Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Anything Goes

This just in, thanks to Homo Superior: an article at the New York Times site on homosexual behavior in animals. "Homosexual behavior" might not be a good word for what it's talking about, of course: Lindsay Young, the biologist who's quoted extensively on pair-bonding between female Laysan albatrosses, is careful to make it clear that she doesn't even know if the birds are copulating with each other. All she knows is that they share nests (39 of 125 nests at Kaena Point, Hawaii are inhabited by female pairs) and incubate eggs together. Does that make them "lesbians"? How do you decide? It's "homosexual" in the etymological sense of "same-sex" (a term used confusingly elsewhere in the article), but since the word is usually used to allude to copulatory behavior, or pair-bonding that may or may not involve copulation, people tend to jump to conclusions. "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.'" "Hard-wired" is probably bogus, but whether you're talking about Laura Bush praising the Laysan albatrosses for their family-values monogamy, or a gay man assuming that two male orangutans fellating each other also are fans of Lady Gaga, it's certainly a common tendency.

The article spends some time on attempts to find a "Darwinian" explanation for animal homosex. "The point of heterosexual sex, Vasey said, no matter what kind of animal is doing it, is primarily reproduction." If this were an argument, it'd be circular. From the point of view of an evolutionary biologist, it's true, since he or she will have been trained to try to explain all behavior in animals (and whatever you call the equivalent stuff in plants -- do plants have behavior?) in terms of its relation to reproduction, the struggle for existence, maximizing fitness, and so on. Without anthropomorphizing other species, by asking what they "think" they're doing when they copulate, the "point" of sex in human beings, whether it be homosexual, heterosexual, or self-inflicted, is pleasure. We do it because it feels good, and the target / object that brings us pleasure is not biologically or evolutionarily pre-determined. (That's a slight overstatement, since many humans distrust pleasure and try to extirpate it; but even those people are reacting to the fact that most people derive pleasure from genital activity.)
It’s also possible that some homosexual behaviors don’t provide a conventional evolutionary advantage; but neither do they upend everything we know about biology. For the last 15 years, for example, Paul Vasey has been studying Japanese macaques, a species of two-and-a-half-foot-tall, pink-faced monkey. He has looked almost exclusively at why female macaques mount one another during the mating season. Vasey now says he is on to the answer: “It isn’t functional,” he told me; the behavior has no discernible purpose, adaptationally speaking. Instead, it’s a byproduct of a behavior that does, and the supposedly streamlining force of evolution just never flushed that byproduct from the gene pool. Female macaques regularly mount males too, Vasey explained, probably to focus their attention and reinforce their bond as mates. The females are physically capable of mounting any gender of macaque. They’ve just never developed an instinct to limit themselves to one. “Evolution doesn’t create perfect adaptations,” Vasey said. As Zuk put it, “There’s a lot of slop in the system — which,” she was sure to add, “is not the same as saying homosexuality is a mistake.”
"Evolution doesn't create perfect adapations," but a lot of Darwinians think that it should and does. But the advantage that Darwinian theory has over creationist approaches is that it explains the unintelligent design that is so common in our world, from sickle-cell anemia to the Ichneumon wasp, from burn scar tissue to the belief that wings now used for flying originally evolved to manage body temperature but turned out to provide lift too. It's true, recognizing this "doesn't upend everything we know about biology," but so many biologists have been determined to forget and ignore what we know about biology that it probably feels like it to them. Michael Ruse, for example, fumed in his interview with Tamler Sommers, "You don't make progress by sitting on your bum farting on about spandrels" (100), attacking Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin's argument that not every feature in nature can be explained in terms of adaptation. I think Ruse is wrong here as he is in other areas, and that evolution is really a lot sloppier than he wants to think.
Many people who contacted Young after the publication of her first albatross paper assumed she was a lesbian. She is not. Young’s husband, a biological consultant, was actually an author of the paper, along with Brenda Zaun (who is also not gay, for what it’s worth). Young found the assumption offensive — not because she was being mistaken for gay, but because she was being mistaken for a bad scientist; these people seemed to presume that her research was compromised by a personal agenda. Still, some of the biologists doing the most incisive work on animal homosexuality are in fact gay. Several people I spoke to told me their own sexual identities either helped spur or maintain their interest in the topic; Bruce Bagemihl argued that gay and lesbian people are “often better equipped to detect heterosexist bias when investigating the subject simply because we encounter it so frequently in our everyday lives.” With a laugh, Paul Vasey told me, “People automatically assume I’m gay.” He is gay, he added, but that fact didn’t seem to detract from his amusement.
Of course, hardly anyone (except me) thinks that heterosexuals' assumption that everyone, including all non-human species, are heterosexual, might be "compromised by a personal agenda." Forty years after Stonewall, we still are fighting about that one.