The Gay Animal Kingdom

Homosexuality in animals is theorized, not as an aberration, but as an evolutionary necessity

| June 15, 2006

A lot of flap has been made about teaching evolution in schools, but creationists aren't the only ones questioning Charles Darwin's 19th century theories. Jonah Lehrer of Seed reports on Joan Roughgarden, a biology professor at Stanford University who believes that Darwin needs a little modernization. Evolutionary biologists tend to look at homosexuality as an anomaly, maybe even a disease. Roughgarden, on the other hand, sees homosexuality as an adaptive trait used to strengthen community. For many species, she argues, homosexuality is nothing short of an evolutionary necessity.

According to Lehrer, sex was a straightforward transaction for Darwin: Sex in animals was meant to propagate the species, nothing more. Lehrer explains Darwin's take, saying, 'Males compete for females. Evolutionary success is defined by the quantity of offspring.' Homosexuality is a behavior that doesn't fit this mold and is often explained simply as 'fun' or 'practicing.' With more than 450 species of vertebrates exhibiting homosexual behavior, Roughgarden sees such explanations as dismissive and problematic.

Roughgarden maintains that the problem isn't with the animals that exhibit the behavior, but with the theory. In her book, Evolution's Rainbow , Roughgarden cites myriad examples from the animal kingdom to demonstrate evolutionary advantages of homosexuality. One such case is the Eurasian oystercatcher, a shore bird known to live in 'polygynous' family units of one male and two females. Although the relationship between the two females can sometimes turn contentious and violent, a homosexual relationship between them can serve to advance the species through cooperation. Lehrer explains Roughgarden's theory, writing that 'homosexuality is just a prelude to social cooperation, a pleasurable way to avoid wanton conflict.'

Not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. Paul Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, maintains that Roughgarden dismisses some of the advancements and modifications that have been made to Darwin's theory of sexual selection in the last 100 years. Although Myers finds many of Roughgarden's observations compelling, he describes her version of Darwin as 'a straw man.' Complicating matters is Roughgarden's status as a transgendered person. 'I think many scientists discount me because of who I am,' she says, 'They assume that I can't be objective, that I've got some bias or hidden LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] agenda.'

The Stanford biologist insists that she is simply 'trying to understand the data,' but her observations continue to ruffle feathers. According to Lehrer, Roughgarden argues that her observations cannot be understood without 'disowning Darwin,' and that has many in the field crying foul. According to Roughgarden, the evidence coming out in the past 10 to 15 years 'is to the rest of the species what the Kinsey Report was to humans.' In other words, society's views on sexuality are about to evolve. -- Bennett Gordon

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