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.

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A Scarlet Ibis Couple’s Spacious, Designer Nest.

As a psychology student at Tulane University, I took a couple of independent study courses observing animal behaviour at Audubon Zoo, near campus.  One semester, I studied the mating behaviour of the scarlet ibis, a wading bird common in marshes and estuaries.  Like other species of birds, the ibis is seasonally monogamous.  For weeks, I watched seven pairs go through the process of nest-building, courting and mating.  Right on schedule, all but one pair stopped sexual and nest-building behaviour within days of each other and settled in for the incubation period.  My interest was piqued by the behaviour of one particular pair that kept building their nest, as well as mating.


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Does Benedict Oppose Gay Priests?

Andrew Brown thinks so, based on the relevant passage in Seewald’s book. I hesitate to comment with any conviction until I have read the full passage myself, but the published extracts are disturbing and important. Up to now, there have been some signs of a more rational approach to homosexuality under this papacy, but some of these views strike me as just wackadoodle. Benedict is widely acclaimed as a great and subtle theologian, but he could do with some lessons in basic facts of gender and sexuality.

For example:

We could say, if we wanted to put it like this, that evolution has brought forth sexuality for the purpose of reproducing the species.

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Our Queer Primate Cousins

A favourite argument used by the religious right against homoerotic relationships, and by the Vatican theologians against any form of sexual expression outside of marriage and not open to making babies, is that such sexual activities are “against nature”, and that the “purpose” of sex is procreation.

Well, the people making these claims have never considered the actual evidence from , well, you know, – “Nature” itself, which shows the exact opposite. (But then, when did the Vatican, or the wingnuts, ever consider the trifling matter of evidence to interfere with their convictions?)

In the lively comments thread after an earlier post in this series, reader CS in AZ reminded me of a famous exchange with Anita Bryant:

This reminds me of Anita Bryant, back when she was on her anti-homosexul crusade … she said that homosexuality was unnatural and so repulsive that “even barn yard animals don’t do it” — then someone pointed out to her that barnyard animals in fact DO do that, with some frequency, as anyone who grew up around farm animals knows very well! LOL…
well, she was only momentarily flustered, then she just pivoted 180 degrees and said, “well, that doesn’t make it right!”

Well no, but it sure as hell don’t make it wrong, either. On the subject of sexual ethics, “Nature” is entirely neutral. However, as so many self-righteous bigots attempt to introduce nature into ethical and political discussions, it is worth knowing just what “natural” sex really is (it’s also just fun to know.)

 

 

Bonobo females, with onlookers

 

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Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros

To look at them, bighorn rams are the very image of hypermasculinity. They live on the rugged mountain slopes of Montana and Canada, in an environment that demands strengh, athleticism and stamina. Their appearance is impressive, with large thick horns curling back behind the ear, and they’re big, weighing up to 300 pounds. They exude so much machismo, that their image has been appropriated by numerous as a symbol for many  male athletic teams. And they like their sex – with other males. Those few who don’t, are described by researchers as “effeminate” .

Lovers, maybe?

For bighorn sheep (and also for thinhorns), “natural” sex is same-sex, including elaborate courtship rituals, genital licking, and anal penetration. (Many rams also find a way to “masturbate” – not with their hooves, but by rubbing on the ground.)  In this “homosexual society”, almost all rams routinely participate year-round in sexual activity with each other, but heterosexual intercourse is limiting to the rutting season. Even then, not all rams, especially the younger ones, get to participate.

For Bighorn and Thinhorn Sheep, heterosexuality is emphatically not “normal”.

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Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros

(Note: This site is a  selective mirror of posts from my main site. Comments here have been disabled.  To place a comment, or to read the full range of posts and features of the main site, go to  the  corresponding post at my main site.) Read the rest of this entry »

Natural Law, Evidence, and Laysan’s Albatross

A key part of the argument against homoerotic relationships, fundamental to the Catholic Magisterium, to the religious opposition more generally, and to the supporters of so-called “traditional” marriage, is that same sex relationships are somehow “unnatural”, “against natural law”. This claim is entirely without foundation. What these groups have in common, apart from their conclusion, is a total disregard for the evidence.  Some research into the Laysan albatross neatly illustrates this.  The disregard of the need for evidence does not only apply to claims for natural law: exactly the same charge can be made against Vatican claims that “homosexuals” are motivated solely by  -indulgence, and that homosexual “acts” lead one away from God – claims that likewise do not stand up to scrutiny. For now, though, I am concerned only about the problem as it applies to the argument from natural law

All albatrosses are large birds nesting in isolated colonies free from natural predators, which makes them easy to study (the birds are trusting and allow researchers to get up real close and personal). Much of their behaviour is well-known. For instance, in one colony at Kaena Point, Hawaii, there are about 120 breeding pairs, who gather for mating every November. They form long-term partnerships, and after copulation, lay a single egg, which they incubate in shifts, taking turns to leave the nests for weeks at a time to feed at sea. They form long-lasting, often life- long pairs, and were praised by former US first lady Laura Bush for their commitment to each other, and the example they offered as icons of monogamy. The obvious assumption that these monogamous pairs represent one male and one female in a neat nuclear family, though, turns out to be false. One third of the pairs are female couples, some of whom had nested together every year since right back to the start of data collection – 19 years.

Ornithologist Lindsay C Young  has been studying this albatross colony since 2003, as part of her doctoral dissertation.  She says that the discovery of so many female pairs forced her to question assumptions she didn’t even know she was making.  This in itself was something of a breakthrough: observations of same sex behaviour or relationships in the animal world are not new, but too often in the past, biologists have simply ignored them, or attempted to explain these observations as aberrations.

Joan Roughgarden quotes one notable scholar who claimed in 2000, at the end of a long and distinguished career,  that  “When animals have access to members of the the opposite sex, homosexuality is virtually unknown in nature, with some rare exceptions in primates”.

But just the previous year, Bruce Bagemihl had published a book reviewing published academic research into over three hundred vertebrate species which engage in same-sex courtship and genital contact. In some of these, homosexual activity is even more frequent than heterosexual intercourse.[ad#In post banner] Read the rest of this entry »

Natural Families: The Wildlife Rainbow

(If you didn’t do so at the time, go across now to read some useful commentary on the artist, Paul Richmond, and on the wonderful detail incorporated into the image.)

The Rainbow Ark

Today, I want to explore some of the more serious message behind the image. Although “wildlife diversity” has become something of a buzzword in any modern discussion of environmental conservation, and we routinely accept that species diversity is one useful measure of the health of an ecosystem, and its protection a valid goal for its management, we usually fail to recognise that sexual and gender diversity is as much a feature of the animal world as it is of human societies. In recent years, lesbian and gay historians have begun to uncover much of our hidden history, and to show how often simple binary and heteronormative assumptions in looking at the past, or at non-Western societies, have ensured that observers saw only what they expected to see. Now biologists are showing how those same assumptions have led to some flawed beliefs about animal sexuality. These assumptions about sexual behaviour have led to the abundant contrary evidence from the natural world being either simply ignored, or explained away as “exceptions”, exactly as the widespread evidence for human homoerotic attraction has been ignored by historians or explained away as “deviance”, and so not “natural”.

 

 

Of three important books on the topic, Bruce Bagemihl’s “Biological Exuberance”, named in 1999 as one of the New York Public Library’s “Books to Remember”, was the earliest, and has attracted widespread critical attention and commentary. Same sex behaviour has been documented right across the animal kingdom, but in this book, Bagemihl concentrated on mammals and birds, providing extensive evidence of an extraordinary range of sexual behaviours, and specific profiles of 190 species. He shows how animals demonstrate all the forms of physical and emotional homosexual pairing known to man are also found among animals: masturbation, fellatio, mutual rubbing, and mounting on the physical side; male-male and female- female; casual affairs, long-term relationships, and “gay” parenting are all described, as well as non-procreative heterosexual intercourse. The widespread assumption that “natural” sexual activity is way off-beam.

One feature of human societies for which he does not find any evidence, is that of homophobia- violence or aggression against same sex couples or coupling. We are all familiar from endless wildlife documentaries with the ferocity of male competition and violence over mating ambitions, but there has not been any documented evidence of similar aggression around or by same sex couples. I am also particularly struck by the emotional dimensions of some of these relationships. In some cases, male pairs will form enduring long-term pair bonds, while engaging in heterosexual activity “on the side” for procreation. In some species, such as elephants and greylag geese, male pairs are said to endure even longer than heterosexual ones.

Two later books have further developed this theme. Volker Sommer’s “Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective” examines more closely such behaviour among a range of species which engage in homosexual activity not just occasionally but “routinely”, which include birds, dolphin, deer, bison and cats, as well as several species of primates.

For me, the most exciting of the set is “Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People”, by Joan Roughgarden, published just last year, because she expands the scope of the two earlier books by incorporating studies of fish, reptiles and amphibians as well as birds and animals, and also brings the discussion back to humans. Professionally, the author is an acclaimed academic in evolutionary biology, but is also a male to female transsexual, who successfully combines scientific expertise with personal insight to re-examine the evidence in the light of feminist, gay and transgender criticism.

These are some extracts from a useful review by George Williamson, PhD, at Mental health.net:

Though her critique is wide-ranging, Roughgarden’s targets are easily named. At broadest, she indicts a number of academic disciplines ranging from biology and evolutionary science to anthropology and theology, for the suppression of diversity. An example of this suppression is the long-standing difficulty in getting information on animal homosexuality into the academic record. As she documents, such information has been ignored or ‘explained away’ to the present day. Of course, the charge of discrimination has often been leveled at Western culture’s concept of sex and gender, and neither this concept nor its critique are any longer unfamiliar. But Roughgarden’s case is refreshing in its particularity and detail. Conventional assumptions regarding the fixity and generality of gendered behaviors and roles, of their binate structure, of mating strategies, and even of body plan of the sexes very quickly begin to appear naive when faced with examples of fish that change gender and sex in the course of a life, all-female lizard species that clone themselves yet still have (lesbian?) sex, bird couples with ‘open’ relationships, primate species whose members are completely bisexual, and fish whose reproductive strategy involves the collaboration of three distinct genders. But such data are routinely discounted through the assumed normality of a male/female genderbinary. Much as the cultural projection of normative gender roles tends to push divergent sexual expression to the margins of the everyday social world, so has it tended to promote the exclusion of conflicting data in biology, or the pathologizing of expression in medicine and psychology. And this must have consequences, for such omissions invalidate the theorization of sexuality and gender, for example, in evolutionary theory. How could one accurately account for the evolution of sexuality, having left aside the data on same-sex relations or tri-gendered families?

Roughgarden recommends eliminating sexual selection from evolutionary theory, and instead proposes her own view, social selection. Courtship, she argues, is not about discerning a male’s genetic quality but rather about determining his likelihood of investing in parental care for offspring. Sex is not merely about spermtransfer, but rather about forming bonds within animal societies and negotiating for access to resources necessary to reproduce. Further, the evidence adduced suggests this negotiation goes on in within-sex relationships as much as in between-sex relationships, such as in a group of females who share parenting among themselves. So the picture of sex that emerges is that mating is about building social relationships first, and only secondarily about passing on genes. This explains why much more sex than reproduction happens, including much non-reproductive sex, and also allows a clear account of homosexual sex. The real beauty is that it does not require an explanation for homosexuality different from that for heterosexuality: both are about forming social relationships and negotiating access to resources. Differences in the prevalence of homosexuality in different animal societies can be attributed to differences in the relationships (between-sex, within-sex) which organize and distribute resources within those societies. Indeed, the prominent secondary sex characteristics, which at face value appear to be the basis of mate choice (the peacock’s tail, the predator’s size), may not be intended for the opposite sex at all.

A couple more of Roughgarden’s targets are worth mentioning. Psychology and medicine have had considerable influence in forming our ideas of normality in behavior and body morphology, and thus in legitimating differential treatment of those who deviate from the norm. Homosexuality, for instance, until recently was listed as a mental disorder in psychiatry; transexuality still is. There still remain groups offering to treat and cure homosexuality. Children born with atypical genitals (penis too small, clitoris too large, some of both sexes) are often subjected to reconstructive surgery to correct their ‘ambiguity’. Evidently, diversity is ‘not good’ in the eyes of the medical and psychological establishment. Having documented some of the disastrous consequences of these procedures, Roughgarden raises the reasonable question, “who really needs a cure?” She challenges some of the dubious bases provided for labeling these traits as diseases or genetic defects, and concludes that our tendency to pathologize difference is really what needs to be cured.

“Homosexuality” is not in any way unnatural. Homophobia, and exclusive heterosexuality, are.

See also:

National Geographic: Homosexual Activity Among Animals Stirs Debate
Youtube: Gay Animals

Homosexual Behaviour in the Animal Kingdom

The Natural “Crime Against Nature”