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Queer Animals and Queer Reactions from Zoologists

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 21 years ago, in 2001, on the World Wide Web.

An article on same-sex sexual contact in animals and the outraged reception of this research from many mainstream biologists helps perfectly to illustrate why sociobiology is, as science, useless: biologists’ interpretations of animal sexual behavior remain one of the healthiest repositories of every patriarchal and heterosexist prejudice you could think of.

Some true classics:

  • Mainstream zoologists are shocked and alarmed by such queer activities as male lions head-rubbing and rolling with each other, or male whales caressing each other with fins, none of this involving actual genital contact. This tells us more about male zoologists’ hang-ups about physical intimacy between men than it tells us about whether there are queer animals or not.

  • Mainstream sociobiologists seem to simply refuse to admit that animals might engage in sexual contact because it is pleasurable; one colleague of a primatologist who dared to suggest this as an explanation of lesbian sexual contact between Japanese macques remarked Well, if that was the case we’d all be in the aisle now having sex.

  • Zoologists such as Tim Clutton-Brock of the University of Cambridge argue that

    “true” homosexuality–if strictly defined as male anal penetration by males who show no interest in females–is virtually unknown among wild mammals. They argue that animals who mount same-sex partners and the like are behaving aggressively or merely practising for heterosexual encounters. Or they may be advertising their availability, or trying to make a heterosexual partner jealous.

    I shouldn’t even have to say anything to ridicule this, but a few notes are in order: (i) Who the hell defines true homosexuality as male anal penetration by males who show no interest in females? Have lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, or even exclusively gay men who don’t particularly like anal sex, simply ceased to exist? (ii) What does the definition of mounting as an aggressive act tell you about the view of heterosexual sex being espoused? (iii) Aren’t these the exact statements that unrepentant homophobes make about LGBTM humans (e.g., they’re just experimenting, it’s just a phase, they’re trying to make their heterosexual partner jealous, etc.). It is explained that the favored theory of primatologists trying to cope with the fact of widespread lesbianism in Japanese macques was that it was a response to a shortage of male attention – because, as we all know, those dykes just need to find the right man.

All this helps highlight one of the main problems with the gene-programmed outlook of sociobiology: it simply refuses to acknowledge that there might be accidental consequences of evolution which have no basis in selected adaptations, but merely ride in on gene-complexes that are selected for other features. For example, there is clearly no genetic basis for the human practice of writing Petrarchan sonnets, but it is a consequence of our brains being adapted to cognitive and emotive processing for the purposes of survival. Since sociobiologists feel compelled, however, to find an evolutionary function for every behavior, they invariably subsitute in their own cultural prejudices about the proper purpose of behaviors. Thus, the purpose (or evolutionary function) of sex is assumed to be procreation, a page straight out of Catholic dogma.

Well, there are lots of different functions I could think of other than babies for generalized sexuality (such as reinforcing social relationships), which don’t require special explanations such as mistaken identity or dominance or jealousy for queer sexualities. And it may just be that sexual practice is an accidental feature of evolutionary adaptations rather than a functional adaptation in the first place. But since sociobiology rules such explanations out a priori, it inevitably has to substitute in all kinds of incedibly overt Right-wing cultural conservative ideology and pass it off as Eternal Laws of Nature. It is for this reason that late 20th/early 21st century Sociobiology has become the modern equivalent of late 19th/early 20th century racist anthropology as the naturalization of reactionary ideology.

2 replies to Queer Animals and Queer Reactions from Zoologists Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. JOhn

    On your article “Queer Animals and Queer Reactions from Zoologists.”

    I’m a biologist. From the beginning I thought efforts to claim that the practice of homosexuality as it occurs in humans has been shown to be normal behavior among non-human animals. I’ve been at it for a while now and still dont think the case has been made.

    One thing my search, and particularly articles such as yours, DO confirm for me is that most of the people whose business it is to understand animal life disagree with you.

    I guess the next thing I need to do is read that book that seems to be at the core of all this (whole title excapes me now but the word “exuberance” is prominent). I will check it out and read it.

    However, at this point, I have learned that when you guys run around talking about homosexuality in the animal kingdom you are not talking about a generally accepted premise of the people involved in the science of animals. What’s happened is that you have siezed upon a minority opinion because it happens to be consistent with what you wish to believe.

    I’ll keep looking, and we shall see.

— 2004 —

  1. Discussed at www.radgeek.com

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    I’ve often criticized sociobiology in the past; in part because I regard it as a pseudoscientific screen for reactionary politics, and in part because I…

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