HBD: Human Biodiversity

Gay Animals

From The New York Times Magazine

The Laysan albatross is a downy seabird with a seven-foot wingspan and a notched, pale yellow beak. Every November, a small colony of albatrosses assembles at a place called Kaena Point, overlooking the Pacific at the foot of a volcanic range, on the northwestern tip of Oahu, Hawaii. Each bird has spent the past six months in solitude, ranging over open water as far north as Alaska, and has come back to the breeding ground to reunite with its mate. Albatrosses can live to be 60 or 70 years old and typically mate with the same bird every year, for life. Their “divorce rate,” as biologists term it, is among the lowest of any bird...

Young has been researching the albatrosses on Oahu since 2003; the colony was the focus of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, which she completed last spring. (She now works on conservation projects as a biologist for hire.) In the course of her doctoral work, Young and a colleague discovered, almost incidentally, that a third of the pairs at Kaena Point actually consisted of two female birds, not one male and one female. Laysan albatrosses are one of countless species in which the two sexes look basically identical. It turned out that many of the female-female pairs, at Kaena Point and at a colony that Young’s colleague studied on Kauai, had been together for 4, 8 or even 19 years — as far back as the biologists’ data went, in some cases. The female-female pairs had been incubating eggs together, rearing chicks and just generally passing under everybody’s nose for what you might call “straight” couples.

Young would never use the phrase “straight couples.” And she is adamantly against calling the other birds “lesbians” too. For one thing, the same-sex pairs appear to do everything male-female pairs do except have sex, and Young isn’t really sure, or comfortable judging, whether that technically qualifies them as lesbians or not. But moreover, the whole question is meaningless to her; it has nothing to do with her research. “ ‘Lesbian,’ ” she told me, “is a human term,” and Young — a diligent and cautious scientist, just beginning to make a name in her field — is devoted to using the most aseptic language possible and resisting any tinge of anthropomorphism. “The study is about albatross,” she told me firmly. “The study is not about humans.” Often, she seemed to be mentally peer-reviewing her words before speaking.

A discovery like Young’s can disorient a wildlife biologist in the most thrilling way — if he or she takes it seriously, which has traditionally not been the case. Various forms of same-sex sexual activity have been recorded in more than 450 different species of animals by now, from flamingos to bison to beetles to guppies to warthogs. A female koala might force another female against a tree and mount her, while throwing back her head and releasing what one scientist described as “exhalated belchlike sounds.” Male Amazon River dolphins have been known to penetrate each other in the blowhole. Within most species, homosexual sex has been documented only sporadically, and there appear to be few cases of individual animals who engage in it exclusively. For more than a century, this kind of observation was usually tacked onto scientific papers as a curiosity, if it was reported at all, and not pursued as a legitimate research subject. Biologists tried to explain away what they’d seen, or dismissed it as theoretically meaningless — an isolated glitch in an otherwise elegant Darwinian universe where every facet of an animal’s behavior is geared toward reproducing. One primatologist speculated that the real reason two male orangutans were fellating each other was nutritional.

In recent years though, more biologists have been looking objectively at same-sex sexuality in animals — approaching it as real science. For Young, the existence of so many female-female albatross pairs disproved assumptions that she didn’t even realize she’d been making and, in the process, raised a chain of progressively more complicated questions. One of the prickliest, it seemed, was how a scientist is even supposed to talk about any of this, given how eager the rest of us have been to twist the sex lives of animals into allegories of our own. “This colony is literally the largest proportion of — I don’t know what the correct term is: ‘homosexual animals’? — in the world,” Young told me. “Which I’m sure some people think is a great thing, and others might think is not.”

It was a guarded understatement. Two years ago, Young decided to write a short paper with two colleagues on the female-female albatross pairs. “We were pretty careful in the original article to plainly and simply report what we found,” she said. “It’s definitely a little bit of a tricky subject, and one you want to be gentle on.” But the journal that published the paper, Biology Letters, sent out a press release a few days after the California Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. At 6 the next morning, a Fox News reporter called Young on her cellphone. The resulting story joined others, including one in this paper, and as the news ricocheted around the Internet, a stampede of online commenters alternately celebrated Young’s findings as a clear call for equality or denigrated them as “pure propaganda and selective science at its dumbest” and “an effort to humanize animals or devolve humans to the level of animals or to further an agenda.” Many pointed out that animals also rape or eat their young; was America going to tolerate that too, just because it’s “natural”?

A Denver-based publication for gay parents welcomed any and all new readers from “the extensive lesbian albatross parent community.” The conservative Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn highlighted Young’s paper on his Web site, under the heading “Your Tax Dollars at Work,” even though her study of the female-female pairs was not actually federally financed...Even now, the first thing everyone wants to know from Young — sometimes the only thing — is, what do these lesbian albatrosses say about us?

“I don’t answer that question,” she told me...

In the last decade, however, Paul Vasey and others have begun developing new hypotheses based on actual, prolonged observation of different animals, deciphering the ways given homosexual behaviors may have evolved and the evolutionary role they might play within the context of individual species. Different ideas are emerging about how these behaviors could fit within that traditional Darwinian framework, including seeing them as conferring reproductive advantages in roundabout ways. Male dung flies, for example, appear to mount other males to tire them out, knocking them out of competition for available females. Researchers speculate that young male bottlenose dolphins mount one another simply to establish trust and form bonds — but those bonds actually turn out to be critical to reproduction, since when males mature, they work in groups to cooperatively gain access to females. 

These ideas generally aim to explain only particular behaviors in a particular species. So far, the only real conclusion this relatively small body of literature seems to point to, collectively, is a kind of deflating, meta-conclusion: a single explanation of homosexual behavior in animals may not be possible, because thinking of “homosexual behavior in animals” as a single scientific subject might not make much sense. “Biologists want to build these unified theories to explain everything they see,” Vasey told me. So do journalists, he added — all people, really. “But none of this lends itself to a linear story. My take on it is that homosexual behavior is not a uniform phenomenon. Having one unifying body of theory that explains why it’s happening in all these different species might be a chimera.”

The point of heterosexual sex, Vasey said, no matter what kind of animal is doing it, is primarily reproduction. But that shouldn’t trick us into thinking that homosexual behavior has some equivalent, organizing purpose — that the two are tidy opposites. “All this homosexual behavior isn’t tied together by that sort of primary function,” Vasey said. Even what the same-sex animals are doing varies tremendously from species to species. But we’re quick to conceive of that great range of activities in the way it most handily tracks to our anthropomorphic point of view: put crassly, all those different animals just seem to be doing gay sex stuff with one another. 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.”

The naturalistic fallacy seems deeply embedded in human nature.  I’ve always felt that though homosexuality may be natural, revulsion for the behavior is too and the dominant culture of society should respect the feelings of the majority.  But I guess that’s just somewhat arbitrarily democratizing the naturalistic fallacy to make unacceptable what I don’t like.  What's important to remember is that the modern gay rights movement has to be understood in the context of the overall liberal assault on Western culture.  Otherwise, it's impossible to understand why San Francisco has a mayor who loves illegal immigrants and coddling criminals.

Since 2003, in addition to his investigation of female-female macaque sex, Vasey has also been studying a particular group of men in Samoa. “Westerners would consider them the equivalent of gay guys, I guess,” he told me — they’re attracted exclusively to other men. But they’re not considered gay in Samoa. Instead, these men make up a third gender in Samoan culture, not men or women, called fa’afafine...

In a paper published earlier this year, Vasey and one of his graduate students at the University of Lethbridge, Doug P. VanderLaan, report that fa’afafine are markedly more willing to help raise their nieces and nephews than typical Samoan uncles: they’re more willing to baby-sit, help pay school and medical expenses and so on. Furthermore, this heightened altruism and affection is focused only on the fa’afafine’s nieces and nephews. They don’t just love kids in general. They are a kind of superuncle. This offers support for a hypothesis that has been toyed around with speculatively since the ’70s, when E. O. Wilson raised it: If a key perspective of evolutionary biology urges us to understand homosexuality in any species as a beneficial adaptation — if the point of life is to pass on one’s genes — then maybe the role of gay individuals is to somehow help their family members generate more offspring. Those family members will, after all, share a lot of the same genes.

Vasey and VanderLaan have also shown that mothers of fa’afafine have more kids than other Samoan women. And this fact supports a separate, existing hypothesis: maybe there’s a collection of genes that, when expressed in a male, make him gay but when expressed in a woman, make her more fertile. Like Wilson’s theory, this idea was also meant to explain how homosexuality is maintained in a species and not pushed out by the invisible hand of Darwinian evolution. But unlike Wilson’s hypothesis, it doesn’t try to find a sneaky way to explain homosexuality as an evolutionary adaptation; instead, it imagines homosexuality as a byproduct of an adaptation. It’s not too different from how Vasey explains why his female macaques insistently mount one another.