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  • Writer's pictureEsmé L. K. Partridge

Is Nature Non-Binary?

Published in The Critic.

Everyone seems to be embracing gender fluidity these days, but one species — the white-throated sparrow — has apparently been flying ahead of the curve. These birds, native to Canada and New England, were non-binary long before the term existed; at least, this is how twitter scientists have recently interpreted a 2017 article about the “fascinating and complicated sex lives” of the passerines, which found that they often adopt the physical and behavioural characteristics of the opposite gender through a peculiar biological process.

The article, by bird conservationist Kenn Kauffman, describes how although male white-throated sparrows have white stripes by default, about half of them later acquire tan-coloured stripes that are typical of females. When they do so, they also exhibit typically feminine behaviours, such as looking after the young. Vice versa, about half of tan-striped female sparrows take on white stripes along with typically masculine behaviours like defending the nest. Regardless of sex, “white-striped birds are more aggressive while tan-striped birds are more nurturing”, rendering the sparrows, in a sense, gender fluid.

Unsurprisingly, this research comes as a godsend to progressives hoping to denounce the gender binary as a social construct that humans have wrongly imposed upon themselves and the rest of creation. Committing a kind of naturalistic fallacy, they assume that if a male white-striped sparrow can “morph” into a tan-striped one with female characteristics, then it is only natural that human beings should too be able to self-determine their identities in ways that contradict their sex. This was the reading of science journalist Laura Helmuth who, in a ratioed tweet, shared the article with the comment “P.S. Nature is amazing. P.P.S. Sex is not binary”.

There are plenty of philosophical critiques to be made of such a view. In one fell swoop, it disregards the ontological principle, upheld from Ancient Greece to the Abrahamic traditions, that human beings have been set above other animals and so cannot be morally equated with them. For Plato, we are uniquely capable of realising a divine, rational order of existence, which demands that we overcome the irrationalism of animal nature. Likewise in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, man - being made in the image of God - is unique in his ability to make order out of chaos, with civilisation being the means through which this is achieved on a massive scale. Essentially, human beings are not like other animals, and our particular customs and “constructs” attest to this. To judge them according to how different species behave is, at least from this perspective, erroneous.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the fact that Helmuth’s line of reasoning - and, more generally, the appeal to nature to justify sexual antinomianism - is as old as liberalism itself. Though the tweets about non-binary birds may seem to arise from a uniquely postmodern confusion of categories (and the uniquely absurd culture wars of 2023), the sentiment actually goes back to the 18th century. It was then that natural science first became wielded against traditional institutions such as marriage, the legitimacy of which liberals then tried to undermine with recourse to botany. That’s right: before there were non-binary birds, there were polyamorous plants.

It all began in 1735 when the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae, an index of different plant species which classified them by their reproductive parts. His taxonomy, which grouped those with the same number of male stamens together along with sub-groups determined by the number of female pistils, was the first of its kind. What's more, it was also the first to explicitly compare the stamina and pistils to penises and vaginas, using language that can only be described as florid: Linnaeus likened male plants to “husbands” and females to “wives” with petals for wedding gowns, painting a promiscuous picture of flowers with multiple reproductive partners.

Linnaeus’ nuptial imagery was probably only intended as a poetic flourish, but at a time when natural science was becoming increasingly wedded to criticism of traditional religion, it went on to inspire interpretations of a more political nature: if flowers had multiple “husbands” and “wives”, then why did human beings confine themselves to monogamous marriages which so often stifled their desires? This was the rhetoric of the Enlightenment thinker Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, who found in nature a less limiting way of life.

In his philosophical poem The Loves of Plants, he presented plant polyamory as a romantic ideal that was more “natural” than Christian monogamy, citing the Otaheites (Tahitians) as an example of humans who also practised it. In his footnote to a stanza inspired by Linneaus, he claimed that they would have ceremonies in which 100 males and 100 females would, like the flowers, form “one promiscuous marriage”:

Pair after pair, along his sacred groves

To Hymen's fane the bright procession moves;

Each smiling youth a myrtle garland shades,

And wreaths of roses veil the blushing maids;

Light joys on twinkling feet attend the throng,

Weave the gay dance, or raise the frolic song;

Thick, as they pass, exulting Cupids fling

Promiscuous arrows from the sounding string;

On wings of gossamer soft Whispers fly,

And the sly Glance steals side-long from the eye.

As round his shrine the gaudy circles bow,

And seal with muttering lips the faithless vow,

Licentious Hymen joins their mingled hands,

And loosely twines the meretricious bands.--

Thus where pleased Venus, in the southern main,

Sheds all her smiles on Otaheite's plain,

Wide o'er the isle her silken net she draws,

And the Loves laugh at all, but Nature's laws." (The Loves of Plants, 469-486)

The poem’s last line, “the Loves laugh at all, but Nature’s laws”, can be taken to summarise Erasmus Darwin’s philosophy: the laws of nature are the only real laws, and anything which contradicts them must be an arbitrary social construct. Such a view supplants the Christian natural law tradition — which holds that human beings are accountable to a divine law distinct from that of other creatures — with an atheistic appeal to “nature” per se, now conceived as a kind of romantic chaos. Implying that human beings are essentially no different to plants, Darwin suggests we would be much happier if we simply embraced primordial anarchy.

The only thing stopping us, he lamented, were the “superstitions” of religion. Monogamy, he believed, was one of those conventions that mother nature would surely scoff at, and yet had been allowed to suppress true sexual and emotional fulfilment on the grounds of man-made doctrines. Like the romantics who followed him, he believed that human civilisation needed to kill off such artificial growths and to go “back to nature”, setting out a deterministic view of progress as the force which would inevitably do so:

“Here Time’s huge fingers grasp his giant mace,

And dash proud Superstition from her base.” (The Loves of Plants, 183-4)

Darwin was not alone in using the new scientific discoveries to advance sexually liberal ideas. The orientalist Sir William Jones also drew on Linnaeus’ work to demonstrate the apparent promiscuity of the natural world, and the scholar Richard Payne Knight (better known, not unrelatedly, for his obsession with phallic imagery) criticised marriage for going against the flux of desire: “fix’d by laws, and limited by rules”, he wrote, “affection stagnates and love’s fervour cools”. What these thinkers all had in common was an idealised view of a primitive “state of nature” that proved central to Enlightenment liberalism.

In the centuries that followed, time’s fingers did indeed dash “superstition” from its base, with secularism and scientism furthering the view that mankind was no different from the rest of nature. With the decline of Christianity came a decline in the consensus that humans had access to a higher, divinely ordered way of life, and thus that there were inherent moral distinctions between plant, animal and human behaviours. As belief in the supernatural faded, so did the ancient vision of a hierarchical cosmos pointing to the sacred in a “great chain of being”; all things were now assumed to exist on the same profane plane.

It is out of this radically egalitarian and yet fundamentally disenchanted worldview that modern liberals, like their 18th century predecessors, look to nature to justify their antinomianism. They tell us that monkeys are “poly”, ducks are “queer” and clownfish are “gender-bending”, and that — just like the Enlightenment Encyclopedists who sought scientific knowledge to denounce superstition — “bigotry is bull when you’ve got the facts”. Yet, as with Darwin, their use of the “facts” is itself politicised and selective; they may claim that nature is more neutral than the social constructs they seek to denounce, but they are just as guilty of imposing their own ideology onto it.

What’s more, their equation of human beings with animals turns out to be highly compatible with the very capitalist culture that they claim to oppose. Capitalism — having discovered that self-restraining subjects do not make for especially profitable ones — actively encourages us to embrace our animal nature by giving in to our most carnal and irrational desires. Along with liberalism, it thrives upon the abandonment of religious morality, and tells us that we not only can but should unleash the beast within, be it in the form of “impulse-buying”, comfort eating or sleeping with strangers.

In this sense, liberal capitalism turned the dream of Enlightened primitivism into a reality — but this reality has proved far less rosy than the botanical fetishists imagined. Instead of being liberated, we are really enslaved, caught in an endless holding pattern of desire and gratification that stunts our intellectual and spiritual growth. Especially in a technological age, the constant stimulation to which we are subjected leads — in the words of the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who criticised capitalism precisely because it inhibits the rational faculties that make us human — to “sheep, monkey and parrot behaviours”. Such a situation is far from dignifying, and reveals the dangers of denying human beings their potential to realise a higher mode of being.

The appeal to nature to denounce “bigotry”, then, is hardly radical. It stems from the same Enlightenment worldview that, using natural science to uproot superstition, planted the seeds of modern liberalism; gave way to the dehumanising tendencies of capitalism; and, paradoxically, has been responsible for the destruction of the natural environment itself by unleashing hubris, avarice and greed. In the end, “returning to nature” entails bringing out the worst in our nature, and it is this that the modern world has long exploited.

A far more radical move would be to restore a vision of creation as a complex and intricate system underpinned by order rather than chaos. By flattening the divine hierarchy, we collapse that which makes each species unique to the detriment of each one’s particular nature and purpose. Only upon reinstating these ontological distinctions can we get back to a “primordial” way of being; and only then can we resist the forces of modernity, which seem ever more intent on reducing us to lesser forms of life.

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