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less testosterone? – such a worry

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the Chinese Testosterone Party – ‘let’s wear boring western outfits and shit on “western values” – that’ll fix em’

Okay, so back to the real stuff, testosterone. The inimitable Sabine Hossenfelder, of the dry humour and sexy German accent, has explored its supposed reduction among humans and how it is deplored among the wannabe macho fraternity.

So first of all I must go straight to bonobos, our more or less female-dominant cousins. There’s precious little data on bonobos and testosterone, but see my previous piece, referenced below. A 2005 study of wild bonobos found, unsurprisingly, that ‘the alpha male had the highest circulating levels of T’, though a comparison with chimp T levels would have been useful. And when I say ‘little data’ I should qualify that – there’s not much data that can be made sense of (by me), it’s so complicated. For example, testosterone levels in female bonobos are just as important as in males, and they vary with age and circumstances. What seems to be the case, which I suspected all along, is that testosterone levels follow rather than lead social aggression and lifestyle patterns, which is why I’ve always been interested in the social development of humans along bonobo lines, so to speak, without worrying about hormones too much.

Now, returning to Sabine, who does a great job of summarising the pros and cons of having too much or too little T. Her most important point, which is well-known but can hardly be stressed enough, is that testosterone levels drop when males are holding or playing with a child (or maybe even thinking of doing so, or having pregnancy fantasies, or just wearing his favourite little black dress…), and they rise after divorce – which may help to explain some restraining orders. But these effects are relatively small for most males.

The evidence is clear, though, that T levels really are falling (oh frabjous day!). Sabine provides graphic, heartening evidence, at least to this dweeb. But there are downsides – both men and women are becoming physically weaker, slower and fatter, especially in the WEIRD world. High protein diets are more common than ever before, and weight gain lowers T, which in turn results in weight gain. And even the abandonment of cigarettes reduces T somewhat – another pleasant, if bizarre, surprise. Of course, as Sabine points out, all this is far from pleasant to some, such as the perennial dweeb who would be otherwise, Tucker Carlson, but others, such as myself, call it progress. Sabine winds her piece up with a most excellent quote from the sadly missed Carl Sagan which I’ll set down here for my own delight:

Why is the half of humanity with a special sensitivity to the preciousness of life, the half untainted by testosterone poisoning, almost wholly unrepresented in defence establishments and peace negotiations worldwide?…. Testosterone also causes the kind of aggression needed to defend against predators and without it we’d all be dead….  Testosterone is there for a reason. It’s not an evolutionary mistake.

Testosterone won’t disappear, in humans or bonobos. If we have more need of it in the future, it’ll probably mean bad news, as Sabine points out. Meanwhile we have the near-apoplectic Mr Poo-tin (a sobriquet for which I’m most grateful) and the Chinese Testosterone Party as ongoing examples of the downside of T.

So while T isn’t an evolutionary mistake, evolution doesn’t stand still. Indeed social evolution is a more accelerated version of earlier forms. It took a couple of million years, at most, for bonobos to depart from chimps in terms of their happy, sharing-and-caring lifestyles. Humans, so much smarter and quicker off the mark once they’ve grasped the benefits (think Deutsche’s The beginning of infinity), have just started to move towards a more female-empowered society in the last century or so, at least in the WEIRD world. And it’s largely females in collaboration that have made it happen, just as occurred, I’m sure, in bonobo society. Of course, this is still too slow for those of us growing older and more impatient. However, horrible as this is to admit, super-macho events such as the ‘great wars’ of the first half of the 20th century, Japan’s half-century of brutal slaughter and rape in the East, and now Poo-tin’s crime against Ukraine, lead to a quickening of positive responses – the United Nations, international monitoring agencies, defensive alliances, and the like. Global human-caused problems are leading to globally-negotiated attempts at solutions, and the lure of global trade dollars also has its benefits.

We need also to learn from previous mis-steps. Here in Australia we commemorate Anzac Day every year, and we hear kids saying ‘they died to save our country’ or ‘…that we can be free’. In the USA we hear praise of Vietnam vets, who fought ‘to defend our country’ or ‘our values’. Against the Vietnamese? It’s such arrant bullshit. The US was in Vietnam first at the behest of the French, who decided to quit their overlordship because it wasn’t delivering enough benefits – to the French. And of course it was impossible for the locals to govern themselves, in spite of having inhabited the region for millennia. It’s just another story of the powerful against the powerless, stories that go back to the dawn of civilisations. As to the ANZACs, fighting the Turks on the other side of the world, what was that about? Certainly nothing to do with Australian freedom. Australia just happened to be much more closely linked to Britain in 1914 than it is now, and two imperialisms, Britain with its quite vast empire, and Germany, the late-comers, spoiling for more power and influence, and a great muddle of other countries trying to work out which side would best suit their interests, came to blows in much the same way as two troupes of chimps have been known to do, but with much more horrific consequences. And blind patriotism, and its fanatical encouragement, didn’t help matters. The ‘Great War’ was an avoidable catastrophe and all our remembrance should surely be focussed on this avoidability.

To accentuate the positive, we are getting better. Yes, there’s the horrors in Ukraine, Iran, Burma and a number of African nations, which have diverse roots. Often it’s to do with the powerless rising up against their disempowerment, having virtually nothing to lose. Such conflicts have been going on for millennia, but we shouldn’t turn our backs o them. None of us get to choose whether we’re born in a rich or poor country, or a rich or poor sub-section of that country. We need to always bear this in mind. Of course it’s hard. It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 50,000 bonobos left in the wild. Humans number 8 billion. Even if we turned our backs on 99% of them, that would leave us with millions to worry about. And we all have our own problems… but sympathy and sharing seem to do us all a power of good. Vive les bonobos!


more on hormones, bonobos and humans


Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2022 at 11:09 am