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Testosterone Rex - Cordelia Fine ****

It seems that books about the myth of gendered minds are somewhat like busses - wait ages for one, then two come along close together. I've already reviewed the superb Inferior by Angela Saini, so it was fascinating to be able to contrast Cordelia Fine's impressive Testosterone Rex.

This is a full-on take on the whole business of the ways that men and women aren't (and are) different. You may think that there's no need to do this in today's world. After, all, we all recognise gender equality, don't we? However, not only is it taking a long time for this to percolate through to equal pay (at the time of writing this review there's been quite a fuss about this at the BBC), it's clear that acceptance that the bias still exists is often, at best, skin deep. I was fascinated to see an online argument, started with a post by a (female) physicist on the topic, only to have a string of male scientists, who really should know better, pile in with a combination of denial, excuses, and attempts to counter studies with anecdotes, somehow forgetting that anecdotes are not data.

Even more so than with Saini's book, Fine's makes me feel sorry for evolutionary psychologists - these academics are really getting it in the neck with findings that suggest that at least some of their long-held views aren't based on fact. Part of the reason I particularly feel their pain here is that Fine is more full on than Saini: fiery, snarky and writing much more of a polemic than Saini's cool, careful and scientific approach. My suspicion is that the approach taken in Testosterone Rex might have the wider appeal, even though, for me, Saini's book has the edge.

Luckily, though, the two titles aren't really competitors. There is a strong overlap of theme, but each has a significantly different focus. Here relationships, sex and everyday life are stressed more (down to those infuriating 'girls' and 'boys' aisles in toyshops), while Inferior came particularly from the viewpoint of the influence of gender bias on education and careers, scientific careers in particular.

I found Testosterone Rex an enjoyable read (I hate the name, though in fairness, Fine does spend a lot of pages on the misunderstanding of the influence of testosterone and how, for example, trading floors are not so much testosterone-fueled as testosterone-generating). The book did sometimes feel a tad repetitive, as in the end it's a vast series of examples illustrating the same point. And, for me, there was also too much about animals. Having established early on that we are very different, even from the other primates, and that there was no point in using animal examples as 'natural' behaviour for us, there didn't seem any point continuing with the animal stories. 

If you enjoy a good piece of punchy, persuasive writing, but are still to be convinced that 'boys will be boys' or that 'women are naturally less inclined to jobs requiring assertiveness or aggression' this is a must read. If you are already fully committed to equality, you will also enjoy having your beliefs reinforced. Sadly, some will still see this as political correctness gone mad. It's not - it's about getting the scientific basis right, rather than rolling out the same dated and simply incorrect arguments.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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