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Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography

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Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the authoritative life story of a maligned and misunderstood molecule. Testosterone is a familiar villain and attractive bad boy that supplies a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentation of men in prisons to men's Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the authoritative life story of a maligned and misunderstood molecule. Testosterone is a familiar villain and attractive bad boy that supplies a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentation of men in prisons to men's dominance in business and politics. It's a lot to pin on a simple molecule. Yet your testosterone level doesn't predict your competitive drive or tendency for violence, your appetite for risk or sex, or your strength or athletic prowess. It's neither the biological essence of manliness nor even "the male sex hormone." This unauthorized biography pries T, as it's known, loose from over a century of misconceptions that undermine science even as they make social fables about this hormone seem scientific. T's story didn't spring from nature: it is a tale that began long before the hormone was even isolated, when nineteenth-century scientists went looking for the chemical essence of masculinity. And so this molecule's outmoded, authorized biography lived on, providing ready justification for countless behaviors--from the boorish and the belligerent to the exemplary and enviable. What we think we know about T has stood in the way of an accurate understanding of its surprising and diverse effects. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis focus on what T does in six domains: reproduction, aggression, risk-taking, power, sports, and parenting. At once arresting and deeply informed, Testosterone allows us to see the real T for the first time.


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Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the authoritative life story of a maligned and misunderstood molecule. Testosterone is a familiar villain and attractive bad boy that supplies a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentation of men in prisons to men's Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the authoritative life story of a maligned and misunderstood molecule. Testosterone is a familiar villain and attractive bad boy that supplies a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentation of men in prisons to men's dominance in business and politics. It's a lot to pin on a simple molecule. Yet your testosterone level doesn't predict your competitive drive or tendency for violence, your appetite for risk or sex, or your strength or athletic prowess. It's neither the biological essence of manliness nor even "the male sex hormone." This unauthorized biography pries T, as it's known, loose from over a century of misconceptions that undermine science even as they make social fables about this hormone seem scientific. T's story didn't spring from nature: it is a tale that began long before the hormone was even isolated, when nineteenth-century scientists went looking for the chemical essence of masculinity. And so this molecule's outmoded, authorized biography lived on, providing ready justification for countless behaviors--from the boorish and the belligerent to the exemplary and enviable. What we think we know about T has stood in the way of an accurate understanding of its surprising and diverse effects. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis focus on what T does in six domains: reproduction, aggression, risk-taking, power, sports, and parenting. At once arresting and deeply informed, Testosterone allows us to see the real T for the first time.

41 review for Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Alison

    "T is not, at root, evolution’s proximate mechanism for generating either masculinity or heteronormative coupling. It’s a transcendent, multipurpose hormone that has been adapted for a huge array of uses in virtually all bodies" Sometimes when I start a review, I comment that the book was a different book than the one I wanted it to be. It's rare - ok unique - for a work to convince me that what I thought I wanted to know wasn't what I needed to know. Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography has "T is not, at root, evolution’s proximate mechanism for generating either masculinity or heteronormative coupling. It’s a transcendent, multipurpose hormone that has been adapted for a huge array of uses in virtually all bodies" Sometimes when I start a review, I comment that the book was a different book than the one I wanted it to be. It's rare - ok unique - for a work to convince me that what I thought I wanted to know wasn't what I needed to know. Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography has few clear answers on how T affects human behaviour, but it is a very detailed, powerful and scientific exploration of why we might need to embrace ambiguity in this space, which eventually won me over. The science here is meticulous, and better because it does not pretend that the scientific method is impenetrable or incontrovertible. Some of my initial frustration stems from a dynamic in popular science around gender, where positive claims are often made regarding biological mechanisms of traditional gender difference, then feminist scholarship focuses on debunking claims, rather than positive arguments. It is, of course, easier to debunk bad science than to demonstrate new findings. At the same time, global finding trends create little incentive for science which disproves, compared with new discoveries, leading to a real shortage of critical analysis and study replication, so the work of those like Cordelia Fine is very important. Testosterone, however, is easily the aspect of biological sex with the most evidence of impact on behaviour. While Fine recently wrote a book with Testosterone in the title, it barely focused on the hormone. When it did deal with T, it focused on debunking the association with risk-taking, fairly easy to do, given that no definition of "risk-taking behaviour" holds up for more than five minutes*. Risk-taking is easy to debunk, but the evidence around T's connection to aggression and competition is not as simple. In the non-human biological sciences, T is well-understood to be associated with these behaviours. So I was frustrated when at the outset, Jordan-Young and Karkazis explicitly excluded non-human biologies from consideration. There are well-worn arguments on both sides of this debate - on the one hand, Jordan-Young and Karkazis are right that the experience of the vast volume of rodent studies are of limited applicability to human biology and cultures, on the other, ethics prevent us from conducting the same kinds of studies on humans - or even other primates - that are carried out on rodents and birds, and T is associated with aggression in a large number of species, not just rodents. Tightening the scope enables a relatively comprehensive analysis of studies, carried out I think with the assistance of many graduate students. This avoids cherry-picking to make a point, and means when, for example, the authors point out that none of the hundreds of studies, except Sari van Anders**' ones, cited any STS studies on gender and sexuality studies, this carries weight. Jordan-Young and Karkazis do not, however, ignore the non-human body of research. They just haven't subjected it to the same kind of scrutiny that they have the studies within the scope of the book. And importantly, they do not deny that T impacts on human behaviour. Their argument boils down to "it's complicated" and no clear patterns have emerged in human behaviour. T comes in different forms (and is introduced in different ways) and intersects differently with different individual biologies. It carries such a multitude of varying effects that any attempt to generalise behaviour outcomes is problematic. With non-human animals, the authors also point out that "Reciprocal effects between T and dominance are well documented. These complex and multidirectional effects of T are the “trouble with testosterone” that Robert Sapolsky has famously described. The long-standing assumption that animals with higher T rise to the top of dominance hierarchies gets it backward: evidence is much stronger that moving up the dominance hierarchy is what stimulates high T." My interest in this topic stems from my interest in gender roles and how these debates influence gender equity conversations. T is increasingly at the centre of these debates, as I have acquaintances who can rail against any suggestion of biology-as-gender in child-rearing, and discuss the personality-altering effects of hormonal gender transition treatments on the other. Where I was more ignorant is in the impact of these discussions on race - specifically that the association of T and aggression has been largely used to justify racist incarceration outcomes: if high T causes criminality then that might be why African-American men are locked up in such high numbers. I would like to think that this hasn't previously occurred to me because it is so patently absurd - using criminal convictions as a proxy for aggression is every bit as absurd as using stock trading as a proxy for risk-taking: people make choices based on available options, and at least a cursory look at those options is essential to understanding their choices. Or as our authors put in, in surprisingly graceful academic language, " in practice, the process of embodiment—that moment where the social is imbibed and transformed into the biological—is not under investigation. In its place is a thin, shallow conceptualization of the social, which figures in the research as an assumed and homogeneous background to subjects categorized by race or class: race isn’t connected to social institutions and history, but is a collection of habits." This is, apparently, pervasive "None of the T studies we’ve seen consider how the racial and class composition of their samples are related to social institutions and the operations of power, and how these, in turn, shape the lives of the people they study, whether they are looking at prisoners, military veterans, schoolchildren, or business school students. Instead, the studies follow folk notions and reiterate the social canalization of power." Some of the most quotable evidence here comes from the studies - strong and replicated - which uncomfortably show that fatherhood is associated with substantially lower T in Western peoples, but not in non-Western. This points to a complex intersection between social structures, T and behaviour which is intriguing, but far from firm. In one of the Western studies, men who attempted unsuccessfully to calm a (robot) infant, had a rise in T, those whose robot infant was receptive, saw a drop. These kinds of results - changes in hormonal balances, but in unpredictable ways, which could change subtly based on minute shifts in environment or context or biology permeate the book. They also deal head-on, in the longest section of the book, with the racial subtext around preventing female athletes with high naturally occurring T from participating in elite sport. This section has hints of anger coming through, as the authors carefully and individually tear apart the arguments that such T provides a qualitative advantage, and also delve into the combination of racialized sexism - or sexualised racism - that underlies the concept of "normal" bodies. I was a bit surprised to see another's criticism of the science of the authors, given that it is such a meticulous examination of scientific studies - far more so than most pop science books (If we have reached the point where any critical examination of science is anti-science, then science has clearly lost.). However, Jordan-Young and Karkazis clearly anticipated this, and provide some of the most thoughtful meditations of science I've read: "Facts are produced through specific questions, techniques, tools, and interpretive frameworks, and values are embedded in all of these. This is very different from saying that science is “just made up” or “the same as opinion.” It means instead that while the material world does indeed exist, we can only know that world through our human engagements with it. The best we can do is use our senses, which allow us to perceive and select only some data points out of all the possible phenomena that exist; transform those data by filtering them through our measures; and apply our own cognitive, linguistic, and disciplinary frameworks to shape the results into an interpretation that is meaningful to us. " Towards the end of the book, Jordan-Young and Karkazis discuss many of the things that I am most interested in - the growing discussion of T not as a conservative argument for the status-quo, but the biohackers who view it as a portal to a better humanity: the ongoing consensus that T is somehow under our control. The authors warn: "For some, it might seem obvious that T can’t be used as a precision tool to confer vigor, focus, libido, and a sense of power. But our travels with T suggest that the majority of people would find it plausible and intriguing that you might use T in these ways. These “new projects” of using T walk a fine line between disruption and recapitulation of sex hormone ideology." In the end, the clear message of this book, is that T is still unknowable to us, and that without a bit of self-knowledge, about our own biases and tendencies, we will simply project onto it what we already see. "Questions about biology and human nature are inextricable from moral and political debates about the value of human variations, the possibilities for equality, and the urgency and feasibility of social change." There is passion here for exploration, but caution against arrogance. This book has clearly been a labour of love and purpose, and I concur with their hopes that they " have opened a space for new ways of thinking about T that might emerge alongside [the traditional fable], maybe taking up more room and gaining momentum as T’s complexities are further elaborated. Instead of the titanic strength of Atlas, we hope we’ve suggested that T has other and better superpowers: a shape-shifting, moving, social molecule that serves as a dense transfer point for the micro-operations of biology and social relations of power at multiple levels." *Jordan-Young and Karkazis mercilessly deconstruct these studies, importantly connecting understanding of risk for relative gain and loss matrix - that those with few resources and options take different choices than those with many of both. E.g. "But multiple lines of evidence suggest that status is an important mediating variable that might explain some or even all of the apparent association between T and risk-taking. In other words, “given that testosterone is a social hormone with a reciprocal relationship with social status, and social status has been found to drive risk-taking behavior,” the positive relationship between T and risk-taking might be spurious." **Would van Anders write a book, please? This is the third book which has cited her work in ways which I have tried to follow up on, but all her research output is written for endocrinologists. I mean, I'm sure she has time on her hands, yes?

  2. 5 out of 5

    Flying Bulgarian

    I am with other reviewers who are slightly disappointed with the book. I agree that some of the chapters felt unfounded in science and their comparisons and arguments weak. But I was drawn to the book for one chapter only, which was about testosterone’s role in the female reproductive system - and frankly that chapter was extremely helpful, insightful and interesting. A few takeaways: 1. Testosterone is produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands but also from conversion from peripheral tissue 2. I am with other reviewers who are slightly disappointed with the book. I agree that some of the chapters felt unfounded in science and their comparisons and arguments weak. But I was drawn to the book for one chapter only, which was about testosterone’s role in the female reproductive system - and frankly that chapter was extremely helpful, insightful and interesting. A few takeaways: 1. Testosterone is produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands but also from conversion from peripheral tissue 2. Insensitive testosterone receptors could be the reason some women have high testosterone without any other problems 3. Testosterone in saliva, blood and urine are not perfectly correlated 4. Testosterone is related to the distribution of fat in the body 5. Testosterone fluctuates throughout the day and is affected by multiple things - time of day, coffee, alcohol, sleep, mood, season, sunlight, temperature, social exclusion etc (so fickle!) 6. Testosterone results are not very accurate at the low ranges (I.e. for women) 7. Testosterone has an important role to play in follicular maturity for ovulation up to 12 months prior to ovulation I found this extremely insightful and interesting. The rest of the chapters, not so much - but that’s again because I picked the book up ONLY for this chapter.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Michele

    Wow. Can't believe Harvard UP would publish this anti-science nonsense. The book picks apart well-regarded studies on testosterone in relation to power and dominance, violence, nurturing and athletic performance in a way that reminded me of the way that anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers dismiss overwhelming and clear evidence and scientific research. The authors go beyond healthy skepticism and into outlandish claims, dismissing basic links between testosterone and masculinity, for instance. They Wow. Can't believe Harvard UP would publish this anti-science nonsense. The book picks apart well-regarded studies on testosterone in relation to power and dominance, violence, nurturing and athletic performance in a way that reminded me of the way that anti-vaxxers or flat-earthers dismiss overwhelming and clear evidence and scientific research. The authors go beyond healthy skepticism and into outlandish claims, dismissing basic links between testosterone and masculinity, for instance. They use outliers and anecdotes to question established scientific theory and make bold suggestions. For example, one fact they use to somehow "prove" that men and women are competitive against each other is the fact that Usain Bolt's best 800 meter time is 2:07, while the women's world record is less than 2:00. Ummmm....okay... What on earth does this prove!? Usain Bolt isn't an 800 meter runner! The book is filled to the brim with this kind of shaky, sketchy "reasoning". Another one of the many outlandish claims that the authors make is that human sex isn't dimorphic, that we aren't just male/female. It's not that simple!, they say. Rather, sex is made of many characteristics that all exist on a spectrum. This whole concept is unbelievably false, a notion that, if it takes hold, will set the women's movement way back. It's hard to conceive of what would motivate women writers to take this argument, when there is literally no science to back them up. Finally, the book is hyper focused on the ways in which science is racist and classist. Can scientific studies be done in a non-racist and classist way? The authors seem skeptical. But just because a study was done on an available specific population in a laboratory setting doesn't invalidate the results. Well, these authors would have you believe otherwise. This is the kind of anti-science notion that this book is promoting. Rather than do the actual legitimate work of suggesting studies or research concepts that could back up their points (or to actually do said research-which would actually take some effort), they are content to pick apart well-founded science, and replace it with fantastical notions.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Marrysparkle

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sharone

  6. 4 out of 5

    Saphronia

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn Fink

  8. 5 out of 5

    Harper Jean

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kayleigh

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alex

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Easterly

  12. 5 out of 5

    SR

  13. 5 out of 5

    Abby

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ann

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  16. 4 out of 5

    Teddy

  17. 5 out of 5

    spurfer

  18. 4 out of 5

    Christie Roberts

  19. 5 out of 5

    Maria Luisa

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kate Millington

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly

  22. 5 out of 5

    Alyson

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tegan

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alexandra

  25. 4 out of 5

    Xan Cranney

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sushil

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cameron

  29. 4 out of 5

    Leon

  30. 5 out of 5

    lola

  31. 4 out of 5

    394

  32. 5 out of 5

    Morgan Bradham

  33. 4 out of 5

    Rayne

  34. 5 out of 5

    Brent

  35. 5 out of 5

    Rex

  36. 5 out of 5

    Cody Sexton

  37. 4 out of 5

    Katie Bananas

  38. 4 out of 5

    Terry

  39. 5 out of 5

    Jakub Szestowicki

  40. 5 out of 5

    Kamil

  41. 5 out of 5

    Taryn

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