(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Bruce Bagemihl, a trained biologist who has taught linguistics and cognitive science at the University of British Columbia, has written extensively about language, gender, sexuality, and biology. Biological Exuberance is the culmination of years of research on sexuality in nature, notably among animals outside the human species. This research has led to telling conclusions that have broad implications for humans at a time when possible genetic origins of human homosexuality are being widely postulated and explored. The book should have the same sort of impact that John Boswell’s two seminal volumes, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994), have had.

While some people adhere to the view that human homosexuality is a choice that humans knowingly and consciously make, Bagemihl’s research suggests that homosexual and transgender behavior among many animal species is neither a choice nor an aberration. As Bagemihl presents it, it is perfectly natural in those animals that manifest this behavior. If moral judgments are made, they are made by the humans who report such behavior and may superimpose their views upon what they have observed.

Bagemihl’s substantial sample focuses on mammals and birds and presents specific information about homosexual conduct in almost three hundred species within these two major categories. The group includes monkeys, apes, giraffes, elephants, birds, fish, whales, dolphins, Humboldt penguins, grizzly bears, mice, rats, and geese.

The author wisely divides his book into two major sections. Part 1, “A Polysexual, Polygendered World,” explores homosexuality and transgendered activity in animals, considering the history and diversity of such conduct as it has been reported throughout the past two hundred years. Bagemihl reports only on documented scientific studies that have considered such behavior.

Part 2, “A Wondrous Bestiary,” documents homosexual and transgendered behavior in the nearly three hundred animal species alluded to in the study. The section on each species follows a similar format that consists of a chart indicating homosexual and transgender behavior and behaviors such as courtship, parenting, and pair-bonding. All of the sections indicate whether the described behavior occurred in the wild, semiwild, or captivity. Each discusses the social organization of the animal group, describes how homosexual behavior is manifested, and considers nonreproductive and alternative heterosexualities. Each section ends with a useful bibliography.

Although its extensive documentation, contained in sixty-one pages of notes and seven pages of bibliography, is aimed specifically at a scientific audience, Biological Exuberance is also addressed to the general reader, who can easily appreciate and understand the book without reference to the notes and bibliography. Bagemihl states that he has included the documentation for the scientific audience that this book, the first of its kind, should inevitably reach.

In a sense this book is a Kinsey Report focusing on nonhuman species, which gives it certain advantages. The sexual behavior of humans is usually not observed directly because of privacy concerns. Pioneer researchers of human sexual behavior, such as Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, Virginia Johnson, and Robert Kolodny, largely depended on anecdotal reporting by their subjects, whereas biologists who observe and document animal behavior are able to engage in direct observation and photograph their subjects.

On the other hand, the danger always lurks that those recording the sexual behavior of animals will allow cultural prejudices and long-held, often subconscious, antihomosexual biases to intrude upon their interpretation of the gathered data. Bagemihl is keenly sensitive to the possible hazards lying beneath the surface in many of the cited reports. He demonstrates exceptional shrewdness in interpreting and presenting the data he has gathered.

In writing this book, the author has paid special attention to the vocabulary used in discussing homosexual behavior. As a trained linguist, Bagemihl chooses his words carefully and writes with unique clarity and precision throughout this lengthy book. He is convinced that terms such as “gay”—while they are commonly used in discussing human sexuality—are not appropriate in a study of the mammals and birds discussed here. He has some misgivings about using “lesbian”...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)