Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine review – the question of men’s and women’s brains

The psychologist provides more evidence that the inequality of the sexes in society is cultural not natural

ordelia Fine is an optimistic writer. In her two earlier books of popular neuroscience (A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender), the psychologist established a reputation for exemplary clarity on complex topics, pleasing wit, feminist principle – and beneath it all, the animating faith that people can be improved through knowledge. Testosterone Rex starts with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists that establishes the Fine approach perfectly: “But in addition to being angry, I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of humans to make and remake themselves for the better.”

“Testosterone Rex”, Fine’s target, is the name she gives to “that familiar, plausible, pervasive and powerful story of sex and society”, which holds that inequality of the sexes is natural, not cultural. After all, testosterone makes men tall, hairy and deep-voiced; it makes a certain superficial sense to imagine it also produces other characteristics we think of as masculine, such as leadership, violence and horniness. For example, neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (the Alien to Fine’s Ripley in the dispute over brain sex) calls the hormone “that special substance”, and credits it with inducing all manner of adaptive qualities in those creatures fortunate enough to produce large amounts of it. T is the king.

This is an explanation that’s really a justification. If Baron-Cohen was correct that hormones make the man or woman, and we are what we secrete, then efforts to end male dominance would be futile at best and possibly downright harmful. But this, of course, assumes that “Testosterone Rex” is fact when, as Fine compellingly argues, it’s actually fiction. It’s a powerful fiction that shapes our society and our bodies in profound ways, yes – but it’s still a fiction, and one that in no way deserves to be enthroned in our understanding of ourselves.

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