Monday, February 09, 2004

Gay Penguins!

Saturday's New York Times had a very interesting story about homosexuality in the animal kingdom. Homosexual behavior in animals seems to be more prevalant than I'd realized. The story is full of interesting examples. Here's one:
The open discussion of homosexual behavior in animals is relatively new. "There has been a certain cultural shyness about admitting it," said Frans de Waal, whose 1997 book, "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape" (University of California Press), unleashed a torrent of discussion about animal sexuality. Bonobos, apes closely related to humans, are wildly energetic sexually. Studies show that whether observed in the wild or in captivity, nearly all are bisexual, and nearly half their sexual interactions are with the same sex. Female bonobos have been observed to engage in homosexual activity almost hourly.
Inevitably, findings like this prompt arguments of one or the other of the following forms: (1) "if animals do it, it must be natural, therefore it's good for humans to do it," and (2) "if animals do it, it's subhuman, so it's bad for humans to do it." I honestly have no idea where the idea that "naturalness" has anything at all to do with morality came from. The Times is to be commended for actually getting that issue right here:
Still, scientists warn about drawing conclusions about humans. "For some people, what animals do is a yardstick of what is and isn't natural," Mr. Vasey said. "They make a leap from saying if it's natural, it's morally and ethically desirable." But he added: "Infanticide is widespread in the animal kingdom. To jump from that to say it is desirable makes no sense. We shouldn't be using animals to craft moral and social policies for the kinds of human societies we want to live in. Animals don't take care of the elderly. I don't particularly think that should be a platform for closing down nursing homes." ... What the animal studies do show, Ms. Zuk observed, is that "sexuality is a lot broader term than people want to think." "You have this idea that the animal kingdom is strict, old-fashioned Roman Catholic," she said, "that they have sex just to procreate." In bonobos, she noted, "you see expressions of sex outside the period when females are fertile. Suddenly you are beginning to see that sex is not necessarily about reproduction." "Sexual expression means more than making babies," Ms. Zuk said. "Why are we surprised? People are animals."
Also, they should be commended for including a picture of gay penguins.

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