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Book Commentary: Biology of Gender and Sexuality

Terrible2s's picture


Is it a boy or a girl? This question is asked before we are even born. So what is the difference between a man and a woman? Is there a difference? Is there such a thing as a “man” or a “woman”? Joan Roughgarden in her book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People gives answers to some of these questions. In biology we learn set Rules and other concrete ideas which shape our lives and teach us to draw boundaries on matters like sex and gender; Roughgarden, however, works to desconstruct these ideas, and instead, with scientific reasoning and studies suggests an alternative, less binding way of looking at our world and bodies.
            Science, as a general rule, includes a lot of general rules. In school, society, life, we are taught to think linearly, with written truths, and very few exceptions. Our learning can be seen as a straight path on which we must continue to learn Facts and not stray from this thinking. Things that do not fit into the ideas of science are considered “wrong” because all of the Facts we learn are taught to us to be nothing but True. Inconsistencies are seen as exceptions, and fit into a nice, small, proven and tested error margin. We are taught to believe them, and questioning them is just a process which can go no further than to bring us back to the original correct answers. We are given studies, hypotheses, and methods to believe and at times test, but which all point back to what is intended for us to know. We have a long history of large errors which were once accepted just as fully as our modern Truths, but they are seen as just another part of the path which will ultimately bring us to a complete and true explanation of the world and all its ongoings.
            This concrete way of living and learning predominantly brings comfort to us. We find it reassuring to have a solid answer which can be referred to in confusing times. We have answers when tragedy strikes, or when we cannot reconcile life’s intricacies. It is nice to pick up the paper and see statistics and facts published by highly educated people, and to use them as statutes. Science gives us a rule-book for us to use as a guide for how to take care of ourselves and our world. So what would happen if we were to throw this rule-book out, and make our own rules? What if we question these set ideas and find that there are more answers than one? Can we neatly fit the world into small categories and unmoving theories?
            Joan Roughgarden questions many scientific theories which have been considered truths. Roughgarden is a professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and has written several books including Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist and the Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness.  She is a renowned scientist and has studied all of the same “science” which explains the stereotypes and accepted facts which she works to change.  She is an “evolutionary biologist” and works primarily to experiment with the current standards of gender and sexuality.
            Evolution’s Rainbow in particular looks at science in a very different light, and in many ways reflects the lessons we have learned in Biology 103. The book most directly correlates to the major theme of our class because of its way of approaching science. In 103 we learned that there are no true Facts and that science is an effort to find things to be the most “less wrong.” We learned that we should look at the world and science with fresh, almost ignorant eyes, and to simply observe. From these new observations we should make summaries of observations, but after we make these summaries we should continue to observe, and upon finding conflicting observations, make new summaries of observations. We learned that there should be and could never be one “right” summary, and that life and science is the path of continuing to question, deconstruct, and reconstruct our ideas. Roughgarden does just that; she questions gender, deconstructs the social and scientific norms, and revises them. For example Roughgarden makes a distinction between “sex” and “gender” saying that “gender is the appearance, behavior, and life history of a sexed body” (1). In saying this she suggests that our sex is something which is defined by our body parts, more specifically our reproductive and sexual organs, and is something separate from our gender. Our gender, she says, is something which can be influenced, determined, and chosen by our environment and personalities. This idea breaks the norm of social construction which divides males and females into two categories of men and women. She explains that a male-bodied person can be defined or can define herself (/himself) as a woman, man, or any other gender category. She explains that there exists exceptions to her idea of “sex” and that people can be born with both, neither, or another sexual category. Many times, she explains, one can change his or her through medical or other means. She also makes a distinction between sex, maleness or femaleness mostly, and masculinity and femininity. Biologically, she suggests, a male can have a great deal of estrogen, or a female a great deal of testosterone, with which he or she is born within his or her body. However, masculinity and femininity is more often determined by personality and personal choice than by biology. With this idea she then attempts to tear down stereotypes involving gender and sexuality. She details many scientific studies which go against traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity, and the roles they play in the lives of both animals and humans. Her ideas conflicts with the “scientific” facts which purport that male = men and masculinity and that female = females and femininity. She even goes so far as to assert that some studies have been ignored by scientists because their theories and findings do not support such accepted scientific conclusions such as Darwin’s theory. In this way Roughgarden’s ideas are congruent with our class theme of breaking down current scientific findings and reconstructing them.
The main thematic elements of Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow also takes a similar approach to that which we take in class. It is very appropriately titled with the word “Rainbow,” for most of the book surrounds the idea of diversity. She writes that she sees diversity in many parts of life: diversity in reproduction and family organization among animals; diversity in human biology and the cooperative interaction of genes and hormones in development; and sexual and gender diversity across cultures and history. Roughgarden discusses human biology and development stresses, which often are divided into two categories—normal and abnormal, gay and straight, healthy and diseased, and asserts that they are socially constructed to be put into these binding categories. She instead says that in everything, including sexual orientation, there is diversity in every detail. She examines and includes a survey done of sexuality and gender expression in different cultures, including the United States, which focuses on the need to affirm diversity. Through her analysis of such studies she makes the point that we are all, humans and animals, diverse and cannot so easily be categorized. Diversity and categorization are two things which we examined deeply in class, and found that they can go hand in hand in observing science in the manner in which our class supports. Due to the depth of diversity in our world, we can categorize living and other things in an infinite amount of ways. Our class and Roughgarden both support the idea that our world cannot simply be put into small, confining, set categories, and that it should instead be constantly re-organize and re-shaped to reflect the great deal of diversity which exists in it.
Although Roughgardens work reflects many of our classes major themes, her ideas are not all compatible with the perspectives of our class. She certainly deconstructs and re-examines ideas just as we observe, summaries, re-observe and re-summarize; however, it is clear that she has gone through this process and has redefined her own terms, and created her own Rules and Facts. She admirably has fought stereotypes and found different answers to questions she asks of predetermined facts, but has taken our process of re-observing and re-summarizing and developed a concrete summary. She has created her own new take on science, in regards to gender and sexuality in Evolution’s Rainbow.
Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People is a revolutionary book which includes an even more revolutionary and important product. Roughgarden’s manner of conducting science, which is directly tied to our class’s way of discovery, is a perfect illustration of how our perspectives can be put into play. In class we theorize and propose how science and the world should and can be interpreted: in no certain and set way. Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow takes our theory and puts it into practice. Hopefully we can all become scientists, in our own way but in her fashion, and can re-examine and reconstruct the ideas which science purports to be true.
Work Cited
(1) Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature 
and People. University of California Press, Berkley, CA, 2004.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Science, sex/gender, deconstruction/reconstruction

"She admirably has fought stereotypes and found different answers to questions she asks of predetermined facts, but has taken our process of re-observing and re-summarizing and developed a concrete summary."

Perhaps that too is part of science as "rainbow"?  Creating a "concrete summary" to aid others in the ongoing deconstruction and reconstruction?