A recent New York Times newspaper article entitled ‘Can Animals Be Gay?’ ( http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/magazine/04animals-t.html) generated a lot of buzz when it revealed that 39 of 125 nesting pairs of Laysan albatrosses at Kaena Point in Oahu, Hawaii were comprised of female/female pairs. This colony had been observed and studied for decades but it was always assumed that the pairs were male-female. That is, until a keen researcher decided to sex the birds genetically to explain why many of the nests had 2 eggs – when it was known that female Laysan albatrosses are capable of laying only one egg per cycle (owing to their extra large size). It turned out that the nests containing 2 eggs were those belonging to female-female pairs. Further observation revealed that both females of a female-female pair were going out and having sex with an already-committed male, and then returning to their nests to each lay their egg.
The world had a much politicized reaction to this paper than surprised even the lead researcher, who was not trying to explain homosexual behavior, merely the albatross. Some gay rights advocates welcomed the news of same-sex families in the albatross world, interpreting it as further justification of their rights and lifestyle, while detractors were quick to point out that parallels in the animal world were meaningless as reflections of what society should embrace or permit, given that in many animal species there is infanticide and rape as well.
While the head researchers making the observations were quick to opine that they do not consider such same-sex pairs to be examples of lesbianism, they are also not sure what conclusions to draw from their observations, noting that while same-sex pairs appear to do everything male-female pairs do (preen each others feathers, nuzzle together, take turns nest-sitting while the other goes fishing, etc.), they do not have sex.
Why is this happening, and what can explain this abundance of female-female pairings within this colony of Laysan albatrosses? The researchers gave the following explanation: there are fewer male than female albatrosses in the colony and the ‘excess’ females – needing a partner to share parenting duties to enhance a hatchling’s survival chances – opt to each mate with an already paired male, but incubate their egg with another unpaired female. This way, paired females have a better chance of passing on their genes.
Even though in the case of the Laysan albatrosses there is no homosexual activity (viz. actual sex) going on within female-female pairs, it is noteworthy that homosexual activity is sometimes observed when there’s a shortage of one type of gender – in the wild but more often in zoos (known as the prison effect). In fact, the article points out that ‘same-sex sexual activity has been recorded in more than 450 different species of animals, from flamingos to bison to beetles to warthogs’ – but not exclusive homosexual sex! So, to answer the central question of this blog entry – No, animals can’t be gay. Humans are the only species where exclusively homosexual individuals and subgroups exist. We are unique in all of nature in this respect, and I will show in a future blog how it is our vastly superior intelligence relative to all other animals that makes it possible.
The many researchers in the article admit being incapable of making sense of homosexual activity seen in so many diverse species of animals, and speculate that a single unifying theory might not ever exist. I believe a good overall unifying explanation can only be arrived at when we examine the relationship between 2 biological variables – instinct and intelligence – and how they interact with environment. That will be the topic of my next blog.