Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Trouble with Nature

The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture

Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 455
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Trouble with Nature
    Book Description:

    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 Naturetakes on major media sources-theNew 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93679-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Culture Wars, Nature Wars: A Report from the Front
    (pp. 1-32)

    A series of TV greeting-card commercials broadcast in the mid-1990s followed the conversations of a young, attractive, and presumably married couple on a variety of special occasions: holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays. Over the course of these ads, the woman has let her husband in on one of her sex’s many little secrets. Women always—and, if they are well practiced,discreetly—turn the card around to inspect its logo, to see if it’s a Hallmark®. So went an entire genre of mass media representations at the time: coy expositions on the role of sexual difference in modern courtship, romance, and...


    • 1 In the Beginning, Nature
      (pp. 35-40)

      Begin at the beginning: with the natural world, and its perception.¹ “Nature,” it seems, “is there from the first day.”² 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...

    • 2 The Normal Body
      (pp. 41-52)

      “The most plausible explanation for our relative hairlessness—or indeed, nakedness—is that it results from sexual selection in ritual courtship.”¹ So begins an inventive recent survey of our evolutionary history, a modern morality play in scientific garb.²

      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...

    • 3 The Human Design
      (pp. 53-58)

      In one of my more demented moments (possessed, perhaps, by the edgy ghost of Walter Benjamin), I had imagined composing a documentary text consisting solely of origins stories, quoted directly and unaccompanied by any commentary or critique. Such an experimental text would include scientificsounding folktales about the natural design of men’s and women’s psychologies, biological fables about queer deviations from the basic floor plan of human nature, and of course, a sampling of cautionary tales—those evolutionary stories whose narrators, in purporting to describe the basic blueprint of human nature, also claim to see the future, to know in advance...

    • 4 Our Animals, Our Selves
      (pp. 59-68)

      Today’s sociobiology and evolutionary psychology present an amalgam of different parables about human nature, a collection of tall tales that owe nothing to any empirical evidence and everything to projection, ideology, and outright fantasy. Vernacular beliefs about sex, “blood,” temperament, drives, and heredity do not taint these “scientific” models from the outside. They constitute them from the inside, from their moment of inception, through untested beliefs about what a man is, what a woman is, and how each ought to act; in unexamined feelings about sex and bodies, and especially in preconceptions about what defines sex and what bodies are...


    • 5 The Science Question: Cultural Preoccupations and Social Struggles
      (pp. 71-79)

      The form of criticism whose arguments I have been rehearsing—the constructionist approach to science questions—has lately come under considerable fire. “Social constructionism” views scientific models as narratives that (like other stories) are influenced by the prevailing cultural ideas, stories whose representations, in turn, contribute to the architecture of society. This approach has lately gained a reputation for issuing frivolous claims—asserting, for instance, that our physical bodies are “posited” much as one might posit notions in a philosophical exercise, or that reality is “made up” much as one might write a work of fiction. Alan Sokal—the prankster...

    • 6 Sexual Selection: Eager, Aggressive Boy Meets Coy, Choosy Girl
      (pp. 80-90)

      Today’s origins stories, some of which we’ve sampled in the first part of this book, owe not to the best but to the worst part of Darwin’s thinking. At the origins of the origins story, and even before the coining of the term “heterosexual” or the widespread modern usage of the word “normal,” Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection laid the groundwork for much of what would subsequently come to be understood as “natural” about desire.

      “The males are almost always the wooers,” he argues, reading off a page from Victorian romantic conventions.

      The female . . . with the...

    • 7 The Selfish Gene
      (pp. 91-101)

      The stories Darwin first told about men, women, savagery, and sex were not cut from whole cloth. Like other scientists, Darwin drew on the familiar motifs of his day, on what Victorian gentlemen of a certain class knew went without saying. And like other scientists of his time, Darwin took up these questions in response to the proddings of historical events: in the aftermath of democratic political revolutions, in the midst of ongoing economic upheavals associated with colonialism and capitalist development, and in the context of a consequent restructuring of institutional forms, especially family life and gender relations. The question...

    • 8 Genomania and Heterosexual Fetishism
      (pp. 102-114)

      I repeat, in abbreviated form, points that have been made by many others: Sociobiology reduces meaningful social activity to a genetic base. It simultaneously attributes human social characteristics to unconscious (but eerily mindful ) chains of nucleotides. The explanations modeled by sociobiology thus shuttle between reductionism on the one hand and reification (“thingifi-cation”) on the other—a perfect snapshot of the kind of thinking Marx called “fetishistic.”¹

      Marx called a representation “fetishistic” if it attributed human powers, characteristics, and relationships to things. His use of the term drew on an analogy with what nineteenth-century European intellectuals imagined they knew about...


    • 9 Biological Beauty and the Straight Arrow of Desire
      (pp. 117-137)

      Sociobiology elaborates a set of tales about men, women, and the “nature” of desire. In these tales and through their organizing heteronormative conceit, natural selection slips from being what it is in the best Darwinian sense—contingency, the end result of a random sorting, a series of accidental adaptations—to become what it is in the worst Social Darwinian tradition: an active principle, a driving force, a divine design, a metaphysical telos, the very embodiment of culture in nature. These stories have proved especially appealing in certain quarters of science in recent years. But sociobiology—and perhaps especially its offspring,...

    • 10 Homo Faber, Family Man
      (pp. 138-150)

      Part of what happens in the reading or retelling of any story—even a simple, well-known story—is a certain degree of opportunism. The reader of a story adjusts the text to her own wants and whims. The reteller changes some small detail to tell a different kind of tale. What counts as good order, good form, a good story—even good science—is open to interpretation and to history. What is held to be transparent about desire, or self-evident about bodies, or natural about nature all depends on the position one takes. Signifiers slide, references slip, and narrative worlds...

    • 11 T-Power
      (pp. 151-159)

      Perhaps nowhere is the domestication of savage, male sociobiology more clearly expressed than in a spate of recent reflections on “the crisis of manhood”—a crisis, authors claim, that stems from men’s supposedly reduced place in family structures in sexual modernity.¹ The subject of these partisan analyses is not your father’s wild man (the playboy on the make, the cowboy who longs for independence), it is the sensitive man who yearns in his innermost nature to be a mensch, the guardian of family values and the keeper of civic virtue. But perhaps nowhere is a socially reactionary ideology more forcefully...

    • 12 Nature’s Marriage Laws
      (pp. 160-166)

      In the varied contests over whether and how to manage gender, sexuality, and family life, claims about the biologically-given “nature” of desire provide template and rationale for legislative agendas—but seldom as transparently as in Jane Brody’sNew York Timesscience report, “Genetic Ties May Be Factor in Violence in Stepfamilies.” In an astonishingly vulgar redux of sociobiology’s crudest arguments, Brody quotes Dr. Stephen Emlen, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University, who asks “whether men are really so different from, say, male lions.” Emlen claims that “when taking over a new family, the male will kill any offspring still present...


    • 13 Marooned on Survivor Island
      (pp. 169-176)

      Well-worn clichés about the natures of men and women leap to the fore of John Tierney’sNew York Timesarticle on the final episode of CBS’s summer 2000 hit,Survivor,a game show set on a desert island. “Men excel at simple, quick, competitive tasks,” Tierney asserts, “which is why they have done so well on shows like ‘Jeopardy!’ and ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.’” Tierney attributes the source of this quickness to that mysterious substance usually linked in the reductivist vulgate to strength, aggression, and virility: “Their testosterone helps them focus.”

      The other sex, however, has its own...

    • 14 Selective Affinities: Commonalities and Differences in the Family of Man
      (pp. 177-201)

      The idea of commonality is crucial in modern reductivist narratives: It outlines a fixed, fast-frozen picture of what it means to be human.¹ Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists invariably claim that certain human behaviors are consistent across cultures and throughout history. Men, it is said, “get the job done.” Women, on the other hand, supposedly think and act within webs of social relationships. Gender roles, sexual mores, and family relations in all societies are said to be so consistent with these cartoon cutouts of human nature that theymusthave a biological, even genetic, basis. Such claims allow modern reductionists to...

    • 15 The Social Body
      (pp. 202-220)

      At this point, even friendly interlocutors or readers are likely to exclaim (as several in fact have): “But Roger, surely you don’t mean to argue that human beings are a tabula rasa—thateverythingis a social construct, that there arenosignificant differences between the sexes, that genetic or neurohormonal differences between male and female (or gay and straight) account fornothingin the way of general tendencies or predispositions . . . ?”

      Even in her critique of evolutionary psychology—a book heralded by Barbara Ehrenreich as the “chief manifesto of the new ‘femaleist’ thinking”—Natalie Angier expresses...

    • 16 The Practices of Sex
      (pp. 221-230)

      Through examples like facial expression, body language, emotional communication, color terms, and language acquisition, I have tried to outline an alternative understanding of how biology enters into culture: Meaningful human activity takes up our given biological “limits” insofar as they are useful in structuring cultural distinctions. Biology therefore is not irrelevant to these praxilogical transformations, but it is not determinant of them, either. As a result of this uniquely appropriative relationship between culture and biology, much of what appears to be “natural” or “necessary” thus is actually the biological consequence of a social arrangement, the course of biological development under...


    • 17 This Queer Body
      (pp. 233-239)

      In the context of this prolific, contested, and oh-so-slippery “nature,” those of us who once belonged to “unnature” engage in a certain kind of intellectual game, a deadly serious sport of claim and counterclaim regarding our place in the scheme of things. Here is something of the gist of that game, its give and take.

      If my desires are not “choices,” in the sense that a conscious and volitional “I” chooses from among a set of available options, then my desires must come to me from afar, or from a remote interior, with a will of their own. . ....

    • 18 The Biology of the Homosexual
      (pp. 240-257)

      Three studies, published close on each other’s heels in the early 1990s, have been widely ballyhooed in the mass media as establishing the “organic seat,” the “hormonal link,” and the “genetic cause” of homosexual desire and gay identity: Simon LeVay’s “gay brain” research, Michael J. Bailey and Richard Pillard’s “gay twins” survey, and Dean Hamer’s “gay gene” study. Major design flaws, problems with the definition and operationalization of terms, and alternative interpretations of the data were lost in the din of blaring headlines: “First Evidence of a Biological Cause for Homosexuality,” “Genes Tied to Sexual Orientation; Study of Gay Men...

    • 19 Desire Is Not a “Thing”
      (pp. 258-267)

      Arguments about the “nature” of desire invariably turn on broader claims about human nature. Now, as in the past, innatist explanations for homosexuality lean on essentialist theories of gender—on heteronormative (and heteronormalizing) models of how biology “works” and what sex is “for.” Dean Hamer, for instance, devotes a crucial chapter ofThe Science of Desireto an entirely speculative sociobiological discussion of the “gay gene” in human evolution. The chapter concludes with an astonishingly reductionist (and reproductivist) argument about the basic human design: “Since evolution selects genes that allow people to reproduce, there must be genes that encourage men...

    • 20 Familiar Patterns, Dangerous Liaisons
      (pp. 268-282)

      Every critic who has written on the subject has noted a recurrent pattern, evident for several decades in the biological research on homosexuality. A scientist working with a small or nonrepresentative sample claims to have discovered the hormonal source, anatomical seat, or genetic cause of homosexuality. His numbers lie close to the margin of error, but his findings invariably conform to the prevailing stereotypes of gender and sexuality. The media balloons the study into a major event—not because of any secret agreement or institutional conspiracy, but because the media, no less than the science establishment it reports, is part...


    • 21 “Nature” in Quotation Marks
      (pp. 285-292)

      Representations of nature both reflect social preoccupationsandprovide the means whereby new social relations come into being. Contentions over the meanings of nature or the implications of its design are thus, by definition, political contestations: struggles over the slippery relationship of “is” to “ought.” A recurring front in these simultaneously material and ideological conflicts is the question of where to draw the line between the one thing and the other: between the inborn and the cultivated, the given and the made, the authentic and the artificial, the original and the derived, the real and the contrived; between the everlasting...

    • 22 Money’s Subject
      (pp. 293-305)

      In March 1997, as stories about lesbians who like to have sex with men were making the rounds on the talk-show circuit and while suburban teenagers made weekly pilgrimages to the shopping mall sporting metal-stud piercings and rings in every imaginable body part, aNew York Timesfront-page headline blared the serious media’s prevailing message of a deep, biological essentialism: “Sexual Identity Not Pliable after All, Report Says.”¹

      Such a sweeping conclusion was based on the reevaluation of a single case, first reported by John Money in 1973: that of a biological boy whose penis was accidentally severed when he...

    • 23 History and Historicity Flow through the Body Politic
      (pp. 306-321)

      Ongoing, uneven transformations in sexual culture since the 1960s have everything to do with reforms wrought by the new social movements, but they also have to do with new forms of production and consumption in contemporary capitalism. “Nature” and its imaginings come into play there, as well. This is also where things get dicey.

      Now is not the first time men and women have found themselves torn, divided, and in the midst of ambiguous metamorphoses—some wrought by their own desires for a better world, others brought on by the institutional avalanches triggered by political-economic upheavals. In his notations on...

    • 24 The Politics of Dread and Desire
      (pp. 322-329)

      Deprived of many of its material supports and ideological props, heteronormativity today is in crisis—and with it, much else besides. I mean to suggest here something of the ambivalence of latter-day American culture, where the industrial world’s most deeply religious people engage in some of the planet’s most aggressive social reforms and freedoms, where dissenting social movements are intimately coiled with cultural reactions in emergent institutional frameworks, and where the triumph of unfettered capitalism gives everyone the nervous jitters. Describing the emerging political culture is largely a matter of tempering contrary claims—of marking progress and regress with the...

    • 25 Sex and Citizenship in the Age of Flexible Accumulation
      (pp. 330-341)

      I’m not taking any bets on which side of capitalism’s cultural impulses will ultimately win out in institutional form, its tendency toward innovation and cosmopolitanism or its need for order and discipline. What the invisible hand gives, it can also snatch away. Meanings are slippery, the situation charged and uncertain. New feminisms vie with resurgent masculinisms, each spurred in different ways by shifts in women’s and men’s respective market situations and life chances. Sexual anxieties transmute into class troubles and racial fears. Longings for liberation abut the need for order, and it is not clear how any of this will...

  12. An Open-Ended Conclusion
    (pp. 342-348)

    On Sunday, February 11, 2001, the genomic speculative bubble finally burst—at least for anyone prepared to contemplate the proposition logically. On that date, theNew York Timesfront-page headline read: “Genome Analysis Shows Humans Survive on Low Number of Genes.”¹ Science reporter Nicholas Wade—who only months before had touted genomania in no uncertain terms—previewed forthcoming reports in the journalsNatureandScience.Researchers at Celera Genomics and at the international public consortium working on the Human Genome Project, he wrote, have found “that there are far fewer human genes than [previously] thought—probably a mere 30,000 or...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 349-420)
  14. Index
    (pp. 421-442)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 443-443)