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 Kicking Darwin to the Curb

 Kicking Darwin to the Curb


It takes a brave woman to question the century-old theories of Charles Darwin, but evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden doesn't hold back. Spurred in part by the stunning diversity of people she saw at an LGBT Pride parade in the '90s, Roughgarden spent years debunking Darwin's theories. Her audacious attack became the groundbreaking and brilliant tome, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, in which the scientist argued that the diversity of gender and sexuality found in many species suggests that Darwin was wrong about sexual selection and the gender binary.

Roughgarden, a professor emerita at Stanford University, has authored five books and over 120 articles, including her critically acclaimed The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness. The Harvard-trained Roughgarden, who taught at Stanford for nearly 40 years, didn't come out as transgender until she was well into her career.

You didn't come out until you were 52. Were you worried about the impact on your career?
Yes, of course I was worried. 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.

Evolution's Rainbow was so groundbreaking and definitely controversial. Did you expect the criticism you got? Is Darwin above reproach in scientific circles?
I did not expect the homophobic and personally disrespectful comments from professional biologists. And yes, Darwin is beyond reproach in scientific circles.

Is it possible to comprehend the diversity of sexuality without disowning Darwin?
No, it is not possible to avoid disowning Darwin, because Darwin focused on sexuality solely in terms of fertilizations. His emphasis was overwhelmingly on mating rather than offspring production, which is what natural selection ultimately depends on. Mating is only one component of the process of generating the offspring that take their place in the next generation. 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.

Is it surprising to you that scientific circles would still be arguing whether homosexuality is an essential part of biology in this day and age?
Well, not surprising, but disappointing. What is happening in evolutionary biology today parallels the struggles we have had with medicine. Stage 1 is denying that gender and sexuality variation is common. Stage 2 is claiming that such variation is a defect. Stage 3 is rethinking scientific theory to accommodate the reality of nonpathological variation in gender expression and sexuality. Medicine in beginning to enter stage 3. Evolutionary biology is just starting stage 2. When Evolution's Rainbow appeared, evolutionary biology was in stage 1, in denial. Now most researchers grudgingly acknowledge the ubiquity of nonprocreative sex, including but not limited to homosexuality, and of evolutionarily fluid gender manifestations. But they are just entering stage 2 and are trying to concoct reasons why the variation is somehow special, second best, and less than functional. Heterosexual scientists are trying to control the scientific narrative defining how homosexuality and gender variation have evolved. It's certainly disappointing to see how little of science criticism has actually been read or absorbed by today's scientists. They labor under the happy illusion of their own objectivity.

The Genial Gene went further into a criticism of sex selection and introduced your social selection theory. What I like is how you're reimagining heterosexuality -- sort of instead of dueling male-female couples, you imagine cooperative partners. Forgive me if I'm being too reductive. What's the reaction to that theory?
You've put that interestingly. Yes, I am reimagining heterosexuality. The reaction to The Genial Gene has varied. The first review it received was in Nature and was wonderfully favorable. Some other reviews have been angry screeds. And there is an occasional balanced review too. At this time, the points being made in The Genial Gene are beginning to be discussed professionally at conferences and workshops, often through the lead of women and/or gay philosophers and historians of science. The scientists whose oxes are being gored mostly are still too defensive to carry out reasoned discourse. After all, sexual selection as we have known it, and still teach it in all but specialized graduate courses, is completely wrong. A lot of reputation has been invested in sexual-selection-like theories. Nonetheless, reproduction is not in fact about females choosing males for their good genes in any species whatsoever, including the peacock. The whole role of mating within the overall reproductive process needs to be rethought. Today's efforts to redefine sexual selection to sidestep all the contrary evidence against its original conceptualization may postpone the day of reckoning, but that day will come nonetheless.

Do you think of yourself as an innovator? A scientific change-maker?
I don't think about myself very much, 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.

Do you think other scientists sometimes discount you because of your own background as a transgender person?
Oh, definitely. My being trans is always on their mind -- they can't let it go.

Tell me about your home life.
I was married in May of last year at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco. My husband and I thereafter moved to Hawaii to make a new life together. I retired in April this year, and my husband retired last year as well. My retirement is not early but sometimes seems early because I am still so very active.

Don't Miss the Complete Series: These eight groundbreaking LGBT men and women are shaping their industries -- from fashion to science -- and, in the process, they're changing our very world.

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