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Winner of the 2020 Gold Medal in Science, Independent Publisher Book Awards Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the debunking life story of a molecule we thought we all knew. Testosterone is a familiar villain, a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentati Winner of the 2020 Gold Medal in Science, Independent Publisher Book Awards Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the debunking life story of a molecule we thought we all knew. Testosterone is a familiar villain, a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentation of men in prisons to male dominance in business and politics. It's a lot to pin on a simple molecule. Yet your testosterone level doesn't in fact predict your competitive drive or tendency for violence, your appetite for risk or sex, or your strength or athletic prowess. It's neither the biological essence of manliness nor even "the male sex hormone." This unauthorized biography pries T, as it's known, loose from over a century of misconceptions that undermine science even as they make urban legends about this hormone seem scientific. T's story didn't spring from nature: it is a tale that began long before the hormone was even isolated, when nineteenth-century scientists went looking for the chemical essence of masculinity. And so this molecule's outmoded, authorized life story persisted, providing a handy rationale for countless behaviors--from the boorish and the belligerent to the exemplary and enviable. What we think we know about T has stood in the way of an accurate understanding of its surprising and diverse functions and effects. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis focus on what T does in six domains: reproduction, aggression, risk-taking, power, sports, and parenting. At once arresting and deeply informed, Testosterone allows us to see the real T for the first time.


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Winner of the 2020 Gold Medal in Science, Independent Publisher Book Awards Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the debunking life story of a molecule we thought we all knew. Testosterone is a familiar villain, a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentati Winner of the 2020 Gold Medal in Science, Independent Publisher Book Awards Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone." Here is the debunking life story of a molecule we thought we all knew. Testosterone is a familiar villain, a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentation of men in prisons to male dominance in business and politics. It's a lot to pin on a simple molecule. Yet your testosterone level doesn't in fact predict your competitive drive or tendency for violence, your appetite for risk or sex, or your strength or athletic prowess. It's neither the biological essence of manliness nor even "the male sex hormone." This unauthorized biography pries T, as it's known, loose from over a century of misconceptions that undermine science even as they make urban legends about this hormone seem scientific. T's story didn't spring from nature: it is a tale that began long before the hormone was even isolated, when nineteenth-century scientists went looking for the chemical essence of masculinity. And so this molecule's outmoded, authorized life story persisted, providing a handy rationale for countless behaviors--from the boorish and the belligerent to the exemplary and enviable. What we think we know about T has stood in the way of an accurate understanding of its surprising and diverse functions and effects. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis focus on what T does in six domains: reproduction, aggression, risk-taking, power, sports, and parenting. At once arresting and deeply informed, Testosterone allows us to see the real T for the first time.

30 review for Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alok Vaid-Menon

    Dr. Karkazis & Dr. Jordan-Young dispel myths about testosterone, conducting a survey of the medical literature to demonstrate how testosterone level does not predict capacity for aggression, sexual desire, strength, nor athletic prowess. Contrary to popular belief, testosterone is not a “male sex hormone,” it is a steroid found in all genders and sexes that has multiple functions (including ovulation). This multiplicity has been glossed over in the cultural construction of the gender-sex binary. Dr. Karkazis & Dr. Jordan-Young dispel myths about testosterone, conducting a survey of the medical literature to demonstrate how testosterone level does not predict capacity for aggression, sexual desire, strength, nor athletic prowess. Contrary to popular belief, testosterone is not a “male sex hormone,” it is a steroid found in all genders and sexes that has multiple functions (including ovulation). This multiplicity has been glossed over in the cultural construction of the gender-sex binary. This folk tale of testosterone as the biological essence of manhood is a “zombie fact,” an idea that can’t be put to rest despite overwhelming evidence otherwise. The persistence of this misconception is because the narrative of “sex hormones” is such a powerful device to naturalize sex/class/racial differences and inequalities. In initial investigations of testosterone, scientists willfully ignored findings which demonstrated that testosterone was involved in “feminizing” processes and that estrogen was involved in “masculinizing” processes. They instead devised the sex hormone concept of a dichotomy between testosterone and estrogen, framing them as a heteronormative pair that is “binary, dichotomous, and exclusive.” These categories are “conventional, not natural” and stifle us from understanding what testosterone actually is and does. Testosterone is a multipurpose hormone with a host of uses in almost every body. Yes, testosterone is found in organs of sex development, but it is also found almost everywhere else: blood, saliva, urine, brain, muscles, skin, internal organs. Testosterone should not be reduced to a singular hormone, it is a multiplicity that has different expressions in different contexts. In response to the claim that “testosterone increases aggression,” these scholars ask: “Which testosterone increases which aggression in what context.” Specificity is lost in the pursuit of stereotypes. Testosterone has become a particularly contested site because of debates around athleticism. These scholars address this head on. Reviewing the relevant research, they conclude that “it’s far too simplistic to say that testosterone is the single most important determinant of athleticism.” In fact, studies of testosterone levels among athletes “fail to show consistent relationships between T and performance…[and] quite a few studies even find a negative correlation.” Evidence that T builds muscle, makes you strong, and makes you more competitive are “elusive, partial, and contextual,” instead there is more evidence that athletic training and competition affect T than the other way around. As always, this “debate” has racist implications: it is mostly Black and brown women from the Global South who are investigated for their naturally occurring testosterone levels.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alison

    "T is not, at root, evolution’s proximate mechanism for generating either masculinity or heteronormative coupling. It’s a transcendent, multipurpose hormone that has been adapted for a huge array of uses in virtually all bodies" Sometimes when I start a review, I comment that the book was a different book than the one I wanted it to be. It's rare - ok unique - for a work to convince me that what I thought I wanted to know wasn't what I needed to know. Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography has f "T is not, at root, evolution’s proximate mechanism for generating either masculinity or heteronormative coupling. It’s a transcendent, multipurpose hormone that has been adapted for a huge array of uses in virtually all bodies" Sometimes when I start a review, I comment that the book was a different book than the one I wanted it to be. It's rare - ok unique - for a work to convince me that what I thought I wanted to know wasn't what I needed to know. Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography has few clear answers on how T affects human behaviour, but it is a very detailed, powerful and scientific exploration of why we might need to embrace ambiguity in this space, which eventually won me over. The science here is meticulous, and better because it does not pretend that the scientific method is impenetrable or incontrovertible. Some of my initial frustration stems from a dynamic in popular science around gender, where positive claims are often made regarding biological mechanisms of traditional gender difference, then feminist scholarship focuses on debunking claims, rather than positive arguments. It is, of course, easier to debunk bad science than to demonstrate new findings. At the same time, global finding trends create little incentive for science which disproves, compared with new discoveries, leading to a real shortage of critical analysis and study replication, so the work of those like Cordelia Fine is very important. Testosterone, however, is easily the aspect of biological sex with the most evidence of impact on behaviour. While Fine recently wrote a book with Testosterone in the title, it barely focused on the hormone. When it did deal with T, it focused on debunking the association with risk-taking, fairly easy to do, given that no definition of "risk-taking behaviour" holds up for more than five minutes*. Risk-taking is easy to debunk, but the evidence around T's connection to aggression and competition is not as simple. In the non-human biological sciences, T is well-understood to be associated with these behaviours. So I was frustrated when at the outset, Jordan-Young and Karkazis explicitly excluded non-human biologies from consideration. There are well-worn arguments on both sides of this debate - on the one hand, Jordan-Young and Karkazis are right that the experience of the vast volume of rodent studies are of limited applicability to human biology and cultures, on the other, ethics prevent us from conducting the same kinds of studies on humans - or even other primates - that are carried out on rodents and birds, and T is associated with aggression in a large number of species, not just rodents. Tightening the scope enables a relatively comprehensive analysis of studies, carried out I think with the assistance of many graduate students. This avoids cherry-picking to make a point, and means when, for example, the authors point out that none of the hundreds of studies, except Sari van Anders**' ones, cited any STS studies on gender and sexuality studies, this carries weight. Jordan-Young and Karkazis do not, however, ignore the non-human body of research. They just haven't subjected it to the same kind of scrutiny that they have the studies within the scope of the book. And importantly, they do not deny that T impacts on human behaviour. Their argument boils down to "it's complicated" and no clear patterns have emerged in human behaviour. T comes in different forms (and is introduced in different ways) and intersects differently with different individual biologies. It carries such a multitude of varying effects that any attempt to generalise behaviour outcomes is problematic. With non-human animals, the authors also point out that "Reciprocal effects between T and dominance are well documented. These complex and multidirectional effects of T are the “trouble with testosterone” that Robert Sapolsky has famously described. The long-standing assumption that animals with higher T rise to the top of dominance hierarchies gets it backward: evidence is much stronger that moving up the dominance hierarchy is what stimulates high T." My interest in this topic stems from my interest in gender roles and how these debates influence gender equity conversations. T is increasingly at the centre of these debates, as I have acquaintances who can rail against any suggestion of biology-as-gender in child-rearing, and discuss the personality-altering effects of hormonal gender transition treatments on the other. Where I was more ignorant is in the impact of these discussions on race - specifically that the association of T and aggression has been largely used to justify racist incarceration outcomes: if high T causes criminality then that might be why African-American men are locked up in such high numbers. I would like to think that this hasn't previously occurred to me because it is so patently absurd - using criminal convictions as a proxy for aggression is every bit as absurd as using stock trading as a proxy for risk-taking: people make choices based on available options, and at least a cursory look at those options is essential to understanding their choices. Or as our authors put in, in surprisingly graceful academic language, " in practice, the process of embodiment—that moment where the social is imbibed and transformed into the biological—is not under investigation. In its place is a thin, shallow conceptualization of the social, which figures in the research as an assumed and homogeneous background to subjects categorized by race or class: race isn’t connected to social institutions and history, but is a collection of habits." This is, apparently, pervasive "None of the T studies we’ve seen consider how the racial and class composition of their samples are related to social institutions and the operations of power, and how these, in turn, shape the lives of the people they study, whether they are looking at prisoners, military veterans, schoolchildren, or business school students. Instead, the studies follow folk notions and reiterate the social canalization of power." Some of the most quotable evidence here comes from the studies - strong and replicated - which uncomfortably show that fatherhood is associated with substantially lower T in Western peoples, but not in non-Western. This points to a complex intersection between social structures, T and behaviour which is intriguing, but far from firm. In one of the Western studies, men who attempted unsuccessfully to calm a (robot) infant, had a rise in T, those whose robot infant was receptive, saw a drop. These kinds of results - changes in hormonal balances, but in unpredictable ways, which could change subtly based on minute shifts in environment or context or biology permeate the book. They also deal head-on, in the longest section of the book, with the racial subtext around preventing female athletes with high naturally occurring T from participating in elite sport. This section has hints of anger coming through, as the authors carefully and individually tear apart the arguments that such T provides a qualitative advantage, and also delve into the combination of racialized sexism - or sexualised racism - that underlies the concept of "normal" bodies. I was a bit surprised to see another's criticism of the science of the authors, given that it is such a meticulous examination of scientific studies - far more so than most pop science books (If we have reached the point where any critical examination of science is anti-science, then science has clearly lost.). However, Jordan-Young and Karkazis clearly anticipated this, and provide some of the most thoughtful meditations of science I've read: "Facts are produced through specific questions, techniques, tools, and interpretive frameworks, and values are embedded in all of these. This is very different from saying that science is “just made up” or “the same as opinion.” It means instead that while the material world does indeed exist, we can only know that world through our human engagements with it. The best we can do is use our senses, which allow us to perceive and select only some data points out of all the possible phenomena that exist; transform those data by filtering them through our measures; and apply our own cognitive, linguistic, and disciplinary frameworks to shape the results into an interpretation that is meaningful to us. " Towards the end of the book, Jordan-Young and Karkazis discuss many of the things that I am most interested in - the growing discussion of T not as a conservative argument for the status-quo, but the biohackers who view it as a portal to a better humanity: the ongoing consensus that T is somehow under our control. The authors warn: "For some, it might seem obvious that T can’t be used as a precision tool to confer vigor, focus, libido, and a sense of power. But our travels with T suggest that the majority of people would find it plausible and intriguing that you might use T in these ways. These “new projects” of using T walk a fine line between disruption and recapitulation of sex hormone ideology." In the end, the clear message of this book, is that T is still unknowable to us, and that without a bit of self-knowledge, about our own biases and tendencies, we will simply project onto it what we already see. "Questions about biology and human nature are inextricable from moral and political debates about the value of human variations, the possibilities for equality, and the urgency and feasibility of social change." There is passion here for exploration, but caution against arrogance. This book has clearly been a labour of love and purpose, and I concur with their hopes that they " have opened a space for new ways of thinking about T that might emerge alongside [the traditional fable], maybe taking up more room and gaining momentum as T’s complexities are further elaborated. Instead of the titanic strength of Atlas, we hope we’ve suggested that T has other and better superpowers: a shape-shifting, moving, social molecule that serves as a dense transfer point for the micro-operations of biology and social relations of power at multiple levels." *Jordan-Young and Karkazis mercilessly deconstruct these studies, importantly connecting understanding of risk for relative gain and loss matrix - that those with few resources and options take different choices than those with many of both. E.g. "But multiple lines of evidence suggest that status is an important mediating variable that might explain some or even all of the apparent association between T and risk-taking. In other words, “given that testosterone is a social hormone with a reciprocal relationship with social status, and social status has been found to drive risk-taking behavior,” the positive relationship between T and risk-taking might be spurious." **Would van Anders write a book, please? This is the third book which has cited her work in ways which I have tried to follow up on, but all her research output is written for endocrinologists. I mean, I'm sure she has time on her hands, yes?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    For anyone looking for a complete rundown of what testosterone is and does in the human body: this is not that book. This is a book about what we say that testosterone does that is not actually supported by the research that makes those claims — such as the connections between testosterone and aggression, dominance, and sexuality that are so culturally prevalent that we never think to question them. Even the links between testosterone and athleticism are far more tenuous than the lay person would For anyone looking for a complete rundown of what testosterone is and does in the human body: this is not that book. This is a book about what we say that testosterone does that is not actually supported by the research that makes those claims — such as the connections between testosterone and aggression, dominance, and sexuality that are so culturally prevalent that we never think to question them. Even the links between testosterone and athleticism are far more tenuous than the lay person would have any reason to suspect. The authors do a masterful job of breaking down the many unacknowledged social biases in the research on testosterone. These biases spawn methodological biases that are compounded by the research that seeks to build upon the earlier work. This is by no means a problem that is isolated to the research on testosterone, and in fact any research that attempts to map out human behaviour through the lens of biological determinism should be viewed with great scepticism.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I was skeptical of a gender studies expert's ability to tackle the biochemistry and epidemiology study of hormones, but boy was I wrong. And boy is Testosterone so much more complex than a 'boy becomes strong aggressive man' narrative. Rebecca Jordan-Young and co-author Katrina Karkazis slowly visit all the ingrained myths about testosterone and slowly take them apart with the thoroughness that would make any biochemistry expert proud. Among the problems highlighted in the book, some stood out fo I was skeptical of a gender studies expert's ability to tackle the biochemistry and epidemiology study of hormones, but boy was I wrong. And boy is Testosterone so much more complex than a 'boy becomes strong aggressive man' narrative. Rebecca Jordan-Young and co-author Katrina Karkazis slowly visit all the ingrained myths about testosterone and slowly take them apart with the thoroughness that would make any biochemistry expert proud. Among the problems highlighted in the book, some stood out for me: - Testosterone (T as they refer to it) is often described as a 'male hormone' despite the fact that T is a) present in females as well and b) it can be metabolized into so called 'female' hormones as well. But there is more testosterone in males so surely it means it's more important for males, right? Well, it turns out that T is essential for one very female function: OVULATION. Shouldn't it inhibit ovulation, you may ask, and lead to polycystic ovarian syndrome. Well, it depends, it's all about balance. T seems to be essential for the early maturation of eggs, in the months prior to the final sprint from ovulation to potential fertilization. It turns out that many women unable to ovulate using 'female hormones' actually benefit from T or T precursor treatments, to the point where now it is part of the standard treatment for some women. But it's more complex than that. - Low T means little effects and high T levels mean large effects, correct? Actually not. The T-response curve is not linear, meaning low T can sometimes have large effects. Sometimes T levels increase because the T receptor responds poorly to T levels (think of it as someone whose hearing is failing. You need to speak louder for them to understand what you're saying. Similarly, for some people the body produces more T because at regular levels the receptor is simply not doing its job properly so it needs a booster). Also, increasing T levels sometimes causes a negative feedback loop in the body. - But athletes dope with T so obviously increasing T levels in the body leads to more muscle and better athletic performance, right? No, not always. It may be important to maintain a certain T level to which the body is used to (which would explain why certain athletes who tried to lower their T-levels usually performed poorer after T-depletion therapy). But several athletes have very low T levels despite being very 'strong' (weight lifting) and some transwomen athletes actually improved their performance after undergoing hormonal therapy. OK, but these are exception to the rules, correct? So banning women with higher T levels from competition makes sense, it gives them an unfair advantage? The question is: an unfair advantage to what? One athlete performer needs different skills compared to another. With few exceptions, there has been no consistent evidence that higher T improves performance across all disciplines. And we don't exclude very tall men from say the pole vault or sprinting, so why are we excluding women with a high T level? We don't boost men's T-level if it's in the lower levels, yet some extraordinary athletes have low T levels. Sometimes T goes up with physical training, sometimes it goes down. Why is it so complicated? Why wouldn't it be? Why would strength and endurance depend on one molecule alone? Evolution would surely not risk putting all of its eggs into a single molecule, it would be too dangerous, too prone to error. The truth is that as scientists we often become infatuated with a story. A simple, easy to tell story. A problem that I recognize as a practicing scientist. While stories are important and ease communication, they can also create dangerous myths that oversimplify a complex problem and - a lot more problematically - become weapons for institutionalized racism and sexism. It is disturbing to read about statistical hacking of data, cherry picking and post-hoc definitions of presumed T effects that have been employed in previous T-research for the sake of promoting a narrative. A sexist, transphobic and yes also racist narrative. Sadly, some of the T myths are, as the authors put it, like a zombie: they won't die, no mater how much new better research tries to kill it. Hopefully more research will be conducted in the future to explore the role of hormones derived from cholesterol (this includes testosterone, estrogen, progesterone) in human development and behavior. Because there is no doubt they're essential molecules for development (both physical and mental). Refusing to investigate the nuances of their effects can have harmful effects on everyone: from men, to women, to trans and non-binary people.

  5. 4 out of 5

    FlyingBulgarian Svetli H.

    I am with other reviewers who are slightly disappointed with the book. I agree that some of the chapters felt unfounded in science and their comparisons and arguments weak. But I was drawn to the book for one chapter only, which was about testosterone’s role in the female reproductive system - and frankly that chapter was extremely helpful, insightful and interesting. A few takeaways: 1. Testosterone is produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands but also from conversion from peripheral tissue 2. Inse I am with other reviewers who are slightly disappointed with the book. I agree that some of the chapters felt unfounded in science and their comparisons and arguments weak. But I was drawn to the book for one chapter only, which was about testosterone’s role in the female reproductive system - and frankly that chapter was extremely helpful, insightful and interesting. A few takeaways: 1. Testosterone is produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands but also from conversion from peripheral tissue 2. Insensitive testosterone receptors could be the reason some women have high testosterone without any other problems 3. Testosterone in saliva, blood and urine are not perfectly correlated 4. Testosterone is related to the distribution of fat in the body 5. Testosterone fluctuates throughout the day and is affected by multiple things - time of day, coffee, alcohol, sleep, mood, season, sunlight, temperature, social exclusion etc (so fickle!) 6. Testosterone results are not very accurate at the low ranges (I.e. for women) 7. Testosterone has an important role to play in follicular maturity for ovulation up to 12 months prior to ovulation I found this extremely insightful and interesting. The rest of the chapters, not so much - but that’s again because I picked the book up ONLY for this chapter.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Daniel R.

    The myth of testosterone far exceeds what science can say about it. Systematically exploring testosterone research and opinion across ovulation, violence, power, risk-taking, parenting, and athleticism the authors point out p-hacking, pastiche science, and poorly designed studies. All of which intertwine and build upon each other to promote an incorrect and at times detrimental view of what testosterone is and is not capable of and responsible for.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Caroline B

    Challenging our notions of what testosterone really does, this book is also a great guide for how to examine research. What biases do the researchers/subjects bring to the table? Who is involved? What is p-hacking and how does create false results? There are times that this book can feel dense/repetitive, but overall it provides a great deal of new information from biological and sociological perspectives. I especially recommend this book to people interested in how myths surrounding testosterone Challenging our notions of what testosterone really does, this book is also a great guide for how to examine research. What biases do the researchers/subjects bring to the table? Who is involved? What is p-hacking and how does create false results? There are times that this book can feel dense/repetitive, but overall it provides a great deal of new information from biological and sociological perspectives. I especially recommend this book to people interested in how myths surrounding testosterone promote beliefs around race and gender.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Ayoub

    Although the authors can at times wax a little repetitive, this book tells an important story about how scientific facts are produced and often problematically so! Here the authors unravel how gendered ideas have informed the science of Testosterone to (re)produce gendered norms whether the science is describing any real effects or not. As a biomedical sciences trainee, this was an important read for me.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Andy Adkins

    The author has cherry picked results from niche endocrine studies to establish a counter-intuitive narrative for testosterone's role in sexual biology, gender psychology, & athleticism. Early chapters in the book were, for this reason, quite engaging. The author, however, fails to adequately support her gender & athleticism premised conclusion by meticulously including details on study methods, participation statistics, & thoroughgoing discussions of testosterone's variously relevant conversion The author has cherry picked results from niche endocrine studies to establish a counter-intuitive narrative for testosterone's role in sexual biology, gender psychology, & athleticism. Early chapters in the book were, for this reason, quite engaging. The author, however, fails to adequately support her gender & athleticism premised conclusion by meticulously including details on study methods, participation statistics, & thoroughgoing discussions of testosterone's variously relevant conversion pathways.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mika

  11. 4 out of 5

    Marrysparkle

  12. 5 out of 5

    James

  13. 4 out of 5

    Hayley Parra

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

  15. 4 out of 5

    Austin Richey-Allen

  16. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Berezowsky

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kevin McCarrick

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ann Herrold

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ahmed Mahdi

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

  21. 5 out of 5

    Saphronia

  22. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Racicot

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn Fink

  24. 4 out of 5

    Harper Jean

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kayleigh

  26. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Downey

  27. 4 out of 5

    Smilla

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ossian

  29. 4 out of 5

    Miriam Axel-lute

  30. 4 out of 5

    Andrew DeStefano

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