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”. 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.
The more we learn about nature, the more we uncover how wildly diverse it is.
This autumn, join us in celebrating the diversity and beauty of plants and fungi with an inspiring new festival, Queer Nature.
— Kew Gardens (@kewgardens) July 6, 2023
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.
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.