What Are You On? Hormones?
I am not proud, but not ashamed either, to admit I am humbled by hormones. I used to pride myself on being logical: as a philosophy major, I got an A+ in deductive logic in school. But under the powerful effect of estrogens and other biochemicals coursing through my pregnant body, I realized just how much of my past and present behavior has been ruled, or at least heavily influenced by the waxing and waning of various hormones.
It wasn't surprising, really. I already knew what a tiny amount of admittedly weak chemicals such as THC could do to behavior. Or nicotene, caffeine, or alcohol. Why shouldn't even tiny, minutely fluctuating quantities of body chemicals evolved over millennia to control and adapt behavior have far-reaching influences?
The idea that human behavior could be ruled by logic took a further blow when I read a book called The Social Brain, by the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. In it, the author details the confabulations of split-brain patients, people whose brain hemispheres have been surgically disconnected (this used to be a treatment for epilepsy). These folks could see, speak, hear, etc., but they couldn't speak about what they saw through their left eyes, since that visual information would be processed by the right side of the brain and have no way of getting to the left side of the brain where the linguistic centers were thought to be.
What the studies showed was truly life-altering for me. The scientists flashed the patients a series of images that would either incite strong emotions, or require some simple physical action, such as picking up a matched object. The subjects, finding themselves feeling waves of fear or arousal, or with their hands inexplicably holding various random objects, as triggered by the images, would at first seem startled. But then they would instantaneously come up with reasonable, complex explanations for their actions, explanations that had nothing whatsoever to do with the images.
To stretch these results very very far, as I did, what if all or even some portion of our understandings, explanations, and rationalizations of ourselves, our "master narratives," are basically fabricated out of thin air? Our behaviors triggered instinctively by internal and external cues, with the logical explanations added on later? If this wasn't suggestive of giving up on rational behavior altogether, it was certainly cause to stop obsessing about the greater personal meaning of everyday life and actions.
Of course it is easy and almost anti-feminist for a woman to admit this. According to one, fairly dominant strain of feminism, the idea that women are ruled by hormones and their bodies in general is a dismissive, patronizing, sexist one. In the August 99 issue of Sojourner, FAIR's Jennifer Pozner takes aim at the media for its obsession with the idea of hormone-crazed females. The culprit in this case was a Nature study that found that ovulating women are more attracted to men with traditionally masculine features and menstruating women are more attracted to men with more feminine features. This is supposed to have something to do with the fact that ovulating women want to conceive, while menstruating women want a cooperative partner for child-rearing.
Pozner, like other feminists, criticized the emphasis on hormones or genes or anything not under rational control, as opposed to social standards and conditions. "Researchers believe this is not a matter of fashion or a twentieth century standard of beauty, but something that is 'inborn,'" she writes. It's society, not the body, is the basic gist.
I beg to differ. Surely there are many moronic, pointless scientific studies on women's behavior vis a vis hormones, and the Nature study above seems to fit that description, but that doesn't mean that we need to say that hormones have no role in our behavior whatsoever. I have no trouble believing that the Nature study may have some truth in it, even as I know that the findings are basically useless and trite.
The real trouble is not the idea that women are ruled by hormones, but the idea that men aren't. Now, I'm no expert on men, but even in my limited experience I have seen the unmistakable effects of massive spikes of testosterone on male behavior. One day, I was riding my bike with my husband M., a mild-mannered entomologist who literally wouldn't hurt a fly, when a fast, swerving car forced me off the road. I make a point not to engage car commuters, but M. rushed up to the car window and before the driver could apologize, started bellowing incoherently and gesticulating wildly. The driver tried to explain, but M. was too hysterical, so he drove off. What the driver may have realized, which took me a few more months to understand, was that he was in the presence of a human being helplessly in the throes of a testosterone rush. What else could explain this insane, irrational, drama besides a hormone-crazed fit?
And that was admittedly a very tame example. Unlike estrogen, which controls the basically socially positive functions of reproduction, what little we know of testosterone paints it a pretty dangerous substance. We know that testosterone has an influential role in male aggression, and we know male violence is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a peaceful and just society, on both the macro and the micro levels. So why is it, then, that in the last 5 years, there have been 650 journal articles on estrogen but only 143 articles on testosterone? That's a 4.5 to 1 ratio. This is all the more remarkable given that most scientific studies involving humans are conducted on men, not women.
Instead of denying that hormones are significant, we should be calling for a new scientific initiative in studying the vastly understudied population of hormone-crazed males. (And that means all men, not just incarcerated ones.) Such studies may reveal why it is that men by and large won't pay women what they are worth, why they by and large won't do their share of childrearing or housework, why they continue to degrade and violate women sexually and economically. Who knows? Maybe there will eventually be some kind of pill to help the poor souls.