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Reviewed by:
  • Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, and: The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights
  • Jeffrey M. Dickemann
Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. By Joan Roughgarden. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. 474. $40.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights. By Deborah Rudacille. New York: Pantheon, 2005. Pp. 355. $26.00 (cloth).

While the diversity of natural forms is widely admired, Joan Roughgarden's "rainbow" is a special set of diversities with a specific intention beyond the general admiration of life forms. Roughgarden, who transitioned from male to female sex/gender as a distinguished Stanford evolutionary ecologist, describes her volume as a "memoir" of "travels" through various "academic spaces." Alas, the stopovers were brief. Her polemic, often against long-discarded theories and ill-understood disciplines, asserts that the diversity of sex, gender, and sexuality is always good. No doubt such oversimple [End Page 313] romanticism led to awards from the American Library Association and San Francisco's Transgender Law Center. But beneath the affirmative lies an angry attack: "Each academic discipline has its own means of discriminating against diversity" (3) due to its Western cultural origins, as though only the West opposes gender variance.

The author's primary target is the Darwinian theory of sexual selection. Rather than reviewing this major area of biological research, Roughgarden dismisses it, parodied as "discreetly discerning damsels" and "horny, handsome healthy warriors," as simply wrong. A tract against the "binary" (as she postmodernly terms it) of male-female difference, the book is, however, inconsistent in its opposition. Roughgarden's "new theory" is no theory at all but a concatenation of truisms and errors. She proposes that "animals are not seeking each other's genes" but "access to the resources that each controls" (176), a confusion of levels of analysis. Lacking a defensible alternative, Roughgarden falls back on personalisms: "I invite you to make your own judgment on retaining sexual selection theory. . . . I've been clear about where I'm coming from. I'm a transgendered woman; I have standing . . . to sue for damage against this theory: it denies me my place in nature, squeezes me into a stereotype I can't possibly live with—I've tried. For me, discrediting sexual selection is not an academic exercise" (175). This weird mixture of science, pseudoscience, wild metaphor, and personal pleading characterizes the volume as a whole.

Roughgarden restricts "sex" only to gamete size, gender to all else: genetics, physiology, morphology, and behavior. This global definition is consonant with her intent to reduce the significance of gamete-driven attributes. As a biologist, constrained to acknowledge the widespread occurrence of sexually reproducing species, with some sort of male-female "binary," she chooses, as a transgender, to emphasize morphological and behavioral variations within a sex and, later, variations in the formation of primary sex characteristics. She must, then, as a biologist, demonstrate advantages of these variants in terms of reproductive success (RS), straining to produce bumper-sticker praise for diversity. It's hard not to see this as self-serving.

To counter oversimple stereotypes of female and male, the author notes the existence of intersexes in some mammals (often infertile) and the penislike clitoris of the female spotted hyena (which is normal). "[Displaying] genitals is a mammal thing," but why other vertebrates "rarely have external genitals pigmented with bright colors to wave around at each other" (39) is unexplained, as is the existence of cows, horses, bears, bison, and others. The medical assignment of gender in humans "based on genital anatomy can undoubtedly be traced to our primate dependence on genitals as symbols" (40). (In fact, doctors assign "sex," not gender, so that parents can assign gender-appropriate attributes to the child. Surprisingly, Roughgarden cites Kessler and McKenna's study of 1978 but seems not [End Page 314] to have absorbed it.)1 The author terms male whales and dolphins "a type of intersex" because their testes are undescended, ignoring the protective function of this arrangement.

Exploring "what fish tell us," Roughgarden reviews species with two male forms (a large territorial and a smaller form...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 313-329
Launched on MUSE
2008-04-25
Open Access
No
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