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Science, Sexuality and the NY Times

Ah yes that is a great title for a blog post. But the title of the lead story of last week's NY Times Magazine was even better "The Love that Dare Not Squawk Its Name: Inside the science of same-sex animal pairings." Sadly they changed the title to "Can Animals Be Gay?" when they put the web version up.

The article is fascinating -- while it covers a lot of ground, the underlying thesis is on how human issues with sexuality, especially homosexuality, have impacted animal research and how, with changing attitudes, has come dramatic changes in conclusions about animal behavior.

It turns out "various forms of same-sex sexual activity have been recorded in more than 450 different species of animals, from flamingos to bison to beetles to guppies to warthogs.' For more than a century, observation of homosexual sex "was usually tacked onto scientific papers as a curiosity, if it was reported at all, and not pursued as a legitimate research subject. Biologists tried to explain away what they’d seen, or dismissed it as theoretically meaningless — an isolated glitch in an otherwise elegant Darwinian universe where every facet of an animal’s behavior is geared toward reproducing." My favorite was the primatologist who speculated that "the real reason two male orangutans were fellating each other was nutritional."

The controversy that studying same sex sexual behavior in animals can generate is impressive. A short article about female-female albatross pairs in Biology Letters caused such a stir that Stephen Colbert warned that “albatresbians” were threatening American family values with their “Sappho-avian agenda.”

The "overall presumption of heterosexuality" in animal research has been so great that, in some cases, researchers didn't even sex their animal pairs. They just assumed if it was a pair, one was female and the other male. It's been interesting (and sometimes horrifying) to see the impact our ideas about race, sex and sexuality have had on our research. Let's just hope the unpeeling continues.

In the meantime you'll be pleased to know that the Times issued a disclaimer: "No assumptions should be made about the animals' sexual preferences based on their appearance in this portfolio."


I really enjoyed that article. It gives me hope for science.

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