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.
Richard O. Prum is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University, and the head curator of vertebrate zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum. He is the author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us, one of the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2017” and a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.