Does Less Testosterone Mean More Art?

by Mostafa Heddaya on August 4, 2014


Jean-Baptiste Oudry, “Still Life with Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers” (1724) (image via Wikimedia)

Human civilization, and the artistic activities associated with it, came about as a result of a measurable decline in testosterone levels that began accelerating around 80,000 years ago, according to a study published in the August issue of Current Anthropology. The research, which started as an undergraduate thesis at Duke University by the article’s first author (and current University of Utah doctoral student) Robert L. Cieri, uses “a link between reduced aggression and cranio-facial feminization,” established in a study of silver foxes as the basis for its methodology: Cieri and his colleagues measured 1,400 human skulls to pinpoint changes in testosterone levels as manifest in facial features. A decrease in testosterone is thus associated with increased “social tolerance,” allowing for problem-solving that neural aptitude alone cannot accomplish.

The study found a striking relationship between decreased testosterone levels, as observed in facial features, and the development of human art:

Beginning sporadically in the later part of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and continuing with increasing regularity into the Later Stone Age (LSA) and Upper Paleolithic (UP), this interval witnessed the rapid florescence of new technologies … This period of rapid technological innovation is contemporaneous with the earliest evidence of symbolic behavior and abstract thought, in the form of pigment processing, personal adornment, incised notational pieces, musical instruments, and mobilary and parietal art.

How feminization works, according to the study. (from the original report)

Feminization trends, according to the study. (from Current Anthropology)

The study goes on to explain how social tolerance allows for the development of activities not essential for survival by creating the conditions for the communication of culture:

Social tolerance is necessary for effective cultural transmission of technological innovations and other behaviors … [S]hifts in social tolerance can relatively quickly and profoundly change behaviors because they allow individuals to utilize preexisting cognitive abilities in a new set of contexts.

Though testosterone may be ruinous to art at the level of geological time, current trends in major museum exhibitions, gallery representation, and salaries at art institutions persist in ignoring the evidence. Ban men.

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  • Jori Sackin

    A key element to this argument is to look at the context of how people were living back then. Without a judicial system that was responsible for handing out justice, justice was put into the hands of people, most often men. If you are needing to fight and protect what is yours, this kind of social structure would favor men with higher testosterone levels. This is also the reason that pre-modern societies are the most violent in human history. (See Steven Pinker, “Better Angles of our Nature)

    There have been a few studies that point to the modern correlation of this, which is, people that feel their judicial system is corrupt, or still don’t have one, often convey a greater machismo. If you do not feel secure in the fact that someone else is going to protect your rights as a person, then you must do it yourself. This would then partially explain the decline of testosterone in modern society. Once a social structure is imposed that can be trusted, and that favors cooperation over competition, then the ability to constantly fight your own battles is not such an advantage, and in most cases, becomes a disability.

    Another interesting corollary of posting articles such as this, is that if testosterone can influence male behavior to such an extent, then women must also be similarly influenced by estrogen. Arguments that take the form that gender is entirely a cultural creation would then fall flat, since clearly in this article gender behavior is partially shaped by our biology (testosterone). That being said, our culture is also partially shaping our biology, the best example being, that having a judicial structure (culture) frees up men to embrace cooperation thus lowering their testosterone levels (biology). The embrace of the co-evolution between culture and biology would then make the most sense, as opposed to having to choose a side between the two.

    Interesting topic. I wish your commentary would’ve amounted to more than a throw-away one liner at the end.

    • Great commentary, Jori. Thanks for thinking through this and sharing it.

    • acwfloreat

      One caveat being that we have to assume that humans are the same as the silver foxes sampled in the cited study… Has this effect been recorded in any other mammal; is it a well documented phenomenon?

      • Jori Sackin

        It would be difficult to find other cross-species examples because most other mammals do not have complex enough social structures to make this possible. What you would need is to have an animal with a social organization that was complex enough that it benefited cooperation as well as competition.

        Once there was an evolutionary advantage toward cooperation, you might see similar declines in testosterone, that then could be linked to what they are calling, cranio-facial feminization. For an animal to achieve a social structure that does this, is extremely rare though, so there aren’t many good cross species comparisons.

        Ants, bees and termites are probably the best examples of animals that have achieved complex social arrangements that benefit cooperation, but they do this through complete genetic duplication, so it doesn’t make it a very good comparison.

        • David Colman

          i was just thinking of bees and ants too per your description, but along with other obstacles, trying to track the change in facial structure would be awfully hard. Thanks for the comments, intelligent. insightful and blessedly agenda-free. Here’s a question for you though, since you brought up duplication. Is there any link between feminization and asexual reproduction?

          • Jori Sackin

            Don’t know too much about it, but I don’t think so. I would think once you have gender established, there is no way to go back to asexual reproduction.

          • David Colman

            I realized as soon as I wrote it how stupid it sounded. It’s actually a more complicated question I tried to boil down to a simple one and failed.

  • Alan Stone

    I think the study got it backwards: sexual frustration in males is the cause of art and civilization, otherwise we would be running around like Bonobos (pygmy chimps)in the forests, using sex to avoid aggression.

  • djinn123

    pfffftt.. feminist propaganda. Next!

  • Nazli Madkour

    Very interesting article. Thank you for bringing the topic to the foreground!

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