Thursday, April 8, 2010

What do these lesbian albatrosses say about us?

The cover story in this week's Times magazine asks, “Can animals be gay?” Several years ago, during her doctoral work observing a colony of albatrosses at Kaena Point in Oahu, biologist Lindsay Young noticed that “a third of the pairs at Kaena Point actually consisted of two female birds” rather than the slightly more typical male-female pairings. The writer goes on to point out that same sex pairings in the animal kingdom are quite common in the animal kingdom, “[having] been recorded in more than 450 different species of animals.”

When Young published her observations of the albatross colony, she became embroiled in a fierce debate on the implications of her findings for humans. Some commenters “celebrated Young's findings as a clear call for equality,” while others denigrated them as “'pure propaganda' and selective science at it's dumbest.” Young, herself, refuses to address the question, “What do these lesbian albatrosses say about us?”

Many people are fascinated with questions about the origins and nature of homosexuality. It feels like every month the mainstream media and the blogosphere bat around a new scientific study claimed to be a major breakthrough in the science of homosexuality. Several years ago, scientists found that with genetic manipulation, they could cause male fruit flies to exhibit female typical mating behavior. This finding led to a flurry of headlines like, “The Gay Gene?” and “Scientists Make Fruit Flies Gay.”

Hypotheses about the implications of same-sex mating behavior in animals for humans abound, but few writers, if any, wonder whether these lesbian albatrosses say anything at all about us. The whole genre of using (and perhaps abusing) research on animal behavior to draw social and political conclusions rests on the assumption that research on animal behavior is relevant to human behavior.

Even assuming that animals of one sex exhibit behavior that is typical of the other sex, does it make sense to describe that behavior as "gay?" What are the social and political implications of using words usually applied to humans to describe animals?

Maybe I'm getting worked up over nothing. Perhaps journalists are simply writing in an engaging way, and I shouldn't worry too much about it. But scientists themselves are aware of the pitfalls of anthropomorphic language. According to the writer of the Times article, “Young would never use the phrase 'straight couples'” to describe animals. “And she is adamantly against calling the birds 'lesbians.'” The writer explains that the question of whether the birds are lesbians is “meaningless to her; it has nothing to do with her research.” In Young's own words, “'this study is about albatross... this study is not about humans.'”

Young's comments evoke a familiar analysis of the relationship between science and journalists' account of science in the media. The distinction is clearly drawn between the scientists, who are restrained, rational, and methodologically precise and popular science writers, who are hyperbolic, ideological and who distort technical scientific papers. 

But some scientists question whether they and their colleagues are able to maintain objective detachment. According to the Times article, biologist Bruce Bagemihl discusses biologists’ “heterosexist bias,” saying, “Individuals of a species are considered entirely heterosexual until proven otherwise.” In his book, “Biological Exuberance,” Bagemihl quotes one biologist saying '“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!'” Bagemihl points out that some scientists, even ones well-respected by their peers, fall into precisely the error of describing animal behavior in human terms that Young works so hard to avoid. The ram biologist which Bagemihl quotes, goes so far as to call these rams “queers,” a word which not only describes the rams in human terms, but which also includes negative connotations.

The most illuminating moment of the article comes in the final paragraphs as the writer describes a day when David Leonard, an ornithologist and friend of Young's, tagged along: “He was here as a bird lover, not a bird researcher, and wasn't overly interested in scientific detachment. When Young pointed out a male albatross whinnying at every female that passed overhead, Leonard shook his head and joked, 'I feel your pain, dude.'” A couple paragraphs later, Young observes a male and female about to mate: “ 'Will anyone see me if I cheat?’ Young said. “I’m not sure if he’s taking her up on it, or just going, ‘Why are you in my spot?’ She was doing the bird’s interior monologue, narrating for one blameless, anthropomorphic moment.”

There is a tension here. Even the scientists like Young, who refuse to fall prey to the temptation to describe animals in human terms, sometimes cannot help themselves. Clarifying Leonard's role to make explicit that he was merely a bird lover not a bird researcher, exonerates him. He is no longer on the hook for the crime of anthropomorphic description. I am not sure how to read the word “blameless” in the final sentence. Is it blameless because Young doesn't blame herself or is it blameless because describing animals in human terms isn't actually that bad? Young argued that anthropomorphic descriptions distort scientific truth. But the final paragraphs indicate that Young (and Leonard) fight the temptation to describe animal behavior in human terms, and that when they indulge themselves, they do see animal behavior in human terms. 

The Times article leaves me with two main questions: How should writers balance between the reflex to describe animals in human terms and the feeling that doing so somehow distorts scientific observations? What are the pitfalls of anthropomorphic descriptions?


  1. Your ideas on anthropomorphic language are interesting, but I am interested in another aspect of what you wrote about: the potential consequences and ideas that can come out of articles like that. As an avid gay rights advocate, I worry about both possibilities: whether we view homosexuality in humans as a learned behavior or as a biological imperitive (a "gay" gene), there could be a push by some social conservatives for a "cure".

    In a more general sense, what happens to humanity when science can cause us to be able to modify our own biologies to change our physical attributes, emotions, or even our sexualities? We're not that far off when you consider the effects of HGH, psychoactive drugs, and hormone therapies.

  2. I wonder what the implications are of thinking of sexuality as the kind of thing that can be consciously modified by science. Perhaps the most important difference in the political arena is whether we see sexuality as malleable or immutable. We tend to see biology as immutable, but as you point out Chris, scientists are demonstrating more and more the extent to which our biology is alterable.