An enchanting worldview: a participant's reflection

Spencer R. Scott is a scientist and environmentalist who finds great beauty in moments whereby scientific truths rise through forces that try to bury them. In it, he draws on Dr. Patricia Kaishian's course, Queer Ecology, in which she outlines that scientific knowledge is restricted by the very same structures that repress queerness - limiting our understandings of the world and each other.

To be a botanist today is to choose your words carefully. In her new book, The Light Eaters, Zoe Schlanger details the caution with which botanists ascribe intelligence to plants. Some only dare say plants can “sense”—they are like machines receiving stimuli and outputting an appropriate response. Other botanists take a small risk in the eyes of their peers to ascribe plants with “behavior.” There are fewer still who are bold enough to use the word “intelligence” or, audible gasp, “consciousness” to describe the feats that plants achieve; these words put you in an entirely different camp of dubious respectability in the halls of academia. I can respect the desire for precise language in science, but it makes me wonder, why the trepidation? What would it cost if plants were to be considered intelligent?

Through her many conversations, Schlanger realized it would cost a lot, perhaps an entire worldview: “Over and over, I saw the debate [over plant intelligence] framed as a dispute over syntax. But it looked to me more of a dispute over worldview. Over the nature of reality. Over what plants were, particularly in contrast to ourselves.”

This is perhaps the clearest way of describing what Queer Ecology is: it is the study of living phenomena that would cost us our worldview. And good riddance.

The slow, disastrous failure of late-stage capitalism is taking its worldview and attendant myths down with it. We are witnessing in real-time the death rattle of individualism, survival of the fittest, hegemonic thinking, selfishness, and human supremacy. The vacuum created by these myths’ now-apparent immateriality is calling in new stories to take their place: interdependence, the power of cooperation, an embrace of complexity, and the intelligence of non-human life.

This change of worldview is not necessarily linear. It is unclear whether new scientific insights have driven the awakening or whether a cultural awakening has driven the desire to seek these insights out. Perhaps, it’s some complex mix of the two.

In any case, I’ve long been fascinated with moments in history where the foundational myths of a culture are challenged by emerging scientific understanding. Where what is “known” suddenly no longer has solid ground to stand on. Many of us have heard the classic story of Galileo, imprisoned for challenging the Church’s notion that Earth was the center of the universe.

There is a similar but lesser known story of how the discovery of extinction by Jean-Leopold-Nicolas-Frederic Cuvier also challenged the Church’s notion of God’s infallibility. His discovery and characterization of mammoth bones, giant sloths, and pterodactyls—his espèces perdue (lost species)—challenged the belief that God had created all species as one unbreakable chain of being, “all but parts of one stupendous whole.”

Then there is the sad story of Ignaz Semmelwise, often called the father of hand hygiene. A mysterious fever was killing almost 16% of new mothers at his Viennese clinic, and through careful study he came to believe some unknown “cadaverous material” was being carried from the autopsy room to the delivery room. He suggested doctors should wash their hands between dissecting cadavers and delivering babies. Instead of listening to his idea they ridiculed him for challenging what was “known”. These doctors “knew” that sickness came from an imbalance completely internal to a patient, and quite frankly they were appalled to be accused of being unclean in some way. They were gentleman doctors after all. Ignaz Semmelweis was mocked so severely he suffered a nervous breakdown and was put into an asylum by his colleagues. He died of an infection caused by bludgeoning he endured in the asylum. Louis Paseur’s germ theory would redeem Semmelweis only a few years later.

While these stories aren’t always happy, as a scientist, I find great beauty in the notion that repressive power structures are incapable of suppressing truth indefinitely, and that truth will inexorably rise through any force that tries to bury it.

The truth in many cases is subterranean. What society calls its ground truths are often the shifting sands of cultural belief—a convenient construction by the power systems in place that belie the real story beneath them. The truth, it seems, wants to be discovered; it sits patiently just below the surface, and queerness is the spirit in us that wants to seek it out.

There is a gap in our language where the twin meanings of Queer could be separated, between sexual orientation and the spirit that seeks beyond institutional dogma. The definitions are so entangled because members of the queer community, uniquely, were born with an invisible identity that can both be buried and uncovered. Gay and trans people learn to apply the spirit of queerness at the internal, individual level—uncovering our own suppressed personal truths that are at odds with everything around it—and we call that being queer. The spirit of queerness is applying that inquisitiveness externally, challenging power structures beyond our sexual identities. Queer Ecology is applying the spirit of queerness to the kingdom of life and the nature of reality.

If we see Queerness as the force that drives us past barriers, then applied to ecology, it drives our society and science toward greater accuracy and precision. It is the study of the protrusions of truth that jut through our shifting cultural sands to reveal the illusions of our foundations and institutions. It is the willful desire to uncover more of these truths, to dig deeper into the sand, and to understand the true shape of reality.


In her course, Dr. Kaishian emphasized that Queer Ecology recognizes that knowledge is situational, and that if we only look from a particular situation or perspective our science and understanding of the world is worse for it. In her essay, The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer Discipline, she details how bigoted cultural worldviews have limited science, “Although science, in its ideal form, should be an equal-opportunity investigative methodological tool, we know that the history of modern science has been disproportionately written by white, often Christian, men from Western Europe, excluding other voices. Consequently, dominant cultural lenses—heteronormativity, racism, sexism, ableism, and binaries inherent to them—have influenced scientific understandings.”

The institution of science, despite its intended impartiality, has always been limited by the dominant cultural perceptions within which it’s housed, and our truths can often become a reflection of our cultural narratives. What might we see if we valued the perceptiveness of diverse vantage points?

There is a growing cultural awareness that our scientific understanding of ecology has been limited by the confines of an academic field dominated by white men and their attendant Western perspectives. In the last decade, new ecological insights (or in some cases, very old ones) have (re-)entered the zeitgeist. The trees can talk, and are sharing resources! The forest floor is alive with a dizzying network of mycelia that redefine what is possible! “Nature” does better with human stewardship not complete withdrawal! The female sex has been consistently misunderstood and overlooked!

These discoveries seem well-timed to a culture in-process of navigating a global existential crisis and re-valuing the natural world. Culturally, we are bracing for impact, and the natural world is our oldest and wisest teacher to whom we are finally daring to look. We can no longer afford to undervalue the importance of diversity, whether biodiversity or the plurality of human insight, and the resilience that diversity offers. Yes, queer ecology includes gay albatrosses and gender-bending clownfish to challenge outdated debates about the naturalness of homosexuality, but it doesn’t and must not stop there. It is also, for instance, the fascination with vampire bats that share blood with their cave-mates. These bats live by the notion that it isn’t the mightiest that survive, but rather the acceptance that, if we survive, we survive together. For centuries, we imposed a structure on reality that promoted individualism, survival of the fittest, and human supremacy. These beliefs fuelled the neoliberal commodification of nature and our disconnection from the natural world and each other. Queer ecology portrays the world in a way that deepens our connection and reverence for non-human life. It is the shift from an indifferent or fear-based attitude toward nature to an awe-based perspective best captured by my friend’s account “Nature is Not Metal” that is replete with moments of interspecies friendship and the quirky, endearing, and dare I say intelligent behaviour of the natural world.

Queer ecology is the joy of learning that the beach evening primrose makes its nectar sweeter in response to the sounds of a flying honeybee. It’s the wonder in how trees send chemical signals to warn other trees of particular pests, or better yet, attract the predators that eat those pests.

New ecological insights are revealing the sophistication of the plant and animal world, a notion our culture had forgotten. We are like toddlers, amazed and surprised by the familiar face of nature that has been revealed to us again.

One day queer ecology will just be ecology, but in the meantime it is represents a collection of emerging truths that challenge stagnant beliefs and implicitly ask us to change our relationship to the world. I wish botanists the best of luck in choosing their words carefully. But perhaps we should throw syntactical trepidation to the wind and ask: what would it cost to not recognize the intelligence and worth of other life? It could cost us more than a worldview, it could cost us the world.


Spencer R. Scott

Spencer R. Scott is a biologist and environmental writer focused on creating a more ecologically-minded future.

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