Auto Ads by Adsense

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Review: T - The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us

 T is written by Carole Hooven, a Harvard evolutionary biologist. The book is about testosterone, but as a side effect it teaches many incidental things that aren't about the science of hormones and how human development works.

For instance, the first lesson is that in a world with billions of people, any kind of genetic mutation/disease that can happen will happen. The book opens with a woman who was born without androgen receptors. So while she had both X and Y chromosomes, her testes never descended, and so she was born with a vagina but no womb, uterus, or fallopian tubes. Her medical plight was interesting but other than not being able to have children she led a normal life. Hooven then goes on to describe various tripes of people with faulty CAH receptors, so babies who were born (and then socialized) as girls would as puberty develop penises (my jaw dropped when I read about this), testicles, and then develop as men!

The second thing that's clear ot me was how Hooven chose to write about these case studies. She's arguing against what seems like a wave of books, literature, and papers in the various social sciences that being male/masculine is socialized, rather than being directly affective by biology. As a layman, I would think that it's obvious that testosterone and other hormonal differences between boys and girls is what drives behavior, but Hooven bends over backwards to give the anti-biologists the benefit of the doubt and makes their case alongside hers.

Of course, in any battle between a real scientist and a social scientist, it's always true that the real scientist wins, with an overwhelming abundance of evidence on her side. For instance, the ancient Chinese and the not so ancient Italians practiced castration (the Chinese to produce eunuchs who could be trusted with the emperor's harem, and the Italians to produce men whose voices would never break and therefore provide soprano voices in a choir that didn't allow women to join its ranks). The elimination of testes in prepubescent boys (I wince even typing these words) shows that without testosterone, many typically masculine traits never develop in such men, including sexual desire, development of a deeper voice, preference for athleticism and sports, and so on and so forth.

From here, Hooven grants both insight into controversial issues of the day (such as transgender women competing in women's events) and an understanding of child development from childhood to puberty to adulthood. I didn't know, for instance, that men have between 10-20 times the amount of testosterone in women, but also that during puberty that spikes to 30:1 ratio differences between boys and girls. Similarly, I didn't know that a sharp spike in testosterone is also what stops adolescent height growth in men, and the castrati were actually taller than average because they never did get that second spike in testosterone.

There's excellent digression into how testosterone rises and falls in deer, and why if testosterone is such an advantage it's not just stuck in the on position all the time. Similarly, an examination in the society of chimps and how it works and what the analogue of testosterone spikes in human society goes. All of it is not just educational but also entertaining. I loved some quotes, such as Robert Sapolsky's note that because testosterone spikes are really about achieving higher status in society, if you went and injected a bunch of buddhist monks with an excess of testosterone what you might get is an increase in random acts of kindness. Now imagine doing that to a bunch of evangelicals.

There's lots more in the book that I can't possibly add here, including real life interviews of transgender people (and one woman who started testosterone injections for several years and then realized she actually wanted to be a woman and switched back) that are both enlightening and touching.

This is a great book and I learned a lot. It provides a much needed discourse in the current discussion about  gender and masculinity. Highly recommended.

No comments: