BY Advocate Contributors
August 10 2011 4:00 AM ET
65 • Kapaa, Hawaii
Science & Education
It takes a brave woman to question the theories of Charles Darwin, but evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden isn’t afraid. Spurred in part by the stunning diversity of people she saw at an LGBT Pride parade in the ’90s, Roughgarden has spent years debunking Darwin. Her audacious attack became the groundbreaking tome Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, in which she argued that the variations in gender and sexuality found in many species suggests that Darwin was wrong about sexual selection and the gender binary.
“Darwin is beyond reproach in scientific circles,” says Roughgarden, a professor emerita at Stanford University. But it’s not possible to comprehend the diversity of sexuality without disowning him, she says, “because Darwin focused on sexuality solely in terms of fertilizations. Darwin’s emphasis on procreative mating rules out thinking of sexuality as serving social purposes. The social setting established through sexuality as well as other forms of physical and verbal intimacy lead to the production of offspring even if many particular acts do not directly produce offspring.”
Author of several critically acclaimed books, Roughgarden was often discounted because she’s transgender. “I did not expect the homophobic and disrespectful comments from professional biologists,” she admits.
The Harvard-trained Roughgarden, who taught at Stanford for nearly 40 years, didn’t come out as transgender until she was 52 years old. She says she was worried about the impact on her career, but “I was fully prepared to leave academia and wait on tables for a living if necessary. None other than Condoleezza Rice, then provost at Stanford, gave me permission to remain on the faculty.”
Does she think of herself as an innovator? “I don’t think about myself very much,” she admits, “except to say that I am determined to live my life as an idealist and to have faith that eventually, perhaps in another generation, the facts and ideas that I have placed on the table will be rationally engaged.”
While she and her husband (whom she wed last year) have retired and moved to Kapaa, Hawaii, the ideas of this 65-year-old scientific changemaker live on. “Today’s efforts to redefine sexual selection to sidestep all the contrary evidence against its original conceptualization may postpone the day of reckoning,” she says, “but that day will come nonetheless.” —Diane Anderson-Minshall