A new critique of Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex”

The more I think about it, the more appalled I am that Cordelia Fine’s polemic, Testosterone Rex, won the Royal Society Book Prize for popular science writing. Just two of the five judges (Fortey and Gilbert) are practicing scientists, one is a novelist, and one is a broadcaster. Claudia Hammond, also a broadcaster, has also written popular psychology books and also lectures on health and psychology in London (Wikipedia gives her bona fides as “She was educated at Sussex University in applied psychology, and Surrey University, where she gained a MSc in health psychology, carrying out research into doctor–patient communication in a breast cancer unit”). Gilbert’s defense of the award in light of a negative review of Fine’s book is lame. (Further, several readers pointed out that he and Fine both got PhDs in psychology at University College London within a year of each other, so he may well have known her: a cause for recusal).

My own preference would be to have science books judged by working scientists who are also popular writers. Yes, Fortey is one of those, but my ideal panel would include no broadcasters or popularizers who didn’t actually practice science or at least did so recently. I’d include people like Steve Jones, Brian Cox, Olivia Judson, Nick Lane, and Alice Roberts. While a few journalists can judge both the science and the writing in science writing (Carl Zimmer is a good example), broadcasters and many popularizers aren’t good people for giving out science book awards. After all, the minimal criterion for such awards is that the science in a book be sound.

That’s not the case with Testosterone Rex.  As I’ve said several times, while the book has good bits, especially its calling out shoddy research, Fine can’t bring herself to call out shoddy research that supports her book’s hypothesis: that there are no innate biological differences between the male and female brains or bodies caused by hormones. (She’s made her living on the thesis that there are no evolved genetic differences between men and women.) Further, many of the “critiques” that Fine leveled against previous research on sex—including her claim that in humans male variance in reproductive success is equal to that of females (WRONG), as well as her denying of the importance of sexual selection in humans and other species (WRONG)—bespeak a deep confirmation bias derived from The Sexual Blank Slate.

Now I haven’t read the other books in contention, but I have read Fine’s, and it’s hard to believe that this deserves a prize, simply on the grounds of its scientific weaknesses. Why did it win? It’s hard to conclude anything other than that it appealed to the ideological current in biology that deems finding innate differences in behavior, morphology, or preferences between men and women (or ethnic groups) not only a flawed endeavor, but one that promotes sexism (or racism). Most biologists are leftists, of course, and the “both sexes are inherently the same” trope, flawed as it is, appeals to many progressives. But as I’ve said before, any such differences should have no bearing on the moral and social equality of men and women. It’s dangerous to base your arguments for equality on biological facts, because those facts might turn on you. The moral arguments, in contrast, won’t.

A new post on a website called Yeyo’s Corner, “Why sexual selection matters and why Cordelia fine is wrong“, lists many of the familiar errors in her book, and also concludes that the prize was awarded not for science, but for an ideology congenial to the judges. I’m a bit hesitant to highlight this essay, but only because the author is anonymous and the writing is rather dire, with many run-on sentences and bits that seem like a stream of consciousness. (I suspect that English isn’t the writer’s native language.) But the scientific critique is sound, and Yeyo, whoever he/she is, isn’t afraid to call out the Royal Society for awarding the book prize on grounds of politics instead of science. Here are a few excerpts:

In her quest to deny that biology is responsible for sex differences in behavior Cordelia Fine has a huge advantage, she benefits from that fact (which the award has made clear) that there are certain areas of research where science doesn’t work as usual. With academia being overwhelmingly liberal and leftist there is a clear tendency to favor certain hypotheses over others regarding what causes human behavior. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to race or sex differences. That there are genetic differences between the sexes or different human populations that could explain the different outcomes that we see on a societal level is simply indigestible to many academics.

To some degree this is understandable, there’s no dearth of misogynist and racist alt-right trolls who, instead of acknowledging that huge individual variation should mean that nobody deserves to be discriminated against based on gender or race, propagate for ending women’s suffrage and to reinstate Jim Crow. One just has to spend 5 minutes reading certain PUA and alt-right blogs to understand where the reluctance to touch these topics comes from. But it would also be a mistake to give the alt-right monopoly on these questions and better to acknowledge them and emphasize that variation within groups means no individual deserves to be discriminated against on basis of group averages.  The shock of Trump winning the presidency appears to have reinforced this already existing taboo even further. Therefore, in large parts of academia, any biological explanation will always be disregarded, at least as long as there is an alternative way to explain the data.

. . . Gender blank slatism is an exception to this rule however, no matter how many wild assumptions, unsupported claims or ad hoc hypotheses are needed to explain away new incriminating data and why the annoying sex differences are so stubbornly persistent (even in countries who desperately try to engineer them away), the social constructionist theory still reigns supreme in the humanities and most of the social sciences. As Geoffrey Miller pointed out, no gender feminist he’s ever met has been able to coherently answer the question “What empirical findings would convince you that psychological sex differences evolved?” (the answer is of course that there are none), because no matter the finding there is always a rationalization, however unlikely, that will ensure that gender blank slatism remains unscathed. And there is nobody more trusted than Cordelia Fine to provide them with the mental gymnastics needed to keep their faith intact.

Pretty much all of Cordelia Fine’s writings are exercises in creating these so called ad hoc hypotheses. Testosterone Rex has already been critically reviewed by Jerry CoyneGregory CochranStuart Ritchie and Robert King. [JAC: King’s review is the most incisive.] But in light of the recent award by The Royal Society I felt that a thorough review of sexual selection and its biological underpinnings might be in place, just to highlight what kind of book the world’s oldest existing science academy nowadays considers worthy of a scientific award.

You can read the science bit yourself; I’ll just jump to Yeyo’s conclusion:

If Sam Gilbert and his fellow jury members keep insisting that Testosterone Rex is a deserved winner for accurately pointing out that sex differences aren’t categorical and that ecological conditions matter as well, which seems to be the motivation, it is strange that they decided to award a book that does such an abysmal job at communicating that message. She describes the foundations of sexual selection theory and Bateman’s principle as being in a state of turmoil when the truth is that the evidence is stronger than ever before. Reviews in the press make it clear that lay people reading this book are left with the impression that testosterone doesn’t really matter and that sexual selection is a myth. Why award Cordelia Fine with a prize that is intended to reward the best science writing for a non-specialist audience if the non-specialist audience misunderstood what Fine was trying to communicate? Not to mention that her use of ad hoc hypotheses, based on unproven assumptions, to explain away well established science are analogous to the favorite tactics of the proponents of intelligent design. If the Royal Society recognizes that sexual selection and testosterone is relevant for human behavior their choice couldn’t have been more mistaken. The most likely explanation is that the choice is based on the erroneous idea that fighting sex discrimination requires pretending that average sex differences do not exist. The only remaining alternative, that the world’s oldest science academy has abandoned Charles Darwin for pseudoscientific gender theory by virtue of sincere belief, is just too depressing to even consider.

If someone wrote a book called “Savannah Rex: Why Evolutionary Psychology is Complete Bunk,” it would probably be a shoo-in for next year’s prize.

34 Comments

  1. Random visitor
    Posted September 28, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Did you perchance note this gem ?

    https://royalsociety.org/grants-schemes-awards/book-prizes/science-book-prize/2017/testosterone-rex/

    “Every man and woman should read this book on gender bias. Testosterone Rex is an important, yet wickedly witty, book about the 21st century which touches on the current debates around identity and turns everything on its head. Pressingly contemporary, it’s the ideal companion read to sit alongside The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power.”

    “The Power” ? That’s not as recognizable a name as the Handmaid’s Tale….wait.

    The Power turns out to be authored by one of the judges on the bench, Naomi Aldermann, and is a fervent piece of feminist fiction in its own right.

    I can’t help but feel that the award has lost its value here.

    • Posted September 28, 2017 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Someone else mentioned that in a previous post, but I’d forgotten it. A science book should not be the ideal companion to selected fiction with an ideological bent, and the nepotism implied by that statement, vis-a-vis Aldermann, is disturbing.

      • Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        I agree. I think it is good to have writers on a panel that selects quality books, for obvious reasons – but the equally obvious conflict of interest in choosing Aldermann shows either that an agenda was in play (Yeyo touched on this) or that those who formed the panel were simply incompetent. I hope it is the latter.

    • Posted September 28, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Naomi Alderman was s protege of Margaret Atwood.

      As I mentioned in the previous thread her main link to science appears to be a Doctor Who spin-off novel.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s scientifically illiterate – Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds, both pretty much at the ‘hard’ end of science fiction have also written Doctor Who novels (and very good they were too) – but if either of those two writers were on the panel I wouldn’t object because they have demonstrated a grasp of real science as well as a fertile imagination.

      In any case, The Power is a novel in which women have achieved dominance, not by being smarter or more hard working than men, but by being able to inflict harm by giving electric shocks Emperor Palpatine-style.

      It’s a revenge-fantasy offering no real-world solution to inequality.

    • Harrison
      Posted September 28, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      So this judge used the award as an opportunity to plug her own book to a wider audience in a display of utterly crass commercialism?

  2. Posted September 28, 2017 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I’ve followed Yeyo on Tw***er and s/he seems to know about science and have good judgement. (I do agree that the writing could have done with a good edit.)

    • John Crisp
      Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      I suspect s/he may be Swedish. It’s the misuse of the comma that grates on a native English reader. But the content seems excellent.

      With regard to Cordelia Fine, I would like to know if she is guilty of deceit, or merely self-deception, as Trivers would put it.

      • Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        I’m glad you mention this. When I read Yeyo’s piece, I was reminded of Peter Medawar’s epic take down of Teilhard’s de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man”.

        Medawar wrote;

        “…its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.”

        This quote should be put on stickers and slapped onto the cover page of every copy of Testosterone Rex.

  3. Jorge Rojas
    Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Personally, I am curious about @yeyoza’s identity. I´ve come to follow him on twitter because of Jonathan Haidt (and I´m following Haidt because I´m reading The Righteous Mind). Haidt also follow him, I suspect he must know yeyo…
    By his photo’s profile I can tell he is peruvian (as I am) or he lived in Perú and probably his native lenguage isn´t English, but spanish.
    For me ii has been a nice essay. A good summary and source of more information.

    • Andre Bouchard
      Posted September 28, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      He is Peruvian but live in Sweden and speak swedish. I suspect he is an migrant or a first generation immigrant. I don’t know much more.

  4. Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Quaerere Propter Vērum.

  5. Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    How can anyone claim with a straight face that “that there are no innate biological differences between the male and female brains or bodies caused by hormones”? Are not all secondary sex characteristics caused by hormones? Don’t people undergoing sex change operations undergo hormone therapy. Doesn’t menopause cause pronounce physical changes? Doesn’t menarche and whatever the male equivalent involve the same?

    Or am I off base?

    • Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I think these people object more to the idea that certain behaviors can be affected by sex differences, rather than physical traits. But yeah, you are safely on base. Hormones have profound biological effects and the type, timing and concentrations of them differ between the sexes.

  6. Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    It is depressing that the Royal Society would get itself munged up in this, but one of things that I find most depressing about all this is Yeyo’s contention that in the age of president pussy-grabber scientists are falling for regressive ideology. We are well and truly f&@ked if this spreads.

  7. biz
    Posted September 28, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Well, the days of the far/intersectional/postmodernist Left accepting evolution at all are probably numbered. It just conflicts with too many of their sacred beliefs if thought about for more than a second. At the moment their acceptance of it is basically hanging on by the thread of needing to be on the opposite side of Christian conservatives.

  8. TJR
    Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    It will be interesting to see Steven Pinker’s take on this.

    I finally got round to reading The Blank Slate a few weeks ago, it’s 15 years old but nearly all of it could have been written yesterday.

  9. Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Anybody want to guess which well known atheist evo -devo blogger with a horde of followers agrees with the Royal Society and thinks that Fine’ s book “…addresses these terrible myths about men and manliness and sex that afflict us all, and most importantly, knocking down a lot of scientific fables that seem to be readily disseminated and accepted”?

    • Smegma
      Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Let me guess. PZ “dumbass” Meyers?

    • darrelle
      Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      JFC. Myers can’t surprise me anymore, but he can exasperate me. This view / attitude is exactly analogous to religious believers picking and choosing which bits of science to accept based on whether or not a given bit conflicts with their faith held beliefs. Myers is compromised as a scientist.

      • Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        Myers is compromised as a scientist.

        Though it’s a couple of decades since he was one.

        • Posted September 28, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. He is a half decent professor at a 5th rate liberal arts college and messiah for the regressives, ranting like the religious nuts on the street corner.

          He has incredible reach though. I once posted a harsh critique of blank slate -ism with a reference to him in the March for Science page and within days a screen shot of it featured me prominently on one of his posts with a typical BS “takedown” which was nothing more than him assuming a lot about me to erect straw men to light afire. And I’ve noticed quite a lot of verbiage of his coming out as part of arguments on the the M4S page (e.g. “dudebro” and “free speech absolutist”)

          It’s a travesty really.

      • Posted September 28, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I only glance through his blog and read very few selected posts for two reasons:

        1) to keep an eye on the direction and arguments the regressive/ authoritarian left is going

        2) because of he lambastes someone it usually means (s)he is worth reading our listening to (it’s how I discovered Douglas Murray, for example)

        But it is true that he (and his minions) have a stunning religious like fervor regarding their “progressive” ideology. His take on the Brett Weinstein affair was telling. He didn’t blog about it for ages, then finally did because he was pushed to by his horde, and came out with a piffle of a dodge that was neatly identical in style and content to Trump’s take on Charlottesville: both sides were wrong and even though the students were somewhat out of line it could be excused but it was clear that Weinstein was not a “good ally” and thus showed his true colors. It was impressive to read.

        • Posted September 28, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          “because of he lambastes someone it usually means (s)he is worth reading our listening to (it’s how I discovered Douglas Murray, for example)”

          He lambasted a few people on r/K selection theory and its application to humans. Does that mean that r/K selection theory in regards to human races should be worth reading or listening to? (Hint: it isn’t. Human races are not local populations.)

          https://notpoliticallycorrect.me/2017/06/24/rk-selection-theory-a-response-to-rushton/

          • Posted September 28, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

            Well, besides the fact that I used the qualifier “usually” I suppose I could have been more explicit rather than implicit and stated “in reference to regressive ideological rants moreso than non-ideologically “controversial” biology”

  10. dd
    Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, I disagree with you about the quality of the writing in Yeyo’s Corner excerpt.

    Yes, a tad of editing needed, but it was very, very clear.

    Now, How often would you be able to say that about something coming out of the academy?

    • Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      How often would you be able to say that about something coming out of the academy?

      Much of the time, when written by scientists.

  11. Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    That world as it ought to be, not as it is…. she may be right in some vast far off distant future who knows but for now it just makes me feel ill.

  12. Posted September 28, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I get the impression that Fine’s point was similar to the one often sees: the “you’re going to *encourage* the misuse of your findings by sexists [racists, etc.], so make sure that the burden of proof is *very* high” before accepting”.

    I don’t think this is satisfactory, either scientifically or ethically, but …

  13. Posted September 28, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Fine’s book, but I did read three of the others on the shortlist. I’d have given the prize to Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes.

    By the way, I’d add Yong’s name to the other admirable shortlist, the one suggested by JC: Jones, Cox, Judson, Lane, Roberts, Zimmer. Adam Rutherford belongs there as well.

  14. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted September 28, 2017 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    The true question for me is whether or not Cordelia Fine has been blinded by her biases or is guilty of promoting a Noble Lie see Wikipedia).

    Either way the Royal Society should have had a greater awareness of the repercussions of awarding a prize for such a book. Once you start distorting science to fit a political dogma it will be very difficult to bring ‘proper’ science back.

    • Posted September 29, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Or guilty of trying to raise the standards of evidence to hyperbolic levels. (Skepticism can be *too* extreme, after all.)

  15. Razib
    Posted September 28, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    no idea who he is, but it’s a he. and the person is a mixed-race latin american, as he has told me so. also into physical fitness. i believe he has mentioned he lives in sweden.

  16. Posted September 29, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Point taken for the grammar (you’re correct I’m not a native english speaker), blogpost is now updated and the grammar corrected by someone who speaks the language far better than me. Thanks for highlighting the post!


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