Natural’s Not in It

Countering biological essentialism with a biological futurism

If the 20th century promised better living through chemistry, the 21st century has promised better living through digital technology. Yet rather than gravitic ships, holodeck entertainment, tricorders, and radical equality among genders and races, we have talking assistants helping us buy things we don’t need, a technologically facilitated growth industry of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism, and a virtual reality platform owned by the same company that helped deliver the U.S. presidency to Donald Trump. Many of the societal ills we link to digital technology seem to have already happened to us, and it can feel like we have little control over them. This feeling is reinforced by metaphors of technological evolution that make it seem as though the always-on, precarious gig economy is the product of natural, biological forces we cannot stop.

But in fictional worlds, we can control technology again. While science fiction has provided the scripts that many technologists have used to create our disappointing future, it also plays an important epistemological role in the struggle against racism, sexism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, and capitalism. It invites us to consider that the ways societies are organized in the here and now are themselves contingent fictions. Science fiction reveals that the social facts many have taken for granted — things like gender, race, sex, class, hierarchy, and domination that are often attributed to “human nature” — are not inherently true and could be otherwise in the future. Technology can be distributed through non-hierarchical economies and social structures. And by describing in detail the potential technologies that could undergird different forms of life, science fiction demonstrates how versions of society where biology does not determine social worth might become durable.

Science fiction functions not only as a way to imagine the future but also a frame for decoupling nature from culture

Contemporary science fiction television series often perpetuate the idea that humans are at heart venal, violent, and greedy. Near-future theme parks of AI-driven robots in Westworld, for example, are portrayed as release valves for the baser human instincts, including rape and murder. Body-swapping, while maintaining one’s own consciousness and sense of identity, is a way to avoid the trauma of sexual assault in Altered Carbon. Digital technologies invented for episodes of Black Mirror from “Arkangel” to “Hated in the Nation” seem to follow an inexorable script in which tech companies invent new digital tools that further surveill people and extract natural resources. But this does not capture the full range of possible futures that the genre imagines. In fact, these visions of future technology are deeply conservative: They portray today’s social problems as built into human “nature,” inescapable and unalterable with or without new technology.

But science fiction is no longer the dystopian boy’s club it once was. From the revival of the popularity of Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin to the Hulu production of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to the influx of women and queer writers to the genre, including Malka Older and Annalee Niewitz, science fiction is increasingly a resource for imagining futures in which biology is no longer destiny.

At the moment, many designers, teachers, and technologists are turning to science fiction for inspiration for how to reimagine societies and their relationships to apparently natural facts. Speculative design conferences, influenced by speculative and science fiction, consider what “futures for all” would look like. Social science journals host debates about the role that speculation could play as a new method for fields like anthropology. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin’s Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology uses speculative design exercises to point out that the “facts” of society might not be grounded in natural orders at all — that this assumption is just a hangover of colonialism.

In these contexts, science fiction functions not only as a way to imagine the future but also a frame for decoupling nature from culture. Under contemporary capitalism, race, gender, sex, and other forms of classification and division appear to be seemingly immutable laws that govern our lives at work and in the home. Taking gender as a particularly potent example, cultural stereotypes position men as computer programmers and factory workers and breadwinners, and women as secretaries and care workers and caregivers. Role expectations extend to how people present themselves while doing these jobs: Men grow beards and women wear dresses. In many places and contexts, individuals who transgress or otherwise challenge their place in the gender binary are swiftly, even violently, sanctioned.

Due to a long legacy of sciences that try to explain human societies through biology, centuries of capitalist discipline, and deeply embedded linguistic conventions, social categories like gender often seem self-evident, even natural. Social scientists, however, have tried to break society free from nature before. To give an early example, in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Emile Durkheim defined a “social fact” as “any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint; or: which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations.” Social facts, in other words, exist independently of individuals and directed them to live in certain ways — for better, or worse. They sweep individuals up into the life of a society, shaping their interactions with institutions like school and religion as well as with co-workers and family members. Details of comportment that might seem to be freely chosen by individuals — what to wear, a hairstyle, a morning routine — are conditioned socially by one’s class, gender, family, and nationality, among other forces. Such social facts are experienced as inevitable by the individuals who dwell within them, in part due to the fact that they are widely shared by people in a particular nation or milieu.

But Durkheim’s method was to understand these facts as products of society, not as attributable to an external cause, like biology. While they felt like facts, they could only be true in the context that produced them. And while Durkheim made frequent analogies between social facts and biology in laying out this approach to the study of society, his aim was to cleanly separate them. He sought to develop techniques for describing the functioning of society as following rules and regularities unique to the social level of organization, even as race science and eugenics were gaining popularity by claiming that social hierarchies, patterns, and ills could be explained by biology, positioned as “nature” or “truth.”

In the process of doing things like remaking bodies, individuals and collectives open space for the creation of new social facts

But the separation Durkheim sought between social and biological facts was never made as tidily as he might have hoped. “Nature” has continued to haunt speculation about the conditions and norms of social life. In a turn he might not have anticipated, nature has become widely accepted as the bedrock for claims about social facts. This can be seen among the pied pipers of resurgent race science, like Charles Murray, who argue that differences in attainment, health, and ambition among those generally compelled to identify as a particular race are rooted in inborn biological differences in intelligence, self-control, and metabolism. Softer claims in a field as well-meaning as public health, such as the claim that exposure to lead is contributing to low achievement and criminality among Black American children, are close relations of the more bombastic claims. They still displace responsibility for social ills away from those in power and onto physiology, limiting the imagination of policy makers for addressing the oppression of Black people in the process. Computer programmers (like low-level Google employee James Damore) and economists (like former World Bank chief economist and Harvard president Lawrence Summers) biologize the social fact of sex, speculating on the biological unfitness of “females” to excel in mathematics and engineering. Most recently, Jordan Peterson has become the latest hero of adherents of evolutionary psychology, propelling himself to superstardom after resisting the use of the preferred pronouns of his students at the University of Toronto. For these men, the gender politics of modern workplaces and other social institutions merely reflect biological programming. Biological sex (itself far from fixed) is treated as a law-like force determining one’s place in society. If the social fact of sex is also a biological fact, the thinking goes, why bother educating or welcoming women in math and engineering at all, or promoting them through the ranks if they do manage to break in?

Yet even nature itself is a social fiction. The mutability of human biology, and the way that it can be further modified with or without reference to gender through the use of technology, ought to be the most obvious sign of that. The biological substrates that we read as sex (and that some still equate with gender) are less binary than once thought, with sex at both the genetic and physiological levels exhibiting significant variability. And from age-old tools like makeup and binders to modern gender-affirmation surgeries, surgical augmentations and reductions, and hormone therapies, “biological” sex and its relationship to gender can be reconfigured or reinforced at will — at least, for those with adequate financial resources, accepting social networks, and access to the right physicians. Despite what the Petersons, Damores, Summers, and Murrays of the world might say, biology is not necessarily fate, though society may make it hard to realize possibilities beyond what nature has programmed.

In the process of doing things like remaking bodies, individuals and collectives open space for the creation of new social facts. New social facts like “biology is malleable” or “biology does not determine one’s role in society” can open up more breathing space and greater opportunity for liberation from oppressive social arrangements. And if sex is not the same as gender and neither is destiny by way of nature, then other categories that have operated historically as axes of oppression need not determine one’s place in society either. Disrupting such naturalized, apparently biological facts ramifies outward to other social facts like race, class, occupation, educational attainment, nationality, disability, and more.

Upon close inspection, social facts might even start to look more like social fictions. That is, they begin to look less like inevitable facts about society or perfect reflections of underlying human “nature” and more like inventions of human culture that only apply to life as it is lived within narrowly prescribed limits. The “facts” we take for granted about society — even things that many people consider foundational to social order, like sexual binarism and the way it patterns the gender binary — are, in fact, mutable. Their mutability is often heightened with the help of technology. While social facts are often imposed, deadly, and oppressive, recognizing these facts as themselves fictional opens up new ways to be flexible, playful, and experimental with how we imagine future societies. Rewriting these facts as social fictions doesn’t divorce them from history, place, and context. But recognizing the constraints on our lives as social fictions, rather than natural facts, offers the utopian promise that we can be in control of our own stories again.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing in particular frequently turns up as a touchpoint in these conversations about how science fiction can be used as a tool to challenge the “facts” we take for granted about contemporary social life. Le Guin imagines societies in which social facts are shaken up by biologies and economies that operate otherwise.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, we are transported to Gethen, a planet of humans without stable binary sex. For two days a month, Gethenian bodies take on binary sexual characteristics and become fertile; only during this period do they experience sexual desire. (It is considered a form of perversity otherwise.) And in another of Le Guin’s novels, The Dispossessed, we peer into the society of Anarres, whose economic system has denaturalized the family. As on Earth, men and women, biologically male and female, couple and have children, but a centrally planned, moneyless economy has done away with the nuclear family. Children are raised communally, and parents are not committed to lifelong compulsory monogamy. Binary gender also does not carry much social importance and its economic consequences are largely neutralized.

In the real futures we seek to build, on Earth or elsewhere, those in control must resist the temptation to reproduce the “nature” of society and follow the lead of what people actually do and want

Both novels offer alternatives to the accepted social facts of sex, gender, and homo oeconomicus, exploring how they might turn out differently if the relationship between biology, politics, and colonialism is reconfigured. In Le Guin’s writing, changes in the relationship between nature and culture becomes the basis for believable alternative politics, affects, and technologies. It is not prediction but, as Malka Older puts it, a form of speculative resistance to the naturalization of hierarchy and oppression in our world.

But these alternative histories are not simple utopias. Nor are they just positing better versions of the expansion of digital surveillance imagined by Black Mirror or embedding human violence in artificial intelligences as in Westworld. Le Guin’s work, for example, posits futures in which the basic instincts and characteristics of so-called human “nature” are part of what has changed. Technology is built around society, responding to novel needs rather than only perpetuating old and problematic modes of business as usual. For instance, in The Left Hand of Darkness, the absence of some familiar problems, like the naturalization of binary sex as gender and as social roles, does not fix all of the planet’s problems. The countries of Gethen are at the brink of war, arguing over the distribution of resources within and between states, launching spy missions across borders, and debating how to distribute ownership over extraplanetary communication links. The diminishment of sex does not create a quiet, feminized world, though it does remake reproduction, romance, and family structure.

In other words, Le Guin’s multiplanetary futures instruct readers that to generate new social possibilities in fictional futures, we must be familiar with how human narratives and patterns of thought shape technology and social institutions today, in the real world. If technology and society are both more pliable than we think, they are also more continuous. As tech moguls start to consider establishing Martian colonies to escape the problems of Earth, the myth of starting new societies on the blank slates of new lands looms as a potential misinterpretation of the utopian implications of writers like Le Guin. In the not-so-distant past, the great fiction of the American frontier promised colonists the (false) opportunity to start over on an imagined blank slate. Coming to a different continent was supposed to allow them to throw off the hierarchies of their homelands and create a new society with different rules. Yet ultimately, the frontier myth turned out to be a powerful ideological tool for reinforcing sex, gender, family structure, and race among the colonizers and as a justification for the genocide of millions of indigenous people and the theft of their land. In the real futures we seek to build, on Earth or elsewhere, those in control must resist the temptation to reproduce their assumptions about the “nature” of society and follow the lead of what people actually do and want, especially of those who would remake the relationship between nature and society from the bottom up. The oppressive edifice of naturalized social facts must be chipped away, one moment at a time.

The work of Le Guin and other science fiction writers whose work chips away at the presumed links between nature and culture demand that we regard biological facts (like sex) as accidents of history and social facts (like gender, family organization, and capitalism) as open to reconfiguration. Science fiction socializes technology, creating a sandbox in which its role in mediating biology and society can be reimagined as well. In the process the genre creates space to propose alternative social fictions that take the place of the social arrangements that act as social facts in the “real” world. Embedded in worlds that don’t (yet) exist, liberated from tech bros on scooters, and freed from the baggage of biology and predestination, technology can be made to uphold different social orders. Science fiction gives us hope, then, because it shows us how human nature might be remade — but safely, at a speculative distance.

Danya Glabau researches, teaches, and writes, about gender, bodies, and technology in New York at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and NYU Tandon School of Engineering. She is working on a book on food allergies, gender, and capitalism.