The Trouble with Testosterone, and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament, by Robert M. Sapolsky
Well, like I always seem to say about so many things, I had mixed feelings about this book—some good and some bad. On the one hand there is some interesting content here, but much of it I was already familiar with, or if I was not, I was not at all surprised to learn. For example, I was not surprised to find out that environmental factors can affect the onset of puberty in animals and people, and that baboons live in a hierarchical society in which dominant males terrorize their subordinates.
It was, as I said, interesting – but I can’t say that much of it bowled me over, wowed me, or left me feeling extraordinarily enlightened. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the book and managed to finish it in an astoundingly short period (for me, that is) of four days.
For the most part, Sapolsky’s writing is very accessible, and not so dense or scientific that it would turn off the lay person. However, there are times in which his writing is awkward. In some instances, sentences seem to end too soon, as though he didn’t finish a thought, while other sentences seemed to go on and on needlessly.
Sapolsky also loves to give examples or analogies in order to demonstrate a point. That is fine, but sometimes he would be drawing upon Shakespeare, then referencing a sci-fi novel, then talking about some celebrity, and then telling an anecdote about something that happened in the lab. This gave the impression (to me anyway) that some of the essays lacked focus and clarity, and I enjoyed these the least.
I am attaching three of the essays below. I’m always a little hesitant to make claims as to what an author meant out of fear of misrepresenting his intent or meaning (especially as I am not a scientist), but here is a brief description anyhow. They are:
“The Night You Ruined Your Pajamas,” in which he discusses how pheromones and other environmental factors seem to affect the onset of puberty.
“The Trouble with Testosterone,” in which he shows that testosterone does not cause aggression, but rather exaggerates existing aggression. Many of you men may be surprised to learn that there seems to be a wide range in what the body considers to be a “normal” level of testosterone, and that decreasing testosterone to 20% of its normal levels, up to 200% of its normal levels, seems to make very little difference to the body. It is only when T-levels are below or above these thresholds that any noticeable affect is shown in the body or behavior of the individual.
“Circling the Blanket for God,” in which he draws parallels between the behavior and beliefs of schizophrenic or schizotypal (genetically prone to schizophrenia) people and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the behavior and beliefs of religious fundamentalists, extremists, and the hyperorthodox. While he states clearly that he does not believe that religious people are “crazy,” or that one must be “crazy” in order to have faith, he convincingly demonstrates the commonalities in behavior between these groups of people. Interesting stuff!