Science in the Spotlight: Bridging Biology and Feminism

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In his book Performance All the Way Down, Yale curator and ornithologist Richard Prum champions intersectionality to explore evolutionary and developmental biology through the lens of queer feminist theory. “What can I—pale, male, and Yale—bring to the discussion of the profound questions of sex and gender?” Prum asks in the prologue. His book is a response to his own question: a thoughtful blend of biological evidence, the history of feminist theory, and an appeal for conversations about sex and gender to involve both.

Over the last seventy years, most traditional biological research involving sex has reinforced the binary concept of ‘gender/sex’, a term Prum uses to encompass the biological and cultural aspects of human sex and social behavior. In recent years, however, the field of material feminism has worked to engage genetics and biology in the understanding of gender. Feminist philosophers have suggested the idea of gender as a performance, with every individual collecting and presenting their interpretation of cultural norms and personal desires. Each person’s performance is constrained by the boundaries drawn by their community around their understanding and acceptance of gender. Using this feminist theory as a foundation, Prum proposes that the phenotype—the observable features of an organism, as opposed to the genotype, which is the organism’s heritable genetic material—is the biological and cultural performance of a constantly developing self. That is to say, someone’s sex/gender is not biologically predetermined but is instead a collection of traits presented to society.

Prum details the continuous sequence of molecular pathways that lead to sexual development as evidence for his case that the performance goes ‘all the way down’ to the most microscopic aspects of self. He presents the phenomenon of evolution as being generatively queering, as its randomness, which has led to changes in species, ends up destabilizing sexual phenotypes. By using feminist queer theory’s vernacular and incorporating empirically supported evidence, Prum not only challenges the idea that science supports a gender binary but also the binary between sciences and the humanities.

Prum’s work disrupts academic conventions because it unpacks the intersectionality of knowledge, showing how scientific ‘facts’ about the sexual body may be impossible to dissociate from cultural norms and biases. He questions the strict delineation between developmental and evolutionary biology and argues against gene-level selection, where natural selection applies at the level of specific genes instead of at the level of organisms, both long-standing scientific conventions. Instead, he uses a perspective of the phenotype as a performance to incorporate developmental biology at the core of evolution, cementing how much more interdisciplinary each field is than common academia suggests. With feminist queer theory by his side and biological evidence behind his claims, Prum explores the fundamental question of how one becomes oneself. He turns common queer-phobic arguments on their head, showing how science regards gender as a performance instead of an innate trait, revolutionizing the way we think about gender.