Debunking myths of sex difference: An interview with Cordelia Fine

Cordelia Fine is an academic psychologist and writer who has spent much of her career debunking myths of gender found throughout scientific query — both in its theory and practice. Her 2011 book, Delusions of Gender, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, the Best Book of Ideas Prize 2011, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize 2010, and the biannual international cross-genre Warwick Prize 2013. Fine’s latest book, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, won the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017. Last year, I sat down with her in London to discuss Testosterone Rex and the wider implications of this book within current discourse.


Julian Vigo: In your work on Bateman’s Principle (the theory that reproductive variance/reproductive success is greater in males than in females), you take Darwin’s theory of natural selection as your starting point. Using this model in addition to Trivers’ expansion upon this paradigm, you show how these theories are, in part, to blame for stereotypes of “picky females,” for example, and “promiscuous males,” because both scientists have conceptualized sex differences within their scientific research that mirror sex stereotypes within their own cultures. After all, gender is a social construction but was carefully constructed as biological through combined readings of Bateman and Darwin (also known as the Darwin-Bateman Paradigm) — both of whom were Englishmen coming from a culture where females were considered less sexual than males. Could you describe why you chose this paradigm as a starting point for your book?

Cordelia Fine: I spent a lot of time thinking about how to organize the book and, in the end, decided that you can argue as much as you want about the overlapping sex differences and the way they change over time, but at the back of everyone’s mind is the question: haven’t [men and women] just evolved to be different because we had different demands in our reproductive past? So, in the end, it made more sense to start at the beginning, in terms of our evolutionary history — to talk about how ideas about evolutionary biology have evolved since this very powerful idea (which is still prevalent) that says there is difference in reproductive investment which is key to explaining sex roles across the animal kingdom.

JV: In your work on this particular theory, you show that there are problems with how scientific study is carried out. This reminds me of how, in Delusions of Gender, you’re actually making a critique of Simon Baron-Cohen’s notion that females are “hardwired for empathy” and that male brains are predisposed to “understanding and building systems,” in addition to his notion that there is a link between fetal testosterone and the male subject’s prodigy towards mathematics. He supports this idea by completely ignoring the course of history, politics, economics, and the social, asking, “[W]hy, in over 100 years of the existence of the Fields Medal, maths’ [equivalent of the] Nobel Prize, have none of the winners ever been a woman?”

Could you speak to that in terms of this particular paradigm that you open the book with?

CF: I actually see this as very positive, in the sense that there has been this quite rapid evolution and development from the original story. The data showed that there are many other influences at play — that sex roles are influenced by various ecological and social [factors], and that reproductive investment is also dynamic. I think it is also interesting to consider the role of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, for example, who went into the field and saw something that no other primatologist had seen before, which was the instance of female promiscuity. This idea that any mediocre female can achieve the feat of getting herself fertilized and reproducing offspring is underestimating what the female has to achieve and the importance of rank and resources for female reproductive success, which has since become a flourishing field of investigation — that is to say, the role of female competition. This notion of promiscuous males and coy females was very much in keeping with gender roles at the time as well. Contemporary science has really moved beyond that.

JV: I see your book as telling a story about specific histories surrounding a current scientific environment wherein gender is reduced to biology. Your analysis begins with this idea: “Testosterone affects our brain, body, and behavior. But it is neither the king nor the king maker — the hormonal essence of competitive, risk-taking masculinity — it’s often assumed to be.” Your book has made a progressive link between Bateman’s Paradigm and the current cultural mythology surrounding brain sex, both within popular culture and the scientific community. How do social assumptions about sex differences grounded on this kind of mythology and/or bad science become recycled within scientific thought?

CF: I think one of the things that has interested me in my work is how what are often unexamined assumptions about differences between the sexes influence the research questions that are asked, the sort of models that are used, and the way that data are interpreted. So, if you are operating from a particular set of assumptions, it doesn’t make sense to ask why female promiscuity exists or why females might compete. You have to move away from the starting assumptions to even begin to look for kinds of data that otherwise would get connected.

I think another similar example is in terms of scientific analysis of risk-taking. We culturally associate risk-taking very strongly with masculinity. When we think “risky,” we think male. So we tell people to “grow some balls,” not to “grow some ovaries.” We talk about big, hairy, audacious balls. And this can influence what we consider to be “risk” when we’re measuring risk-taking. There are all sorts of different kinds of risks that people can take in life, but if when you think “risk,” you think male, implicitly you are going to think about male-typical things to do when designing questionnaires for research purposes, for example, rather than female-typical things to do.

JV: And Testosterone Rex — I mean, you see the title and you want to say Tyrannosaurus Rex… How did you come to that title? Obviously, you talk about testosterone in the book, but what was the motivation of implicating that image of the archetype of boyhood’s T. Rex or the notion of men as “king” into the title?

CF: The reason it seemed like a nice nickname to capture this familiar interconnected set of beliefs was, first of all, the “rex” aspect of it — [the idea that] testosterone makes men the rex [king] of society. But also, in reference to this idea that science has evolved and that this story was forged in an earlier scientific era — now, these ideas are scientifically extinct.

JV: You address some controversial views about gender in the book: the flexibility and dynamic construction of sex itself, gender socialization, and how the notion of sex differentiation encompasses much more than we previously believed. You write, “Although there are sex effects that create differences in the brain, sex isn’t the basic, determining factor in brain development that it is for the reproductive system.” You go on to say that human brains cannot be neatly divided into “male” and “female,” and indicate that the brain has some mosaic features where structural differences do not necessarily translate to behavioral differences. You conclude that “marked sex differences in the brain may have little consequences for behavior.” Now, this idea has caused some controversy… Not your statement per se, but the idea that brain sex is not a “thing.” Why do you think people in the scientific community want these neat answers rather than a mosaic, or even studies of plasticity of the brain which show how the social can affect the physical?

Stuart Ritchie, for example, published a critique of your book at Quillette, taking you to task for your claim that the brain is not sexed and for arguing that the idea that brains are sexed is part of a complex cultural system that ties gender socialization to specific genitalia and allegedly sexed brains. You write, “It’s the genitalia — and the gender socialization this kicks off — that provides the most obvious indirect developmental system route by which biological sex affects human brains.”

Yet, Ritchie attacks you for showing the links between socialization (i.e. gender roles) and genetic and hormonal differences that can influence the brain, while also maintaining that sex differences in the brain should not be the focus of scientific study, and should be decontextualized from social understandings of gender. Ritchie essentially accuses you of making gendered distinctions in your debunking of the gendered brain by displacing one pathology onto another. He goes on to accuse you of cherry-picking what you included in your text, such as the Joel et al study, which fails to detect sex differences in the brain, claiming that you only chose to include contrary analyses in the footnotes, and not in the body of the text.

CF: Well, to pick up on that particular point, the paper that Joel et al published in the scientific journal, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) argued that brains from men and women couldn’t be categorized as male and female. There was a counter-response that said, “Actually we’ve created algorithms that can, with the high degree of predictive accuracy, divide brains into male and female categories.” Joel’s response was:

“Well, one issue is that the algorithm doesn’t categorize brains in a way which has similarities in any biologically meaningful way, but also, one algorithm doesn’t transfer to another when you move it to another data set. So you can categorize within one data set, but not necessarily another data set.”

From my perspective, I don’t see Joel’s conclusion that the brain doesn’t fall into any [sexed] categories as having been particularly devastatingly challenged by the responses to the article. So I made a decision, late in the publication process, to put that in the footnote. I think the argument that there’s something buried away in the footnotes which contradicts what’s in the main text is simply not correct.

JV: The reason why I bring this up is because I was cracking up reading the comments of a Guardian review of your book from earlier this year and the comments were so sexist. “But she’s in psychology,” for example. I mean, they read like a handbook of sexist responses to female scientists and were quite ironic given the context.

CF: It’s usually “Gender Studies”… [laughter]

I think there are probably many complex things going on here. I don’t really have a satisfactory answer, but one thing that I would say is that, from the perspective of scientific progress and scientific discussion, I don’t think it’s very helpful for feminist critiques of science to be dismissed as ideological, for example. When feminists are holding science to its own standards, that needs to be considered and incorporated into a scientific debate.

JV: This reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s work in The Copernican Revolution, wherein he points out that some of the problems of science in the Middle Ages are due to belief systems that were in place at that time. This is very similar to the paradigm you are facing in your work today on “brain sex.” In terms of scientific information that we have from studies or current reviews of these studies, is there a consensus yet about brains?

CF: I don’t think there’s any consensus. I think there’s a consensus that there are average sex differences in the brain [e.g. that male brains tend to be bigger than female brains] and that there are sex influences in the brain. But I don’t think there is consensus on what those main functions are.

JV: You wrote, “Once we stop viewing human sexual activity through the narrow frame of simply bringing together two reproductive potentials, it no longer seems obvious and inevitable that men should strive for success while women fret about looking youthful.” Can you detail how such paradigms have been embedded in science more recently?

CF: Well, I think one assumption is that if you see something cross-culturally — if you see an average sex difference across all the different cultures that you looked at (and of course, this is still not going to be complete) — then you must be looking at something that is biologically rooted. And to some extent, this has become a way for everyone to understand that all influence — social, cultural, and economic — is at its core biologically-rooted.

One of the things I try to do in the book is show how, in evolutionary biology, a link between something big (either adaptive or being seen generation after generation after generation) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s built into genetic inheritance. I think that’s one way in which general research in the field maybe needs to take a bit of a shift in how it thinks about sex differences that are seen universally.

We have so much un-reproductive sex, for example — so much sex that can’t result in reproduction because of who we’re having sex with or when we’re having sex — but the narrow focus on reproductive sex eliminated all these other aspects of sexual activity, which are just part of being a human, from view. The problem, theoretically speaking, is that scientific inquiry has always posited that sexual activity is uniquely about bringing together the reproductive potentials of males and females [thereby not taking non-reproductive sex into account in terms of scientific study]. If we could just strip this notion of uniquely reproductive sex away, then we could get to the real sexual essence of men and women, rather than seeing our sexual activity as just being a very core aspect of ourselves as people.

In one study, for example, men were offered invitations to have casual sex. The men who were already in relationships declined and [the researchers] tried to explain this by saying [the men] were maximizing their reproductive success by not having sex with a stranger. This is just a very dehumanizing way of thinking about people.

JV: Yet, there is Luce Irigaray who challenged Lacan in The Sex Which is Not One, basically critiquing him for not taking up Freud’s projection (the Phallus) of the male body in psychoanalysis and for supporting the one-sex model of sexuality and subjectivity whereby the male is whole, and the female is always lack (of the penis). As such, “women” have been assigned meaning throughout history, and sometimes assigned meaning in over-abundance.

So, while reading your book, I was thinking about how women are so defined by their bodies and their sexualities — even today — that the recent cultural debate over gender assumes a progressive politics. Yet, the reality is that this is the same old rinse and repeat, wherein women’s bodies are at the center of this question while individual identity is inevitably rooted to the insufficiency of the female body. And I thought about this model as I was reading the part of your book where you discuss a study in the Philippines which shows that fatherhood reduces levels of testosterone. It is largely believed that gender exists because of the body (i.e. that testosterone makes men want to hit everything with a club, and that women, of course, just naturally want to do flower arrangement). But in Testosterone Rex, you demonstrate that testosterone does not dictate a man’s ability to parent — to nurture — and testosterone does not mean men are inherently “masculine.” If anything, you show the inverse, demonstrating how socially inscribed gender roles such as childcare can change the body, since the levels of testosterone in males who take on parenting tasks are reduced. What does this mean for the cultural tropes that are largely still believed and produced about masculinity? Ultimately, your book touches upon the myth of masculinity.

CF: The Philippines study is an example of a relatively new conceptualization of testosterone as being a “middle man” for the social situation of the individual, mediating and preparing the individual for a particular situation or context that they find themselves in, with testosterone levels responding to particular situation. The lack of correlation between testosterone and sexual libido, for example, even with the physical appearance of clinically healthy levels, reflects the fact that testosterone is just one of many factors that influences behavior. The level of testosterone is just one part of a very complex system. It’s a different role for testosterone — it’s not an overridingly powerful variable influencing behavior, but something that’s responding to either a situation or a subjective interpretation of a situation which can be influenced by the kind of norms of masculinity you hold, for instance, or what part of the society you live in, that are actually influencing your hormonal biology.

JV: Are humans sexually dimorphic?

CF: Yeah. Definitely. Joel makes the point that it doesn’t help clarity in this debate to use the same word — “sex” — to refer both to sex categories (whether one is male or female or intersex) as well as to the genetic and hormonal components of the system of sex that creates those sex categories. One of the arguments she made in a recent paper is that our sex categories are not completely dimorphic, but, for the majority of individuals (she describes it as 3G-sex [genetic-gonadal-genital sex]) are internally consistent and distinct. In this way, you never have any difficulty distinguishing between male genitals and female genitals. But, as she points out, the system of sex that creates those relatively dimorphic sex categories — our reproductive systems — don’t necessarily have those same qualities of being non-overlapping and stable. So she talks about how it’s actually quite hard to define what genetic sex actually is — it’s not just the X chromosome and the Y chromosome that are involved in sex discrimination, it’s a number of different genes which are on the sex chromosomes. And when you look at the hormonal components of sex (i.e. testosterone and progesterone), they are overlapping between the sexes and they are are also dynamic and fluctuate including in response to social situations. So, it depends on what you mean when you talk about “sex.” Because, surprisingly, it’s actually quite a vague term.

JV: True. Yet, people today seem to think that the fact that there is gradient of hormones, for instance, means that one can be “not male” or “not female” simply because hormonal levels alter from individual to individual. Or, they maintain that these findings reveal that there is no such thing as sexual dimorphism when what your research is showing is that there is sexual dimorphism in humans, it is just that, within the three categories that Joel examines (genetic-gonadal-genital), sexual dimorphism is distinct to each category. So why do so many wish to push sexual dimorphism onto the brain?

CF: Joel is talking specifically about the reproductive — genetic, gonads, and genitals. She’s not talking about the brain. And those are primary sexual characteristics. Once you get to the secondary sexual characteristics, you see overlap — you’re not having true sexual dimorphism. And that’s one point that’s come out within scientific journals: scientists are using the term “sexual dimorphism” [to describe reproductive attributes, despite the fact that overlapping differences between men and women exist]. So it’s a term that’s not always used with precision.

JV:  In dealing with the ways that sexism is built into scientific discourse and method, what is the way out of this dilemma for scientists today?

CF: It’s going to sound like a bit of a cliché, but, when you’re talking about other realms of industry, people are talking about the importance of cognitive heterogeneity and the need to bring different training, expertise, perspectives, and experiences into problem solving, innovation, and decision making. It seems to me that this is one way in which the science in this area, like any other, might benefit. I mean, I think about Rebecca Jordan-Young’s book, where she first became interested in these scientific models because they were not really compatible with her own experiences in her work. For instance, she talked to people from the gay community and what she was seeing there wasn’t compatible with the way homosexuality and heterosexuality and sexual preferences were generally being conceptualized in the scientific community. So, I think that’s an adequate [approach].

JV: I asked some women online what they would like to ask you. And one of them reminded me that, in Delusions of Gender, you wrote, “My husband would probably like you to know that, for the sake of my research for this chapter, he has had to put up with an awful lot of contemptuous snorting.” And she has asked, “What has provoked the loudest and most contentious snorting?”

CF: I think John Gray’s work would have to be up there. [Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus maintains that cleaning toilets is “oxytocin-boosting” for women, but “testosterone-draining” for men.] Specifically, his suggestion that activities that are testosterone draining for men leaves them weak and exhausted. Take your pick. [laughter]

Julian Vigo is a scholar, filmmaker, and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development. Contact her via email: [email protected].

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