Testosterone Rex

I’m proud to have been a judge on this year’s Royal Society science book prize - congratulations to Cordelia Fine on her win for “Testosterone Rex”.

Looking at the online reaction I’ve noticed a lot of people sharing Dr Stuart Ritchie’s critical review of the book. I was aware of this review before we decided on the winner and I think it’s interesting, but ultimately I don’t find it persuasive. Here’s why:

Ritchie’s review has two main concerns. The first is whether Testosterone Rex is a book that attacks a “nebulous belief system”, not representative of what anyone actually thinks. The second is that the book gives a “terribly one-sided view of the science”.

Here are two issues where Ritchie finds Testosterone Rex one-sided. First: the so-called “Bateman Gradient”. This refers to research from the 1940s by geneticist Angus Bateman, finding that male fruit flies derive greater reproductive benefit from multiple mates than females. Fine points out various methodological flaws and statistical problems with the original study. It seems that Bateman had little reason to jump to the conclusion that male fruit flies are promiscuous other than pre-existing assumptions about sex roles. This is an example of so-called “objective science” recapitulating the scientist’s assumptions rather than careful observation. Feminist scientists are sometimes accused of playing politics and following wishful thinking rather than objective science - here is a rejoinder that what we think of as objective science is liable to import unexamined assumptions if we are not careful. Fine goes on to review subsequent evidence that corrects for the problems in the original resesarch. She notes that “contemporary research has identified many species to which Bateman’s principles do appear to apply” (p. 36) but they do not seem to be universal.

Ritchie’s critique of this is to point to a 2016 systematic research review which he summarises as showing that “Bateman’s theories seem to hold up pretty well”. How does this undermine Fine’s argument? The 2016 systematic review held up by Ritchie concludes that the Bateman Gradient “appears generally valid for the animal kingdom, [but] there are many exceptions” (p.4). In Testosterone Rex, Fine acknowledges that Bateman’s principles somtimes appear to apply but “the point is the incredible diveresitiy of sex roles across the animal kingdom” (p. 45). There is no contradiction here. There would only be a contradiction if Fine had argued that Bateman’s principles never apply. But this would be to misrepresent and oversimplify what she actually says in the book.

How about another issue where Ritchie finds Testosterone Rex one-sided, her evaluation of the statement by psychologist David Schmitt that “one man can produce as many as 100 offspring by indicriminately mating with 100 women in a given year”. Fine calculates that the likelihood of this hundred-baby strategy working is infinitessimally small. Ritchie thinks that this misses the point: the strategy does not need to produce 100 offspring, “what matters is that males who adopt the strategy will tend, on average, to have more children than will women”. Another way of saying this is that males have greater “reproductive variance” than females. Is Ritchie right that Fine is missing the point here? It depends what point Fine is trying to make. If Fine is denying that males have greater reproductive variance, then Ritchie would be correct. But this cannot be her argument seeing as she explicitly says that greater reproductive variance in males is “seen in certain ecological, social, and economic conditions” (p. 51). The real issue she is discussing is the “use of unrealistic figures of potential male reproductive success”. In this context, the tiny likelihood of the 100-baby strategy is entirely relevant. Once again, Ritchie’s critique is valid against a certain simplistic argument, but this does not seem to be the argument that Fine is making.

As well as criticising Fine’s arguments, Ritchie also criticises her scholarly tactics. He accuses her of a “fairly outrageous” selective quotation from David Schmitt when she refers to his comment that “one man can produce as many as 100 offspring” without a qualification seen “in the very next sentence”. Ritchie is technically wrong here* - the qualification he is referring to comes from a different article to the one that Fine references at this point in the book. It is also ironic that he should express this concern, seeing as he himself misquotes Testosterone Rex. He is incredulous at Fine’s claim that the original work describing the Bateman Gradient is “only cited these days for ‘sentimental reasons’”. What Fine actually says is that the “papers are now largely cited for sentimental reasons” (p. 34). It’s a small difference but it does change the meaning. It suggests that Ritchie is either being careless, or misrepresenting her view.

There is a pattern to Ritchie’s review, which is that Fine’s argument is more subtle than his reconstruction of it. You might say that he has attributed to her a “nebulous belief system”. At some points, his review is simply inaccurate. It does not dampen my enthusiasm for Testosterone Rex. I continue to think that it’s an excellent book and I wholehartedly recommend it.

*Update 21st September 2017: Since the appearance of this piece Ritchie's review has been updated to correct this error.