Imposing your ideology on nature: Kew Gardens celebrates “queer plants”

July 9, 2023 • 9:20 am

At the end of the Skeptical Inquirer paper I wrote with Luana Maroja, we explained one big reason for the ideological distortion of biology:

All the biological misconceptions we’ve discussed involve forcing preconceived beliefs onto nature. This inverts an old fallacy into a new one, which we call the reverse appeal to nature. Instead of assuming that what is natural must be good, this fallacy holds that “what is good must be natural.” It demands that you must see the natural world through lenses prescribed by your ideology. If you are a gender activist, you must see more than two biological sexes. If you’re a strict egalitarian, all groups must be behaviorally identical and their ways of knowing equally valid. And if you’re an anti-hereditarian—a blank slater who sees genetic differences as promoting eugenics and racism—then you must find that genes can have only trivial and inconsequential effects on the behavior of groups and individuals. This kind of bias violates the most important rule of science, famously expressed by Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

And, unfortunately, one of the institutions that’s succumbed to the “reverse naturalistic fallacy” is the venerable Kew Gardens in London, site of a ton of famous botanical research, including work by Darwin, who requested material from Kew. As Wikipedia notes, Kew is home to

the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world”.[1] Founded in 1840, from the exotic garden at Kew Park, its living collections include some of the 27,000 taxa curated by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, while the herbarium, one of the largest in the world, has over 8.5 million preserved plant and fungal specimens. The library contains more than 750,000 volumes, and the illustrations collection contains more than 175,000 prints and drawings of plants. It is one of London’s top tourist attractions and is a World Heritage Site.

How sad, then, that Kew, bending to the ideological winds of the time, has put on an exhibit, “Queer Nature”, whose aim is to show that, yes, plants are “queer”.  In so doing, it apparently hopes to show queer humans that “queerness” is instantiated in plants, too. And this is supposed to empower queer humans.

First, though, what, exactly does “queer” mean in this context?  As I commented to a reader below,

We’re not talking about what “queer theory” is but about what “queer” means. Here’s a definition that seems to occur quite frequently, this in a discussion of what the initials in LGBTQ2S mean:

Q – Queer: queer is a broad term that includes all sexual orientations and gender identities within the LGBTQ2S+ community, including those who don’t identify with any other identity in LGBTQ2S+. The term queer can be both positive and negative. Historically, queer was used as an insult, but it has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ2S+ community to self identify in a positive way.

In other word, it appears to cover all the initials.

But “queerness” is a social concept concocted by humans and has nothing to do with plants. (And I hasten to add that I see nothing wrong with queerness in humans; my point is to show that Kew is trying to impose a human concept onto nature, which is one of the points of my paper with Luana.)  The Kew exhibit is at once cringe-making and patronizing.

Here’s the tweet.

Click on the screenshot to read this short and misguided description from Kew, which appeared four days ago:

Here are a few quotes demonstrating what I mean:

The natural world is anything but straight-forward.

Scientists have named over 350,000 plants species and almost 150,000 fungal species but it’s impossible to find a way of classifying everything into a simple binary system.

Take flowers, for instance. Many plants have flowers with both stamen and stigma, reproductive organs that are sometimes called the ‘male’ and ‘female’ parts of the flower.

Whilst other plant species have ‘male’ and ‘female’ individuals that only grow one type of flower on a single plant. The monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), for instance, grows with either pollen cones or seed cones.

First, note that “male” and “female” are put in scare quotes? Why? Male and female plants are similar to male and female mammals: each individual is a member of just one sex. This is like saying “humans have two sexes comprising ‘male’ and ‘female’ individuals.”  Casting doubt on the sex binary much??

The fact that flowers are hermaphrodites doesn’t either buttress or denigrate “queerness”. These are hermaphrodites, and hermaphrodites are not known in humans in a form that is fertile as both male and female. (We do have some human hermaphrodites, but they are almost vanishingly rare and are never fertile as both male and female.) They are not a third sex but have bits of reproductive apparatus evolved to produce sperm and eggs. More:

Ruizia mauritiana can actually change sex depending on the temperature of the environment.  In hot conditions it grows male flowers, while in cooler conditions it produces female ones.

Similarly, some species of Cycnoches orchids, better known as swan orchids, produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant, depending on how much sunlight it receives.

Temperature-dependent sex determination is known in animals (turtles are one example), and environmental determination of sex is known in other animals (the famous clownfish, in which males can become females if the alpha female dies). Again, what does this do to justify, or even mirror, queerness in humans? As far as I can see, nothing. Humans don’t have environmental determination of sex, and none of these “queer” plants or animals show the social or psychological concomitants of queer humans. They also mention fungi, which have “mating types” that can number in the hundreds, but this is the exception among organisms and not seen as “sexes” by biologists. Even if they were, would you call fungi sexually “queer”?. All vertebrates and vascular plants show male or female sexes, in plants with the male and female functions sometimes combined into one individual.

Here is where the ideology becomes clear; we’ve already learned that Kew’s use of “queer” doesn’t simply mean “odd” or “unusual”:

This autumn, we’re celebrating the diversity and beauty of plants and fungi with an inspiring new festival, Queer Nature, at Kew Gardens.

Step inside Kew’s iconic Temperate House to discover a large-scale suspended artwork at its centre.

Created by New York based artist Jeffrey Gibson, House of Spirits is an immersive installation fusing vibrant colour and pattern.

The intricately-crafted collage of printed fabrics incorporates botanical illustrations alongside language and patterns informed by Gibson’s own perspectives on queerness, and the endless diversity of plants and nature.

Gibson draws upon his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage as well as queer theory, politics and art history as part of his multi-disciplinary practice.

. . .Breaking the binary

Elsewhere in the Temperate House, visitors can discover a newly-designed garden titled Breaking the Binary, created by Patrick Featherstone in collaboration with Kew’s Youth Forum.

Sorry, but plants don’t break the binary of two sexes, male and female (see below). But wait—there’s more!

Raising queer voices

British artist and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman will design an immersive space to house a film-based installation, featuring interviews with over a dozen horticulturists, scientists, authors, drag artists and activists as they explore what Queer Nature means to them.

, , , Queer plants of the Temperate House

. . . Inside the house, you’ll find the sex-switching Ruizia mauritiana, which is now believed to be extinct in the wild. Kew is now the only place in the world with it in cultivation.

You’ll also be able to see species of Banksia, Australian wildflowers that begin as female, then shift over time to become male.

Here we have the clownfish of plants. But again, Banksia has nothing to do with human sex roles or identification.

Finally, we have the declaration that all of nature is queer:

What makes nature queer? [JAC: I’ve put the last two lines in italics to emphasize them.]

As well as refusing to conform with socially-constructed binaries that science has applied to them over the years, plants and fungi have also been used as symbols for LGBTQ+ groups throughout history.

The green carnation became a symbol for homosexuality in the early 20th century, due to Oscar Wilde’s wearing of it, at a time when being openly gay was still a criminal offence.

Since the mid-20th century, the colour lavender was used to represent gay communities across the world.

Looking at plants and fungi through a queer lens sheds a new light on the complexity and infinite possibilities of nature, highlighting the vital importance of conserving biodiversity and protecting the natural world.

That’s why it’s the perfect time to celebrate Queer Nature. Why not join us this autumn and discover the true diversity of the natural world?

I don’t identify as queer, but I bet if I did I would find this infinitely patronizing. You don’t need to find “queer” plants in nature, which aren’t even close to being “queer” in the human sense, to justify your existence as a queer human and your demands for and rights of moral and legal equality.  What Kew is doing here is trying to tell queer people that they shouldn’t feel bad because, after all, there are queer plants. And if queerness can be seen in plants, it must be okay!.  How dumb and patronizing can you get? And shame on Kew for such a pandering and biologically inaccurate presentation.

Finally, I’ll give the take of one reader, a botanist, who wrote the following to me (quoted with permission):

At the Kew link, they bang on about the ‘diversity’ of plant sexual systems, as a way of implying that plants are ‘queer’. In addition to the commandeering of words like “diversity” and “queer” to mean other things, this really makes me both angry and sad. Sad, first, to see such a venerated institution as Kew go the way of Lysenko, joining other scientific organisations on this issue that you’ve been drawing attention to. Angry, because they seem to be misrepresenting plant sex as something it isn’t—for political purposes.

Their chief claim here is a relatively mild one, but totally false: that plant sex isn’t binary. The implication is, I suppose, that botany supports transgenderism and homosexuality.

Except plant sex IS binary.

  • First, all land plants are anisogamous, producing two and only two types of gamete: sperms and eggs. Binary.
  • Second, every sexually-produced plant embryo results from fusion of one sperm and one egg. Binary.
  • In land plants, it’s the gametophyte generation that produces gametes. In seed plants the gametophytes (male pollen grains and female embryo sacs) are unisexual and remain so throughout their short lives. Binary.
  • Of course, the plants most people are familiar with, the roses and cabbages in the garden, are sporophytes, not gametophytes. Sporophytes produce spores, not gametes, and in most plants, spores are sexed, anisospory. In seed plants, they’re always so, either male or female. Binary.
  • Most seed plant sporophytes produce both kinds of spores. That doesn’t make them queer or non-binary; they’re just hermaphrodites—like many other living things—producing both types (binary) of spore instead of just one. There are many ways that hermaphrodite sporophytes separate their male spore and female spore production in both space (herkogamy) and time (dichogamy).

But in the end, whether plant sex is binary or not says nothing about what humans do, still less about what humans should do. Sex involves two gametes because sexual organisms are diploids, and usually these gametes are differentiated into male and female.

27 thoughts on “Imposing your ideology on nature: Kew Gardens celebrates “queer plants”

  1. “. . . plants and fungi have also been used as symbols for LGBTQ+ groups throughout history.” Then gives just two examples — from the 20th century.

  2. There is a list – hopefully a short one – of biologists who have taken up the cause of gaslighting the public and students on basic definitions in science in order to fit this post-modernist ideology. But a sign that this ideology is a pseudoscience is there are zero examples where any of the biologists among them step up and say: ‘No! That is a step too far. That is incorrect!’ A science features corrective measures from within the population that participates in an area, while a pseudoscience does not.
    So now we have claims about queer plants and sparrows with multiple sexes, all put out there without rebuttal from the slightly more temperate ideologues among them. If there are more temperate ideologues among them.

    1. “But a sign that this ideology is a pseudoscience is there are zero examples where any of the biologists among them step up and say: ‘No! That is a step too far. That is incorrect!’”

      Funny, that’s what religion does too, isn’t it. It’s folded in with subversion here as well, so it is complicated to see each separately.

  3. I’m glad everyone (including myself) is learning precisely what queer means – and “queering”. I find the typical allusion to Oscar Wilde in the queer literature laughable. Wilde was, best I know, simply gay, but a great writer.

    Here’s Queer theory – I urge everyone to read the definition which is directly from queer writers in the queer literature at the top of this link :

    Judith Butler’s writing is a marvel to behold.

    The best thing is that children of any age now know about the “queer family” they can find “on the street”, to “explore” “alternate modes of kinship” (those are examples of exact language and claims of queer literature). To get more examples used to support “queerness” from “history”, just check the graphic novels they have. It’s subversion.

    … just like plants! Gee, I almost forgot the point of the queer plants in all that, it must be irrelevant to see some relationship there.

    Gay / lesbian is not subversion – it is plain same-sex attraction, if I follow Andrew Sullivan’s reasoning on this.

    Personally, I’m with Titania McGrath on this – “ecosexual”.

    Thank you Queer Gardens!

    1. That’s fine and dandy, but how are the plants going to choose
      which gender they want to be called ?

  4. The saddest thing about it all is that their arguments are perfectly irrelevant to the issues they are dealing with. They have a perfect right to live their lives as they want to and be accorded all the rights and respect as anybody else. Period. They are shooting themselves in the foot by trying to bolster their claims with bogus arguments. Their opponents need only point out the errors in these arguments to undermine their claims to simple human rights and to do so by the very standards they purport to be using. It is terribly frustrating to watch them doing this.

    1. But that will never happen because the Critical Social Justice formula is expressly [1A] usurping genuine good nature / humanity, [1B] “exposing problematics” or genuine social inconsistencies / problems, then skipping any likelihood to lose that reasoned argument to [2] forward its own preconceived morality.

      Its subversion asserts the need for subversion in the first place.

    2. I don’t agree. The attempt to legitimize Queer identities through nature is absolutely critical to them “living their lives as they want to.” That’s because the right they focus on is that of self-determination: to have their sex discounted in favor of their self-image not only in society, but in law. And that can only happen if their mental self-assessment of whether they’re man, woman, both, or neither is placed on firmer rational ground than biological sex because biological sex is revealed to be a confused mess without boundaries.

      They’re not living the life they want unless they can rightfully access single-sex spaces and see people in some way punished for failing to affirm their gender identity. In the long run, this can’t rely on an approach of “be kind.” It’s going to require “this is scientific fact so you’re wrong.”

  5. “That’s why it’s the perfect time to celebrate Queer Nature. Why not join us this autumn and discover the true diversity of the natural world?” I am deeply disappointed that the Kew exhibition included no recognition my own group. We of the trans-plant community have discovered that, although assigned at birth to the human species, our true identity is within the plant kingdom, among the rainbow diversity of shrubberies and eggplants. But perhaps Kew Gardens will make up for this deficiency in their next exhibition, and highlight plants which think they are human.

  6. Dear Prof. Ceiling Cat, what you called the “reverse appeal to nature” is also known as the “moralistic fallacy”. The name was coined by the biologist Bernard Davis in the 1970s and Wikipedia defines it thus: “The moralistic fallacy is the informal fallacy of assuming that an aspect of nature which has socially unpleasant consequences cannot exist”.

    1. Yes, I realized that after we wrote the paper, and I’ve read Davis’s article. I believe the fallacy also has another name, though I can’t remember it now. Since there are at least three names, I’ll have to explain the fallacy when I use it regardless of what I call it. Thanks.

  7. Many gay men and lesbians angrily reject “queer” to describe themselves because the word was a slur for so long, and because “queer” has been repurposed by the TQIA2S+++ alphabet gang as an umbrella term that force teams gay men and lesbians with explicitly homophobic trans activists. Fred Sargeant’s twitter feed explains objections to this usage.

    1. “Queer theory” is a main element of post-modernism, drawing on Foucault and Judith Butler, among others. Gay men and lesbians may have various reasons for rejecting the term “queer” for themselves, as Mike notes. In particular, people like Kathleen Stock, who is a lesbian, and who has written about the reality of same-sex attraction, may be concerned with the denial of the reality of sex, where the denial of the reality of sex is fundamental in queer theory.

      1. We’re not talking about “queer theory” here but about what “queer” means. Here’s a definition that seems to occur quite frequently, this in a discussion of what the initials in LGBTQ2S means

        Q – Queer:
        queer is a broad term that includes all sexual orientations
        and gender identities within the LGBTQ2S+ community,
        including those who don’t identify with any other identity
        in LGBTQ2S+. The term queer can be both positive and
        negative. Historically, queer was used as an insult, but it
        has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ2S+ community to selfidentify in a positive way

        1. David M. Halperin – Foucault’s hagiographer – defined “queer” in the 80’s I think, emphasis mine :

          “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, and the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers, it is an identity without an essence.

          I need to get the exact quote to verify – but that is pretty close.

          Halperin is. AFAIK, an authority on this.

          1. In case my claim of “hagiographer” seems overblown, here is the title of Halperin’s book :

            Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995.

        2. Jerry, yes that more recent definition of queer exists. But many gay men and lesbians (like Dr. Stock) reject the reclamation in the last sentence because trans activists insist that same-sex sexual orientation is transphobic and hateful. One specific manifestation is the insistence by many trans women (males who are sexually attracted to females) that they are lesbians, and that other lesbians who won’t date or sleep with a trans woman just because he has a penis are by definition bigots.

  8. When becomming “queer” became not about the long, daunting, and painful process of actual physical transformation, but about simply announcing one’s queerness (sometimes overnight), then it became inevitable that this front of the culture war would be mainly about words, “narratives”, “framing” “breaking paradigms” and assorted sociobabble.
    Thus, there is no surprise it bleeds into art installations at natural history museums and botanic gardens.

  9. Long ago, the Los Angeles County Museum spent a load of money to move a large boulder unchanged from a quarry to the museum, the Seattle Art Museum hung a bunch of automobiles from the ceiling, and more recently the Smithsonian issued that memorable statement about words and numbers and such things being symptoms of “whiteness”. One might conclude that museum administrations are filled with pranksters who like to turn current fads into a joke,

  10. If Kew Gardens is into scientific misrepresentation, it should wheel out J B S Haldane: ‘Now, I suppose that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.’

  11. Celebrating the “queerness” of fungi—this is what happens when you eat too many magic mushrooms.

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