The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture

The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture

by Roger N. Lancaster

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Roger N. Lancaster provides the definitive rebuttal of evolutionary just-so stories about men, women, and the nature of desire in this spirited exposé of the heterosexual fables that pervade popular culture, from prime-time sitcoms to scientific theories about the so-called gay gene. Lancaster links the recent resurgence of biological explanations for gender… See more details below


Roger N. Lancaster provides the definitive rebuttal of evolutionary just-so stories about men, women, and the nature of desire in this spirited exposé of the heterosexual fables that pervade popular culture, from prime-time sitcoms to scientific theories about the so-called gay gene. Lancaster links the recent resurgence of biological explanations for gender norms, sexual desires, and human nature in general with the current pitched battles over sexual politics. Ideas about a "hardwired" and immutable human nature are circulating at a pivotal moment in human history, he argues, one in which dramatic changes in gender roles and an unprecedented normalization of lesbian and gay relationships are challenging received notions and commonly held convictions on every front.

The Trouble with Nature takes on major media sources—the New York Times, Newsweek—and widely ballyhooed scientific studies and ideas to show how journalists, scientists, and others invoke the rhetoric of science to support political positions in the absence of any real evidence. Lancaster also provides a novel and dramatic analysis of the social, historical, and political backdrop for changing discourses on "nature," including an incisive critique of the failures of queer theory to understand the social conflicts of the moment. By showing how reductivist explanations for sexual orientation lean on essentialist ideas about gender, Lancaster invites us to think more deeply and creatively about human acts and social relations.

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The Trouble with Nature

Sex in Science and Popular Culture

By Roger N. Lancaster


Copyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93679-9


In the Beginning, Nature

Begin at the beginning: with the natural world, and its perception. "Nature," it seems, "is there from the first day." Lucien Herr's aphorism expresses a partial and provisional truth: We do not "posit" the world around us. We encounter it. So much is self-evident.

Still, men and women have encountered wondrously varied things in the world, seeing a thousand different constellations in the night sky, animating nature with the most contradictory designs. One tribe's Big Dipper is another's Great Caribou. There is a sea, and (like the rest of the natural world) it is really there and has been from time immemorial, independent of any human intentions, but all good reasoning suggests that it was experienced differently by the medieval fishermen who populated it with monsters than by the modern romantic vacationing on a cruise liner. The sun holds us, too, in its regard, but whether we know it as God's first light or as a burning ball of hydrogen, we cannot quite see it the same way as the Aztecs or the Norse did.

Not even the most universal occurrences give rise to any clear consensus about the "nature" of nature or what might constitute its "firstness." All peoples have contemplated the mysteries of life and death, but whatever their divergent findings, most cultures have located these events outside the body, in relation to "the wider cosmos: planets, stars, mountains, rivers, spirits and ancestors, gods and demons, the heavens and the underworld." 3 More than likely, it will seem self-evident to the reader that life is a property of the body: a force contained within the envelope of skin that, for modern Western culture, marks the fixed boundaries of an individual being.

More than likely, it will also seem self-evident that nature (as in "human nature") is somehow allied with the body (as against the mind, and all that is conscious and volitional). But this is scarcely what all humans everywhere have thought about how a body inhabits a world. As Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern meticulously show in their classic collection of essays Nature, Culture, and Gender, not every culture asserts a continuous line of demarcation between nature and culture, mind and body, and the other familiar dualisms. Indeed, not every culture gives place to the singular and unitary concept, "nature." And even in modern, Western cultures, nature's place is by no means stationary or unchanging.


In making claims about nature, modern Western people often point to the self-evidence of the body, its firstness, and the ground it undeniably provides for both thought and activity. But in their own bodies, no less than in the meaning of life or the shape of nature, people have discerned the most variegated forms and functions. The anatomical charts used by Chinese acupuncturists trace structures unseen in Western biomedicine. Santeros in New York City sometimes insist that there is a hole in the top of the head, an aperture opened up by Yoruba orishas during spirit-possession rituals. More than one culture has projected its social preoccupations as fantastic body parts: the "wandering uterus" of early modern medicine, for instance, or that magical substance testosterone, mythologized in so much twentieth-century folk medicine.

Physical bodies, like the material world that encloses them, really exist. But by the very nature of their existence, nothing is actually self-evident about what will be seen as self-evident in the nature of the body. And often, what seems so self-evident about the experience of the body belongs to history, not nature. Thomas Laqueur's detailed historiography illustrates that this is perhaps especially true where sex is concerned.

For thousands of years, the genitalia of men and women were each construed as variations on an essentially "phallic" theme—the man's parts turning outward, the woman's turning inward. But in eighteenth-century medicine, an astonishing metamorphosis occurred. Male and female bodies took shape as complementary antitheses, each radically different from the other, the one concave where the other was convex. Men and women became "opposites"—and not just that, but "opposites" held to "attract" each other. As counterintuitive a scheme as any ever devised, true heterosexuality thus was conceived (if not quite yet "born")—and we, its heirs, are at pains to see bodies differently.

First and second principles, then, for a social history of nature: Nature, even in its "firstness," is in no small part what we make of it—if we make anything of it at all. And inasmuch as knowing and doing are linked, what we see in nature, in the world, and in human bodies is very much caught up in questions of a social and political order—that is, in what we want to see.


Start with creation, go on to procreation: Today, the perception of bodies is nowhere more saturated with cultural meanings than around the question of sexual practices, where some are still seen as "natural" and others as "unnatural." And nowhere is the discourse on nature more resonant with practical, political implications than in those modern origins stories, models of biological evolution—our way of thinking about what it is that seems to confront us, ready-made, with a design of its own from the depths of the flesh. This problematic "nature," as visualized in a questionable "science," is endlessly cited, invoked, and contested in struggles over the sense of the body and the meanings of sex, as the following chapters show in some detail. It supposedly tells us what the real man is really like, what the natural woman truly wants—and how the two of them ought to get together, according to the logic of a natural plan.

Martha McCaughey summarizes the matter: "Anyone questioning the natural and therefore privileged status of heterosexuality today is likely to meet up with an evolutionary narrative: 'After all, how could the human species have survived without heterosexuality?'" In similar terms, Michael Warner underscores the unselfconscious projection of heterosexual normalcy in pervasive narratives about evolutionary origins and human nature: "Het culture thinks of itself as the elemental form of human association, as the very model of intergender relations, as the indivisible basis of all community, and as the means of reproduction without which society wouldn't exist."

According to the prevailing conception, whose assumptions are rarely stated aloud, then, heterosexuality is "there" from the beginning. Said to follow from the biological givens of male and female bodies, heterosexuality has a logic, a purpose—what philosophers call "ontological priority." A voice nags, like some incessant church bore: Human existence, in its very conception, owes a debt to heterosexual beneficence, and supposedly it is thanks to this original and originary heterosexuality that we are all here today. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) That is to say: Heterosexuality, like nature, is "there from the first day." Or rather, heterosexuality is the first day—the very principle of origin, creation, and generation. By extension, heterosex—that is, reproductive sex: penis-in-vagina-to-the-point-of-ejaculation sex—is "real" sex, manifestly revealed in the design of the genitalia. (That's what sex is for, isn't it?) Everything else is derivative, secondary, artificial, or tainted, and by comparison to heroic heterosexual intercourse, the way homosexuals and lesbians invest their desires seems wasteful, frivolous, selfish. Consequently, according to a thousand scientific accountings, the very attributes that allegedly define human nature—a tendency for men to compete and think, for women to network and feel—all supposedly emanate from that magisterially self-evident concave-to-convex scheme that seems so undeniably clear, yet took humankind such a long time to discern in human forms. Penis to vagina as form to function: Bodies, nature, life itself, are conceived as heterosexual by design.

Third, fourth, and fifth principles for a social history of nature: "Scientific practice," writes Donna Haraway, "is above all a story-telling practice." "Stories," she adds, "are means to ways of living."

And stories about origins are inevitably stories about destiny. Or as Edward Said puts it: "A 'beginning' is designated in order to indicate, clarify, or define a later time, place, or action. In short, the designation of a beginning generally involves the designation of a consequent intention."


So what's a fag to say, when speech about the nature of desire has been prescripted by such an exclusionary code? And how's a queer to feel, when all her organs of perception are caught up in a dense social process of visualization, imagination, and contestation? And how's a pervert to know his own true nature—or is it unnature?—without immolating himself in a knowledge that burns, without negating the real lessons his peripatetic desires compose?

You and I have been forewarned—and on the authority of science, no less: It would be folly to flout this nature, so full of implications not only for gay and straight, male and female, but also for deviation and norm, and for distinctions of every kind. We are thus invited to pick our place in nature as either variations on or deformations of a heterosexual design. Or perhaps we might choose to claim our own good and separate nature, apart from the rest of creation—a break in the Great Chain of Being. Such are the politics of nature at the beginning of the third Christian millennium: so many unsatisfying options. So many demands to conform to one's own true nature, however that nature is conceived. So much wrangling over the question of what is "essential" and what is "supplementary."

These dilemmas have salience in part because desire, like nature, always seems to be there ahead of us, to come to us unbeckoned, to impress its will upon us, independent of any intention we might have toward it. These questions have urgency because claims about the nature of sex inform decision making in scientific, medical, educational, legal, and other institutional settings.

Sixth principle (corresponding to the sixth and last day of creation): Origins stories invariably script plots for how, in returning to our true nature, we might emulate models that were social to begin with. The return to origins is really a return to history.


Start with nature, go on to sex, conclude with politics. Or rather, let us begin, if not at beginnings proper, then at least with the idea of a beginning: with the making of men's and women's bodies; with the modern (pro)creation myth that posits bland, conformist, heterosexual necessity as the precondition for human existence. Let us commence with the "straight" body and "normal" desires—with a neo-Darwinian Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, whose sex lives occupy the center of the naturalist vulgate, whose binary desires form the Procrustean bed of heterosexual metaphysics. And in following the kinked and circuitous course of desire through changing claims about nature, let us remain alert to the wondrous diversity of meanings human cultures have actually made of nature, bodies, and desires—the better to ask: How might science be remade? What might nature become? How might we design to live in a nature so cultured? What might become of us, and what might we aspire to become, on this unexceptional planet?


The Normal Body

"The most plausible explanation for our relative hairlessness—or indeed, nakedness—is that it results from sexual selection in ritual courtship." So begins an inventive recent survey of our evolutionary history, a modern morality play in scientific garb.

Consider how coherent are the contours of normal bodies sculpted by natural selection in this story—how seamlessly science and ideology come together in this closely woven tale of how things got to be the way they are:

The upright stance reveals the full beauty of one's own and another's primary and secondary sexual organs, and it enables hunters and gatherers to carry the fruits of their labors home (and perhaps then to remember who gets which share)—for which, moreover, it helps us to have a home to carry things home to, thus a ritually charged place, and a kinship system that determines the rules of distribution. The upright stance also enables parents to carry in their arms babies who are helpless because they require a much longer infancy period than the young of other species, a long infancy demanded by the need to inculcate children in the complexities of tribal ritual. The upright stance, moreover, undoubtedly contributed to changing the mating position from mounting to face-to-face, thus encouraging that extraordinary mutual gaze which is the delight of lovers and the fundamental warrant of the equality of the sexes—an equality that was absolutely essential if the human traits of intelligence, communication and imagination were to be preferred and thus reinforced.

From heterosexual "courtship ritual" Frederick Turner thus deduces anatomical "nakedness" and upright walking to unfold further the various complex facets of human culture: collective labor and social sharing; ritual, kinship and tribe; timeless practices of home and hearth ... Indeed, in Turner's remarkable account, so full of whimsy and conjecture, straight walking is heterorectitude.

The author purports to have deduced all this from a dispassionate gaze at the contours of the human body. But in this tale of origins, we have encountered not denuded humanity—an essentialist notion Clyde Kluckhohn used to give as "man in the raw"—but rather a distinctly modern, Western, even American creature, fully clothed in the fashion of a certain day and age. Turner's arguments "work"—his zany scenarios seem plausible, even convincing—only if they are abetted by the silent labor of the reader, a reader of a certain disposition, who fits familiar form to functional norm, thus converting common sense into analysis, fancy into fact, what conceivably might have been into what indubitably is, and historical contingency into universal biology. Readers such as these supply the need that sustains the argument by filling in the gaps—readers who, more than anything, desire that their own longings, their own experiences, be seen (both by others and by themselves) as "natural," "normal," and "healthy." For the reader willing to project himself or herself into Turner's text, all that is uncertain, equivocal, and contested in modern life is turned into a set of ready platitudes. And what awaits the reader who refuses to give silent complicity is a certain kind of existential blackmail: S/he is cast outside the charmed circle of nature.

Consider the political work of the reader in sustaining the text, the movement of his or her desires within Turner's arguments. The reader knows—as our foraging hominid and early human forebears likely could not have known—what a "home" is: a settled and secure place, returned to daily, invested with sentiment and meaning. (Or is it a divided place, rent by conflicts and held together for convenience' sake—imagined otherwise only in the reveries of a misplaced nostalgia?) Modern readers are prone to believe, as their predecessors of only a few years ago did not—and as Turner's own sociobiological antecedents emphatically did not—in that "fundamental warrant of sexual equality" here lauded, it must be noted, not for its tonic political implications but for its eugenic effects, its improvement of the breed. The relatively liberated reader might even think that "the beauty of the genitalia" could serve as a model for beauty more generally. But the very notion of genital beauty has been vigorously contested, even denied, in many cultures—our own included. (Freud, who understood aesthetic enthusiasm as a sublimation of sexual feeling, nonetheless felt compelled to note that "the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are nevertheless hardly ever judged to be beautiful"—a riddle that prompted John Updike to title his review of a museum exhibit of Egon Schiele's paintings with a question, not a conclusion: "Can Genitals Be Beautiful?") Finally, the reader knows, or thinks s/he knows, or at any rate claims to know, what "sex" is, or ought to be, or ought to be seen as. But is it really so clear that the human mating position has changed from "mounting" to "face-to-face"? An ample heterosexual lore celebrates the joys of fucking "doggy-style," not to mention the yin-and-yang delirium of that numbered act, "soixanteneuf." The "missionary position"—icon of normal, real sex—was so named not because missionaries discovered face-to-face intercourse with the man on top to be the universally practiced norm of coitus—far from it—but because it seemed to be the peculiar and singular predilection of colonizing Europeans. Since so many natives in so many lands required instruction on how truly human beings might "properly" have "normal" sex—and since the colonizing Europeans were anything but sexual egalitarians—it is unclear how face-to-face positioning could provide the evolutionary ground either for human equality or for universal rules for how an upright creature ought to act.


Excerpted from The Trouble with Nature by Roger N. Lancaster. Copyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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