Twist in the tale of two genders

June 4, 2004

Modern Darwinists have sidestepped data on homosexuality in animals and are thus complicit in the persecution of gays, says Joan Roughgarden

In 1871, Darwin wrote: "Males of almost all animals have stronger passions than females" and "The female... with the rarest of exceptions is less eager than the male... she is coy." Darwin uttered what has become the universal biological theory of gender roles. Darwin attributed the cause of these universal male-female templates to female choice. Females are supposed to choose mates who are "vigorous and well-armed... just as man can improve the breed of his game-cocks by the selection of those birds which are victorious in the cock-pit". Not only do females welcome good fighters to bed, they have an eye for beauty too:

"Many female progenitors of the peacock must... by the continued preference of the most beautiful males, (have) rendered the peacock the most splendid of living birds." Thus begins what has become the central narrative of sexual-selection theory today: that combat reveals the best males in a hierarchy of genetic quality, that females choose as mates the winners of male-male competition to acquire good genes for their offspring and that males, with their surplus of cheap sperm, try to fertilise as many females as possible.

But this central narrative is not true of animals, and probably not of people either. Male and female animals do not conform to the universal templates that Darwin prescribed, and female choice does not endorse the victor of male combat. Instead, females frequently take the lead in courtship, males frequently decline the solicitation of sex, and female choice is for males who promote offspring safety and/or who credibly promise some parental care.

Females are concerned with maximising the number of offspring they successfully rear and are unconcerned with the genetic composition of those offspring because genetic quality is largely unpredictable. Males, too, are concerned with number of offspring successfully reared, rather than with "mating success", which may not be correlated with the number of offspring reared. For these reasons, Darwin's theory of sexual selection is fundamentally on the wrong track and cannot be "fixed up" in the way that Darwin's theory of natural selection was fixed up by adding Mendel's laws.

Furthermore, Darwin's theory of sexual selection is inadequate. It does not account for phenomena such as sex change in fish, gender multiplicity (multiple types of males and females), "sex-role reversal" in which the male is drab and the female showy, and widespread homosexuality in animals.

Darwin's theory of sexual selection is a waste of time, and it is time to genuflect and move on.

Modern-day Darwinists are not scientifically objective - they've swept under the rug troves of treasured data on animal diversity in gender and sexuality that cast doubt on Darwinian theory, often directly refuting Darwinism. Biological silence on how widespread homosexuality is in the animal kingdom has perpetuated the myth that it is unnatural, and has rendered Darwinists complicit in the persecution of gays, lesbians and transgender people by repressive institutions.

I do not wish to get into a philosophical debate about what "objectivity" means; but I do want to address the question of objectivity on controversial issues. Scientific objectivity doesn't exist any more, perhaps it never did, but now at least, the innocence of science as a purely rational pursuit is lost. Instead, we need a political process to ensure the diversity among scientists necessary for efficient discovery and to ensure an adversarial review of scientific confirmation so that special and inaccurate positions aren't privileged as constituting scientific consensus.

I write so directly about Darwin's theory of sexual selection because of personal experience. I am a transgendered woman. I've come to consider Darwin so critically because his writings provide the theoretical biology and medicine used to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Yes, I have a political agenda: gay and transgender rights. Does that make me wrong and Darwin right? Does my agenda change the facts, make the 300 species of vertebrates with homosexuality in their social system disappear, or make female animals suddenly prefer different males from those they do? And do Darwinian defenders have an agenda, too? To hear them speak, only I have the agenda, whereas they are objective. What do you think?

It is tempting to see suppressing evidence as a tactic solely of conservatives, to hope that a heavenly triumph of progressive thought will restore scientific objectivity to its rightful place in our daily epistemology. After all, conservative capitalists fantasise about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, deny global warming, dispute smoking's link to cancer, stall on acid rain, resist seat belts, drill the tundra, discount dangers of genetic engineering and so on. But no, progressives deny science too. For instance, conservationists in San Fransisco have recently decreed that science has determined that introduced species are "invaders" that must be weeded out - mighty Eucalyptus trees felled for native annual grasses, ground cover uprooted so winds might shift the sands into native dunes and croaking toads speared in favour of chirping frogs. In fact, no college ecology textbook advances an ideology that favours some species over others - all species are equal in the eyes of the ecosystem, and a native species might prevent ecosystem-wide species diversity as much as an introduced species might.

Yet to restore native plants to sites often smaller than a city block requires a Herculean effort, for such habitats cannot sustain them. The environmental establishment, however, opposes a continuing review of conservation tactics, claiming that local knowledge supersedes ecological science. Ecological science is deemed irrelevant - it is based too much on "Costa Rica". Those who disagree are accused of being biased and there are calls to replace them with "progressive independent scientists". The upshot is that conservation groups will muck about planting, cutting and weeding on public lands until ten years from now the city will be left with the terrestrial counterpart of an abandoned home aquarium.

Perhaps the remedy for squabbling among academics and local politicos may be found by appealing to national institutions charged with providing official scientific advice to the government and the public. In the US, the National Academies is such an institution. On its letterhead, it declares itself to be "Adviser to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine". Yet, the National Academies recently published a disgraceful book by psychologist Michael Bailey titled The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism , (reviewed last week in The Times Higher ) that in my opinion manages in 230 pages to be racist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic - a grand-slam home run of prejudice. The National Academies advertises the book on its letterhead and website as "scientifically accurate", "a well-crafted and responsible work on a difficult topic". Yet the book is not scientifically accurate, being based on a tiny and unrepresentative sample of six people who were misquoted badly enough to file formal charges against Bailey. And the book is not responsible because it defames transgender people, claiming they are biologically predisposed to prostitution and sadism, without evidence, and in clear contradiction of the facts.

For more than a year, scientists and members of the public have complained about the book to the leadership of the National Academies, but they have been met with rude rebuffs. Bailey's book is not tenable scientifically - it would fail as a lab report in freshman biology. Yet the National Academies continues to stonewall. It denies any error in its mistaken sweetheart peer review, it refuses to place any distance between itself and the book and it declines to acknowledge with any kind of olive branch whatever the outrage and hurt it has caused to gay and transgender people.

Where does this leave us? In the end, I trust people, not authority. The only way to regain confidence in scientific objectivity is to implement a political process for evaluating scientific findings. The process should ensure that scientists with a diversity of viewpoints are present when hypotheses are proposed and conceptualised, and the results should be vetted by two independent reviewing groups. This is not the place to craft policy details. But this is the place to say that the only way objectivity can be restored to science is not to remove the politics, but to incorporate the politics into a well-defined public and democratic process of review.

Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People is published by the University of California Press, £18.95.

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