Skip to main content

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.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…