Does apple cultivation reflect bigotry?

May 9, 2023 • 12:10 pm

You can’t make this stuff up.  Here we have a doctoral student in horticulture at Cornell arguing that people’s penchant for cultivated apples as opposed to their sour wild ancestors reflects a bias against historically excluded communities. (He calls the ancestors “wild-type” apples, but I’ve never heard them called that. “Wild type” is a largely outdated term in genetics referring to the product of the most common variant of a gene. For example, if you’re dealing with the “vestigial” mutant, which shrinks the fruit fly wing down to a nubbin, the alternative gene form that produces the normal wing is called the “wild-type” allele, producing a “wild-type” phenotype with normal-sized wings.  Usually we refer to the wild ancestors of a species as just “wild” apples.)

But I digress: here’s the article from Cornell’s research site about how our attitude toward apples reflects bigotry. Click to read about the stuff that you couldn’t make up.

First, a note. DNA work shows that all varieties of eating apples descend from a single species of wild apple, Malus sieversii, found in the mountains of central Asia, though there may be some genes from other Malus species. Most varieties of apples, like my favorite, the Granny Smith (crispy and tart!), have come from selective breeding of mutants arising in M. sieversii descendants, and thus could be said to belong to that species—just as all cat breeds could be said to belong to Felis silvestris lybica, the ancestral subspecies. But in the past, commercial apples have indeed been produced by crossing M. sieversii with other species of Malus, a genius that includes all the species of crabapples. These hybrids are called “applecrabs,” though I don’t think I’ve ever eaten—much less seen—one.

But I digress.  The student, Andrew Scheldorf (who is said to identify as queer and uses the pronouns “he/they”), is doing the same thing, trying to produce new apple varieties at Cornell by incorporating genes from crabapples via crossing. It’s not a new method, though the article argues it is. Here’s the article’s description of Scheldorf’s work:

Have you ever tasted a wild apple? Unlike the domesticated apple, there are several species of wild apples, and most are likely to set your teeth on edge. But wild apples have evolved through natural selection over millions of years, and many are better equipped than domesticated varieties to survive in less-than-ideal conditions.

Understanding the desirable traits of wild and domesticated apples is the business of Andrew Scheldorf (he/they), a fifth-year doctoral student in horticulture. They work in the fruit physiology and climate adaptation lab in Geneva, directed by Jason Londo, School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture, where they study an apple tree population created by crossing the domesticated apple, Malus × domestica, with a wild species that originated in western Asia, Malus prunifolia. [JAC: that’s a crabapple species.]

The crossbred population displays a wide range of traits, some of which are prized by growers. “I look at a number of different traits in this population, including fruit size, fruit mass, sugar, acidity, tree architecture, phenolic compounds, total tannins, disease resistance, vigor, and storage ability,” Scheldorf says.

Scheldorf noticed that roughly half of the apples harvested from the population held up well during extended storage. But the other half lost soundness, becoming soft and mushy. Intrigued, Scheldorf used genotypic information and the fruit’s storage time to conduct a Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS). Based on the results, they believe they have identified a gene that affects the shelf life of apples.

“This is a prime case in understanding what novel and useful traits can come from wild species.”

Breeders have long thought that crossing wild-type apples with the common domesticated apple would yield small, discolored, unpalatable fruit that would be of no interest to the consumer. Even if the fruit were sturdier and the trees more disease resistant, growers believed the fruit would not be marketable.

Scheldorf’s work upends conventional wisdom. “My population has shown that, with careful selection of the wild species parent—and some patience—you can get commercially viable fruit with some of the genetically and physiologically useful traits from the wild species,” they say. Their findings could be valuable both to geneticists and apple breeders. “This is a prime case in understanding what novel and useful traits can come from wild species,” Scheldorf says.

Well, so far so good, except for the mistaken claim that crossing commercial apples with crabapples is the revival of a discarded idea. It’s been done for a long time (since the 19th century), as you can see by reading about “applecrabs” (see also here), which are already sold and eaten. We already know that hybrids between domesticated and crabapples are commercially viable; you can buy the trees!

Well, I learned something. But then things go downhill as Scheldorf can’t resist analogizing the reluctance to eat sour wild apples with bigotry against marginalized people:

Scheldorf identifies as a member of the queer community. As they have sought to improve domesticated apples by drawing on the genetic diversity in wild apples, they have also felt the lack of diversity in plant science, and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in general. They suggest that the way wild-type apples have been discounted can be seen as emblematic of how people from historically excluded communities have for centuries been shunted aside, forgotten, or disallowed in science, math, and engineering fields.

“I started to see an interesting parallel between wild apple species and historically excluded communities in STEM and academia more broadly. While both offer alternative solutions to major issues and lessons to make things more just and equitable, they both have been largely excluded from the spotlight,” Scheldorf says. “I saw how people were treating me and others in the queer community differently. In STEM we are taught to not insert ourselves into our research, don’t let your personality, your opinions, your standpoints in. Anything that does not fit the idea of a scientist is not allowed. Queer aesthetics, queer personalities—they are not super encouraged.”

No. Just no. People don’t like to eat wild apples because they are sour, not because they’re the fruit equivalent of homosexuals.  Once again, things go off the rails when someone tries to claim bogus parallels between nature and human culture. Further, it doesn’t take a gay person to come up with the idea of crossing crabapples with domestic apples to create different fruits: that was done over a century ago—by William Saunders, among others.

The rest of the article is about Scheldorf’s desire to purge biology of non-inclusive language. I won’t go into it except to give one example:

Drawing upon their own experiences and their work with Biodiversify, Scheldorf is writing a paper about the distortions and misconceptions caused by gendered terms in science pedagogy. All sorts of human assumptions are embedded in words like male and femalemother and father, Scheldorf points out. “Nature is more complicated than the stereotypical gender binary,” they say. “Explaining [plant reproduction] in male and female terms makes it more difficult for the general public to understand how the mechanisms actually work.” Instead of male and female, they recommend using terms that describe anatomy: stamen-containing or pistil-containingseed-bearing parent or pollen-bearing parent. “In all the conversations I had that were referencing this, people walked away feeling like they understood things better,” they say.

This is the same motivation that gave us the term I used in a post earlier today: “bodies with vaginas” as a substitute for “female”.  Does that terminology make us understand things better? Even in the plant example, I disagree.

39 thoughts on “Does apple cultivation reflect bigotry?

  1. This is what steeping kids in the victim mindset does: it makes them see bigotry, trauma, and “harm” to themselves everywhere. Even in apples!

    Also, does this mean we need to go back to the way produce was in the times before, say, the 18th or 19th centuries? Is our so-called “improvement” of produce really just the colonization of it? Because produce was shit back then. I mean, this is what the inside of a watermelon looked like in 17th century Europe:
    All rind! Yuck!

    Aside: does anyone else find phrases like “domesticated apple” amusing? It just conjured images of an apple with a leash on it, being walked by its owner or sitting out in the yard like the good little apple he is! Although perhaps that image is the result of my privileged colonialist mindset, enslaving apples with leashes because I unconsciously see them as analogues of BIPOC and queer peoples, and so that I may control the bodies of such peoples for my own benefit.

    1. Or, as the saying goes, “how do you like them apples?”. As for terminology, I have to recall my graduate student days, when I belonged to a small group of geneticists (including my PhD advisor) who rode motorcycles. We called our gang, of course,
      “the wild types”.

  2. Oh my goodness. How did this happen to our beloved science? How can such nonsense be taken seriously?

    Cosmic Crisp are my favorite apples. They are sweet and have a satisfying crack when bitten into. Someone should tell this young scholar that it’s all about the taste and has nothing to do with historically marginalized peoples.

    Where is the dissertation advisor in all of this? A good one would quietly take his student aside and implore him not to ruin his career before it even gets started.

    1. Indeed, where *is* the dissertation advisor? Finding myself in that unfortunate position, I’d be imploring, and probably begging, this young man to find a new advisor, please.

  3. Among other reasons, Scheldorf’s piece is misleading in giving the impression that the existing varieties don’t include ones with substantially extended keeping time. There are some varieties that can, if stored properly, last until May and which also have exceptionally good flavor.

    1. Do you remember the “apple” scene between Pippin (!) and the siege-stores of Minas Tirith in “Lord of the Rings”? That’s Tolkein’s “rationing” self salivating over memories from after he’d immigrated to England in the 19-noughties. But it tells us that storage properties of different apple types was well enough known a question to get into young Tolkein’s memory.
      Did that scene make it into one of the films? I can’t remember.

      1. No…a made-up scene was created for second-breakfast where Aragorn throws an apple at Pippin, hitting him on the head. I’ve read it took a number of cuts to get it right. Great scene, but not true to the novel…not that I really care.

  4. I don’t understand these pronouns–“He” and “They” are both subjective pronouns, one first person singular, the other first person plural. I thought the pairings were supposed to be subjective/objective.

    1. I’ve questioned that pronoun usage myself (I first noticed it when Elliot Page came out as trans) and had assumed it was cluelessness. I Googled it recently and apparently these are “rolling pronouns.”

      Rolling pronouns refer to the use of multiple pronouns that can be used alternately or shift over time. Typically, people who prefer using multiple sets of pronouns also encourage others to rotate through all of them or mix them around when speaking to or referring to them….For example, a person who identifies as a non-binary lesbian may want to affirm that, despite identifying as non-binary, they still feel connected to some parts of their womanhood or femininity – especially their lesbian identity. Thus, they may opt to use she/they pronouns.


      Of course, by this definition Andrew Scheldorf could have been simply referred to as “he” in the article, perhaps saving the reader some confusion.

  5. Next up from academia: why people who don’t like to eat wild oranges are heteronormative bigots!

    Also, I can’t help noticing that Scheldorf’s attempt to avoid “the stereotypical gender binary” by insisting on “stamen-containing or pistil-containing” and “seed-bearing parent or pollen-bearing parent,” merely produces more binaries that are just renamed versions of what he wants to avoid.

  6. Sometimes discrimination just means knowing what tastes good. My father would have said that the real issue is that there are so many good varieties of apples that one know longer sees in stores.

  7. “Does apple cultivation reflect bigotry?”

    In a sense, yes.

    The apple orchard — or, “apple orchard” — being a cis-het white social construct, organizes not a textual nihilism, nor a neo-capitalist reversion, but replicates the sexist sub-text of our racist paradigm itself.

    In a sense, prior generations of oppression (e.g. the ancestral apple farmer bigots) are focused in a Foucaltian modal-deconstructivist realism.

    If textual neodeconstructivist theory holds, we have to choose between the
    materialist paradigm of consensus (e.g. apple juice) and Sartreist absurdity (e.g. apple cider).

    At last, it is in Borat where bigotry’s reach was articulated with utmost clarity, in the declaration :

    “Great Success!”

  8. Of course. Plants have sex. So naturally the banners of careerist virtue signaling are spreading from the animal kingdom to the plant kingdom. I only wonder why it took so long. So for a source of pollen we need to say stamen-containing parent bc we can’t be sure if that flower did not identify as a pistil bearer!
    If it hasn’t happened already, the terminology in electrical wiring will have to be seen as an enforcement of oppressive heteronormative roles. So references to male and female plugs of course need to be expunged.

  9. “bodies with vaginas” as a substitute for “female”

    Not all bodies with vaginas are female. To use a specific example, Caster Semenya was thought to be female with he was born in rural South Africa (based on observable anatomy). He is actually a 46,XY male with a DSD.

  10. Doctoral student discovers humans prefer some things and not others, has revelation that preferences extend to other humans, apparently limited to marginalized humans.

  11. I wonder if (he/they) would consider moving this valuable line of thought to banana cultivation (much less diverse than apples)… anyone temped to eat a wild banana? Apparently the flavor and texture are OK, but it’s largely made of seeds.

    I’m always a little perplexed by the “uses the pronouns” statement. When talking about oneself, me, my, when talking to someone, you, your (which has twice autocorrected to you’re), so the he/they is nor “using the pronouns”, just attempting to influence someone who is talking about them (they?) to a third party. I just don’t feel like I have or want that level of control over others, although I’ve probably gone more than 60 years since anyone “misgendered” me (if ever), so perhaps I’m not sensitized.

    1. People have refused to use my unitary plant naming system for years! All plants are called Bob…now its all in the inflection of Bob…but now we know all the names of every plant!

      If no one else uses your terminology it’s about as useful as my Bob naming system.

    2. It’s a power thing. I was helping set fence posts for a nature conservancy. The employee of the non-profit who was supervising us volunteers had to take a call from another outfit during which she had to discuss a person who used to work for the one and had applied for a job at the other. So check two people of two different outfits were talking about a third person not present and who didn’t work for either of them….but used “they” pronouns. The supervisor is a regular normal person (although she signs her emails with she/her pronouns to go along I guess.). The poor thing was walking on eggshells the whole call—I even heard her apologize in advance for probably getting it wrong—fearful of stumbling and not saying “they” every time. If it had got back to the job candidate that a “she” had slipped out, by either of them ratting on the other which would have been the only way, all kinds of trouble could have happened to the offender.

      Welcome to the modern workplace.

  12. I come from a long line of fruit racists. Every year as a kid I would kidnap hundreds of crabapples from their parent tree in my mom’s garden. Then my mom would murder the crabapples, cook their corpses, and (op)press the juice from them to make jelly. Adding insult to this delicious injury, we would then thoughtlessly throw the exhausted husks back into the garden as compost.


    I’m embarrassed to say that I hesitated briefly to make fun of this poor mixed-up grad student. After recent comments on this site, I realized that fascists and Republicans also make fun of clout-chasing they/them enbies. And who wants to share an opinion with fascists?

    But then I channelled my inner Ricky Gervais and realized that I don’t care.

    On reflection, the saddest part is that I do care a little bit because I’m still pseudonymous here. Fascists and Republicans don’t scare me, but my university does.

    1. Mike, be careful. One day you might share a political stance with a–gasp!–right-wing religious believer. Then it won’t matter how many apples you took a bite from; you’ll be cast into whatever the leftist authoritarians perceive as hell these days. Not that their heaven is hell. Nah.

    1. It’s meaningless as language, but can be useful as a shield. Enbies adopt a cheap cloak of oppression that can protect against criticism of other traits or flaws (e.g., that selective breeding of apple varieties is hopelessly outdated and slow and imprecise in the age of Crispr/Cas9).

      1. that selective breeding of apple varieties is hopelessly outdated

        I recall a report in American Scientist, about 15 years ago, about apple genetics and breeding – which also came out of a Geneva-based study, which surprised me ; I never associated apples and Switzerland before then) – where they went into some detail on the genetics of apples, which identified the precursor species of modern cultivars. But they made a point that conventional cross-breeding in apples was an unreliable “pain in the proverbials”.
        Obviously, they’re still trying to work on the problem of breeding apples – their sex in effect. I can’t remember why apples are particularly recalcitrant in this respect – jumping genes, or just lots of mutually-interacting genes that leave a very “flat” fitness landscape (in Dawkins’ “Climbing Mount Improbable” metaphor).
        Commercially, their work is unlikely to be of any significance, because some time back in the late Middle Ages, people worked out how to graft apple trees to propagate more trees, and developed a range of “rootstock” variants that do the “in ground” part of being an apple tree, and (I forget the correct term) “fruitstock” variants that are grafted onto the root stock to actually grow the marketable fruit. While an orchard is still going to be used as an orchard (as opposed to becoming a housing estate, grain field, whatever), the commercial growers will be leaving the rootstocks in the ground, and if they choose to change variants, they’ll graft new “fruitstocks” onto their orchard and as they start to produce fruit can change over the orchard to a different variety in a handful of years – as opposed to the couple of decades that changing the “rootstocks” would take.
        Maybe they can generate a new line of trees that can propagate sexually, but without the drifting of properties that apples have long been prone to. But they’ll still have to work past the commercial aspects of how the plants are propagated.
        Quite likely, they’ll come up with new flavoured (let’s say, an orange-flavoured apple) cultivars, which can be propagated sexually, but which come to commercial significance by being grafted onto existing rootstocks. Because that can happen far far faster than growing new rootstocks of the newly invented cultivar.

    2. When the other “Doug” and I each comment on the same post, I have always wondered whether we should go by “he/they”.

      Somebody please advise! Edit: Ha, just saw the above post. Sorry, Mike, I’m not stalking you.

  13. First thing I thought was that this could be seen as a representative case of ideology without foresight, but then isn’t this just tautological?

    OK, the research itself seems quite interesting and even though attempts to cross wild apples with domesticated ones have been done before, with the new molecular tools available it is now possible to look into stuff that either was overlooked or simply was difficult to study in the past.

    However, doesn’t he understand that if his (can I use his? I’m very confused with these pronouns) population is actually marketable, most likely will turn into a new variety of domesticated apple, thus perpetuating the very bigotry he’s so proudly against to?

    Also, “stamen-containing or pistil-containing, seed-bearing parent or pollen-bearing parent”? Really? I have no words for this …

    1. Well, as it happens, there are words available to describe male and female flowers: ‘staminate and pistillate’, respectively. Flowers lacking one or the other of two sex organs are given the term ‘imperfect’, or ‘unisexual’. Flowers with both sex organs are known as ‘perfect’ or ‘bisexual’. (p 143, Vascular Plant Systematics, by Radford, Dixon,Massey and Bell).

  14. I wonder if

    Andrew Scheldorf (who is said to identify as queer and uses the pronouns “he/they”)

    has heard the hypocrisy between that statement and the following – his very own words?

    In STEM we are taught to not insert ourselves into our research, don’t let your personality, your opinions, your standpoints in.

  15. Interestingly, Granny Smith apples are exactly the kind of cross breed that is being discussed. A woman called Maria Ann Smith who live in Sydney, Australia experimented with apple pies made from Crab Apples ( Malus sylvestris) and discarded the cores in her garden. A seedling came up and it has been suggested that the male parent was Rome Beauty. Maria apparently was known locally as Granny Smith and that hybrid apple took her name. This variety is thought to be an ancestor of Braeburn, Pink Lady and Jazz apples

  16. I am not so sure that the phrase ‘wild-type’ is obsolete. I did some tutoring in Biology / Genetics a few years ago and the term ‘wild-type’ was heavily used. I typed ‘wild type’ into Google and got 88 million hits. The Wikipedia page for ‘wild type’ has no hint that the term in outdated.

Leave a Reply