Procreation, and Natural Non-procreation.

Clifford Longley’s Tablet column on Archbishop Nichols’ thoughts on the need to “explore” afresh issues of sexuality and homosexuality is to be heartily welcomed. However, as we consider the lessons (if any) from the “broad book of nature”, it is really important that we consider the broad book as found in empirical evidence, not the narrow book of theological imaginations. In his own reflection, Longley repeats the claim that “alone of mammals, humans engage in sexual intercourse irrespective of whether the female is fertile or not?”. This claim, that other mammals only engage in sexual intercourse when the female is fertile, is often made. It is however, entirely without foundation. This assertion is beloved of moralists, but it is as false as the other often made claim that homosexual activity is unique to humans.

Bruce Bagemihl, in Biological Exuberance, provides details of many hundreds of animal species, from all branches of the animal kingdom, which are recorded in the scientific literature as demonstrating some form of homosexual activity. For many of these, he also describes examples of non-procreative heterosexual intercourse.

To take just one important example, consider the Bonobo Chimpanzee, described as the closest in evolutionary terms  to humans. For this species, the most commonly observed form of sexual activity is between females. Strictly heterosexual activity described for these animals includes, among activities that for humans would be in contravention of the Catechism, mutual masturbation, fellatio, group sex, and intercourse with juveniles (adolescent females go through a period of several years’ sexual activity with adults before becoming fertile). Females mounting males, and copulation without penetration, or without ejaculation, have also been described. Even when we consider only strictly conventional heterosexual intercourse, this occurs through all phases of the menstrual cycle. Estimates are that roughly a third of all copulation occurs at times when conception is unlikely, or impossible.

Bagemihl also describes non-procreative and alternative heterosexual behaviour for Common Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orang-Utans, Gibbons, Siamangs, Langurs, seven species of Macaques, three of baboons, and some new world monkeys, and lemurs and bush babies. In fact, for every single primate species which he discusses for observed homosexual behaviour, he also describes various forms of non-procreative heterosexual activity. I have no knowledge of any remaining species Bagemihil does not discuss, but it seems to me likely that much the same patterns would be found for them, too. Indeed, it is probable that non-procreative heterosexual intercourse is a feature of most primate species (if not all), and also of many other branches of the animal kingdom – as is homosexual activity.

The entire notion of developing ethical standards from nature is problematic – but if we are to attempt it, can we at least work from nature as it is in reality, and not as we imagine it, or would like it to be.

Marriage, Procreation and the “Broad Book of Nature” (Queering the Church)

Recommended Books:

Salzmann, Todd, and Lawler, Michael: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)

Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

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