The Frogs Are Never Wrong: The Scientific Importance of Queerness

The Frogs Are Never Wrong: The Scientific Importance of Queerness November 20, 2018

Biology is all about variation, but entrenched knowledge narrows our vision, according to a maverick scientist.

A colorful Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) sitting along a vine in its tropical setting.

Last week, Prof. Karen Warkentin delivered the annual University Lecture at BU’s Tsai Performance Center. This marked a long-overdue recognition not only of her unique ideas, but also of the important collaboration between biology and gender studies. (Full disclosure: my wife and I have been friends with Prof. Warkentin’s partner for many years. Neither of them has read my blog and both would probably disagree with like half of what I write.) The quotes below are from the program for the lecture, Diversity and Plasticity of Life: A Biologist’s Journey from Embryo Self-Defense to Sexual Behavior.

The Great Escape

Warkentin’s work on tree frogs focuses on embryonic development and environmentally-cued egg hatching. Her theory of “escape hatching” was initially met with ridicule by colleagues who refused to consider the possibility that frog embryos—deposited on leaves overhanging swampy water—could weigh the risks of hatching early to escape predation against the risks prematurely-hatched tadpoles would face in their aquatic environment. “Every herpetologist knows that if you jiggle well-developed frog eggs, they hatch. It doesn’t mean anything,” one reviewer of Warkentin’s early papers proclaimed.

Her vindication came after decades of hard work and ingenuity in using technology to measure and record the effects of various types of vibrations on egg clutches and theorizing about the embryos’ ability to assess environmental threats. Biochemical analyses of the hatching enzymes the tree frogs excrete to escape their egg capsules strongly suggest that hatching mechanisms are much more complex and diverse in frog lineages than previously supposed.

From our work, and work in many other labs, we now know that environmentally cued hatching is very widespread. It has been found in all 15 families of amphibians where people have looked for it, but not all embryos respond to all kinds of threats and some can change their hatching timing more than others. It has also been broadly documented in other animals, from flatworms, mollusks, and insects to fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Embryos respond to risks, and they respond to opportunities. Like later life stages, embryos are subject to natural selection in variable environments and show a variety of plastic responses. For many embryos, the ability to appropriately time hatching is critical for their success in life.

The Unique Perspective

This advance in scientific understanding isn’t just about phenotypic plasticity. It’s also about the value of an outsider perspective. Warkentin credits her queer identity as the source of her ability to see possibilities other scientists ignored, to deal with the misunderstanding of the male hierarchy of scientific inquiry, and to define research objectives in her own unique way. The hatching mechanism of frog species turned out to be closely interrelated with the behavior of frog parents whose sex-defined roles in the protection of egg clusters varied widely across species. On many levels, the assumptions scientists make about biology and gender precedes the evidence of how biology truly works.

Prof. Warkentin realized when the validity of her research became clear that our preconceived notions of nature created blind spots for scientists that could only be circumvented through a perspective that appreciated possibility:

If I were a different person, I would never have discovered escape-hatching. My PhD advisor at the University of Texas, Michael Ryan, was focused on sexual selection—how males compete for females and females choose males as mates. […] As a queer young biologist, much as I appreciated the importance of reproduction, I had no intention of making frog heterosexuality my research focus. I wanted to study natural selection, addressing basic questions of survival, and to work with frogs in their early life stages, when their sex was neither obvious nor relevant to my research. I needed to find my own research question.

Preconceptions and Paradigms

“Examining the record of past research from the vantage point of contemporary historiography,” wrote Thomas Kuhn, “the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.” Let’s not make it sound like science is “self-correcting” and that researchers like Karen Warkentin shatter paradigms because of the evidence. If we do that, we forget the extent of the marginalization and abuse that mavericks like Warkentin have to suffer. The scientific facts created by the research of people like Prof. Warkentin owe a lot to a mentality that prizes originality over orthodoxy.

What do you think? Do all researchers see phenomena in the exact same way, or are there differences in perspective that could affect our scientific understanding of the objects of study? Is science just not queer enough?

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  • “Do all researchers see phenomena in the exact same way, or are there differences in perspective that could affect our scientific understanding of the objects of study?”

    Oh, absolutely the latter. I remember when Bateman’s research on promiscuity using fly populations–taken as a given for decades after–did not hold up in more recent attempts at replication. The following article attests to that paradigm “shift”, along with related others, that arose in part from a change in researcher perspective:

    …However, what really gets me, as a student of literary histories, is the fact that a simple overview of our written record makes abundantly clear that different eras had different myths about women’s sexuality–some suggesting that women were *by far* the more lustful sex, in need of calm male guidance to protect them against their greater susceptibility to such sins. If we lived in a world with better intersections between these fields, perhaps contemporaneous biases toward tedious male/female binaries could be better mitigated in scientific practice?

    Either way, a joy of an article, Shem! (I keep assuming that’s what you prefer to be called due to your blog name–apologies if you’d prefer the other!) Thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks for responding, M.L. Or is it Maggie? I don’t mind Shem or Steve. One’s a persona, the other’s a person.

    I fully agree that cultures impose order on scientific observation and not vice versa. People like us who are fascinated with narrative have no problem recognizing the folkloric way we relate to empirical inquiry. The Copernican revolution appropriated the Sun God mythology that validated the authority of the old priest-kings; Darwin’s voyage to South America is like a Homeric hero journey; and rhetoric about science “taming Time and Space” and “decoding the Universe” is so mythic it’s almost funny. Science is a human endeavor, with all the personal, political and cultural baggage that implies. Most of us can only relate to it through narrative.

    Note that the science fans stay away in droves whenever there’s a discussion about actual science and not just the weaponized factoids that are deployed in the fundie-bashing debates you discuss in the latest post on your blog. Isn’t it almost enough to make you suspect that maybe science isn’t the real issue?

  • Interesting piece, Shem, although I don’t buy the premise that Karen’s homosexuality is what led her to the unorthodox study of ”escape hatching” of frogs. I would think any scientist looking for something unusual to study — homo, hetero or trans — would eventually find this very interesting topic to investigate. I’m wary of the idea that men, for instance, are generally and usually blinded by patriarchal privilege in response to their environments. I think many of us can rise above that and be objective. Fascinating that some frog embryos seem to have the capacity to time their ”delivery” into the world.

  • David Miller

    Science does correct & self-improve itself. Scientists are human, with egos, conceit & other foibles. Some are inflexible & conservatively reluctant to change their views. But evidence is compelling & when followed might lead to change. That is how in just 66 years science took us from the Wright Brother’s kite biplane to the moon. Meanwile thousands of years of religionite pondering over their sacred scriptures have led to nothing new.

  • Hey, Rick! I’m not trying to say that only people who identify as queer could come up with novel insights in scientific inquiry. And in fact, there’s evidence to suggest that LGBT students switch from STEM majors at higher rates than their straight classmates, so it’s obvious that marginalization takes its toll in science and tech fields. Prof. Warkentin said that her lack of interest in frogs’ heterosexual mating dynamics inspired her to study embryonic phenomena in the first place.

    The point I was trying to make was that we should at least be aware of the value of a novel perspective in looking at phenomena, and the importance of diversity of opinion in scientific research. Prof. Warkentin at least hinted at this when she said, Different people ask different questions. Straight white men in the USA have long been the ones to establish cultural, institutional, and industry consensus, and they have been socialized to identify challenges to these consensus realities as threats to the social order rather than intriguing opportunities for progress.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving with the family.

  • Welcome to Driven To Abstraction!

    Around here I take a dim view of Pollyanna rhetoric, particularly when applied to scientific inquiry. The idea that science is “self-correcting” whitewashes the messy business of countering entrenched dogma, and if you read the article above you’ll learn about one biologist’s struggle against orthodoxy on many levels.

    The idea of evidence having some sort of power to compel scientific progress has always struck me as magical thinking. The point is that there’s such an incredible profusion of data points, from so many lines of inquiry, that scientific research is more about knowing what evidence to emphasize, and constructing argumentation rather than presenting evidence per se. The reason there are still such abiding debates in scientific circles isn’t that some scientists are right and others wrong. It’s because there are so many ways to approach and interpret the myriad of data points that exist.

    Scientific progress isn’t the trouble-free phenomenon yo make it out to be. I try to make science fans acknowledge that scientific progress didn’t just give us astronauts, it also gave us the atomic bomb. The close relationship between Big Science and corporate and military interests should make us think twice before characterizing science as a disinterested quest for truth. And since technological progress has led to a situation where the future of human life is in danger, I think we could use a little perspective.

    And last but not least, no one here is religious, and there’s no talk of sacred scriptures here. Saying science is better than religion at being science may be true, but it isn’t really saying much.

  • Totally agree with the value of diverse perspectives and opinion. Yes, did have a great Thanksgiving — turkey, cards and family/friends. Oh, and whiskey.

  • Oh wow. She gets it.

    My queerness was necessary for my own breakthrough (Shem you know what i’m talking about because you dropped into my journal from time to time – Lipstick Riot)

  • I sure do. It’s no surprise that people accustomed to being outside the mainstream conceptualize our supposedly shared reality in a very different way from the ones who do the marginalizing and form the consensus on every matter. Your perspective is a real inspiration here.

  • Thank you for saying so. I try to remain interesting. LOL

    It’s all i’ve got here. haha

  • HC, I wanted to respond to you but I didn’t want to douche up Rick’s thread over at Godzooks.

    It really annoys me when the atheist-bros pay lip service to things like female empowerment, LGBTQI rights, or even animal rights, just to bash religion and not because they see these matters in the context of cultural power dynamics and majority privilege. They’re just exploiting the suffering of the oppressed for yuks and looking shocked if anyone calls them out for their disingenuity.

    You’ll notice that Rick chimed in on this article just to flatly reject its premise, showing that he couldn’t even be bothered to consider an accomplished biologist’s perspective on how her queerness informs her scientific imagination. He gushed endless praise when GHW Bush died, and just shrugged when people pointed out the way Bush Sr.’s indifference to the AIDS crisis was a death sentence for millions of marginalized Americans. But the Kim Davis matter makes him and like-minded atheists spout insincere rhetoric about religious persecution.

    I have no problem with the feminist bloggers here making noise about the oppression of women in the Middle East; however, I have no reason to believe that the atheist bros have any commitment to feminism beyond their grandstanding about abortion or the burqa. I’ve never heard the heathen boys make a case for animal rights either, but if Belgian fascists pass a law intended to disproportionately inconvenience the Muslims and Jews they hate, there’s a chorus of approval from him and other bloggers here at Patheos who consider themselves freethinkers.

    Sorry, just needed to vent. Hope all’s well.

  • As well as can be expected. I hope you’re doing well, too.

    I appreciate your comments. It’s good – I don’t feel so alone in my frustrations, which we seem to share.

    I actually had one person, an IRL vegan atheist claim abrahamic religions led to factory farming.

    Umm, kosher and halal doesn’t lend itself to factory farming.

    If anything the Christian and secular west, who abandoned all reverence for food, and the rituals around it are responsible for this.

    But putting that on the Jews or the Muslims and their diets is just weird and vaguely gross.

    (I tend to find much of vegan politics to be vaguely gross, but I usually keep it to myself)