Why Queer Biology?



As a first post to this new endeavor, I’d like to clarify a few terms that will be coming up and take the time to frame exactly what I’ll be (or attempt to be) doing with this space. Most people probably know the term “queer” as either a noun or an adjective. As a noun, queer is offensive and really should not be used, as it reduces a group of people down to a single trait, usually for the purposes of denigrating members of that group (e.g., “a bunch of queers”). As an adjective, queer has both historical and modern usages which vary slightly. Historically, something was queer if it was odd or peculiar, while today the adjective queer typically refers to anything associated with or pertaining to the LGBTQ community (e.g. “I’m in a queer relationship” may mean that you and your partner are a bit odd using the historical context, or it might mean that you are part of the LGBTQ community in the modern usage). A third usage of “queer” is still less common, and that usage is as a verb, “to queer.” The idea of queering something as an action comes from queer theory, especially Michael Warner, and is in reference to “resisting the regimes of the normal,” or to break away from normative roles and thinking about a topic. In this sense, we might talk about queering fashion by breaking gender norms or making fashion more accepting of various body types. Note that in this last sense, “queering” is not necessarily tied only to sex/gender/orientation, as queer theory is all about breaking binaries and questioning identity. Consider this as arising from third wave feminism, or intersectional feminism if it helps you to understand this concept.

Throughout this project, I’ll be using queer as a verb, and I’ll be using it in an expansive sense, instead of restricted. If there is a time that I need to break from these norms (queer this blog, I suppose), I’ll make a point to state the sense in which I am using the term.

On to the biology part of this project, or the title of this post, “Why Queer Biology?” Reworded, we might ask what is the purpose in changing the way that we think about biology, and what is gained by breaking binaries in biology, a discipline built on dichotomous keys and the like? Put simply, biology is in dire need of queering because of its history of adding fuel to the fire of oppression and enforcement of patriarchal norms. I am a biologist, that is an essential part of my identity, but research in biology does not have a kind history. Sub-disciplines of biology have been used to justify racism, sexism, jingoism, imperialism, colonization, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and most recently transphobia. None of these are things with which I would like to be associated, personally or professionally, but we can not ignore the fact that biology has contributed so much to the oppression of many groups of people. Phrenology, Darwinism, teleological views of evolution, biological essentialism, and more have been tools explicitly used by the oppressor to keep sub-altern groups in check and out of power, instead a simple source of human resources for jobs that the majority would rather not do, whether those jobs were heavy labor, home-making, exploitation of natural resources, or the fighting of wars.

This is the twenty-first century, and while this history can not be erased, our future ventures must be radically changed. To this end, I will be advocating in this space to incorporate reparative justice and restorative justice into our view of biology, and use the principles of biology to make an argument against oppression and for equality, inclusion, and diversity. If we incorporate our understanding of human biology with that of non-human organisms, this is not a difficult task, by any means. That, my friend, is where biology must go, and go quickly, if we are to continue to attract bright young minds to the field and maintain our relevance in a changing world. Discussing ideas on how exactly to achieve that end is pretty much the entire goal of this project.

Now, I’ve had plenty of discussions with friends whose opinion I value immensely about the role of facts in persuading people to change their mind. I know that the research is mixed on the efficacy of information and education in creating change, but the studies that have shown some benefit to information and education deserve not to be ignored. Three of the most common rhetorical devices are arguments from 1) logos, 2) ethos, and 3) pathos. Logos being logic and rational thought, and most consistent with biology and science in general, is the rhetorical approach that I’ll be predominantly taking in this blog. Ethos, or an argument from ethics, is also critical in discussions of human and civil rights, equality, and liberation of oppressed peoples, and has an important place in the rhetorician’s tool box. I’ll leave that to the philosophers and such out there in the world. Pathos, or the experience or feelings, is also quite persuasive when used effectively, but again, I’ll leave that to people more suited to dealing with emotions than myself. Psychologists and theologians can start digging out tools that rely on soft, emotional touches, because I don’t handle those well, frankly.

In the fight against the patriarchy and for recognition of people as equal, autonomous, and free individuals under the law, there is room for practical approaches using all three of these large divisions. I’m a fan of multiple praxes myself, and having more things to look at when launching a campaign is a good thing in my mind. I’m only presenting logos here because it is the one most closely associated with biology and my own work. If we’re approaching a given problem from multiple angles, and there are more people working on this fight from their respective point of view, it is my firm belief that we can make progress in the expansion of recognized rights and reduction of misuse and abuse in the world.

Now, let’s queer some biology!

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