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by James McBride Dabbs
McGraw-Hill, 2000
Review by Heather C. Liston on Mar 23rd 2002

Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers"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, and strength.

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. Etcetera.

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.