Monday, 30 October 2006

"I'm not gay!" the dog barked.

World Science has a weekly email of the latest, most intriguing scientific discoveries and experimental results. You can subscribe to them at their site and they'll send you the latest. Inspired by recent readings of natural history by the Great One, Stephen Jay Gould (peace be upon him) in The Panda's Thumb, this blog will be a weekly take on a World Science article.

This last week had some very interesting reports. How the dinosaurs actually died, the oldest known organic molecules discovered, and why vampires are simply mathematically impossible. Hard to decide on one. But I picked "A Wild, and Gay, Kingdom". Turns out, contrary to what has often been thought, being gay is not unnatural, at least as far as animals go. There's actually a very high incidence of single gender sexual interaction in different animals. I know. Why pick an uncontroversial topic for a first post?

As I mentioned on the World Science Commentary, I have a number of problems with this exhibition, or rather, how it was presented. Boekman, heading the exhibition organizers, states that homosexuality occurs in many animals, especially herd animals, and in a number of them, it is actually a more common coupling than heterosexuality. Therefore in certain species most individuals are gay. However, just because an animal engages in a homosexual act, doesn't make him or her gay, anymore than it does with humans. That's the problem the gay community often has interpreting the Kinsey Report. They claim that, based on it's results, 10% of humans are gay. However, that's not what the report says. Not only was it a study of Americans only, but it stated that 10% engaged in homosexual acts at some point in their lives; less than 2% were committed to exclusively gay relationships. This is closer to what we actually find in other studies. And likewise, just because in some other species most of the individuals engage in homosexual acts, doesn't make them gay. Indeed, the exhibition supports this finding, in that exclusively gay organisms are a far smaller percentage than those that have the occasional gay fling, or even the regular gay interaction. The latter makes them bi, not gay.

Secondly, as part of his justification for the argument of the widespread presence, Boekman even mentions invertebrates and worms, with the implication that this makes it normative for humans. But I'm sorry, invertebrates are just too different to make that leap. Especially worms! I mean, come on- they're hermaphrodites!

This brings me to the argument from nature. Yes, one argument that's been used against homosexuality is that it's "not natural", because it doesn't normally occur among humans. And it's true, this exhibition blows that argument out of the water. But just because something occurs in nature, or doesn't, doesn't make it morally normative for humans. A similar mistake was made when misguided fools tried to apply evolutionary principles to human groups to claim that whites were superior. Biology shouldn't dictate morality. When it does, we usually go the wrong direction, fatally so. Biology is great for answering the What. Not the Why.

Second, God made each animal unique. It should follow it's own rules. Not to imply that non-humans can operate under a morality. It's not like they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. But let's be honest, there's nothing wrong with a hermaphrodite sleeping with a hermaphrodite, or a protandrous fish changing gender- that's how they were designed. But there's a problem with us trying to be hermaphrodites, or changing gender- we're not designed that way.

Now, I'm not using design like that Intelligent Design hypothesis. But God's made us to be the way we are- whatever that means. We worship Him best by being what we are. You can do it spiritually, or emotionally/physically. When we try to change what we are (say, to become a hermaphrodite), we do damage to our psyche. Unless we should reproduce like the Dinophilus Annelid's sibling mating, which produces 4 offspring in each egg, 3 female and 1 male? The male then has sex with it's sisters, dies within the egg, and the three sisters hatch to recapitulate the entire cycle. If homosexuality is wrong or right, it has nothing to do with nature, or what other animals do. It has to do with what God has called us to, what will bring us the most Joy, allowing us to fully worship Him. And that's a question that can be answered in religion, or philosophy, but not biology.

Third, the argument from natural selection: Boekman discusses how common homosexuality is, suggesting that it has naturally developed a number of times in many animals. No argument there. But the mere reporting of the fact is not enough. Where's the mechanism? I want to know what the advantage to homosexuality is. Why are organisms which do this selected for, even in the minority? One could argue that it helps in establishing bonding or dominance rituals- and indeed, this has long been argued by biologists. Yet Boekman poo-poos this explanation, stating that biologists have an inherent bias against homosexuality and refuse to see it as a sexual act. If it is a sexual act, then why does it continue to evolve? What selects for it? Is it a mere spandrel? (That's quite the spandrel.) Inherently, homosexuality is selected against. Biology is all about sex. An organism can't continue it's offspring, and fulfill it's evolutionary duty, without it. Biologically, without reproduction, it has failed. An organism committed to homosexuality only can not continue it's genes, and therefore can not continue the genetic coding towards homosexuality. Therefore there must be a non-sexual selection for homosexuality, if it continues. Dominance and friendship seem to be better explanations within evolutionary theory.

Lastly, my biggest issue with the study is likewise in regard to sex. It would seem the organizers are very unaware of the meaning of sex. Perhaps because this exhibition is on the bridge of two different disciplines. I would imagine (not knowing for sure) that in anthropology, sex refers to two individuals enjoying each other in reference to their reproductive organs, often with orgasm. However, in biology sex refers to the mixture of gametes. Unless Boeckman has a rather novel proposal for how this might occur between two sperm or two eggs, gay interactions between animals are not sex, by biological definitions. There is no way they can be. Hence previous researches are quite correct to not refer to this as sex.

It's beginning to appear that the exhibition organizers have a bias and an agenda.


@bdul muHib said...

Drh said: I’m in Africa. Your blog reminded me of Krispy Kremes, something I can’t get here. Thank you.

@bdul muHib said...

Joe said: I've often wondered how a trait that was supposedly genetic could survive if it doesn't result in reproduction.

I read a book this summer called Sperm Wars which was a layman-oriented explanation of the biological/evolutionary basis for various sexual behaviors, including ordinary monogamous sex, infidelity, masturbation, and homosexuality. The author's primary explanation for most behaviors had to do with providing the best possible environment for fertilization to take place. I can't remember how homosexual behavior fit into the picture though.

drh...don't worry, Krispy Kremes aren't good for you anyway. Survival of the fittest an' all...

@bdul muHib said...

Quaintance said: third times' a charm? In extreme brief:

1) Polygenic inheritance can explain in part why non-adaptive traits do not disappear, as can recessive traits in standard Medelian genetics.
2) Applying human morality to animals is silly. Calling intimate behaviors by their true motives would make us uncomfortable, so it's at least entertaining to do it the other way around.
3) Applying morality to humans broadly is equally silly. We are still animals, whether we choose to accept it or not.
4) Best read on these topics I've found "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for all Creation"

@bdul muHib said...

I hope I can entice you to try for more explanation, because I'm not completely clear on some of your excellent thoughts.

1) Yes, I agree. In fact, it was the recessive possibility that I was dwelling on later. But it would have to require that those with the gene for homosexuality would continue to breed, at least at a low level, or else the entire possibility would be bred out, and by this time, after a couple million years, be gone. Unless it is polygenic, as you suggest, or a spandrel, and is attached to some advantage that we are not aware of.

2)I'm not sure if I understood this comment, but if I did, I agree. Animals I would suggest are ammoral, with the possible exception of more intelligent ones, but in that case, they have their own morality.

3)The third comment I definitely had difficulty understanding your meaning. We are moral animals, I'd agree. That's what makes us different from the rest of the animals. Are you suggesting that there isn't a overall morality for all humans? If so, I would disagree, though say that in certain things morality is worked out through different cultures. (i.e. It is immoral to show up late in America in many situations but just fine in Africa, for in the U.S. you have made an implied commitment with your word to be on time. Moral to be topless in the South Pacific, immoral in the U.S.)

4)Thanks so much for that book recommendation! I'm going to run right out and get it.

@bdul muHib said...

Quaintance said: Not in text, I'm afraid. Sometime soon perhaps we can chat o nthe phone and I can clarify my position then.

@bdul muHib said...

I've loved that book- thank you!

This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.