by Sam Cohen
The bat is the only mammal to have evolved fully functional wings, to maintain controlled, sustained flight. Scientists have noted that the bones of bats’ wings are like fingers, but very flexible and elongated, which has led them to hypothesize that bats were once something like cave-dwelling rats, that they developed flight via the selection of advantageous mutations, because cave floors are dangerous to crawl around in.
But if the wing arrived as a mutation, it did not arrive fully formed. If the wing arrived as a mutation, it arrived first as a strange meaningless excess, a weird elongation or mangled forepaw. Evolution happens via fucking. It happens via a series of aesthetic and emotional choices, a direct result of who is considered hot. And in order to develop wings, the little pre-bat rodents would have had to have found the meaningless growth, the mangled forepaw, sexy. Would have, in fact, had to have rejected all the crawling rodents without mangled forepaws, or those normatively-limbed rodents would have inundated the gene pool, would’ve kept the flight-desiring rodents stuck on the ground.
Evolution is always framed as unintentional—the fitter survive and the less fit die. But flaps or nubs wouldn’t have made bats any fitter, and so maybe evolution is not unintentional at all—maybe the bats set a collective intention for wing growth, maybe they talked about it, and maybe while all the other little cave mice thought the flappy growths were icky, the pre-bat creatures, the ones who wished for flight were drawn to the growths. They crawled onto perches, and examined their growths together, and maybe the ones with the longest, gnarliest growths were the biggest heartbreakers, and they fucked and fucked until eventually they could fly.
Though Darwin’s heart was that of a true romantic—he wrote in poetic detail about the texture of alpaca meat and the mating habits of orchids—his vision was clouded by British patriarchal capitalism. He understood the world in terms of resources and scarcity, of scrambling for money and marriage, and he therefore saw living systems as capitalist societies full of boy animal individualists competing for prizes.
For the past several years, I have been working with the Institute for Flying, working on the project of helping humans evolve into flying creatures. We have figured out that in order to achieve this collective bodily transformation, it is imperative to look beyond Darwinism, to see that non-human creatures are not in patriarchal capitalism. They have strange relations in which they crawl inside, wrap around, feed off of and live upon each other. They are collaborative, intersubjective, concerned with pleasure and beauty.
We should admit that we at the Institute for Flying are trying to be queer. We don’t like competition; we want a new model for fucking; we want a new world. We have unstable identities, constantly shifting. Our relationships transform us completely, and we are looking for scientific justification for that. We change our fashion, our inflections of voice, in response to those we like a lot. I should disclose now: We at the Institute for Flying need a new way of being and we’re sure we have to start at the level of the body. I should disclose now: We all desperately want to fly.
As Institute for Flying Patron Saint Jose Muñoz, says, “Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.”
Queerness gets aligned with the unnatural and so one might think that as potential queers, we should not look to nature to find the missing thing—but I say that we should use our queer vision to re-see non-human creatures. Look at how Darwin’s capitalist-patriarchal vision of evolution has fortified capitalist competition, has made it feel ethical and obvious and right. Non-human creatures are queerer than we see, queerer than we are—and re-seeing them might allow us to see new futures, new aesthetic possibilities, new forms of relationality. As we look for queer aesthetics, for queer forms of relation, as we learn to make our bodies grow wings, as we “enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds,” we have to queer our vision, to learn new ways of seeing the worlds that already exist. We need models.
I will now offer examples of creatures the Institute for Flying has observed. In these creatures, we have observed that evolution happens as a result—not just of machine-like fucking and fighting to win, of accidentally advantageous mutation—but as a result of looking, showboating, wishmaking, collaborating, and the quiet establishment of new forms of communication. It happens via fucking and fighting, sure, but also via admiration and yearning, cuddling and trust.
There is a flower whose pollen center looks like a bumblebee. From the standpoint of evolutionary biologists, the flower developed its bee-colored, bee-shaped, bee-scented center in order to attract bees, in order to make bees think that, in pollinating, they were fucking another bee. The thing is though, bees are already pollinating flowers, and this flower with the bee-center is already beautiful—it is lavender and curled—it looks like Kelly Osbourne’s hair. But what is even stranger is that this flower with the bee-center is mostly self pollinating. So it isn’t out of necessity, out of competitive fear, that the orchid evolved bee-like qualities. Darwinists always cast the orchid as a girl who’s read Cosmo dating advice, who has learned to manipulate the bee in order to get it to do what she wants, but the orchid is a flower, not a broke teenage girl stuck in a system where she has to trick boys in order to accrue enough capital to survive. The orchid developed its bee center not in order to trick bees, but in order to make bee pollination better. The orchid could tell that its bee lover had a fetish for mimetic cosplay, for twinning, and since it really liked its bee lover, it’s begun to find this kind of play hot. And establishment of new kinds of hotness is how evolution happens.
Institute for Flying Patron Saint Jose Muñoz says “the ornamental can contain a map of the utopia that is queerness.” Perhaps, thru its response to hotness, the flower is making such a map. It has yellow and black and bee smell and fuzz. Perhaps wings are next.
Wikipedia calls pollination of the orchid by the bee pseudocopulation. We at the Institute for Flying find this “pseudo” designation offensive. Our copulation’s been called pseudo, too, and we’re sensitive. But if bee/orchid copulation is pseudo, we would like to ask Wikipedia what qualifies copulation as real.
Our Patron Saint says “Queerness is essentially about rejection of the here and now…insistence on…concrete possibility for another world.”
We can see our world is not for flyers. We know we need to remake the world, and to remake the world we have to look at existing worlds and figure out how worlds get made, figure out what counts as real copulation, not in Wikipedia, but in those worlds.
One world we like is the desert. In the desert, everything has developed spikes. The trees stand with each of their narrow fronds pointing into the sky. Shrubs made of sticks surround them. Everything in this world is perfectly articulated, discrete, bounded. The ground is clean and the plants are self-contained, turgid, storing water. Even trees’ seeds are encased in pods. It feels like everyone is sealed in Saran Wrap, or wearing a body condom, but somehow they share their aesthetic completely—matching colors, parallel shapes. Darwinists say the spikes are for self-defense, but so many of the spikes, when you touch them, are just bristles—their touch is a nuzzle and so the spikes can’t be there to just to fend off predators. The spikes must be a design choice. The desert creatures are creating a way of being through silent mimicry; they just want to fit in, to express their allegiance, to show their love for the world they are helping make. And maybe this method of collective becoming—this looking and listening and submitting and mimicking—is real fucking, too.
While people have scoffed at the Institute for Flying’s research, real scientists in accredited universities are now figuring out that plants talk to each other and swap water and nutrients. Two thirds of plants’ bodies live under the soil, and this is where their talking and swapping goes on, where their roots fuse. Underground mushrooms connect all the plants, acting as a kind of nervous system among them, making them truly intersubjective. Occasionally, though, plants merge above ground, as in this photo, taken by one of our researchers. These trees allow us to see that Hedwig’s Origin of Love-style merging is an option, too, but that, beyond Hedwig’s vision, the merging isn’t limited to the couple.
Not all important plant relations involve the swapping of chemicals. Sometimes littler plants grow tendrils and coil around older bigger plants for support and the bigger plants let them because coiling feels good. To attach to another creature is terrifying, because other creatures morph and change in ways the attached creature can’t control. Other creatures shoot up into the sky or thicken or rot. And so the plant coils and coils its tendril tight so that if the bigger plant it’s attached to shoots up suddenly, it has room to straighten taller, instead of break. It builds a safety reserve. We at the Institute for Flying don’t know who we are evolving into, or how fast, so we are trying to grow in coils.
Besides bats, cicadas have evolved for flight. Periodic cicadas spend the first seventeen years of their lives deep inside woody trunks, stagnant in tree sap, until one day, exactly at the same time, millions of cicadas emerge from a grove. The cicadas birth themselves from what they previously understood to be their bodies and emerge with new bodies, white and soft and alien, clawed and hideous and winged. Millions of brown body husks fall to the ground. The cicada’s new wings are flimsy and useless, just saggy skin flaps, but all at once, they pump and pump blood into their wings, filling them like water wings but long and colorless, and then the air is filled with millions of new flying creatures, creatures who’ve been alive seventeen years and who’ve simultaneously just been born.
When cicadas are reborn they sing. Scientists call these songs mating calls, but what chutzpah, we think, to claim to understand the music of two-bodied creatures who have just spent seventeen years inside tree sap. Instead of trying to apply fucking-and-fighting-centric meaning to the songs of the cicadas, maybe we should just listen to their songs.
Sam Cohen is a researcher at the Institute for Flying. She lives on a wild unpaved hill in Los Angeles.