"Testosterone" is one of those funny words that actually
has a real, scientific meaning, but is bandied around so much
in non-scientific contexts that it's easy to forget that. Testosterone,
sometimes used as a synonym for "masculinity" is blamed
and celebrated for its role in acts of arrogance, heroism, stubbornness,
For those interested in the mysteries of gender or in physiology
in general, testosterone is a word, and a concept, worth learning
more about. James McBride Dabbs, Ph.D., head of the Social/Cognitive
Psychology Program at Georgia State University, has devoted a
lot of research and imagination to the subject. Although that
combination makes for a readable, anecdotal approach, it does
not always yield convincing science.
The book is full of statements like these: "Mary suspects
that her first mother-in-law was a high-testosterone woman."
"I suspect but do not know, that his serotonin level was
high." "We did not assay the mountain climber's other
hormone levels, but it's safe to assume he was low in prolactin."
"Whether or not grabbing pencils in midair reflects a penchant
for heroic altruism, I can't say for sure, but I believe the man
who did it has a better chance at it than the people who didn't."
In each case, after making guesses about physiological facts he
did not test, Dabbs goes on to draw conclusions based on his guesses.
This diminishes his credibility and adds some unfortunate confusion
to what is otherwise often an intriguing book.
Here is some of the interesting information Dabbs shares about
testosterone along the way: Women, as well as men, have testosterone.
Men tend to have more than women, but every individual has a different
level, and we all vary at different times in our lives. "Low-testosterone
people tend to do better in school, have higher-status occupations,
feel closer to their friends and families, and have happier marriages."
Given all that, it's not surprising to learn that low-T people
also smile more, and their eyes crinkle when they do smile-a sign,
according to the author, of a sincere and happy smile.
"Testosterone increases focus," according to Dr. Dabbs.
And "Focused attention makes people more likely to take risks
without noticing that others are holding back." This can
lead to what Dabbs calls "heroic altruism." It can also
lead to wife-beating. What? Well, many of us have already observed
that men seem more single-minded than women; they often focus
on one task at a time, while women do many things at once. Apparently,
testosterone is the explanation behind that tendency. It helps
men to block out competing ideas. In a fit of anger, therefore,
a man might hit his wife while blocking facts he knows perfectly
well in calmer moments, like "violence is bad," or "my
wife is actually a good person and I like her."
Testosterone and life have a circular relationship. For example,
if you're getting good sex, your testosterone level goes up. And
when your level goes up, you're more likely to have the desire
and the energy required to get more sex. Which leads to more testosterone.
Unfortunately, Dabbs's conclusions are sometimes just as circular.
He often, for example, shares an anecdote about someone who behaves
in a way that seems to indicate high testosterone. After drawing
conclusions about the effects of the hormone, though, Dabbs will
slip in the fact that he doesn't actually know how much testosterone
the person has. Then what, the reader wonders, was the point of
the story? A person behaved in a way we would expect from a person
who has high testosterone, and therefore, we think, this person
has high testosterone. We need a professor to help us with that
kind of reasoning?
The book also includes some careless writing. Any editor who spent
any time with the book, for example, would have fixed the word
"reoccurring." And the book's epilogue, with Dabb's
interpretation of poems by T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost, seems
to have nothing to do with the subject. "[Eliot] said that
at the end of the road we would find ourselves back where we had
started, and then we would see things as they really are. He overstated
it, though there is truth in what he said." Since Dabbs has
done nothing to establish his authority to judge poetry, this
criticism of Eliot feels annoying. It also does not lead naturally
into the next bit of information (following immediately, without
benefit of a paragraph break) about a Professor Berthold of Goettingen,
who used to castrate roosters. Berthold apparently demonstrated
that transplanting new testes into such fowl caused them to get
back to "normal" fighting and flirting behavior. "T.S.
Eliot might say this is closed to what we know now about high-testosterone
men," Dabbs concludes. Yes, but then again he might not.
Dabbs's willingness to impute motives and ideas to people (including
Eliot) without sufficient evidence again damages his credibility.
Still, this book is quick and easy to read and may get the reader
started in thinking about an interesting topic even if he or she
does not agree with all the conclusions of the author.
© 2002 Heather C. Liston
Heather C. Liston studied
Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from
the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the
Director of Development for The Santa Fe Children's Museum, and
writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and
other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside,
The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your
Health and elsewhere.