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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Queering the Animal Kingdom

Bighorn sheep came out of the closet long before we did.

Animal behavior is not a direct guide to human behavior, for several very good and obvious reasons; but it still gives us some valuable insights into the biology and psychology of sex.  Excerpt from an article in Slate magazine:
In an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan on Sunday, former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron called homosexuality “unnatural,” and a behavior that is “ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” We’ve heard that many species of nonhuman animals engage in gay sex, which calls into question the first part of Cameron’s statement. But what about the practice of shunning gays—can animals be homophobic too?

Not as far as we know. Homosexual behavior has been documented in hundreds of animal species, but the same does not hold for gay-bashing. For starters, few animals are exclusively gay. Two female Japanese macaques might have playful sex with each other on Tuesday, then mate with males on Wednesday. Pairs of male elephants sometimes form years-long companionships that include sexual activity, while their heterosexual couplings tend to be one-night stands. For these and many other species, sexual preferences seem to be fluid rather than binary: Gay sex doesn’t make them gay, and straight sex doesn’t make them straight. In these cases, the concept of homophobia simply doesn’t apply. . . .

Researchers believe that gay sex is even rewarded in certain species. For bonobos, sexual activity serves as an instrument of social harmony: It reinforces bonds and keeps the peace. For instance, when a female bonobo migrates into a new group, she often ingratiates herself to the clan’s other ladies by having a lot of sex with them. Far from being shunned, this homosexual behavior is welcomed. And former Stanford researcher Joan Roughgarden has argued that among male bighorn sheep bisexuality may be the norm; those that don’t participate end up as outcasts.
And from Seed magazine's 2006 article about Roughgarden's research:
Male big horn sheep live in what are often called “homosexual societies.” They bond through genital licking and anal intercourse, which often ends in ejaculation. If a male sheep chooses to not have gay sex, it becomes a social outcast. Ironically, scientists call such straight-laced males “effeminate.”

Giraffes have all-male orgies. So do bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, gray whales, and West Indian manatees. Japanese macaques, on the other hand, are ardent lesbians; the females enthusiastically mount each other. Bonobos, one of our closest primate relatives, are similar, except that their lesbian sexual encounters occur every two hours. Male bonobos engage in “penis fencing,” which leads, surprisingly enough, to ejaculation. They also give each other genital massages.

As this list of activities suggests, having homosexual sex is the biological equivalent of apple pie: Everybody likes it. At last count, over 450 different vertebrate species could be beheaded in Saudi Arabia. You name it, there’s a vertebrate out there that does it. Nevertheless, most biologists continue to regard homosexuality as a sexual outlier. According to evolutionary theory, being gay is little more than a maladaptive behavior.

Joan Roughgarden, a professor of biology at Stanford University, wants to change that perception. After cataloging the wealth of homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom two years ago in her controversial book Evolution’s Rainbow — and weathering critiques that, she says, stemmed largely from her being transgendered — Roughgarden has set about replacing Darwinian sexual selection with a new explanation of sex. For too long, she says, biology has neglected evidence that mating isn’t only about multiplying. Sometimes, as in the case of all those gay sheep, dolphins and primates, animals have sex just for fun or to cement their social bonds. Homosexuality, Roughgarden says, is an essential part of biology, and can no longer be dismissed. By using the queer to untangle the straight, Roughgarden’s theories have the potential to usher in a scientific sexual revolution. . . .

Of course, most humans don’t see sex as a way of maintaining the social contract. Our lust doesn’t seem logical, especially when that logic involves the abstruse calculations of game theory. Furthermore, it’s strange for most people to think of themselves as naturally bisexual. Being gay or straight seems to be an intrinsic and implacable part of our identity. Roughgarden disagrees. “In our culture, we assume that there is a straight-gay binary, and that you are either one or the other. But if you look at vertebrates, that just isn’t the case. You will almost never find animals or primates that are exclusively gay. Other human cultures show the same thing.” Since Roughgarden believes that the hetero/homo distinction is a purely cultural creation, and not a fact of biology, she thinks it is only a matter of time before we return to the standard primate model. “I’m convinced that in 50 years, the gay-straight dichotomy will dissolve. I think it just takes too much social energy to preserve. All this campy, flamboyant behavior: It’s just such hard work.”

What I say: Your Head Trucker finds all this research mildly interesting, and an excellent rebuttal to the fundamentalists. Still, there doesn't have to be a reason for gayness, you know. It is what it is, and what it is is human - "that is all ye know, and all ye need to know."
You must remember this,
A kiss is still a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh--
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by . . . .


9 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

The wonder is that the Greek civilization lasted so many centuries. But then Kirk probably doesn't think the ancient Greeks were civilized.

Russ Manley said...

Probably not. I'm starting to think our own society is uncivilized - or that civilization is but a thin, cracked varnish over barbarianism, but I suppose that's always been the case. Animus and ignorance aren't helping the matter.

Davis said...

Baaaaaah

Russ Manley said...

LOL Davis

Josh Thomas said...

Theologically there do have to be reasons for Gayness - how does this fit into Creation? Is it God who's leading the Gay people out of slavery? - and there's lots of evidence suggesting God does have good reasons for us; that evolution selects for us, that we contribute to the survival and flourishing of the species.

By being less likely to reproduce, we are more likely to become caregivers for communities. Heterosexual parents have to be primarily concerned with their own offspring; we help provide for everyone's offspring.

There are evolutionary reasons we are overrepresented in the arts, government, health care, religion, social work and service industries. The evolutionary biologists are narrow-minded and wrong. We're not "reproductive failures," as they like to call us; we're non-reproducing successes.

Dr. Roughgarden may be equally wrong. Yes, human sexuality exists on a spectrum, and individuals do move back and forth along the path. But we're not bonobos or bighorn sheep, and it wasn't a cultural construct that makes Russ drive a blue truck in a red state while Eric Hanson cranks.

Russ Manley said...

Ha. Smilin’ back at ya Josh.

It may well be that all you say is true. Or, on the other hand – perhaps not. While I am all for intellectual curiosity, I am wary of easy, self-serving truths, from whatever quarter they spring. This meme that the gays are a good and even necessary product of evolutionary forces has sprung up in the last five years or so, and in this twitterish age has already been repeated so many times by so many people that with uncommon speed it has already become one of those things that everybody “just knows.”

Unfortunately, even a cursory survey of intellectual history reveals that all too often, what “everybody knows” to be the truth is anything but, as the advances of knowledge progress from one summit to another, with yet more summits always in view but unreachable. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of your philosophy," you know?

At one time, everybody “just knew” that the sun revolved around the earth, a plain fact revealed to the eyes of every ignorant plowman and confirmed by the artful calculations of the learned, as well by as the awful authority of Holy Writ. Men disbelieved this truth at their peril, yet a day came when yet more learned scholars with even more artful calculations proved it was all a mere bubble of thought, easily popped with logic and evidence. Well and good – for a time. Yet when the monuments and memorials of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton had become hallowed with age, came then Einstein, Bohr, Planck, and a host of others to set all that former truth upon its head.

And so it goes from age to age: ever and always, "we see through a glass, darkly." Logic is a fine and valuable tool – and yet like every tool, it can build up or tear down, create or destroy, construct a palace of beauty or a sewer of ugliness. It was logic that compelled St. Austin to insist that upbaptized babies do indeed suffer in Hell for all eternity. And again, it was logic compelled Aquinas, I believe, to the inescapable conclusion that Woman was but a deformed Man, a soiled and muddy reflection of the image of God, unlike her shining helpmeet.

And yet – when Aquinas had completed his great labors, he disparaged them all as mere straw, realizing with true humility that in a lifetime’s work he had merely begun to scratch out the inscrutable depths of divine Wisdom. "For my ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, saith the Lord." Now Wisdom is one of the seven cardinal virtues, and should be eagerly sought – and yet, "Whoso would enter into the Kingdom of Heaven must become as a little child." So while knowledge is valuable, certainly, and useful, of course - yet it is not the main thing.

(Continued in next comment)

Russ Manley said...

It is as self-evident as anything can be in this world that no effect can exist without a cause; and ultimately the chain of causes leads back and back and yet further back to the great First Cause, which in our piety we may call the Logos, the Word by which the universe sprang into being – let us not pause now to quibble over mere scientific questions, we are speaking of mythos and mystery here, poetic truth if you will – and that Word was begotten by the ultimate force and goodness at the center of all things, which is Love: "the Love that moves the stars," in Dante’s exquisite phrase. A nearly incomprehensible thing which no one can plumb the depths of, and certainly not here on this tiny speck of dust, this minute pebble hurtling blindly through the unending depths of space.

Like many another mortal, I am a fairly simple man, homme moyen sensuel, living out a solitary, obscure existence in a remote province of the globe, far from the madding crowd. All the proofs and papers and postulates of the scientists are very nice – but I need no equation to marvel at the velvet redness of the rose that blushes at my doorstep, or at the song of a bird in the cool green shade of a sycamore tree, or at the brilliant sun in the high blue sky of summer. When I thirst, it is enough that I quaff cool water, and am refreshed; when I hunger, it is enough that I eat my daily bread, and am satisfied, and give humble thanks to God my Maker for blessings great and small. Enough is truly enough.

When Harry meets Sally, he need not produce and defend ninety-five theses to justify what he feels for her, and she for him. And likewise, when mayhap Eric steals my heart and steels my crank – I wish – I need no books, no maps, no diagrams, no charts and computations to justify the fact, no evidence at all but that of my own heart. Love needs no justification of any kind.

For Love is all that matters. And in the end, as we may piously believe, it will be shown to the satisfaction of every creature that Love is all that ever really was and is and shall be.

Q. E. D.

Josh Thomas said...

Hmm. What you dismiss "in this twitterish age" as common knowledge isn't something I've ever seen in The New York Times - or anywhere else, except a 2003 novel that didn't sell worth a damn. (I should know.)

Then to go through Aquinas, Einstein and "Harry Met Sally" shows you're an Olympic-class triple-jumper. All that because I said we really do need a theology of Gayness?

Okay! But if there's anything reductive and authoritative I don't trust, it's "all ye know, and all ye need to know." Russ has it all solved, so stop asking.

That's as bad as me!

Russ Manley said...

(Russ chuckles and smiles . . . ) Oh now my friend, don’t be mad at me. Come sit down here, and have another cup of this delicious coffee . . . here you go . . . which neither of us needs a textbook or a creed to savor the flavor of. Analysis is all very well and good, but it won’t quench your thirst or warm your belly like the act of drinking will.

If you want to construct a theology of gayness, if it helps you or others, why by all means go right ahead and build one. Certainly the antigay forces from St. Augustine on down have spent centuries constructing very elaborate ones themselves. But of course, the Bible was written by straight men for straight men; so they have a lot more material to work with.

Nevetheless, when I came into this world, nobody asked me for a passport, carte d’identite, or profession of faith. I just slipped through the door and here I am, with no justification beyond the fact of my own existence – created equal to every other mortal. No proof necessary.

Harry and Sally need no justification for being Harry and Sally; neither does Russ need to justify being Russ. If God is Love, and we are all made in the image of God, then as long as we walk humbly in the holiness of the heart’s affections, it’s enough. That’s all I’m saying.

Now do try one of these homemade brownies I just took out of the oven . . . mmm, don’t they smell wonderful? No, put your book away, just trust your nose and your hunger and your heart, my friend.

PS – Googling evolutionary advantages of homosexuality will get you lots of references, but since you mentioned the NYT, here’s a 10-page article they published a couple of years ago which discusses the matter in passim, amid a lot of animal studies:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/magazine/04animals-t.html?_r=1&ref=science&pagewanted=all#

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