Performance All the Way Down: Genes, Development, and Sexual Difference (science.culture)
An award-winning biologist and writer applies queer feminist theory to developmental genetics, arguing that individuals are not essentially male or female.
The idea that gender is a performance—a tenet of queer feminist theory since the nineties—has spread from college classrooms to popular culture. This transformative concept has sparked reappraisals of social expectations as well as debate over not just gender, but sex: what it is, what it means, and how we know it. Most scientific and biomedical research over the past seventy years has assumed and reinforced a binary concept of biological sex, though some scientists point out that male and female are just two outcomes in a world rich in sexual diversity.
In Performance All the Way Down, MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard O. Prum brings feminist thought into conversation with biology, arguing that the sexual binary is not essential to human genes, chromosomes, or embryos. Our genomes are not blueprints, algorithms, or recipes for the physical representation of our individual sexual essences or fates. In accessible language, Prum shows that when we look closely at the science, we see that gene expression is a material action in the world, a performance through which the individual regulates and achieves its own becoming. A fertilized zygote matures into an organism with tissues and organs, neurological control, immune defenses, psychological mechanisms, and gender and sexual behavior through a performative continuum. This complex hierarchy of self-enactment reflects the evolved agency of individual genes, molecules, cells, and tissues.
Rejecting the notion of an intractable divide between the humanities and the sciences, Prum proves that the contributions of queer and feminist theorists can help scientists understand the human body in new ways, yielding key insights into genetics, developmental biology, physiology. Sure to inspire discussion, Performance All the Way Down is a book about biology for feminists, a book about feminist theory for biologists, and a book for anyone curious about how our sexual bodies grow.
Praise for Performance All the Way Down: Genes, Development, and Sexual Difference (science.culture)
“Readers of [Prum’s] earlier work, including his 2017 book, The Evolution of Beauty, will find themselves intrigued by his continued engagement with feminist science studies—and he has done his homework. . . . Performance All the Way Down contains a lot of big ideas, both because of the biological content Prum strives to convey to his readers and because of the sophisticated nature of the feminist theory he mobilizes. . . . To understand the full scope of Prum’s vision, I encourage you to read it in full.”
“Prum offers a meticulous tour of the molecular pathways that underlie stereotypical sexual development in humans, as well as the myriad ways that any individual person’s development might differ. . . . If you read Performance All the Way Down, you’ll be presented with an abundance of interesting stories drawn from developmental biology, ecology, cultural anthropology, and more. My own copy is replete with dog-eared pages that had information I’m excited to think more about.”
— American Biology Teacher
“A renowned biologist meets queer theory, and creativity takes flight. A joyful and expansive celebration of the complexity and contingency of sex.”
— Sarah S. Richardson, Harvard University
“A powerful appeal for an intersectional rethinking of the science, materiality, and culture of human sex, Performance All the Way Down undoes the scientific justifications for categories of a sex and gender binary that have contributed scientific support to sexual oppression. Discussing biology, queer theory, and feminism together—in a shared vocabulary—Prum successfully expands intellectual space for queer feminist analysis and research within genetics, evolutionary biology, and developmental biology. This book will be discussed across the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences for years to come.”
— David A. Rubin, University of South Florida
“An ambitious, deeply interdisciplinary, and profound effort to grapple with the biological meanings of ‘sex.’ Prum tackles a set of crucial questions in a rigorous, thoughtful, and playful way, with implications that open up a landscape of transformative possibilities for the consideration of sex in biological research and scholarship.”
— Stacey A. Ritz, McMaster University