Thursday, February 21, 2013

THE HOMOPHOBIC MIND:  Part Two:  Biological Factors

B1. Even brute animals reject homosexuality.  Only human beings, with their limitless capacity for waywardness and perversion, resort to this odious behavior.

The Charge.  Living as they do a life in accordance with nature, animals are incapable of homosexual vice.  By contrast, we human beings have become estranged from nature.  This estrangement, it is generally agreed, is egregious in the way we abuse the environment.  Some of us abuse out bodies too - in ways that Mother Nature never intended.  Animals know better.

Historical Background. Adumbrated by Plato in his late dialogue, The Laws, the locus classicus of this claim is Plutarch’s essay “Gryllos” (ca. 100 CE), in which an articulate pig asserts the superiority of animal standards of behavior, including sexual conduct.  Animals do not, we are told, engage in same-sex behavior.

This general sense of the happy-go-lucky lives of animals has a perennial appeal, as seen even now in television’s nature programs.  This notion caters to a sentimental hankering for a life without pressure and ambiguity, for a never-never land of bliss, one in which animals supposedly dwell.

The beast criterion is of course selective, since its supporters are unprepared to discard a host of cultural acquisitions and privileges, from clothing and motorized transportation to cell phones and medicines - things not enjoyed by animals. Nor are they inclined (as Aristophanes sardonically pointed out long ago) to perch on roosts at night like fowls or to throw feces a a friendly way of gaining attention as apes are wont to do.  The argument, then, rests on a kind of selective amnesia which makes it possible to ignore some aspects of human departure from the animal model, while acknowledging others, if only to deplore them.

At all events the view of animal exemption from homosexuality was by no means universal among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Those times also saw folkloric beliefs, such as the notion that males of the partridge species are so highly sexed that in the absence of females they readily assault each other sexually. Early Christian writers associated the hare with pederasty because of the bizarre notion that it grows a new anus each year. The hyena symbolized gender ambiguity because it ostensibly changed its sex each year. Finally, the weasel, which was supposed to conceive through the mouth, stood for the practice of fellatio. To be on the safe side, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas forbade eating the flesh of any of these creatures.

Over the centuries many preferred to disregard these urban legends of the ancients, colorful as they are, concerning the animal kingdom.  Instead a substantial body of learned opinion clung to the idealization that the conduct of animals is exemplary.  It serves as a yardstick to determine our "naturalness.” This thought complex has been dubbed "animalitarianism" by George Boas, a historian of ideas.

 In statements by contemporary anti-homosexual propagandists, it is revealing that they will sometimes first insist that homosexuality must be unnatural, since "even the lowest animals don't do it," and then when confronted with evidence to the contrary exclaim with outrage that same-sex relations drag man down to the subhuman level, "behaving like a filthy swine." Such dodges suggest that moral distinctions develop first.  Then this judgmenalism is superimposed on the kingdom of nature, instead of being derived from it in any consistent way.

From time immemorial human beings have favored animal comparisons, both as criticism (dumb as an ox, scared as a rabbit) and as praise (bold as a lion, far-sighted as an eagle).  The choice of metaphor depends upon the presuppositions of the speaker.  Still, these are all metaphors.

Every species has patterns of sexual behavior unique to itself, so that claiming on supposedly moral grounds that man should imitate the lower animals in their presumed abstention is invalid. Moreover, social control of human sexual activity can only be justified on the grounds that the policy promotes the higher interests of mankind - including the evolutionary progress of the species - rather than following the lead of the instinctual life of creatures far lower on the evolutionary scale.

All living things exist in a world in which - as Darwin showed - they must compete for scarce resources; but while nature confronts scarcity with redundance, man confronts scarcity with foresight. That is to say, lower forms of organic life survive by engendering such myriads of young that at least a minimal number will reach adulthood and the reproductive stage; but humanity survives by economic and demo­graphic measures that seek to proportion his numbers to the resources available for consumption. Especially given the absence of superfetation in the human female, the notion that "homosexuality means race suicide" is preposterous. All human sexual activity, homosexual and heterosexual, occurs in a context of economic and social values that removes it entirely from the genetically programmed coupling of animals, even though such behaviors as competition and courtship anticipate the sexual rivalry and mating of human beings. Finally, the prolonged phase of socializing through which members of human societies must pass - with the need for mentoring and initiation into the world of adulthood - lends a significance to homosexual bonds between adult and adolescent that may find parallels, but no exact equivalents in the social life of animals.

A more recent variation on the old idealization of animals maintains that the principle of animal innocence holds true only among animals in their natural state in the wild.  Yet when human beings subject them to special stress, as when they confined together in a small space, aberrant behavior is artificially induced. One might think that any child raised on a farm could refute this myth.  It has flourished nonetheless - at least until recently.

Over the last few decades, a body of evidence has been accumulating showing homosexual behavior among many species of animals - behavior that has been observed both in the wild and in captivity. In the 1970s the well-publicized reports of the German ethologist Konrad Lorenz drew attention to male-male pair bonds in greylag geese.

Since Lorenz’ time much more data has become available. A massive review published in 1999  by researcher Bruce Bagemihl ascertained that homosexual behavior has been observed in close to 1,500 species, ranging from primates to gut worms, and is well documented for 500 of them. Animal sexual behavior takes many different forms including sex itself, courtship, shows of affection, pair bonding, and parenting among same-sex animal couples.. According to Bagemihl, "the animal kingdom [does] it with much greater sexual diversity – including homosexual, bisexual and nonreproductive sex – than the scientific community and society at large have previously been willing to accept."

Animal homosexual behavior is best known from social species. According to geneticist Simon LeVay, "[a]though homosexual behavior is very common in the animal world, it seems to be very uncommon that individual animals have a long-lasting predisposition to engage in such behavior to the exclusion of heterosexual activities. Thus, a homosexual orientation, if one can speak of such thing in animals, seems to be a rarity. One species in which exclusive homosexual orientation occurs, however, is that of domesticated sheep (Ovis aries).”  According to the findings, about 10% of rams (males) avoid mating with ewes (females, even though they do mate with other rams."

“Against Nature?” was an exhibition on same-sex behavior in animals organized by the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway (September 2007-August 2007).  The first exhibition of its kind, it traveled to Bergen, Trondheim, Maastricht, Geneva, and Stockholm.

In fact, the extensive documentation of homosexual behavior in animals seems to offer a telling argument against the traditional view that such conduct constitutes the “sin against nature. “  Significantly, homosexuality in animals was cited in the United States Supreme Court's  2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the sodomy laws of 14 states.

Response.  We conclude by summarizing the three stages of knowledge in this realm.  First, for centuries it was generally held that, except for a very few aberrant species such as the partridge and the weasel, animals did not engage in homosexual behavior.  Then, in recent decades, it was conceded that animals do do it, but only under special conditions of stress.  Finally, massive documentation, much of it focused on animals in the wild, has rendered the conclusion inescapable: a full spectrum of homosexual behavior is found among animal species.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.  Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999; Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004; Volker Sommer and Paul J. Vasey,  Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Aldo Poiani and A. F, Dixon, Animal Homosexuality: A Biosocial Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Simon LeVay, Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.


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