The Testosterone Crisis

The agony and the ecstasy of the Y chromosome

People ask me all the time, “What’s wrong with you?” I’m asked this question so often that I have developed many creative explanations, usually involving abduction by aliens or the horrors of the Red Sox in the 2003 playoffs. I am happy to report, however, that I finally have a valid response. Now whenever I am I asked such a question, I simply tell my inquisitor to read the Jan. 30, 2006 issue of Newsweek entitled, “The Trouble With Boys,” and all their confusion about me will subside. In this report, the author, Peg Tyre, investigates what it is about males and education in America that causes us to start falling behind girls at such an alarming rate that the situation requires the copyrighted title of “The Boy Crisis.” While the article focuses primarily on boys from preschool through high school, it got me thinking about the academic differences that I see every day even at Harvard, and how my Y chromosome has destined me and many of my fellow males to a lifetime of sloppy handwriting, an inability to cut straight, and an addiction to video games.

Last year’s freshmen class had more women than men for the first time in Harvard’s history, which is shocking considering that Harvard has been around for literally hundreds of years. This means that, for the first time, a freshman class had a higher percentage of colorful note takers than “mental” note takers. Why is it that, even at an academic institution as distinguished as Harvard, you can easily spot in one corner of every class at least one woman who is taking notes with 8 different colored pens in a notebook that belongs in the Museum of Fine Arts, and in another corner, at least one guy taking notes that look more like hieroglyphics with a dull, eraser-less pencil on the back of a McDonalds receipt? I find it fascinating that women at Harvard can sit still in the library for hours at a time doing their work without a break. I know I can’t go more than 15 minutes without checking espn.com just in case a significant trade, positive test for steroids, or sex scandal occurred in the world of professional sports. If that fails, I check collegehumor.com to see if a new home video of someone falling down the stairs has been posted.

So am I, along with all my male brethren, doomed in the world of academics? The answer, according to many “experts” cited in the Newsweek article, is yes. Many of these experts think that male intellectual habits are ruined as early as the age of five when we are, by long tradition, first exposed to our mushroom-eating, fireball-throwing friend Super Mario. Within only days of our first encounter with this Italian plumber, we have already defeated King Bowser and have beaten at least three other games in their entirety. Meanwhile, girls of the same age are learning how to tie their shoes and dreaming of True Love. So what is it about the male brain that gives us enough eye-hand coordination to aim a sniper rifle perfectly in the video game Halo, but an inability to write a word neatly enough that 50 percent of its readers can decipher its meaning? According to Tyre, “Sometime in the first trimester, a boy fetus begins producing male sex hormones that bathe his brain in testosterone for the rest of his gestation,” which, of course, “wires the male brain differently.” How can you blame a guy for playing a violent video game instead of reading Jane Austen when our brains have been soaked in testosterone? Personally, I find it very frustrating to discover that my brain has been “bathed” with a hormone the primary goal of which is to drive us to fight, have sex, and watch the NFL, while girls have an unaltered brain enabling them to sit still, make note cards, and think ahead.

There are plenty of men here, however, who manage to perform well despite their “unique” brain composition (the article uses the word “primate” three times while describing modern males). Clearly there is something to the male brain that allows us still to perform well at even the most demanding academic institutions despite our amazing ability to complete homework on time yet somehow lose it inside our backpacks. The same brain that gives us the useless and often harmful abilities to memorize baseball statistics and burp will also sometimes yield a brilliant idea. For every 100 odd impulses our male brain yields, there will be one impulse that leads to a creative, sensible result. Like my Latin teacher always used to tell me, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Our testosterone-soaked brains have done this world some good over the years, and I have no doubt that this will continue. Who do you think invented the internet? Some guy whose testosterone-soaked brain drove him to create the information superhighway so that he could instantly access girls and football scores.



Eric A. Kester ’08 is an anthropology concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.