Robert Sapolsky’s 1997 article, “Testosterone Rules,” is an examination of the actual relationship between the hormone and aggression, and with an emphasis on aggression in males. The author’s primary point, established early on, is that there is no directly causal agent in testosterone; while it is commonly believed that higher levels of the hormone promote aggression, the reality is that testosterone is far more a permissive element, enabling aggressive tendencies already in place. Sapolsky does not in any way refute the actual impact of testosterone, which he notes is actually a family of related, androgen hormone identified by the single name; there is a definitive connection between it, and how genes dictate its functioning, and aggression. At the same time, and overtly reinforced repeatedly, the author’s thrust is to clarify that testosterone, varying influences notwithstanding, does not of itself generate aggression, a view presented with an equally repeated emphasis on how this reality defies the typical thinking.
Regarding the article’s composition and content, Sapolsky is simultaneously factual and engaging. He turns to science, but he is as well careful to present his reasoning in a readable, and often extremely casual, way: “A dozen millennia ago or so, an adventurous soul managed to lop off a surly bull’s testicles, thus inventing behavioral endocrinology” (Sapolsky, 1997). His appeal is to the lay reader, yet he consistently supports his views with an academic foundation. This appeal is evident from the beginning, which purports to echo the ordinary belief that testosterone is largely responsible for male aggression, which in turn renders it responsible for the stereotyping of males as violent.
From here, Sapolsky makes his claim that this thinking is essentially erroneous, and he devotes most of the article to referring to evidence revealing that the role of testosterone in aggression is in fact ancillary. This commences with a necessary description of the interactions between gene functions and the hormone, and there is then consistent affirmation of these processes as dependent to some extent on the individual’s innate tendencies to aggression. Sapolsky discusses castration studies and research based on highly elevated testosterone levels as induced; he points to work conducted with a colony of hyenas, also strongly indicating that some other inclination for aggression draws upon testosterone, rather than aggression as generated by it; and he ultimately translates this information as fully applicable to humans. His ultimate conclusion is that genetic and/or hormonal science is inadequate in accounting for extremes of behavior: “Violence is more complex than a single hormone, and it is supremely rare that any of our behaviors can be reduced to genetic destiny” (Sapolsky).
On a personal level, I must first confess that I shared in the common belief that testosterone dictates behavior, and of typically – or stereotypically – masculine kinds. Generally speaking, it is widely believed that this collection of hormones is potent, just as the word itself has become synonymous with extreme virility and combativeness. Moreover, we are led to believe, at least in a generally cultural sense, that genes go to behavior as well as physical characteristics, and difficulties in modifying the less desirable forms of these are due only to our limited comprehension of genetic science. It has certainly evolved, but the intrinsic complexity of the subject still prohibits human control of it.
Consequently, Sapolsky’s article is enlightening to me, as I believe it must be to many readers. It presents the challenging reality that individuality, as well as social forces, are the more impactful causal agents in aggression and other behaviors. As Sapolsky reiterates and with biological science supporting him, the testosterone more serves the aggressive impulses already generated within the individual’s being. In the hyena study noted, for example, the females are aggressive when they learn and create the socializing patterns of their behaviors, rather than through testosterone levels acting upon them. This then goes to a reality – and responsibility – intimidating in scope for our species.
More exactly, it may well be that the traditional idea of human nature as implacably in place is more accurate than modern thinking would like to accept. We enjoy, and with good reason, the belief that elements may be identified as creating behavior, simply because such knowledge would empower us to modify or eliminate undesirable behavior. It appears, however, that this possibility may be wholly unrealistic, and it becomes more likely that masculine aggression is very much promoted because men are expected to be aggressive. Gender roles are such that maleness itself is inextricably linked to forceful behavior, so it is explicable that men develop the aggressive impulses which in turn trigger increased testosterone levels.
This impression, in fact, supports Sapolsky’s emphasis on why the testosterone evidence is so disagreeable to scientists. Simply, if we cannot isolate causes for negative behaviors, we are no nearer to bettering ourselves as a species than were our ancestors. Put another way, we must turn away from the almost reverent faith in genetics currently in place and return to investigating the many processes creating human character in its totality, of which gender role expectation must be important. There is as well here the potential that, as hormones are ancillary, it is not possible to predict or comprehend human nature fully because the exponential shaping of it is too unique, and the agent identified as influencing it in some way is reduced by the elements it generates itself.
From my perspective now, we may well have only the ineffable – and frustrating – reality of human nature always before us, a nature impossible to delineate because it exists unto itself. However, and as intimidating such a scenario must be, it is as well affirming. With Sapolsky’s claims before us, there is reason to be more respectful of human nature as a thing apart from even the most investigative science. If the evidence suggests an inability to modify undesirable behavior through science, it also suggests the potentials for behaviors to be persistently “great,” or reveal the most exalted capabilities of human beings as possible when all other conditions point to the contrary.