Saturday, 19 November 2011

"Unnatural" Nature, Immoral Butterflies: The Great Cover-Up of Animal Homosexuality

Back in 2000, an eminent and otherwise respectable biologist declared that except for a few instances observed among primates, there was no evidence of homosexuality among animals:

When animals have access to the opposite sex, homosexuality is virtually unknown in nature, with some rare exceptions among primates."
-G. Barlow, 2000
This was breathtakingly inaccurate. Just the previous year another biologist, Bruce Bagemihl,had published a book summarizing previously published scientific papers which described homosexual behaviour in over 300 species of animals and birds (listing dozens of papers for each), and also listing additional species of reptiles, amphibians, fish and even insects - over a thousand species in all, and tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles. The first recorded observations of animal homosexuality were two millenia ago, by the ancient Greeks. In modern times, the first formal publication of scientific observations go back over 150 years. Photographic evidence of male swan couples has existed since the mid-nineteenth century.
Even this illustration, of male beetles doing it, was published as long ago as 1896:

Male Scarab Beetles, 1896

How could there be so much scientific ignorance- especially as same -sex mountings are so well known among domestic livestock, that serious research efforts have been underway for years to try to prevent activities which are so uneconomic (to the farmer)?

Such wilful blindness by a professional would be ludicrous, if it were not also a sign of the ignorance shared by many others, in the scientific community as well as the wider population. It typifies the widespread assumption that underlies the popular pseudo-religious belief that homosexual relationships are unnatural, that biological "plumbing" dictates only one form of legitimate sexual expression, and (for the Vatican) that the "purpose" of sex is procreation, and so sexual activity not geared to making babies must be rejected. How does this ignorance persevere? In addition to Bagemihl's book, two more major works of the last decade (Roughgarden, Sommer and Vasey) have atempted to explain this widepread ignorance. All three reach similar conclusions.

First, please note that the number of species where such behaviour has been described is certainly an underestimate. Detailed, close-up observation of any animal sex is difficult and rare. Frequently, where sexual activity is observed, there has been a simple assumption that this is between two different sexes - unless there is specific evidence to the contrary. One scientist after observing whales had the grace to publish his mistaken assumptions:
.....after about twenty minutes I realized that what I was watching was three males involved in most erotic activities! Then one, two, and eventually three pene appeared as three males rolled at the same time. Obviously, all three were males! It was almost two hours after the first sighting .... and up to that point I was convinced I was watching mating behaviour.
In many other cases, observers mistakenly identify biological sex and gender behaviour. Where one animal is observed mounting another, it is simply assumed that the mounter is male, the one being mounted female - even in the complete absence of corroborating evidence. More detailed observations have recorded how frequently this assumption can be wrong: males also mount other males, females mount females.

Mistakes in observation are understandable, even if the observers should take more care assessing their assumptions. Other factors are less excusable. One of these is a deliberate avoidance by some researchers of any attempt to publish their observations, out of a fear that they will be assumed by colleagues to be gay themselves – a form of academic closet keeps their observation hidden. Even after publication, a form of closet keeps the facts hidden – the anthologies and text books that usually introduce specialist papers to a wider scientific audience routinely ignore references to homosexual behaviour.
Although the first reports of homosexual behaviour among primates were first published >75 years ago, virtually every major introductory text on primatology fails to even mention its existence.
(Vasey, 1995)
More serious than mere burying of the evidence, is the attempt to deny its nature, in contorted attempts to explain it away as something other than it plainly is. Some researchers for example, attempt to explain their observations of two male birds involved in intercourse as “mistaken identity”. Do they really suppose that although they as human observers are able to correctly identify the sex of the chosen partner, the poor ignorant bird can not, and has chosen an "inappropriate" partner by mistake?

They also attempt to explain it away as a result of numerical imbalance, suggesting that males do it themselves when there are not enough females to go around – quite ignoring the observations that show the same phenomenon where females are abundant.

Others recognize what they are seeing, but simply deny that the bahaviour is sexual. Perhaps the most risible is this explanation of Orang-utan oral sex:
Two males regularly mouthed the penis of the other on a reciprocal basis. This behaviour, however, may be nutrively rather sexually motivated.
Got that? An Orang-utan blow-job is for – nutrition?

Other explanations attempted to explain sexual behaviour as aggression or dominance displays, rather than what it plainly was – pleasurable sex. Here’s another researcher, writing about bighorn rams, who eventually had to face the facts with honesty:
I still cringe at the memory of seeing old D-ram mount S- ram repeatedly. ..True to form, and incapable of absorbing this realization at once, I called these actions of the rams aggrosexual behaviour, for to state the males had evolved a homosexual society was beyond me To conceive of these magnificent beasts as “queers” – Oh God! I argued for two years that, in wild mountain sheep, aggressive and sexual behaviour could not be separated. I never published that drivel and am glad of it. Eventually I called a spade a spade and admitted that rams lived in an essentially homosexual society.
Here is the key point – heterosexual assumptions are so deeply embedded in some people that they cannot believe the evidence of their own eyes that homosexuality is entirely natural, and must instead explain it away. There is extraordinary circular reasoning here: the starting point is an assumption that only heterosexual behaviour is natural, and that becomes drummed into us as a moral imperative. That assumption then colours our perspective, so that what we see is assumed to be heterosexual – unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. When it is acknowledged to be not heterosexual, it is explained away as not actually sexual, but something else – aggression, or pseudo-sexual, or mistaken identity, or some such. Anything, in fact, that allows to continue with our insistence that only heterosexual, procreative intercourse is natural. And so the conventional widom continues to tell us, in the face of all evidence, that only opposite sex interaction in the animal world is natural ... and that humans homosexuality is "contrary to nature".

But the most ludicrous of all comes from those observers who cannot avoid acknowledging that what they are seeing is clearly sexual behaviour, and clearly between individuals of the same sex – and then describe it, in anthropomorphic terms, as “immoral”, degenerate, or - “unnatural"!

In these snippets, note the adjectives - "perverted", "unnatural", "aberrant" - my italics.
This might be mistaken for fighting, but perverted sexuality is he real keynote.
Three unnatural tending bonds were observed a two-year old bull closely tended a yearling bull .. with penis unsheathed.
Among aberrant sexual behaviours, anoestrous does were very occasionally seen to mount each other.
That’s right, folks. If we accept the assumption that homosexuality is unnatural, then any evidence to the contrary must be – unnatural, or immoral.

I close with the priceless words of W J Tennant, who as late as 1987 published the classic paper
A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera.”

It is a sad sign of our times that the National newspapers are all too often packed with the lurid details of declining moral standards and of horrific sexual offences committed by our fellow Homo sapiens; perhaps it is a sign of the times that the entomological literature appears to be heading in the same direction.
So: we dare not publish reports of animal homosexuality – because we should not draw attention to the poor moral standards of butterfles?


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