Blending humanities and science to illuminate human development and sexuality

In his latest book, Yale ornithologist Richard Prum blends queer theory and molecular biology to argue against a sex-gender binary.
Richard Prum with book cover of “Performance All the Way Down”

Richard Prum (Portrait by Dan Renzetti)

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

His own research on birds as aesthetic agents inspired Prum to read aesthetic philosophers to get a better grasp on the nature and appreciation of beauty. This reading helped inform his 2017 book, “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us,” an exploration of how aesthetic choice influences the evolution of nature’s splendor and humanity, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

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

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

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

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 they go along,” he said.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

How does a distinguished ornithologist come to write a book about human sex/gender that draws deeply on queer theory?

Richard Prum: I’ve long approached ornithology like “avian area studies.” It’s the same approach you’d see in Latin American studies or women, gender, and sexuality studies where scholars examine a complex subject or question 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 needed to get at interesting questions. My scientific research on duck sex led me to conclude that freedom of choice matters 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 the abuse of power in human contexts, were also true of many other non-human species. These were 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 by people who have been working on these ideas and that I should start reading it.

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

Prum: The new book provides an argument for rethinking the relationship between the genome and the phenotype, or material body. Going back to the origin 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 examine and support the idea that genes were the causes of the phenotype. And these tools are used to this day 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 composed of trillions of cells that all grow from a single cell with a common genome. This means that hundreds of different types of cells are using the same genome to create our organs, bones, muscles, hair, et cetera. How does that work? It turns out that queer theory, with its focus on the performative nature of becoming, provides a detailed and incredibly rich set of ideas to explore the relationship between the genotype, our genetic makeup, and the phenotype, our observable characteristics and traits.

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

Prum: As soon as we start asking how a multicellular body grows, we discover what are essentially elaborate social networks of communication channels within the body. These include hormones, synapses, and other, local, cell-to-cell molecular signals. As human bodies develop, our cells are having molecular conversations as they figure out what to become. As they differentiate, they stop listening to other cells that don’t share their developmental direction and function. Cells that become the pancreas and the cells that form the liver becoming distinct from each other. These signals have the properties of what is referred to as “discourse” in the humanities. It’s not just a matter of the communication of factual information, but also the context in which the communication occurs, which limits, fragments, and isolates audiences, creating exclusive channels of communication.

Reading the philosopher and gender studies scholar Judith Butler and others, I started realizing lots of commonalities between discussions of discourse in the humanities and development of the body.

You distinguish between representational and performative speech. How does that distinction affect your argument?

Prum: The traditional view is that our bodies develop from a genetic blueprint — a pre-existing plan of which the body is a material representation that will vary with the environment. You eat more food, then you might get a little taller but you’re still representing a prior plan. This kind of linguistic analogy of the body is an example of what 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 a representation of a blueprint in the genome. However, Austin compared representational speech acts to what he called performative speech acts, which are statements that perform an act in their utterance. Saying “I bet you $100 the Patriots will lose tonight,” or a judge declaring, “I sentence you to a year in prison” are examples of performative speech.

Austin’s concept of performativity had no bigger impact anywhere in academics than in queer theory, where it is central to this conception of gender as a becoming. That is, as Simone de Beauvoir said, one is not born a woman, one becomes one. My book is an elaborate exploration of the conceptual implications of the realization that gene expression is not a representational act by the cell, but a performative one. That gene expression and communication among cells are performative acts by cells as they become the body. All of us are performance all the way down.

What does that mean for the traditional idea of a sex/gender binary?

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

It’s not hard to find data that documents the numerous ways in which variable people arise. The fact is that we’ve been studying what I refer to as queer bodies — bodies or individuals that vary from expectations — exclusively in ways that have been used to reinforce the notion of the binary, and to view such individuals as damaged, disordered, or infirmed. But history shows that’s not the case. 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 they go along.

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

Prum: It’s a fact that the vast majority of people end up achieving at the capacity to reproduce in certain structured ways. Why is that? Because no human being has ever been who wasn’t the product of sperm and egg gestated in a human womb. I refer to this as binary bottleneck at the origin of life. Biologists would say, “Well, see, that’s so important. Obviously, that’s fundamental to life.” But the fact is that how you create a new life cannot dictate any fact about how that next material body becomes. It can’t create an essence. So, the binary bottleneck does not mean that sex is a binary fact about individuals. It means that sex is a fact about history. As far as I can tell, that’s a new definition of sex derived from a combination of historical evolutionary thinking and a performative understanding of the body.

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