Monday, 25 November 2013

Birds Do It, Bees Do It ...

I don’t think Cole Porter realised when he wrote the song which contains the lyrics in the above title that he might be saying something that has a grain of truth in it in respect of his own sexuality. But it couldn’t be more perfect, because it’s back to the “Nature or Nurture” debate on homosexuality today. The biggest evidence for the “Nature” side comes from the animal world.

The Wikipedia entry “Homosexual behaviour in animals” gives a long list of a whole variety of animal species where some form of same-sex activity has been recorded. But, as that article points out, there is an intellectual difference in the homosexual behaviour of humans and animals. We humans have also established a distinct identity and community based around same-sex attraction, but animals display no capacity to form such communities. To the animal world there is no understanding that what they’re doing in any different to any others in their species – it is part of their natural sexual “repertoire”.

Among the scientific research on the subject there is no agreement on the universal causes or reasons for homosexuality in animals. Each species may have different causes. Some scientists say it is due to hormones in individual animals rather than present across the whole species, while other scientists have found no difference in hormonal levels between members of a different species which displays such homosexual behaviour.

The Wikipedia article mentions the particular instances of same sex activity in domesticated sheep, where “homosexual” rams refuse to mate with ewes. If you’ve got a good memory and have followed my blog for a long time you may remember an early “Star Gayzing” article which I published in relation to the constellation of Aries the Ram on this subject.

Going back to Cole Porter’s song, just how much of his lyrics can be applied to homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom? Do birds it? Do bees do it? Do even educated fleas do it?

The instances of homosexual behaviour in birds is well documented. In fact one pair of birds acquired a kind of celebrity status as a same-sex couple for several years. They’re a couple of penguins called Roy and Silo. They weren’t the first male penguin couple, but their story went on to create a nationwide controversy.

In 1998 these two penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York began showing sings of behaviour towards each other that was usually displayed by mating pairs. It wasn’t long before they had established a nest together and had started trying to hatch a stone. Zoo-keepers substituted an egg from an “overlaid” nest for the stone and Roy and Silo succeeded in hatching it. The chick was named Tango.

This penguin family became a tourist attraction, and in 2005 their story was turned into a children’s book called “And Tango Makes Three” by gay couple Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. While stories of evil and murder are accepted in the children’s sections of American libraries (in books like “Oliver Twist” or “Harry Potter”), the story of two male penguins raising a chick created a big stir, with calls for it to be banned in many states. In fact, between 2006 and 2010 it was the most controversial book in US libraries (or second most, in 2009). Despite this, “And Tango Makes Three” has won several awards.

So birds do it. What about bees? There’s no specific research into the sexuality of bees, but there’s plenty with regards to other insects. Research into damsel flies and dragonflies has shown evidence of same-sex activity based on the pincer marks made by males on females during mating. Up to 80% of males in these species show mating-related pincer marks. Fruit flies show genetic evidence for homosexual behaviour.

Even educated fleas do it, so Cole Porter wrote. Perhaps he should have written “even educated bed bugs do it”. The males of the species Cinex lecturarius are sexually attracted to others in their species which have recently fed, this includes male bed bugs as well. Evolution’s answer to this (implying they did it long before humans invented beds!) is for the males to produce pheromones to put off other males – they generate such a foul odour that it puts other males off (I bet we’ve all experience much a similar thing ourselves!).

“Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” with the idea that homosexuality wasn’t invented by gay men and it isn’t perverted. Until society accepts that same-sex attraction occurs in animal species then we can’t say that the “Nature or Nurture” debate will ever be resolved.

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