The Trouble With Nature: Sex and Science in Popular Culture Sex and Culture by Roger N. Lancaster
Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of me breathing. Yes, I can finally breathe because I have finally read a well-written, scientifically accurate and engaging Sex and Culture book, The Trouble with Nature. From the very first page I knew I was going to like this book, which begins with this quote by J.B.S. Haldane: “My suspicion is that nature is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”. You can see from the get-go that this is not going to be another silly book about how men are naturally aggressive and women are naturally submissive, or some other crude nonsense. Not only that, but Lancaster is an engaging writer. Although the tone is academic — unlike that of the whimsical Dr. Tatiana, author of all-creatures sex-advice book Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice for All Creation — The Trouble With Nature is often humorous and never dry.
In fact, Lancaster spends much of the book not only disproving the myths about sexuality that are often shoved down our throats in the guise of science, but also tackling the erroneous habit of extrapolating animal behavior as an indicator of human behavior, as well as bad anthropology, the gender binary and other bad science or, as he calls it, “junk science.” If the reader learns one new word from this book (although there are several great words to learn from it) it would be “heteronormative.” This term means the single-minded nuclear family het-is-right thinking that we live with in our society. Heteronormative behavior is often taught to us as natural; all else is frequently presented as deviant. And this, of course, is bullshit.
On page 38, Lancaster says, “Heterosex… 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… the way homosexuals and lesbians invest their desires seems wasteful, frivolous, selfish.” On page 39, he begins his argument, “So what’s a fag to say, when speech about the nature of desire has been proscripted by such an exclusionary code… You and I have been forewarned — on the authority of science no less: It would be folly to flout this nature… We are thus invited to pick our place in nature as either variations on or deformations of a heterosexual design.” From there, Lancaster begins his systematic destruction of all these arguments about what is “natural,” which is really society projecting its views on what is “right” onto the world around us. Beginning with Darwin, he shows how scientists have frequently discounted any data that didn’t fit into their paradigm of gender roles or sexuality. In the section on “Our Animals, Our Selves,” he refers to Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, a great tome that shows that female animals are hardly ever monogamous and that there is plenty of queer animal behavior going on. This information has been suppressed or ignored until just the last couple of years, for it riles the patriarchy no end that there is nothing in nature to support the case for what is “right” and “natural.”
From there, Lancaster shows how anthropologists have made the same errors and biologists, referring to “primitive” cultures as “living fossils”(erroneous thinking to begin with), describe only those cultures attributes that shore up existing ideas on “normal” gender behavior. Margaret Mead was reporting the wide variation of gender roles years ago in her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, but she was one lone voice, one lone female voice, in the world of anthropology. Anthropology is now showing — thanks to female anthropologists — that our preconceived notions of what is male and female behavior among humans are highly variable. Diane Bell’s excellent 1984 book Daughters of the Dreaming shows how for years Western anthropologists assumed that Australian aboriginal women had a very minor role in that society. Bell’s book shows that aboriginal women, in fact, have an equal role in their society, but did not dispense that information to male anthropologists because they are not allowed to show their rituals to men.
From here, Lancaster shows how much of what it means to be human is learned behavior. It is impossible to know what a “natural” human would be, because a major part of what it means to be human is about human culture. Although Lancaster doesn’t point this out, this is also true in animals. Although it isn’t called “culture” in reference to animals, what we see as instinctual is often learned behavior. Perhaps you remember in Born Free when Joy Adamson had to teach the lion cubs how to hunt? Without a parental figure to teach them, the cubs were incapable of catching prey, something we all see as a natural part of a carnivore’s life. Human culture is so much more complex, and so many things that we see as natural — for example, macho men or coy women — is indeed learned from the world around us. Lancaster uses examples such as how cultures name colors and then relates it to cultures having a gender spectrum rather than a binary system.
In the biological realm, Lancaster delves deeper into the current fascination with genetics, and shows how study after study has had shoddy research and wild conclusions that always end up supporting the heteronorm — much in the same way Darwin did. It seems nothing’s changed in that department. Any results from studies about gender or sexuality will be skewed so that pop culture and the media can drone their same mantra ad nauseum: Men and women are different. (Oh, how original! I’m sure sick of hearing that, how about you?) He also shows how all the studies about the supposed “gay gene” or “gay brain size” are all crummy studies without merit, studies whose findings have since been disproven or impossible to recreate.
The last section, “End of Nature,” is the weakest part of the book. Lancaster goes from a strictly scientific viewpoint to examining culture directly. The writing is not nearly as sharp and the insights not nearly as astounding, but there is still much good information. Specific examples are shown of how junk science and heteronormative thinking invades every aspect of the media and pop culture, from television shows and car ads to the cover of Newsweek. This is no secret, but the examples and discussions are well conceived. Lancaster also points out an interesting dichotomy between the news media and pop shows on television. Whereas the news media maintains an authoritative and conservative tone, sitcoms now gleefully embrace gay culture in an almost light-hearted fashion.
The trouble with nature is that we are now, as a species, so far removed from it that we know very little about it. We project, derive, create and destroy meaning from our limited interactions with nature, but in the end nature and what is natural mystifies us. One thing is definite, however: none of us are natural in our gender or sexuality. Aspects of our culture influence us all — but we are all right when we are true to ourselves.