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Review of Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow (2004)

Review of Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow (2004)

Review ©2004, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. Review of Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow. (2004, Fall/Winter). Transgender Tapestry, 1(107), 56-57.

Joan Roughgarden. (2004). Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. Berkeley: University of California Press.



Tapestry Pages (PDF)


In 1976, when I was in graduate school at the University of Tennessee, a remarkable book was published. The title of the work was Sociobiology: A New Synthesis. The author was Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. I spent an informative summer class reading and discussing with my fellow grad students this new science, this can of worms this man named Wilson had opened.

Wilson, an entomologist, drew upon not only his expertise as a student of social insects—specifically, ants—but his knowledge of evolutionary biology, behavioral biology, population biology, ecology, sociology, and genetics, weaving an astounding amount of information from these and other fields into the synthesis promised by his subtitle. Using these varied data, he built a case for the branch of science he christened sociobiology—the study of the biological basis of social behavior in animals, human and otherwise.

Sociobiology is a field not without critics; in fact, the truth or falsehood of Wilson’s concepts have been and will continue to be argued with great heat by both proponents and opponents. Ultimately, sociobiology will stand or fall as it began—under the weight of accumulated data, much of it originally pulled together by Wilson to buttress his theories.

Now Berkeley ecologist Joan Roughgarden—who happens to be a transsexual woman—has brought us another synthesis of biology. In her Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, she makes a case for the proliferation in nature of a wide variety of sexual behavior, gender identities and roles, and body forms, both in animals and man.

A theme throughout Roughgarden’s book, but one she hits hardest in Part I, “Animal Rainbows,” is the use of language by scientists—specifically, the ways biological terms and definitions reflect the underlying social mores and beliefs of biologists and, once established, direct and limit discussion and research. She notes, for instance, that in studies of copulation in cliff swallows, male sexual partners other than the primary male partner have been called “perpetrators;” this is because the researchers viewed the male-female bond as similar to human monogamy. More than that, though, interpretations of findings are often constrained by heterosexism—the assumption that the world is entirely heterosexual and variations from this “norm” are rare and pathological. This can lead to extraordinary conceptual blindness in researchers, as Roughgarden points out. Returning to the cliff swallows, she notes that their extraordinary large numbers of male-male copulatory attempts have been described as “fights in the mud” and attributed to males being “mistaken” about the sex of the intended copulatory partner, as if they were unable to distinguish between males and females of their own species (p. 69).

Roughgarden shows us how the limiting beliefs of researchers has resulted in a view of the animal world that is based on human social systems and how in this way the lessons animals can teach us are lost. Roughgarden argues that because of these limiting assumptions biology has come to view variability as maladaptive, rather than the rainbow of evolution that is described in the main title of her book.

Roughgarden is describing a subversion of science, and alas, not one limited to biology. This sort of thing is ubiquitous in the social sciences, where it has tainted the study of everything from mental processes to transsexualism.

Part II, “Human Rainbows,” extends the same sort of analysis to humans, moving from the concrete mechanisms of embryology, sex determination, and sex differences to psychology, and eventually to a speculatory and frightening chapter about genetic engineering and its inevitable future misuses. Part III has a sociological thrust, moving from a cross-cultural examination of transgender behavior to transgender politics in the U.S. This last part is followed by an appendix of recommendations for policy change in educational practices and Federal regulatory agencies.

Roughgarden, whose background is ecology, notes that as she moves from parts I to III, her grounding in education and practice moves from the expert to the tenuous. Additionally, she notes that she was under pressure from her publisher to include chapters on topics she had not initially planned to include.

When writing about ecology and evolution, I write as a native about my hometown. With developmental biology, I wrote about the town next door. Here [In Part III] I write as a tourist in foreign academic lands…

—p. 330

Roughgarden is most persuasive when she is indeed in her home territory. Her numerous examples of variant morphological types of males and females in birds and fishes (she calls these variant types “genders”) make it easy to see the cultural blindness of many of the researchers who studied the species she describes, and makes it clear that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection is inadequate in light of the diversity she describes. When she moves from biology to psychology and sociology, her arguments grow progressively weaker and are less supported by data.

It would have taken a much lengthier book, and a grounding in not only the town next door but those foreign academic lands, for Roughgarden to accomplish what Wilson set out to do (and did) in Sociobiology—but certainly, Roughgarden has provided more than sufficient information to lend credibility to her theories of functional diversity in the animal kingdom and to call into question sexual selection theory. Perhaps we will see her now turn further attention to those “foreign domestic lands” or collaborate with other scholars more familiar with those lands to shine further light on the importance of diversity of form and behavior in human evolution.

Despite the dense material, Roughgarden’s style is readable, but I found irritating the use of endnotes rather than APA-style in-text notation, which gives date and authors, which can then be looked up in the bibliography. With the Chicago Style endnotes used by Roughgarden’s publisher, one must either spend large amounts of time flipping pages back and forth or forego looking at citations altogether. Even though I was anxious to see the works to which she was referring, I mostly avoided the page-flipping. Most biology texts—including the work of E.O. Wilson I remember so fondly—use APA format. I wish Evolution’s Rainbow had.