“Testosterone Rex”, a biased polemic, wins the Royal Society book prize

September 21, 2017 • 12:45 pm

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! AutismAlzheimer’sdepression 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:


50 thoughts on ““Testosterone Rex”, a biased polemic, wins the Royal Society book prize

  1. I am nowhere near qualified to comment, Jerry, but I thought you might be interested in the response to Stuart Ritchie’s review by Sam Gilbert, Cognitive Neuro-Scientist at UCL, and a member of the judging panel who supported Fine’s book. A 5-minute read.


    1. It is very clarifying. I think Ritchie was the bias one. I do not what to think now. I suppose we need to read the book for our self.

      1. I haven’t read the book, but I’m provisionally, tentatively going to side with Jerry and Stuart Ritchie on this one.

        The book is subtitled “Unmaking the Myths of our Gendered Minds,” and yet Coyne and Ritchie’s point is that, in important ways it’s not a myth. Now sure, the subtitle might just be the editor taking liberties. And scientists writing for the public often use hyperbole. But both Coyne and Ritchie seem to agree that the ‘its a myth’ message runs through the entire book, and Gilbert says absolutely nothing to contradict that; he just says her text is technically right. Well we all know it’s perfectly possible to be technically right yet misleading. So I don’t really find Gilbert’s counter-point to be too persuasive.

        Having not read it, I’ll give a conditional opinion: if Fine’s message is that it’s a myth that the male and female brains are different, then IMO she’s wrong and telling people something not supported by science. If her message is that male and female brains are different, just not as different as the sexist down the street may think, well, then I’ll agree with her, and agree that that conclusion is supported by science. But in that case, it certainly appears based on her title and a couple of reviews that she sure picked some very poor wording to try and say that.

        1. @eric: I love the apparent contradiction
          —Well we all know it’s perfectly possible to be technically right yet misleading—
          but can’t think of an example to understand it well. Could you please give one, thanks in advance.

          1. Could you please give one, thanks in advance.

            Sure. Kettlewell’s peppered moths were placed on tree trunks – they don’t rest there normally! Response

            Or how about: Haeckel’s pictures are fakes! Response

            Actually now that I think about it, creationism provides a near endless supply of this sort of ‘quibble fallaciously used as refutation’ type thing.

        2. @eric:
          +++ …if Fine’s message is that it’s a myth that the male and female brains are different, then IMO she’s wrong…+++
          I suppose you know Mark Gungor’s amusing conference “The Nothing Box”. It’s on YouTube (of course, I would add).

    2. This reads awfully similar to the responses to Alan Sokal’s hoax.

      The general Gestalt when dealing with postmodernists looks like this: the postmodernist asserts something earth-shattering if true, but that can be interpreted as trivially true at once. Something like “men and women are really identical”. This becomes the general argument of them, especially to rub in how everyone’s intuitions are wrong. Stop the prsses! Earth shattering news!

      You can make a list of infinite features that are identical for men and women. We not only typically have two brain-halves, a skin covering the body, DNA in our cells, live in houses, and so on, but also don’t descend from zebras, do not walk upside down, do not visit the Andromeda galaxy to wash our hands, do not visit the next black hole to peel bananas and so on. You can make the list greater than there are atoms in the universe. Surely, men and women are — in the grand sheme of things — completely identical.

      Now critics will be (rightfully) annoyed. Nobody believes men and women are different in that way. They write the critique, as Sokal, or Ritchie did.

      The final step is the postmodernist switch back to the trivial. They then respond that, yes, some things between men and women are of course different, that they have been misunderstood and so on. This is based in this instance on the literal Fine Print (/rimshot), her mentioning of sex differences, and the hedges, that are just hidden off from the book’s cover and which are then played up by Sam Gilbert.

      Sokal and Bricmont describe this movement in their famous book, and I believe it’s the same thing that Nikolas Shackel discovered too, and which he dubbed “Motte and Bailey Doctrine”.

      1. I remember debating this sort of matter with colleagues in various philosophy department. One common answer I often got about the pomos was “but they look at the historical and social context of research!” Well, ok, but so did almost everyone. Even the (boo, hiss!) positivists – Reichenbach took a relativity class with Einstein himself, after all. But they get it *wrong*, too, which the “they do more than the philosophy of science” crowd claimed. Of course, one has to have a minimum notion of objective truth for this to matter, but …

        I’d rather have a completely a-historical, a-social, a-political, a-economic philosophy of science piece than an article which gets basic facts wrong, myself. (This is not say there isn’t a grey area.)

    3. Gilbert misses the point: Fine argues that sexual selection hasn’t worked in our species because of the Bateman experiment, and yet the evidence shows it has. Humans are not one of those species that, says Fine, show no difference in variance of reproductive success among the sexes. Males show significantly higher variances. And his lame defense of Fine’s math example isn’t convincing: she really does use it to show that the claims of greater variance in male reproductive success are bogus–she’s using the example as an extreme example to knock down that hypothesis. No evolutionist who’s looked at her use of the Bateman hypothesis and that dumb calculation has found that it is convincing about ANYTHING.

      Fine has basically argued that sexual selection isn’t very prevalent (in humans and in flies, though of course it IS in flies), though as usual she isn’t explicit about it.

      1. Thank you for the reply, Jerry. I should have said that I am totally unqualified scientifically to respond.

        I was concerned that on the excellent Adam Rutherford’s BBC Radio 4 science programme today he had a brief congratulatory – and uncritical – piece on Fine’s book. Adam doesn’t suffer ideologically-driven science gladly – and he has recently been told off by the BBC for his public criticism of climate change sceptics, which he graciously accepted as corollary to his BBC contract – so he’s one of the good guys…natheless, and I would never impugn Adam’s honesty nor his scientific credentials, it still surprised me.

        Perhaps it’s explicable by the need for deadlines in the media.

  2. I have not read the book(s), and probably will not, not because the subject is not interesting, just that there are only so many hours in a day and only so much care to spread amongst my interests.

    I have seen more than a few studies that show that women dress for other women, not for men. Most men don’t are all that much about women’s fashions, but women seek the approval and avoid the disapproval of other women.

    This is hardly male-dominated female behavior. While mate seeking females show many of the same attributes as do other species, so do men. These behaviors are hardly dictated by men. Men do not tend to choose women as mates who are smarter than they are, but do men universally oppose the education of women? Not in the West, any way.

    These topics are really quite complex. I wish people would do studies and then propose at least several alternate conclusions that could be made. The purpose of this is to drive additional research but also to avoid drawing premature conclusions.

    1. “Most men don’t are all that much about women’s fashions, but women seek the approval and avoid the disapproval of other women.”

      Hmmm. In my experience this is not accurate. I’d say there is wide variation but there are plenty of men that have an interest in fashion and even most of those that don’t do care a lot about how woman look.

      I don’t disagree that many women seek the approval of other women but I don’t think that precludes them from also seeking the approval of men at the same time. Again merely in my experience, it seems to me that plenty of women very much care about looking good for men.

      It seems to me to be just the same for men. Men constantly seek the approval of other men while at the same time seeking the approval of women. This isn’t contradictory it is complimentary.

  3. If there are no differences between the male and female brain does that mean that transsexuals are just mentally ill males? They couldn’t be people with a male body but female brain. It seems to me this presents a problem for the regressive left

    1. That’s just the sort of thing I was thinking. Clearly, mate-seeking behavior is instantiated in the nervous-system, and is broadly determined by the genetic gender of the individual.

  4. I see this as sad case of liberal scientists attempting to use the bad rhetorical strategies of the far right for their own ends. In this case, the is-ought fallacy is dragged into service. Instead of stating that the fallacy is a very poor basis for any sort of social policy, they have decided to use it as an argument: we ought to all be treated the same because we is all the same.

    For goodness’ sake people, how hard is it to say that it doesn’t matter whose brain chemistry is different from whose, we should all get the same and good social opportunities and support.

      1. Yes. Its a science society. I’d understand if the president wasn’t a scientist; their job is typically to make the organization money. But the (other?) folks who decide on it’s most distinguished science award?

        1. Would it also surprise you to know that Dr Sam Gilbert (Senior Research Fellow at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and one of the judges) obtained a PhD in psychology from UCL in 2002, the year after Fine got her PhD (from UCL in psychology). I wonder how well they know each other?

    1. Exactly. As Jerry says:

      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.

      Thanks for giving me an excuse to quote that.

      1. Yet- if we do not differ in behaviours and preferences, but the outcomes are systematically different, that means there is some sexist difference causing the different outcomes. If women choose particular careers which are paid less, is that because we are innately different or because of discriminatory differences in treatment of women and girls? If women are less likely to demand a pay rise, is that because of sex differences in the brain, or culture? If it is because of culture, it means that in reality women and girls do not have the same rights and opportunities, which as you say is a moral issue.

        So it really matters whether we differ, and what is the cause of the differences.

  5. Questions:

    Does the book’s writer ever attempt to answer why patriarchy is so much more prevalent than matriarchy? And why gender differences are as they are and not another way?

    One of the things I find hugely lacking in so much of the “studies” is an explanation…and this case backed by reasearch…of why things developed as they did.

    In other words, Why are the gender differences, even if cultural constructions, as they are? Nowhere near enough to scream, “Men did it!!!!!!!!”

    (And of course, the corollary question….Did matriarchy lead to disasters in whichever societies practiced it and was not sustainable?)

    1. These questions are never answered because the answer is obvious: culture isn’t an accident but at least partly based on our biology. “Patriarchy” theory (be careful about the motte and bailey here) is just as insane and non-explanatory as “the jews control the world” and it’s based on the apex fallacy.

      Frankly, although I think broad sweeping terms usually provide little explanation (because they aren’t focused) there are a few things that explain a lot more of how the world operates than patriarchy theory, and tbh it’s what the MRA camp claims reflects reality:

      Hypergamy of women: women marry up

      hypoagency of women: we don’t hold women responsible for their actions – see nearly all cases of sexual abuse of minors by women, even women in positions of power over the minor… the so-called “pussy pass”

      hyperagency of men: the man is guilty of rape when the man and women drink together, or is responsible for child support even though he was raped. Look at the disparity between conviction rates + jail sentences + time actually spent in jail for men vs women for the same crimes… the disparity is several times larger than that between blacks and whites.

      and male disposability: Boko Haram killed 10,000+ boys and no one gave a damn. They kidnapped iirc ~130 girls to get attention (and killed the boys) and swift international response ensued to #bringbackourgirls.

      1. The only questions allowed are ones that can be answered with the word “patriarchy”. For some reason, feminist theory seems to espouse the notion that culture is some kind of bolt-on phenomen that occurred “post-evolution” and is entirely independent of and owes nothing to evolutionary processes. Feminists, whilst willing to concede that evolution shapes behaviour in animals, baulk at the idea that the same is true for humans. Evolution only works from the neck down in humans, it would appear!

        I haven’t read the book but having read a few reviews I very much doubt if I will. Science from a feminist perspective interests me about as much as science from a creationist perspective – no thanks!

    2. Does the book’s writer ever attempt to answer why patriarchy is so much more prevalent than matriarchy?

      The topic somewhat reminds me of reading the introduction to War Before Civilization. The authors discuss how baffled they were that archaeologists (predominantly liberals, in the ’70s) would simply ignore the obvious evidence of battles in favor of more obtuse ideas that fit their concept of peaceful stone age peoples. We found a massively high and thick wall around a settlement, with hundreds of arrowheads stuck in the outside surface of it…you think it was a sign of conflict? Heavens no! The people in that town built that wall around their town to practice their archery for boar hunts!

      You think a global pattern of patriarchy across different cultures and millenia has to do with differences in male/female biology or physiology? Heavens no!…..

  6. I would love to read a book about sex, gender, androgyny etc. that isn’t biased. Have looked into sex research papers etc. a little and haven’t found much. This book doesn’t seem like the best resource although some of the subject matter is of interest to me. As a side note and relating to an earlier post, if there are statues somewhere of Masters and Johnson, I don’t think they should be taken down just because they worked with prostitutes at one point. If there is more research on any/all of this, I have trouble finding it.

    1. I liked Steve Jones’ 2003 book “Y: the Descent of Men”, but I don’t know how it or the studies he cited have held up over the years.

  7. Whenever I want to condemn a scientist I compare them to Newton or Crick or Feynman. But for high praise only a comparison to Margaret Atwood will do.

  8. The judges say it is an ideal companion to two feminist sf novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power.

    The Power is written by Naomi Alderman – one of the judges on the panel. She is a protégé of Margaret Atwood, author of The Hamdmaid’s Tale, under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

    As far as I can ascertain her only connection with science was a Doctor Who spin-off novel.

    1. One of the judges is a sci-fi author with no science cred? This does not increase my confidence in the book.

      I really like sci-fi. But meaning no insult, most of them are probably about as good at peer reviewing scientific publications as I am at writing fiction.

  9. As someone who has worked with prostate cancer patients who are on androgen blockers I’ve seen first hand the effects of hormones on behavior.

  10. Wouldn´t be morally defensible to treat people in different ways upon their differences? I mean, for example, shouldn’t the government invest their resources in one ways for men and another for women if they are going to respond differently to incentives? (is not similar to what Charles Murray proposed once he noted differences of IQ on races? I’ve heard about it but not read the bell curve).

    What I tried to said: Since there is not one moral sistem we all agree, wouldn´t be really dangerous to reach the fact that we are differents as a consecuence of our sex, race o whatever other genetic reason? I´m not saying that this is a reason to distort the truth, but wouldn´t be a reason to not deep about it?

    I am really convinced about what you say of biological difference between male and female, but I am not conviced completely that this is irrelevant for morality since there is not one only way to interpret “social justice” or morality.

    1. Except none of this is about individual differences. It’s about differences in group averages.
      It’s not right to base different treatment on that because you’ll never know where people fall in the distribution.

  11. A cultural explanation for the female:male skew in the incidence of medically unexplained symptom disorders, such as fibromyalgia, ME-CFS, and non-epileptic seizures, seems reasonable, but a lot of people aren’t going to like that idea.

    1. Its not always skewed that way. The most obvious counter-example being the culture-bound syndrome of Koro, or penis-theft, which is for obvious reasons much more prevalent in men. 🙂

  12. “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’.”

    How is this an odd statement? It’s not a necessary conclusion that two different structures produce different behaviours or functions. I’m reminded of the many similar systems that abound in math and physics where the same mathematical behavior follows. For example, simple circuits with inductors and resistance produce similar behavior to other simple harmonic oscillators like springs. And there may be different paths to complete proofs that ultimately lead to the same conclusion.

  13. Fine’s lesson is that the sex differences we do see are overwhelmingly the result of cultural influences….

    What gender studies folks are at a loss to explain is, how did those cultural gender roles come to be established in the first place? Adam and Eve didn’t Rochambault to see who’d do what.

    The (unthinkable to them) answer is, of course, the cultural differences arose out of and reflect innate behavior sex differences.

  14. The only person on the judging panel with knowledge of neuroscience is Gilbert Both he and Fine were at UCL at the same time, his Psychology PhD was 2002, hers was 2001. (They were also both at Oxford but not at the same time). Both were studying the same field of psychology so I think it is inconceivable that they do not know each other personally. Assuming that they do, he would have to recuse himself from the panel. Now you have a panel mostly comprised of feminist with no expertise in neuroscience.

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