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Stanford Report, March 5, 2003

'What Matters' to Joan Roughgarden: advocating diversity and rekindling protest


Respecting diversity and rekindling protest are what matter to Joan Roughgarden, a professor of biological sciences and of geophysics. Drawing on personal experiences as a transgendered woman and professional experiences as a mathematical ecologist, Roughgarden illuminated her views on topics ranging from hate crimes to biotechnology during a Feb. 26 talk in Memorial Church. Her talk was part of the "What Matters to Me and Why" series, sponsored by the Office of Religious Life to provide insight into the values of influential faculty and staff.

"We are what our bonds are," said Roughgarden. "That's the difference between coal and diamond -- both are made of carbon but they have different bonds."

We're connected, but we're different -- and that diversity occupies much of Roughgarden's thinking these days. She has written a book, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, coming soon from the University of California Press.

Advocating diversity is especially challenging within academia, she said: "We here in academia are primarily part of the problem and not part of the solution." Individual disciplines have their own rationales for suppressing and pathologizing diversity. In medicine especially, she said, diversity is pathologized in populations including transgendered people, gays and lesbians, women and even straight white males.

Straight white males?

"They too are being pathologized because almost all straight white men are circumcised," Roughgarden said. "There's a lot of banter back and forth as to whether circumcision is medically necessary. Well, from a biologist's point of view, imagine a species all of whose males require a surgical correction of their penis."

Roughgarden said every day someone at Stanford attempts to pathologize or marginalize her. "All I can say is it must also be true for other identifiable minorities, and it's given me a lot of insight into the sense of what it's like to appear before people with their thinking that you're sick or you're defective."

From the point of view of population genetics, Roughgarden said, the traits that tend to get labeled "defective" are far too common to be understood as genetic diseases. Lethal traits are present in a frequency equal to the mutation rate -- one in a million. And traits causing genetic diseases happen at about one in 100,000. "If one in 10 people, or one in 20 people, are gay or lesbian, that is three or four orders of magnitude more common than is consistent with a genetic disease interpretation."

Each person differs from the next by at least 60 genes, she said, but biological differences are not the issue. "The whole tapestry of biological difference is very broad, and it's absolutely incorrect scientifically to single out some of the colors in the rainbow as right and others as wrong."

Stanford needs to have a "true, broad and catholic concept of diversity," Roughgarden contended. "If you're a woman, you're not safe if gays and lesbians are not safe. If you're gay and lesbian, you're not safe if transgenders are not safe. ... No one of us is safe unless we are all safe." She pointed to the recent murder of Newark transgender teen Gwen Araujo as fresh evidence that hate persists.

What if they threw a revolution and nobody came?

Roughgarden also values diversity of thought -- and that may mean dissent. "The other thing that matters to me a lot at the moment is to rekindle, rejuvenate or reconstitute an ethic of protest here at Stanford, where protest is dead," said Roughgarden, who joined the faculty in 1972.

"I feel, for example, that it is wrong for Stanford to be involved in biotechnology as a player in the way it is without comment," she said. "I think it's wrong that we foster genetic engineering here. I think it's wrong that we endorse entrepreneurism as a way of life and as an ethic. And I think it's wrong to coin phrases like 'entrepreneurial learning' as though that is the way to learn. And it's wrong of course because not everyone is situated to play at entrepreneurship. Not everyone can leverage power into more power and more money. Nor is it clear that entrepreneurship and individualism, or the individualism that it's based on, is a good model for humanity."

Protesting a topic in her own field of biology, Roughgarden projected that biotechnology will prove a "net loss to humanity" when all the pros and cons weigh in. "It's all being sold to us because of the supposed health benefits, almost none of which have been obtained," she said.

When an audience member contended that genetic engineering was part of a continuum that begins with animal husbandry, Roughgarden called the argument "biotech propaganda."

"A gene is a history; a gene isn't just a strand of DNA," she explained. "They're taking an ahistorical molecule and putting it into a historical entity." Introductions of genes between species go way beyond what scientists could achieve with animal husbandry or plant breeding. "Making a dog with green iridescent fur using the big gene from a jellyfish is not simply breeding dogs."

Biotechnology often takes place outside the moral spotlight, she said. "The potential of biotechnology to become a weapons industry is much greater than it is to become a health industry because it's so easy to make a poison, so easy to make something that kills, so hard to make something that cures."

Roughgarden advocates that biotechnologists, who may feel pressure to participate in "weaponized" research such as redesigning anthrax, take a Hippocratic Oath of sorts to promise to protect the human gene pool and to promise to use biotechnology for peace.

The next speaker in the "What Matters to Me and Why" series, history Professor Joel Beinin, is scheduled for noon April 9 in Memorial Church.

Joan Roughgarden