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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

It's Not "Unnatural"

Oslo's Museum of Natural History currently features an exposition devoted to animal homosexuality. Manifest homosexual behavior has been observed among members of 450 species. The Museum exposes explicit photographs of sexual behavior among members of 30 of them. The project's director Geir Soli's says the aim of the exposition is "To refute the too well-known argument according to which homosexual behavior is a crime against nature."

(Via Truthout and BBC News)


Matthew said...

Typically those who appeal to nature in trying to make the case against homosexuality are natural law types. Showing that every other animal on the plant engaged in same-sex sex wouldn't undermine the natural law argument because they are only appealing to human nature. I imagine the natural law folks would respond by saying something like, "Well some animals eat poop, their young, or their mates, would you have us infer that those are ok too?" I suspect that the average person who makes the "it's against nature" claim shares something of the natural law philosopher's intuition.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Matthew,
Yeah, more than a few counter-instances are needed. But suppose a LOT of animals (including most humans) ate poop, their young or their mates (just the way we eat cows, pigs, and chicken). Wouldn't it then be tempting to question the alleged natural law against it?

Matthew said...

If most humans where engaged in the activity it would be tempting to question the alleged natural law against it. I think in this case the NL folks will say that this group in question is statistically small enough to be anomolous.

For the record I'm typically not in the business of carrying water for natural law ethicists. I just wanted to point out that while the exposition is novel the NL folks would be unmoved since it says nothing in regards to their argument. This is yet another reminder of why I'm not an ethicist.

CK said...

The really interesting thing about investigation into animal homosexuality is the insight it gives us into the evolutionary role of same-sex pair bonding.

Natural law makes procreation the focus of human relationships (even though sterile couples are not "against nature" since their relationship is still aimed in some way at procreation). But if, evolutionarily speaking, homosexuality has a benefit for the population as a whole, then even though the individual relationship does not result in offspring, it is not "unnatural."

This would, however, require thinking outside of single partnerships and looking at populations. One scientist (transgendered) working on this is interviewed in Seed, here. And, it turns out, promiscuous mothers may have healthier babies...

(But I'm not sure if NL folks take evolutionary psychology seriously with regard to human behavior...)

Brit Brogaard said...

Thanks for this Colleen! And the links. I think that sounds right. If animal homosexuality is common, which it is, then evolution must have "kept it around" for a reason.

Matthew said...

What Colleen says sounds right, though I think we have to be careful in talk of whole populations. Typically we think of evolution operating largely at the individual level and not at the level of populations. I think you'd want to appeal to something like inclusive fitness whereby an organism can increase its own fitness by keeping its collateral relatives viable. BTW, I do think there are some NL folks who take EP seriously as a way grounding talk about human nature. Maybe one will actually stumble across this thread and let us know.

I don't know that we'd want to say that "evolution must have "kept it around" for a reason." That is I suppose it could turn out that homosexuality is a byproduct of some benefit with no present cost, or a past benefit with no cost today. We have traits, and maybe an organ or two, that serve no present evolutionary benefit, but we don’t typically think that evolution must have kept them around for a reason. There just isn’t any cost to cause them to be deselected.

CK said...

1. Evolution impacting groups is hotly debated. The Seed article I link to mentions this. In fact, there's an NY Times article today on an attempt to explain ethics evolutionarily--and the same point is brought up. So yeah, I'd say we'd want to amend the thought in the way Matthew suggests. The jury's still out on the mechanism.

2. As far as a "reason" for it, yes, it could be a byproduct. An example I read recently was in Gould's "Bully for Brontosaurus" where he talks about the size of the kiwi egg.

For a long time, people wondered what the 'purpose' of such a large egg could be. Gould postulates that it is the size of the kiwi itself that is the evolutionary adaptation, and that the egg size is just a byproduct (basically that kiwis are dwarved version of an earlier flightless bird, in which the egg size was normal).

So it is the case that we don't want to look for a 'purpose' for everything. (There's an example pertinent to human sexuality in that same volume, entitled "Male Nipples and Female Ripples" but I'll let you guys find it rather than summarize it here.)

However, with something like same-sex activity, pair-bonding, etc. which is widespread, adaptivity does seem like an appropriate question. (How human concepts impact our interpretation of sexuality is a whole other I might have thoughts on soon as I'm reading some queer theorists).

Brit Brogaard said...

Yes, there is even talk of evolution operating at the species level but that is controversial. But the idea that evolution can operate at the level of population is not. Relatedly, the concept of interbreeding ability sometimes used by defenders of the biological concept of species is best defined at the level of population (otherwise, we'd get the unfortunate consequence that sterile individuals do not belong to a species)