In recent years there has been quite a significant pushback on the theories of Charles Darwin, and the gender movement suggests that we have moved far beyond our animal urges to a more sophisticated socially constructed way of being. Yet Dr Carole Hooven, an evolutionary biologist has written a book that bravely rejects this notion that we are all little more than “gender-neutral blank slates” and instead puts forward the idea that, if we are to create a well-informed and equal society, we need to educate ourselves about testosterone. And what an education she provides!
The impact that testosterone has on our bodies, from our sexual urges to our behaviour, is outlined so clearly and memorably in this book that nobody reading it could continue to dismiss nature’s influence. I can safely say that I will view men slightly differently now that I know more about this hormone that is coursing through their bodies. Starting with an anecdote about a wife-beating chimp, Hooven pulls no punches. This wide-ranging book examines testosterone from every possible angle. Discussing the life of the eunuch from ancient Greece, Rome and Imperial China, she brings in some contemporaneous examples – the “last eunuch of China”, Sun Yaoting, died in 1992 – and the description of men living without “T” (as Hooven calls testosterone) is pretty grim. Hooven is, thankfully, a great writer and so manages to makes studies about testosterone levels in different animals such as rats, lizards and red deer compelling. The chapter about stags and their harems contains an eye-opening description of how stags take part in gentlemanly battles in order to figure out who gets the harem of female deer: who knew that life on a rocky hillside off the west coast of Scotland could be so exciting?
Hooven’s book is simply fascinating and filled with extraordinary facts. Did you know that we are all born female and then some of us become male? Or that “the penis is basically a huge clitoris” and “the scrotum and the line that runs down the underside of the penis are basically fused labia”? I certainly didn’t. I always presumed that it was only at male puberty that the differences in the sexes emerges, but it turns out that I was completely wrong. With simple pencil sketches and well-referenced studies, Hooven shows how we all begin life as females and then an early influx of testosterone in the womb separates the males from the females. Males experience elevated rates of testosterone during infancy, and, as a result, little boys prefer rough and tumble play. The author, however, is not an absolutist – not all boys favour rough play of course – and is keen to show that although, in general and mostly because of testosterone, most men are stronger, taller and faster than women, this does not mean all men are stronger, taller and faster than women; testosterone has an impact, but so do many other factors.
This is a brave and significant book. The battle of the sexes, always controversial, moved into a whole new realm when it became the gender identity battle and this is presumably why Hooven focuses solely on the science when she devotes a whole chapter to the issue of trangenderism. Driven by scientific enquiry, Hooven confronts the thorny issue of puberty blockers in a neutral and informed manner and is not swayed by any political or ideological position. Contentious issues such as medical transition, puberty blockers, detransition, gay male promiscuity, testosterone in men and women’s sports and the complex story of Caster Semenya are explored. Indeed, no issue in relation to testosterone remains uncovered.
A seldom-seen, accurate, understandable and comprehensive understanding of the condition termed as Differences of Sex Development (also known as a “DSD” and – more inappropriately – as “intersex”) is provided in this book and the author devotes a considerable amount of attention to the implications of the various levels of testosterone on men and women born with DSDs. This is unusual as DSDs are often ignored and misunderstood in the public realm, however Hooven clearly explains that people with DSDs are not some sort of middle ground between men and women: people born with DSDs are born either male or female, with a condition that impacts their sex organs and their reproductive system. There are many different types of DSDs, for example, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), is a DSD that is present in about one out of every fifteen thousand births and CAH comes about when the foetus is exposed to unusually high levels of testosterone. This influx of testosterone for girls with CAH carries significance as “CAH girls grow up to be women who are more likely to prefer male-typical professions like carpentry, that involve working primarily with things, rather than female-typical professions like teaching, that involve more interactions with people. And they make more money than their unaffected sisters!”
Testosterone, the “magical masculinising potion” exists in both men and women, but men have 10-20 times more of it and so it impacts men much more. Hooven shows us how testosterone increases our libido, our energy, our strength and our desire to take risks. Not only that, but testosterone drives men to seek a higher social status in order to bring about a more successful rate of reproduction. On the other hand, “T” also reduces our empathy and a sense of pleasure in our aggressive impulses. Although “T” impacts male aggression, female aggression is driven by different hormones and this is why testosterone-fuelled rage is reactive and has such a different flavour to female rage.
Although Hooven does not provide much social commentary in this book, she does address the issue of toxic masculinity and the male propensity to violence. Too much testosterone can make males too aggressive and those with raised levels often end up taking too many risks, and ultimately tend to crash and burn. The Goldilocks level of “T”, not too high and not too low, is the most desirable condition whereby the male seeks a mate, seeks social status and has a reasonably assertive approach to risk and aggression. Hooven makes an eloquent plea for a better world that is informed about our nature but also seeks to nurture our higher selves; “Let’s get rid of the tired idea that the sexes must be born with basically the same brains in order to have equal rights”. If we can educate ourselves about “T”, according to Hooven, then the unfiltered truth about the impact of testosterone and the differences between the sexes will add to our knowledge-base and help us create a better society.
I felt some envy while reading this book. Testosterone is a mighty beast and I’ve no doubt it is difficult to manage but it feels like a walk in the park compared with the intricacies of oestrogen. After reading this book, I feel like I understand men better and I think I’ll also interact more positively with them. Now that the definitive book on testosterone has been written, I look forward to a similarly wide-ranging book on oestrogen.
Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us by Dr Carole Hooven (Octopus, £16.99)