books have a similar thesis: there’s essentially no evolved difference between males and females that can account for differences in behavior, preference, and so on. (The former book is more about brain structure and the latter about hormones, but since hormones affect behaviors mediated through the brain, it’s basically the same egalitarian thesis.) Fine’s lesson is that the sex differences we do see are overwhelmingly the result of cultural influences (read: males enforcing behavior differences).
Now that’s a bit of an exaggeration, for when pressed Fine will come out with an admission like this (taken from the review of Testosterone Rex [“TR“] I’ll mention in a minute):
To be very clear, the point is not that the brain is asexual, or that we shouldn’t study sex effects in the brain… genetic and hormonal differences between the sexes can influence brain development and function at every level… [I]nvestigating and understanding these processes may be especially critical for understanding why one sex can be more vulnerable than the other to certain pathologies of brain or mind.
As Stuart Ritchie, who reviewed the book in March for Quillette, notes, that statement is about pathology, and is a bit weaselly, for immediately Fine qualifies it. As Ritchie notes after reading Fine’s admission above:
Absolutely! Autism, Alzheimer’s, depression and other conditions have very skewed male:female ratios—a primary reason neuroscientists are interested in sex differences. How odd, then, that Fine ends the paragraph by saying: “The point is rather that, potentially, even quite marked sex differences in the brain may have little consequence for behaviour”. True, this contains a “potentially” and a “quite” and a “may”, but it’s a strange conclusion. Unless you’re a dualist who thinks that behavioural differences—such as the reliable sex differences in physical aggression or spatial ability—are manifest somewhere other than the brain (and unless you think pathologies don’t lead to behavioural differences), the same logic Fine is happy to use for pathology applies just as much to behaviour.
Before I started TR and then while I was reading it, I wrote two posts (here and here) about Fine’s claim that there’s no evolved differences in male and female behavior. I also criticized her completely muddled and erroneous claim (based on bogus statistics) that sexual selection doesn’t work because the “Bateman experiment”—showing a greater variance in reproductive success among male than among female fruit flies—was wrong. Well, it wasn’t wrong, it was inconclusive, and later work, as Ritchie notes, has supported the sex difference in reproductive-success-variance that’s a crucial assumption of sexual selection. Bateman’s result was just a one-off that tells us nothing. Sexual selection is alive and well, and supported by tons of data. Nevertheless, Fine’s argument, which is really dumb if you know even a bit of biology and math, persuaded many people, including a Guardian reviewer, and Ritchie takes it apart in his review.
I’m not going to review TR in detail here (Ritchie’s piece makes that superfluous) except to say that its style and tactics are much of a muchness with Delusions of Gender. Fine is very good at taking apart bad scientific papers, especially those that have an agenda of female inferiority, but she is not good at dealing with papers that go against her hypotheses, and, at best, relegates them to footnotes. In other words, she cherrypicks the literature to support what seems to be her preconceived belief: there are no biological difference between men and women.
I’ve written about that in detail before, particularly in the post I cited above, “When ideology trumps biology.” It’s in the interest of the Regressive Left to ignore science that goes against their belief in an “everybody’s equal” hypothesis, for, they think, showing differences in behavior, preferences, abilities, and so on between genders or ethnic groups will supposedly lead to racism and sexism.
Yet as I’ve said many, many times, that’s bogus: while scientists have in the past buttressed racism with supposed group differences (often fabricated), there is no need for us to do that, for a biological “is”, whatever it may be, doesn’t translate to a social “ought”. If males and females differ genetically in behaviors and preferences, as I think they surely must, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the same rights in our society, or not have the same opportunities. That kind of equality is a moral issue independent of whatever differences groups may have. Making social equality contingent on biological equality leaves you open to having to revise your conclusions if biological differences are found—a bad way to ground your social justice.
I was glad to see that Ritchie’s review reaches the same conclusions as I did: Fine is good on some things, but undercuts her credibility by cherrypicking the literature, and treating studies inimical to her aims differently from those congenial to them. In other words, her book, like the earlier one, is plagued by confirmation bias. As Ritchie says:
This fits into a pattern: evidence contrary to Fine’s position is often cited, but it’s not mentioned in the text, instead being relegated to endnotes where it can’t cause too much trouble. Witness, for instance, Fine’s mention of “stereotype threat”, where a single supporting study is discussed in the text but a contrary meta-analysis is only mentioned in the endnote. Or her discussion of a 2015 paper on how males’ and females’ brains aren’t essentially different, but are a mosaic of features: you wouldn’t know that four strong scientific critiques of the study had been published (with a response) unless you flick to the back of the book. This allows Fine to use the main text to critique only the most overblown claims about sex differences, and avoid having to deal at length with more reasonable arguments.
Admittedly, Fine does deal effectively with those overblown claims. Her chapter on testosterone itself is a useful pushback against assertions about the ubiquity and power of a molecule whose behavioural effects are not well-understood. But for all her stinging critiques of “Testosterone Rex” research, Fine is far more magnanimous—often completely silent—about the weaknesses of the research that supports her view. For instance, in response to self-reported studies of numbers of sexual partners, which are subject to expectancy bias (they might over-report male promiscuity), Fine cites an interview study of 50 men who frequent prostitutes, apparently not realising that such qualitative research is far more vulnerable to the same kind of bias. The final chapter speculates heavily about the idea that “gendered” toys (blue versus pink; cars versus dolls) have effects on girls’ career choices, uncritically citing weak studies (for instance this one, which included only 62 children). The harshest Fine gets about a sympathetic paper is when she discusses a ropey-looking social-priming study on men’s “threatened masculinity”, finishing with the bland statement that “we have to be careful that findings like these are robust and replicable”.
And his conclusion is on the money (I’ve added a link to “curate’s egg” since it’s a British idiom):
In the end, Testosterone Rex is a curate’s egg (or perhaps, given the topic, a curate’s egg-and-sperm). It’s a semi-straw man, successfully debunking the most extreme and simple-minded claims about sex differences, but giving a terribly one-sided view of the science. If you’re a dinosaur who thinks men and women are completely different species, or that testosterone is the only reason sex differences exist, the book might be a useful corrective. Anyone with an even slightly more nuanced view should look elsewhere.
Testosterone Rex is not a bad book, but a biased book. It’s not a judicious work of science, but a polemic. So I was amazed to see that it just won the Royal Society’s Insight Investment Book Prize, to the tune of £25,000 pounds. You can see the panel at the link; Richard Fortey was the Chair. The announcement:
Judges praised Fine’s powerful book for its eye-opening, forensic look at gender stereotypes and its urgent call for change.
Chair of this year’s panel, palaeontologist and award-winning writer and television presenter, Professor Richard Fortey FRS, said: “A cracking critique of the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ hypothesis, Cordelia Fine takes to pieces much of the science on which ‘fundamental’ gender differences are predicated. Graced with precisely focused humour, the author makes a good case that men and women are far more alike than many would claim. Feminist? Possibly. Humanist? Certainly. A compellingly good read.”
“Call for change”? Did the judges not know the details about sexual selection in both humans and other animals? Or did they not care? Were the judges trying to make a political statement and flaunt their virtue despite some wonky science? Claire Lehmann, editor of Quillette, seems to think that’s the case: