Review of Roughgarden; Evolution’s Rainbow

In part two of Evolution’s Rainbow, “Human Rainbows,” author Joan Roughgarden applies her theory of variation to the singular Homo species. The author is seeking to collapse the one size fits all categories of male and female by bringing to our attention the ways in which females differ from females and males differ from males.

She begins by describing in detail the “developmental mechanisms that bring about diversity.” Roughgarden critiques the collective field of developmental biology for engaging in the phallic binary of normal versus deviant. She offers a first person account of human embryonic development from primordial germ cells of both mother and father up through the birth, making the case that individuality begins at birth.

Roughgarden uses the term “biochemical negotiation” as a way to describe the chemical and genetic process that result in sex determination. The ways in which each person’s gender-gene configuration develops over time is explained in very specific detail as an almost never-ending spiral of exchange and possibility. By comparing the genetic sources of variation between people of the same gender, Roughgarden challenges the accepted biological basis for the gender binary.

The case is being made that there is no template in human gender/sex development. She makes a direct criticism of the biotech industry refusing to acknowledge evidence that runs contrary to corporate interests; citing what is at cost if geneticists truly abandon the master gene theory. This admonition echoes her challenge to the greater scientific community in regards to diversity: if there is no rule, how then can there be exceptions to it?

Roughgarden offers a replacement metaphor of a gender determining “committee” as a way to conceptualize all of the factors that go into sex and gender development. Genes, uterine environment, temperature, hormone production and hormone reception are all on the committee.

She posits the question what happens if we realize that people are as different biologically as they are culturally? (pg. 208) She is speaking to the assumption of normalcy; that normal people are all assumed to be the same biologically. By providing an original analysis of the XY chromosomal system of sex differentiation, we can see how much fluidity in gender expression is possible within a normal person. In this scenario, transgendered people fit into the range of normalcy.

Roughgarden also points out the fallacy of labeling hormones as ‘female’ or ‘male’ as they are common and necessary to all people.  She credits hormones, both their production and reception as a major reason for diversity. We all have them, it is to what degree our bodies make and process them that results in temperament and attitude that we have gendered into ‘male’ and ‘female’.

Roughgarden then shifts to the brain as “the most mysterious of all our organs”. She asks how are brains our involved in our sex lives given that we are compelled to express gender and sexuality.  According to Roughgarden neurobiology can be imagined as a symphony of both internal and external factors, with the brain listening and seeing as a performer in the orchestra pit, not as an audience member. She provides in depth examples of bird’s brains and then human brain development in order to frame the conversation she wants to have about gendered thinking. Asking the reader, “What are we to make of these mental difference between men and women?” (pg. 231.) Her answer? The actual differences vary greatly within each sex, the differences are so pronounced because of social convention. This is again, a place for her to discredit the perceived natural binary. We are so individual, that any claims of a normal male brain or normal female brain leave large enough average differences that transgendered brains fit in nicely.

She is aware of how her line of thinking disrupts the standard narrative of brain development based upon sexual selection as developed by evolutionary psychologists.  In a cutting, and appropriate critique, she describes evolutionary psychologists as being intellectually addicted  to sexual selection theory. She then goes on to include Geoffrey Miller’s theory of the human brain’s evolution and his modification of sexual selection theory. Roughgarden finds Miller’s modification as “fatally flawed from the onset by it’s assumption that variation from the norm is suboptimal.” (pg. 233). She then goes on to analyze in list form where evolutionary psychology has gone wrong.

What Roughgarden then offers us, is a brain evolved for social-inclusion. She says, “People require the modes of interaction that the human brain supports in order to be included in human society and to have access to the chance to reproduce and to survive as human beings… Functioning as a human requires building relationships, both within and between the sexes, navigating social power networks, and teaching young how to enter society.” (pgs 234-235). People familiar with evolutionary psychology and human evolutionary studies in general will appreciate how radical of a claim she is making.

Her statement points to the level of circular thinking that has gone on for so many decades in evolutionary science. The obsession with creating a normal brain, an “evolved” brain is the product of the sexist, racist, homophobic and classist perspectives of scientists.  Roughgarden’s text does not shy away from calling out the inherent bias’s of those scientists both anthropologists and psychologists who have misused biology for their less than scientific aims, mainly to denigrate, intimidate and oppress those who are not included in the fields of study.

In the chapter titled, “Disease and Diversity,” we are shown how the misclassification of normal sexual variation as forms of disease is supported by an uninformed medical field. Roughgarden explores the faulty correlation of “common” and “normal” to question the effectiveness of pathologizing sexual identity. She posits that while homosexuality has been  removed from the DSM, the fact that transgendered people still have to be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder in order to be treated, reflects both marginalization and stigmatization of those people. Roughgarden sees being transgender in our society as similar to being pregnant; both are natural and both require medical treatment.

Roughgarden builds a strong argument against what she sees as the structural opposition to human variation. She has taken on the double burden of both identifying what is not right, and then offering up a well thought out, humanistic, alternative backed by her own specialized knowledge of biology.

I thoroughly enjoyed this text. I am so looking forward to reading her next work, The Genial Gene

Review of Roughgarden; Evolution’s Rainbow
  • Pablo

    Goddamn. As if I needed more books on my nightstand. I took a break from Lies My Teacher Told Me when it got too depressing, I’m now reading The Language Instinct and Art & Physics; Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light and a history book on the Pacific Northwest.

    I suppose that wasn’t much of a thank-you, but it’s all I’ve got. 🙂

  • airial

    READ IT!!! That’s my way of saying ‘you’re welcome’ ;p