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Challenging stereotypes, two scholars unpack the social and cultural contexts of testosterone

Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography

Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis
Harvard University Press
288 pp.
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Sexual desire, intelligence, strength, power, and speed. Popular culture would have us believe that these traits and more are enhanced by testosterone. For Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis, such claims have transformed masculinity into the property of young, white, successful men and made this seem the natural result of a small steroidal hormone.

Jordan-Young and Karkazis style their book as a daring push from outside the world of testosterone science, challenging long-held assumptions about the hormone. Although they have only recently turned their keen analytical gaze to testosterone, both authors have previously engaged with scientific debates that blend social and biological causation, from the neurobiological basis of sex differences to intersexuality. At the heart of their book is a hope of replacing readers’ beliefs that testosterone is merely biological with a nuanced understanding of how both social interactions and internal physiology affect levels of testosterone and its effects.

Each of the book’s chapters disposes of zombie facts and “undead ideas” about testosterone that have lingered in popular culture despite repeated attempts to vanquish them. The authors label their exploration of testosterone’s influence “unauthorized,” which allows them to explore those narrative threads they find the most interesting—the confounding intellectual spaces rather than the tidy ones.

Testosterone is not just a male hormone. It appears to play a crucial role in ovulation and also emerged as a dramatic actor in Amy Cuddy’s contested research on “power poses.” Cuddy’s initial publications [summarized in (1)] and a TED talk that has been viewed more than 54 million times suggested that the key to female success in business could lie in harnessing the power of testosterone. By physically enacting a series of “power poses”—picture Wonder Woman, arms akimbo, legs apart, standing tall—Cuddy argued that women could raise their testosterone levels and become more effective in their public negotiations. That women felt more confident after these rituals turned out to be consistent with later attempts to replicate her research, but the changing testosterone levels were not.

What the authors find fascinating about this debate has little to do with the replication crisis in biomedical sciences. Instead, they ask why readers and viewers found Cuddy’s claims to be so powerful. They posit that her research promised a personal mechanism for overcoming structural inequality in social hierarchies of power. In short, people hoped to be able to mobilize testosterone like a personalized precision drug. Reality proved more complicated. As Jordan-Young and Karkazis make clear, the entanglements of biology and culture matter.

These mutual entanglements are at the core of their analysis throughout the book. Risk-taking behavior, for example, has been associated with elevated testosterone in stock brokers, and Jordan-Young and Karkazis query what these results mean when some men, such as coal miners, often take risks out of financial necessity and restricted job opportunities. Risk-taking, they note, is rather less risky for those with high social status.

Research also indicates that testosterone levels in men drop when they become parents. This might mean that men have evolved a physiological adaptation that shifts their behavior from mate seeking to involved parenting, but Jordan-Young and Karkazis point out that even this claim reinforces stereotypes that fatherhood and other masculine traits function as trade-offs. For athletes, testosterone may help build muscle mass but only in combination with rigorous workouts; the hormone alone has almost no effect.

In broad prospect, Jordan-Young and Karkazis warn against investing too much in debates over the details of testosterone’s role in determining gender, risk-taking, parenting behavior, and fairness in athletics. They demonstrate in each case that concentrating on testosterone as a molecule draws our attention away from important social and economic sources of systemic inequality. “T talk,” as they define it, therefore serves to maintain the status quo as natural. All claims about testosterone, they argue, are power moves in a competitive intellectual landscape.

This is equally true of their book. One way of reading Testosterone is as an act of debunking; here, the authors see their goal as seeking “less false” science rather than supplying the last word. They also provide a vision for better understanding socially and biologically entwined entities: Scientists and science studies scholars should work together, from the beginning. In their hands, testosterone provides fruitful ground for understanding what it means to be human, not as isolated physical bodies but as dynamic social beings.

References and notes
1. A. Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (Little, Brown, 2015).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.