Friday, December 11, 2009

First Post

This blog will serve two important purposes: 1) to distract me from the burden that is my dissertation; and 2) to force me to write about books on a weekly basis in order to formulate my thoughts on culture, politics and society. The books and events of which I write will be randomly assorted, but this associative aspect will be guided by an idiosyncratic logic following my interests, hang-ups and pet peeves (e.g. junk science, incorrigible Republicans, social conservatives, etc.). I invite you to argue with me and, even once in a while, praise me. Let us begin....

Roger Lancaster, "The trouble with nature: Sex in science and popular culture" (Berkeley: UC Press, 2003).

Lancaster, an anthropologist at George Mason University, wrote this lengthy account of scientific musings of gender, sex and their purported biological basis in the early 2000's. Lancaster takes no prisoners in his attack on scientists who have made a name for themselves in the mind of the public. Richard Dawkins' notion of the selfish gene, Noam Chomsky and universal grammar, and Steven Pinker's musings on linguistics are all laid bare for their logical inconsistencies and leaps of fancy unsupported by any evidence.

Lancaster's uneasiness with these alleged works of scholarly enterprise are that they allow for "common-sense" standards of gender, based in little fact, to persist in the mind's of the greater lay public through television shows as various as "Home Improvement" or "Oprah." The dissemination of studies with faulty methodologies through Newsweek or the New York Times give politicians and those unfriendly to homosexuals, minorities or women to cite these bogus works to support their harmful legislation or ballot proposals.

With a theoretical framework derived from works of queer theory from Michael Warner and Donna Haraway, Lancaster has demonstrated that any allusion to what is "natural" is often a way to shore up the crumbling facade of heteronormativity. The notion that the nuclear family is the key to all human existence, espoused by sociobiologists like Edward O. Wilson, bears no evidentiary support in the literature from the historical and anthropological disciplines.

The best insights from this book emerge from his critique of evolutionary psychology (whose most famous exponents include Steven Pinker) and sociobiology, where scholars take human structures of social interaction impose them on the animal world, in turn anthropomorphizing everything from ants to lions, and in turn justifying current inequalities between the sexes and the races.

I plant myself firmly on the side of social constructionism, so reading this book I found myself nodding along enthusiastically. Lancaster's sometimes glib tone is appropriate for this science that has influenced so much of the public discourse around gender. We, quite frankly, have no evidence of great differences in the brain structures of men and women, no matter how often "Dr." Phil or Dr. Oz tell you the contrary. There is likewise no proof that being gay is genetic, and following that, race is nothing more than a set of organizational categories devised by Europeans in the nineteenth-century with little biological basis.

Lancaster's book forces us all to question anyone who intones "nature" as for the reason why humans act the way they do. Unless you are talking about metabolism, cancer or purely biological processes, do not, I implore you all, to cite nature (or some ridiculous evolutionary scenario) as the reason why men buy red roses on Valentine's, or why guys can't put their underwear in the laundry, or ask for directions; or why women are so sensitive, caring, maternal, or so good at asking for help in directions. It is lazy thinking, eschewing rigorous logic for the problematic mode of the common sense. Isn't it true that common sense held that the world was flat in the medieval world?