Friday, April 9, 2010

The Political Threat of Lesbian Albatrosses (and the Wild Diversity of God)

There is much that both amuses and appalls me about Jon Mooallem’s article “Can Animals Be Gay?” in last Sunday’s New York Times (to be clear: not about the article itself, but about the discussion on which the article is reporting).

Some of my reflections:

1. We need research to demonstrate to us that all kinds of animals engage in same-sex behavior all the time?

As my friend Colleen Kochivar-Baker, who grew up on a ranch out west, noted when this topic came up some time ago at Bilgrimage, anyone who lives on a farm or a ranch is totally familiar with this newly discovered and newly proven (by scientists! it must be true!) phenomenon of same-sex activity in the animal kingdom.

For that matter, as a student in a class I was teaching some years ago told a classmate when he observed blithely that you never see animals of the same sex copulating, “Come and see my dog with the dog next door sometime.  I think you’ll change your mind.”

2. And despite the fact that same-sex activity is so obvious and commonplace in the animal kingdom that anyone us with eyes to see can see it, it took researchers this long to notice this scientific fact?

3. And when they did see what anyone with eyes to see could see if their eyes were open, every explanation but the obvious occurred to them?  Male orangutans engaging in oral sex are doing so to fulfill nutritional needs?!

4. And if Darwininan theory seems to imply that animals reproduce in order to sustain their species, why would it not be possible to argue that animals would also naturally engage in non-reproductive erotic behavior for precisely the same reason: because sexual activity premised solely on the certainty of conception would quickly lead to such overpopulation that a species would run itself out of business? 

5. And it’s only when experts suddenly discover that animals engage in same-sex behavior, that we’re anthropomorphizing and politicizing the discussion of how animals behave naturally in the realm of the erotic? 

It wasn’t anthropomorphic and political when Laura Bush praised Laysan albatrosses for their lifelong monogamy, but it is anthropomorphic and political when researchers finally thought to check the sex of mated pairs of albatrosses and found that a third of them were female-female couples?

We are, it strikes me, often stupider than the animals we research.  And our stupidity is pathetic because it is so carefully cultivated.  We do not see what is right before us because we cannot see what we have decided not to see—what we have decided cannot exist.  And we imagine in nature what is not there—those wonderful icons of monogamy, the (male-female, it goes without saying) albatrosses with the low divorce rate—because we have to find ourselves mirrored in nature.

One wonders what the animals might find if they studied us . . . .

The length of time it took for scientists to “discover” same-sex erotic behavior among animals, and the absurd theories some scientists have advanced to explain what they have “discovered,” doesn’t speak well of the methodological rigor of many researchers, since science is supposed to be all about, well, putting presuppositions aside and finding what’s there and not what we want to find there.  Isn’t it?

A passage that bowls me over:

“There is still an overall presumption of heterosexuality,” the biologist Bruce Bagemihl told me. “Individuals, populations or species are considered to be entirely heterosexual until proven otherwise.” While this may sound like a reasonable starting point, Bagemihl calls it a “heterosexist bias” and has shown it to be a significant roadblock to understanding the diversity of what animals actually do. In 1999, Baghemihl published “Biological Exuberance,” a book that pulled together a colossal amount of previous piecemeal research and showed how biologists’ biases had marginalized animal homosexuality for the last 150 years — sometimes innocently enough, sometimes in an eruption of anthropomorphic disgust. Courtship behaviors between two animals of the same sex were persistently described in the literature as “mock” or “pseudo” courtship — or just “practice.” Homosexual sex between ostriches was interpreted by one scientist as “a nuisance” that “goes on and on.” One man, studying Mazarine Blue butterflies in Morocco in 1987, regretted having to report “the lurid details of declining moral standards and of horrific sexual offenses” which are “all too often packed” into national newspapers. And a bighorn-sheep biologist confessed in his memoir, “I still cringe at the memory of seeing old D-ram mount S-ram repeatedly.” To think, he wrote, “of those magnificent beasts as ‘queers’ — Oh, God!”

Ah, yes, the “just practicing” explanation: going through a phase, fooling around a bit with someone of the same gender until “real” sex comes along.  And the boredom of having to watch this pseud-sex, which goes on and on and on . . . when we could be studying the real thing with intense absorption.

Unless, that is, it involves queer old D mounting queer old S, at which point the boredom turns to frissons of horror because they are, after all (like me the watcher) rams, for godssake!  Rams mounting rams: oh, God!  The humanity of it: the declining moral standards and horrific sexual offenses one discovers when one opens one’s eyes to the animal kingdom!

And so the dire political threat of lesbian albatrosses  . . . and the fear they instill in us.  As Mooallem notes, biologist Marlene Zuk concludes that we’re simply hard-wired, we human animals, to read all animal behavior as “some version of the way people do things” and animals as “blurred, imperfect copies of humans.” 

From a theological standpoint, I draw the following conclusion from scientific findings such as those discussed in this article.  God, the author of the wild, amazing diversity we find in nature (if we open our eyes), is far wilder and more diverse—in God’s very nature—than we have ever begun to imagine.  And because God is in God’s own nature wild and diverse, the fount of a fecund diversity and generativity that vastly transcend biological reproduction, God is in God’s own nature accepting and affirming and welcoming of diversities we ourselves screen out, to maintain our anthropomorphic illusion of control of the natural world.

So it’s God we’re afraid of, ultimately, when we invent natural-law theories that torture the natural world into our tiny little prisons of understanding and control.  It’s God against whom we build the barriers, right in and through our religious systems.  Religion is, for many of us, at its very core a way of withholding from ourselves and keeping at bay the stark reality of a wild, diverse God utterly different from ourselves.

But in the end, even after we have spun all the theories we want to explain why old D-ram mounts old S-ram—it’s a trial run for real sex; it happens because they have access to each other, not because they really want to mount each other; it only occurs in a strictly limited number of species for a strictly limited amount of time; sex is obviously for reproduction—what we’re always going to observe in nature, when we remove the blinders and set the theories aside, is wild, mysterious diversity.  Which points back to a wild, mysterious source, before whom the only defensible religious response is to stand in awe.

Not to control.