The Trouble with Nature


Lancaster, Roger N.  The Trouble with Nature:  Sex in Science and Popular Culture.  Berkley: University of California Press, 2003. 

Subject: In an entertaining study, Lancaster explores the ways in which sex science (studies into the causes of (homo)sexuality) have been represented in US popular culture since the 1990s.

Main Arguments: Writing as an anthropologist, Lancaster approaches the subject firmly through the social constructionist-lens and is, from the start, very skeptical (bordering on hostile) to the essentialist view of biological science.

Essentially, he’s arguing that the progress/explosion of research into the gay gene, gay brain, or sex gene (as well as a slew of other genetically determined characteristics, including a sweet tooth) comes as a direct result of the anxieties that emerged in the 1990s as a result of the social changes in gender relations.  In other words, this bio-reductionist research was meant to re-shore up “traditional” gender roles by finding biological ‘causes’ for men’s aggressiveness, women’s timidity, and the naturalness of heterosexuality.  This research doesn’t, Lancaster argues, reveal actual discoveries.

So, why does the general population think so?  For several reasons: 1) the nature of genes is oversimplified so that the public can understand them.  It’s much easier to think that there is an “intelligence gene” or an “addiction gene” that controls these issues than to explain and understand that thousands of biological and environmental factors control things like intelligence, athletic ability, etc.  2) More importantly, the public wants to believe that masculinity and sexuality are in their genes, because at least that is stable.  Moreover, many LGBT activists are proponents of an essentialist view because that would take homosexuality out of their hands, thus guaranteeing their place as a sexual and political minority deserving rights.

While Lancaster does spend some time on representations of science – and homosexuality in general – in the media and in TV shows (Will & Grace is one of his favorites to discuss!) – more important for us is his treatment of science.  He argues that science, as we currently understand it (as objective pursuits of knowable, indisputable facts) is only one narrative, one way of knowing and organizing reality.  Science is a “story-telling practice that offers its audience schema for daily living.”  In this view, science is just one of many narratives competing to make sense of our worlds.

By its very nature, science naturalizes sexuality and thus establishes the dominance of heterosexuality (and monogamous heterosexuality in particular) because it reproduces the species.  Therefore, any non-reproductive, non-genital, non-heterosexual acts become unnatural, deviant, and genetic errors (even though the cause of those mistakes are out of our control, and are – in fact – “natural” in origin, in that they are found in mistakes in our biology).

Lancaster claims that this approach is simplistic and goes against all of the social scientific data that has been collected by anthropologists, historians, and other scholars of the humanities.  Their research backs up the social constructionist approach by showing that different cultures in different times throughout time have understood and conceptualized sexuality and gender in a number of historically specific ways.

My Comments:

This is an interesting and useful book for anyone wanting to do work with contemporary subjects.  As an anthropologist, he’s good at critically reading documents and finding out how different symbols are imbued with different meanings and interpreted differently by different people.  His tone is light-hearted and entertaining, but this more relaxed feel has a downside: sometimes it feels very unorganized – or at least not very well organized.  Moreover, he perpetuates the essentialist/constructionist debate (coming down firmly in favor of social constructionism), but I’m not sure how helpful that is – I’ve been looking for something that either bridges the gap or moves beyond that debate.  This is not that work.

But, I can say, he was helpful in portraying science as just one mode of understanding, instead of being the search for “real” truth that is later “socially constructed” in different ways.  Seeing the whole enterprise of science itself as a narrative or as itself socially constructed was helpful in making the connection as to why we’re so willing to accept biological determinism.

For a longer list of books on the history of sexuality, see my post here

Categories: Book Review, Science/Technology, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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