July 22, 2024

ohOne of my most annoying traits, I’ve been told, is my tendency to provoke others’ casual enjoyment of nature with rude and unsolicited bits of trivia. Credit it to the influence of my hobbyist herpetologist father, who instilled in me not only a passion for less cuddly animals, but also a strict attention to the facts.

If your favorite animals are sea otters, who mate for life and hold hands so they don’t drift apart? I will inform you that they also sometimes baby seals raped to death. Oh, do you prefer chimpanzees? Did you see that David Attenborough footage of a group of them hunting a monkey that turned out to be too disturbing to broadcast with close up detail?

It’s not that I don’t appreciate cute animals, or intend to spoil everyone’s fun. But since I was a child, the steady pleasure and interest I have derived from nature has been inseparable from its complex and sometimes shocking whole. This, after all, is at the heart of our fascination with animals: all the ways in which they are different, and the ways in which we are sometimes the same.

I wasn’t surprised at all the recent findings PLOS One that same-sex sexual behavior in animals is widely observed, but historically underreported. The analysis, led by anthropologists at the University of Toronto, concluded that 77% of researchers working across 52 different species had observed homosexual activity, but only 19% have published on it.

It’s not that same-sex animal matings haven’t been documented: sexual activity between male penguins was observed in 1911 by members of the Scott Antarctic Expedition, but was left out of the official report for fear of causing scandal.

Conversely, modern-day gay penguins have achieved icon status, such as Silo and Roy of New York’s Central Park Zoo, and London Zoo’s Ronnie and Reggie. But this too reflects their status as outliers, oddities and even emblems for a cause. (In 2019, London Zoo erected a banner in Ronnie and Reggie’s wrap: “Some penguins are gay. Get over it.”)

Both the exclusion, and the embrace, similarly reflect human judgments about animal behavior – as abnormal and shocking, or marginalized identities in need of our allyship or defense. By all accounts, Ronnie and Reggie’s stablemates are not bothered.

Even the appearance of penguins in the limited literature of gay animals seems telling, penguins are personable and non-threatening. But as the PLOS One study makes clear, it’s not just the species we find charming that defy our expectations. Where is the representation for gay mole rats? The Pride flag for same-sex mongooses?

The straight answer is that those species are not as commonly held in captivity, and are therefore less subject to scrutiny of their sex lives. But it fails to account for the human judgments, curation and selection that shape our view of the natural world.

“Same-sex sexual behavior is widespread and natural in the animal kingdom,” said the lead author of the study. The fact that it has not been treated as such, including by scientists, is evidence of our hang-ups and also, more generally, the limitations of our methods. What is being studied to some extent is what we have tried to prove; we see what we choose to look for.

For example, it has long been considered a fact that male mammals are larger than females. But a analysis last year of more than 400 species revealed that only about 44% had larger males, reflecting a “large taxonomic bias”. You can see parallels between this and the stubborn belief in essential differences between men and women, even though science is increasingly showing there is as much variation within them as between them.

Many of these biases are ingrained over centuries, and take even more time to examine and correct. A large-scale 2021 study Comparing men’s and women’s brains found only minor differences attributable to brain size: once individuals’ head sizes were taken into account, gender differences were “small and inconsistent”. Failure to engage with these scientific findings has spillover effects for how our society is structured, blinding us to opportunities for change.

For non-human life, which suffers overwhelmingly as a result of our activity, our piecemeal attention drives not only many species to extinction; efforts to protect them are also carried out on our terms. So-called “charismatic species”—those like elephants and pandas, which are more easily seen as deserving of our attention and resources—are still used as tent poles for conservation efforts, even as the habitats they depend on continue to decline.

And in our failure to meaningfully relate to animals, and see them as they are, it is not only them who are being disserviced. This anthropocentric view overemphasizes our importance and tightens our grip on constructs and narratives (that men are greater, or that same-sex couples are abnormal) where they may have no basis in nature.

This is not to say that we should succumb to the naturalistic fallacy: it is as pointless for us to seek direct inspiration from penguins or pandas as it is for us to project our personal struggles and morals onto them. But by striving to see animals clearly, we can gain clarity about ourselves and our place on the planet we all share.

Our often selective and self-serving engagement with nature blinds us to those subtler lessons that would be beneficial for us to learn. For example: how animal groups are structured for mutual survival, the importance of ecosystems and the role each species plays in maintaining that balance.

Ultimately – as the ecologist Julia Monk said of the study – it speaks to the limits of “our own social imagination”, and the lengths to which we go to protect ourselves from disillusionment.

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