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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Keeping Up with the Bonobos

And the albatresbians.  The New York Times Magazine features a thoughtful, well-written piece on "Can Animals Be Gay?" that you should read.  Excerpt:
Various forms of same-sex sexual activity have been recorded in more than 450 different species of animals by now, from flamingos to bison to beetles to guppies to warthogs. A female koala might force another female against a tree and mount her, while throwing back her head and releasing what one scientist described as “exhalated belchlike sounds.” Male Amazon River dolphins have been known to penetrate each other in the blowhole. Within most species, homosexual sex has been documented only sporadically, and there appear to be few cases of individual animals who engage in it exclusively. For more than a century, this kind of observation was usually tacked onto scientific papers as a curiosity, if it was reported at all, and not pursued as a legitimate research subject. Biologists tried to explain away what they’d seen, or dismissed it as theoretically meaningless — an isolated glitch in an otherwise elegant Darwinian universe where every facet of an animal’s behavior is geared toward reproducing. One primatologist speculated that the real reason two male orangutans were fellating each other was nutritional. . . .

These ideas generally aim to explain only particular behaviors in a particular species. So far, the only real conclusion this relatively small body of literature seems to point to, collectively, is a kind of deflating, meta-conclusion: a single explanation of homosexual behavior in animals may not be possible, because thinking of “homosexual behavior in animals” as a single scientific subject might not make much sense. “Biologists want to build these unified theories to explain everything they see,” Vasey told me. So do journalists, he added — all people, really. “But none of this lends itself to a linear story. My take on it is that homosexual behavior is not a uniform phenomenon. Having one unifying body of theory that explains why it’s happening in all these different species might be a chimera.”

The point of heterosexual sex, Vasey said, no matter what kind of animal is doing it, is primarily reproduction. But that shouldn’t trick us into thinking that homosexual behavior has some equivalent, organizing purpose — that the two are tidy opposites. “All this homosexual behavior isn’t tied together by that sort of primary function,” Vasey said. Even what the same-sex animals are doing varies tremendously from species to species. But we’re quick to conceive of that great range of activities in the way it most handily tracks to our anthropomorphic point of view: put crassly, all those different animals just seem to be doing gay sex stuff with one another. As the biologist Marlene Zuk explains, we are hard-wired to read all animal behavior as “some version of the way people do things” and animals as “blurred, imperfect copies of humans.”
What I Say:  Your Head Trucker is mildly amused by the convoluted attempts of scientists and philosophers to fit homosex into some rigid, all-encompassing Grand Theory of Life; which to me seems just as silly and irrelevant as the fundamentalists trying to fit all the messy, multiform variety of the cosmos into the straitjacket of Biblical literalism.

Both attempts are very short-sighted and missing the point:  namely, that there is a divine and jovial mystery at the heart of things whose depths no one can plumb. 
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

--Hamlet, Act I.
As I see it, one might as well try to explain why Australia is where it is and not, say, in the Gulf of Mexico.  Or why the sky is blue, or why stars twinkle but planets don't, or why we say the sun rises in the east when we could if we wanted to just as easily say it rises in the west.  Or why in certain cases the precise compound curve of a lip, a shoulder, a hip, or a buttock makes another person weak at the knees.

Very clever fellows have, indeed, long since come up with explanations for some of these things; but I submit that these delightful events would still be occurring and giving daily joy had no explanation ever been devised.  Explanation is not the same as justification; and some things need no justification at all.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty:  that is all ye know, and all ye need to know.

--Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn.


Reality Observer said...

Exactly. There is no need for justification. However, I feel that the scientist in the article is struggling with the notion of the blatant "diversity" right under her very eyes.

Russ Manley said...

Ah, what bees these mortals fool, ain't that right?

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