Carole Hooven On Testosterone

The evolutionary biologist explores the nature of sex and hormones.


Prof. Hooven is an evolutionary biologist and the author of the awesome new book, T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. She’s a teaching star at Harvard and it’s easy to see why.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For three clips of my conversation with Carole — on how male horniness is increasingly shamed; on testosterone’s effect on crying; and on the ways in which T needs to be contained and channeled toward noble ends — head over to our YouTube page.

We had a ton of reader response to last week’s episode with Bryan Caplan, the cheerleader for open borders. But first, here’s a reader reflection on our episode with feminist Julie Bindel, since it’s so relevant to the new episode with Carole Hooven:

This American Life had an episode many years ago called “Testosterone”, partly about the story of a lesbian who once railed against the entire suite of male failings, including the sexualization of the male gaze. Then she transitioned to a man. Awash in testosterone, he recalled an incident walking past a hot woman on the sidewalk. A pitched battle erupted in his head: to look, or not to look. Unable to stop himself, he turned around to check out her cute ass. “I’m a pig, too!”, he wailed to himself.

It’s an incredible TAL episode overall, also telling the story of a man who lost the ability to produce T and became deeply spiritual after the loss of all desire.

Another reader recently recommended a book by Hooven’s mentor at Harvard:

I just read a book by British primatologist Richard Wrangham, titled “The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution.” While the overall message of the book surrounds reductions in violence among humans, Wrangham discusses the roots of this reduction and how it ties to Domestication Syndrome. Part of this “syndrome” has the impact of making men less masculine — and more anatomically similar to females. 

As soon as I read that, I thought of the Dishcast. I’d love to hear Wrangham and you discuss the science behind this, and how it factors in to the gender identity issues we are grappling with as a society. 

His protégé, Hooven, unpacks those themes brilliantly in this week’s episode.

Shifting over to Caplan, the reader reviews for his episode were the most mixed of any we’ve had yet. One reader appreciated the fiery debate as “a fulfilled promise to engage with radically different viewpoints than your own.” Another reader “enjoyed listening to your viewpoint as well as Bryan’s, and while I can’t say I agree completely with either of you, it was good to hear a civilized debate.” Another:

I applaud your interest in engaging people with views the opposite of yours on a given issue, but I was just wholly unimpressed by Bryan Caplan. I am surprised he was so oft-requested by readers, as he just never once came across as a serious thinker on the matter. From start to finish, he just reminded me of that guy in your freshman dorm who’d endlessly (and unprovoked) argue on behalf of communism by regurgitating one-liners he’d committed to memory. 

On the other hand:

I absolutely loved your episode with Bryan Caplan. It’s rare to have someone like him who gives his unvarnished viewed, backed by research, in plainspoken terms, no matter what. Easily my favorite conversation of yours. Thanks!

A constructive bit of dissent:

Professor Caplan seems to assume that the only people who would try to make use of open borders are those who are desperate to come to the United States and partake in and embrace our way of life. That may be true in a large number of cases, but the good professor, in his desire to provoke, remains oblivious to the idea that some may come in with a view toward doing the country great harm. Does 9/11 not ring a bell for him? To say nothing of the scope for espionage, industrial or otherwise.

Another reader reflects a point I made in the pod:

I have no idea how anyone can claim they’re concerned about climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, air and water pollution, zoonotic and other diseases — let alone ending factory farms — and favor open borders and admission of essentially any economic migrants who can pay someone, criminal or otherwise, to make their way here. The difference in intensity of resource consumption, required extraction and use, between someone in virtually all places from which migrants would emigrate to the US is mind-boggling. The “almost empty” country would be laid waste (in large part literally) as forests were replaced by more intensive cultivation and grazing; massive slaughterhouses filled with these largely low-wage, low-skill migrants would cover the land. Have any of these open-borders advocates spent real time in portions of North Carolina or Ohio covered with flies, unbreathable air and leaking cesspools?

A dissent toward me:

I have to say that Mr. Caplan brought out a different Andrew Sullivan. Your animosity toward his argument, with your mocking chuckles, was much different from your other podcasts. You refused to try to see any value to his argument, although you did end on a more friendly note.

But rather than taking away from the podcast, it worked because Mr. Caplan rose to the challenge. Few will agree with all that he said, but his argument has value. For example, I had to agree with Mr. Caplan on culture. People will complain about China and trade — but they’ll complain more when they can’t buy a Chinese-made TV for $300. Follow the money to find out what people really think.

As Mr. Caplan hoped, he did not come off as crazy. He was making credible arguments, even if you were rejecting them outright.

Another reader’s criticism was harsher: “You were making no attempt to understand his perspective, or what truth there might be in it, and you were so sure that you’re correct that you were constantly misrepresenting his position, catastrophizing, and arguing in bad faith.” Another dissenter gets specific:

I mean, look at the Brexit vote. Bryan hits it exactly on the nose when he says it’s just people voting for a poem — for an idea that sounds good in theory, because they have a romantic notion of what they think their country should look like. It’s not a position based on any experience of actual hardship faced at the hands of immigrants. Bryan didn’t want to say it in so many words, but I will: that’s a completely irrational position.

I respect that some people hold this irrational sentiment very deeply, and in a free country that’s their prerogative, but let’s be serious here. If one of these apparent xenophobes were point-blank asked, “Would you rather ban foreigners from living in a city halfway across the country, or would you rather have better social services in your own city,” which do you think they would choose?

Political rhetoric might be nationalized, and there might be some social pressure to perform a particular ideology amongst an in-group. But when it comes down to actual, concrete impact on people’s lives, are there really hundreds of millions of Americans (i.e. a majority) who believe in “build the wall” so sincerely that they’d give up even a half hour of their day, once in four years, to vote for it? The evidence shows that not to be the case. In 2016, 63 million Americans, at best, voted for a politician who made “build the wall” his catchphrase. Hundreds of millions of Americans did not. And then he didn’t build a wall, and it turned out people didn’t care that much anyway. Because at the end of the day building a wall was actually very low on people’s list of priorities in life.

Another dissenter ties in a previous episode:

This Caplan episode brought to the fore some puzzling contradictions in your overall thinking. It wasn’t long ago — your episode with Charles Murray — that you so perceptively agreed to the idea that it is low-skilled workers (drivers, plumbers, construction workers, housewives) who are of vital importance to communities, enjoy more sense of meaningful effort and would be more sorely missed if suddenly removed. You implied they are even more vital than, say, journalists or pundits, who basically leech off a surplus in any society’s symbolic capital.

What you repeatedly showed in your talk with Bryan Caplan, though, is your fear that allowing too many uneducated immigrants into a country will more or less unravel its national identity. And you said all that even as you surely know the pull of American identity as a preferred personal project to be undertaken, tended to and cherished, since you are an immigrant to the US yourself, and the kind of work you do could be done just as effectively from London — unlike the work of the supermarket cashier who packs your groceries in Provincetown.

Oof. Let me address some of these points. I agree I wasn’t at my best with Bryan, and that’s on me. I should have reached for more areas of agreement, and not been so surprised at the positions Bryan took. (I was also a bit testy because it was a very hot day and my A/C broke an hour before the taping.)

As to unskilled workers, let me say this. I do value their crucial role in the economy, and want to see this better paid. But if you create a vast pool of unskilled labor, by opening borders or enabling mass immigration, all of them will see their wages sink. A golden era for the unskilled worker in America was the era between 1924 and 1965, when immigration all but halted.

One more reader on the Caplan convo:

I enjoyed your feisty and bewildering (not your fault) conversation with Bryan Caplan. However, I noticed a hint of contempt in your description of Open Borders as a mere “comic book.” If you’ve never delved seriously into the world of graphic novels, you are missing out on a creative storytelling medium as rich and poetic as any we have. 

Try Jon McNaught’s measured, wistful stories of the English countryside. Or the gleeful camp of Maurice Vellekoop. Or the odd, quasi-mystical art of Chester Brown. There’s far more to comics than men in tights … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Lastly, we keep getting emails over our popular episode with Jonathan Rauch, so here’s one of the best ones, to keep the debate going:

I had to write in because of the unexpected mixture of feelings I experienced when listening to your back and forth with Rauch. I rate Jonathan very highly and I consider Kindly Inquisitors to be among the three most important books I have ever read. I have recommended it for years, and I consider his quality of thought such that I always return to his writing. I have been looking forward to hearing this episode since I first saw the podcast in my feed — two people whose brains I really enjoy, hashing it out.

In terms of higher wisdom, Jonathan certainly didn’t disappoint, and I am very much looking forward to buying and reading his new book. I was struck, however, by two aspects of the interview I hadn’t experienced.

The first is what I thought was an irreconcilable defence of Rauch’s “constitution of knowledge” coupled with his completely bizarre double-standard about that most culpable of bad-faith actors: the corporate media in the modern era. Somehow, the legacy media who have done so much to polarize and dispirit the public, whose activism affects a phony “moral clarity” as a form of claiming special authority, who deals an ad-hom to anyone saying anything counter-narrative, who essentially revolted against one half of the country, and whose behavior has led to a crisis of authority in the news business, simply gets a pass for ... erm... not being as bad as Donald Trump.

Or is it for being opposed to Trump? Or for being victims of Trump? It felt like a tribal judgment, not one arrived at through the processes and institutions Rauch espouses, and his logic here was thoroughly unconvincing. I found Taibbi’s Hate, Inc. to be much more clear in understanding the perverse incentives that lead to the media we have now.

Despite such misgivings, Rauch also acted as a sort of “check and balance” on my own thinking, particularly in the places I have allowed cynicism to sometimes take hold, and I was once again reminded why I love his writing so much. Even if I don’t always share his optimism, his faith in what he would term “liberal science” as a force for good is an appeal to both our transcendence as a species and our intellectual honesty, and I will move forward with that always in mind. To be both challenged and yet exercised to this extent in the same episode is why I’m glad for the opportunity to support the Weekly Dish.

And we’re so grateful for your support. But keep the strong dissents coming: