Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Testosterone and Fatherhood

One of the last conversations in class centered around whether or not hormones played a role in gender identities--and the New York times article on fatherhood and testosterone was suggested as a blog topic. The experiment notes the relation between fatherhood and decline in testosterone levels, "Testosterone was measured when the men were 21 and single, and again nearly five years later. Although testosterone naturally decreases with age, men who became fathers showed much greater declines, more than double that of the childless men." Even more fascinating is the link from the article to the commentary that Doctor Gray, a professor at the University of Nevada, gives on the experiment, "Wider principles of hormones and behavior have long indicated hormones can influence behavior (think of puberty or castrated pets, for example) just as behavior can influence hormones (try measuring stress hormones before and after a public speaking engagement." This piece of information clearly invites a question--To what extent do hormones affect our thinking, and thus our behavior, and to what extent do our actions dictate our hormones?

The question likely won't be answered soon, and it seems fairly futile for English majors to debate the effects of hormones on the body. However, Gray makes one final point in his commentary that seems extremely relevant to our class. The study points out that "male parental care is important. It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men." The article also notes that males with higher testosterone are actually more likely to become fathers, clearly distinguishing that males with lower testosterone are not more likely to become fathers." Dr. Gray expounds on these two points in his commentary to suggest that the experiments serves as "a nice case study of the relevance of evolution to everyday human life." Gray describes how male evolutionary theory ultimate posits that "constraint[s] on male reproductive success [tend] to be reproductive access to females." The article explains how testosterone then functions as a "trade-off, with high testosterone helping secure a mate" but "reduced" testosterone working "better for sustaining family life." Gray describes how humans take it for granted that fathers care about their families, whereas parternal care is actually "a defining
feature of our species" that is lacking in the primate species most closely related to us.

In other words, the gist of his article is that testosterone functions as an evolutionary tool that help males acquire mates. However, after marriage and childbirth, testosterone rates plummet in order to help males maintain a stable family life and care for the children. This knowledge seems to radically undermine our concept of masculinity--testosterone-fuled maleness is not the end of masculinity, but simply the vehicle towards a more androgynous role in a family relationship. Is testosterone a now obsolete, unnecessary byproduct of evolution, like stress? What does it mean to be male if the end goal of maleness is a more androgynous role? I don't know the answers, but the experiment's results certainly seems to suggest that males are biologically engineered towards child-rearing.

Oh, and here are the links:

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