Blending humanities, science to illuminate human development and sexuality

Yale ornithologist Richard Prum firmly believes that science and the humanities can work together to help people better understand the world.

His own research on birds as aesthetic agents inspired Prum to read aesthetic philosophers to better understand nature and appreciate beauty. That reading helped inform his 2017 book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Mate Selection Shaped the Animal World—and Us, an exploration of how aesthetic choice influences the evolution of nature’s magnificence and humanity. which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Scientists can learn a lot about science from people who are not scientists,” said Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ecological Ornithology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale’s School of Arts and Sciences.

His latest book, Performance All the Way Down: Genes, Development, and Sexual Difference (The University of Chicago Press), again combines science and the humanities, drawing on queer feminist theory and molecular biology to argue that individuals being are not male or female.

In a conversation with Yale News, Prum discusses the principles of queer feminist theory that inspired his new book, how they have forced him to reevaluate long-held theories of developmental genetics, and his conclusion that sexual duality is simply not part of our genetic blueprint.

“The differences in sexual development are powerful evidence that there is no sexual binary to begin with – that ‘every body’ is literally making it up as it goes along,” he said.

The interview has been edited and shortened.

How does a prominent ornithologist manage to write a book about human sex/gender that is deeply grounded in queer theory?

Richard Plum: I have long approached ornithology as “studying the bird area.” This is the same approach you would see in Latin American studies or women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, where scholars examine a complex topic or issue from whatever perspective is necessary to illuminate it.

Within ornithology, this approach has allowed me to do work on birds that draws on optics, organic chemistry, genetics, game theory, aesthetic philosophy, or any number of fields necessary to obtain interesting questions. My scientific research on duck sex has led me to the conclusion that freedom of choice is important to animals.

In The Evolution of Beauty, I wrote that this insight was a “feminist discovery in science.” I meant that certain aspects of the feminist analysis of sexual conflict and abuse of power in the human context are also true of many other non-human species. These are not just ideas invented by feminists, but fundamental properties of the social-sexual systems of animals. And I realized that there was a whole literature of people who had worked on these ideas and that I should start reading it.

How can feminist and queer theory inform biology and body science?

To: The new book provides an argument for rethinking the relationship between the genome and the phenotype, or physical body. Going back to the origins of genetics in the early 20th century—when these two terms were coined and before we knew anything about DNA—intellectual tools and methods were created to investigate and support the idea that genes are the cause of phenotype. And these tools are still used today in experimental genetics; they create the circumstances for us to assume or imagine that genes are the cause or blueprint of the phenotype.

I argue that we need to consider cells, tissues and organs, not just genes. The human body is made up of trillions of cells that grow from a single cell with a common genome. This means that hundreds of different types of cells use the same genome to create our organs, bones, muscles, hair, etc. How does this happen? It turns out that queer theory, with its focus on the performative nature of becoming, provides a detailed and incredibly rich set of ideas for exploring the relationship between genotype, our genetic makeup, and phenotype, our observable characteristics and traits.

The idea of ​​discourse is key to your argument. What does discourse have to do with human development?

To: As soon as we start asking how a multicellular body grows, we discover what are essentially complex social networks of communication channels in the body. These include hormones, synapses, and other local molecular cell-to-cell signals. As human bodies develop, our cells have molecular conversations as they figure out what to become. As they differentiate, they stop listening to other cells that do not share their direction of development and function. The cells that become the pancreas and the cells that form the liver differentiate from each other. These signals have the properties of what is called “discourse” in the humanities. It is not just about conveying factual information, but also about the context in which the communication takes place, which limits, fragments and isolates the audience, creating exclusive channels of communication.

Reading philosopher and gender studies scholar Judith Butler and others, I began to realize many commonalities between discussions of discourse in the humanities and the development of the body.

You distinguish between representative and performative speech. How does this distinction affect your argument?

To: The traditional view is that our bodies develop from a genetic blueprint – a pre-existing blueprint of which the body is a material representation that will vary with the environment. Eat more food, then you might get a little taller, but you’re still a blueprint. This kind of linguistic analogy of the body is an example of what the British philosopher J. L. Austin called a “representational speech act,” which is an expression that attempts to represent a prior, material truth. In this case, the body is considered to represent a plan in the genome. However, Austin compares representative speech acts with what he calls performative speech acts which are statements which perform act in their utterance. Saying, “I bet you $100 that the Patriots lose tonight,” or a judge declaring, “I sentence you to a year in prison,” are examples of performative speech.

Austin’s concept of performativity has had more impact nowhere in academia than in queer theory, where it is central to this conception of gender as becoming. That is, as Simone de Beauvoir said, a woman is not born, she becomes one. My book is a detailed exploration of the conceptual implications of the realization that gene expression is not a representative act of the cell, but a performative one. This gene expression and communication between cells are performative actions of cells as they become the body. We all have productivity through and through.

What does this mean for the traditional idea of ​​gender/gender binary?

To: Yves Sedgwick, another important literary theorist in queer theory, wrote years ago that when you recognize the power of discourse not just to represent reality but to create it, then you realize that the performativity of discourse undermines all essentialisms. There is nothing that you essentially are if the process of becoming creates you. In this sense, this notion of the performative development of the body, the body as performance, means that all essentialisms in biology are undermined, rejected, falsified. This means that there is no underlying sex for the zygote, chromosome, gene or hormones. Individuals use their genomes and hormones in their individual development. Sex is not an essential fact about the body, but a conscious capacity of the body. And this means that all individual sexual binaries are rejected, undermined, falsified.

It is not difficult to find data that document the many ways in which variable humans arise. The fact is that we study what I call queer bodies—bodies or individuals that differ from expectations—exclusively in ways that have been used to reinforce notions of duality and to view such individuals as damaged, disordered, or diseased. . But history shows that this is not the case. Differences in sexual development are strong evidence that there is no sexual binary to begin with – that “every body” is literally making it up as it goes along.

How do you respond to those who argue that the fact that human reproduction is based on the union of egg and sperm implies the existence of a binary?

To: The fact is that most people eventually achieve the ability to reproduce in certain structured ways. Why so? Because there has never been a human being who was not the product of a sperm and egg gestating in a human womb. I call this the binary bottleneck at the beginning of life. Biologists would say, “Well, look, this is so important. Obviously, this is fundamental to life.” But the fact is that the way you create a new life cannot dictate any facts about how the next material body will become. It cannot create an entity. So, the binary bottleneck does not mean that sex is a binary fact for individuals. This means that sex is a historical fact. As far as I can tell, this is a new definition of sex, derived from a combination of historical evolutionary thinking and a performative understanding of the body.

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