Biological Exuberance

by Bruce Bagemihl
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1848

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.

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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” to describe same-sex activity among female animals, although he uses this term consciously and sparingly in his study.

In general, the author finds that same-sex activity is more common among the male animals than among the females. Male-to-male activity was recorded in 80 percent of the species studied, whereas female-to-female activity was observed in about 55 percent of these species. In those species in which such activity was observed, about 10 percent of the males engaged in same-sex behavior, which is roughly the estimated percentage of homosexual males thought to exist in human society.

There are, however, marked deviations from this pattern among both primates and birds. For example, among Bonobo apes—about 50 percent of whose sexual activity is homosexual—70 to 80 percent of such activity is female-to-female. Females are usually dominant among the enclaves of these apes and usually belong to subgroups within a community of up to sixty individual apes. However, upon reaching adolescence, they usually leave their subgroups, whereas comparable males stay within their subgroups for life. Also, Bonobo males do not participate significantly in child rearing, which is almost exclusively a female activity.

In the bird world, some 70 percent of the female pukekos, or purple swamphens, engage in homosexual activity. Although both male and female pukekos engage in homosexual behavior, it is more common and more highly developed among the female birds. Such sexual activity among the females begins with mutual preening and is generally followed by exchanges of food in a process called courtship feeding. This process leads to a posturing that invites one female to mount and copulate with another and is accompanied by a nasal humming call. In contrast, male homosexuality among the Pukekos involves preening but not courtship feeding. The bird that is to be mounted usually initiates the courtship by placing himself in a hunched position in front of another male as an invitation.

Observers have noted that whereas male-female sexual coupling is completed usually in a matter of seconds, female-female sexual relations last much longer. They usually involve more touching and stroking. Kissing sometimes occurs among primates, and some bird species exchange small gifts of food that represent a surrogate form of kissing. Bagemihl’s research explodes the commonly held notion that the primary reason for sexual contact among nonhuman species is the reproduction of the species. He describes a broad spectrum of heterosexual activities commonly practiced among heterosexual mammals and birds that cannot lead to reproduction. He also notes that some homosexual activity has implications for reproduction, as when a homosexual or bisexual male bird helps to incubate the eggs in a nest. Such males may have fertilized the eggs in question, but this is not necessarily the case.

Frequently, the homosexual unions among the animals cited by the author are long-term, monogamous alliances. In his exhaustive search of the literature relating to animal sexuality, Bagemihl found evidence of same-sex activity in more than 450 species. Of the more than one million species that exist, this is a very small percentage. The numbers, however, can be misleading. Only some two thousand species have been observed closely enough to lead scientists to an accurate view of their sexual activity.

Among the Humboldt penguins of Antarctica, homosexual unions have been known to last for up to six years. Even greater longevity is noted among the homosexual unions of Greylag geese, some of which have remained with the same mate essentially for a lifetime of fifteen or more years. Most of these geese have formed lifelong alliances. It has been observed that when one gander in a homosexual pair dies, the remaining gander experiences a form of grief that is accompanied by an easily detectable despondency and defenselessness. Although some Greylag geese are bisexual, those that form pairs appear totally homosexual in their behavior.

Of particular interest is the section on the gray whale. These behemoths travel for much of the year in sex-segregated groups called pods. Most of them spend their summers in cool northern waters, but when autumn approaches they take a four-month migration south to the mangrove lagoons off Baja California, where they mate and have their offspring. Then, as spring approaches, they take another four-month trip in sex-segregated pods and head to the northern waters.

Among these whales, homosexual activity, which has been closely observed in the wild, occurs close to the surface of the ocean, usually during the northern migration or in the northern waters where the whales spend their summers. Their homosexual encounters may last from thirty to ninety minutes and involve as many as five whales. A pair of whales may rise as much as two-thirds out of the water, rubbing their undersides together as they ascend. Both male- to-male and female-to-female sexual activity has been observed among these whales. Although some of these relationships may be of short duration, others continue from year to year, sometimes with the partners engaging in heterosexual activity when they reach their winter destination off Baja California.

The gray whales appear to be more bisexual than exclusively homosexual, reverting to heterosexual behavior during the months when their breeding takes place but engaging in homosexual behavior when they are migrating or spending their summers in the cold northern waters. When they are in the heterosexual phase, two males often are involved with one female, although just one of the males penetrates the female. The other male essentially serves as a helper who assists in aligning the couple’s enormous bodies for copulation.

Bagemihl’s section on bears is particularly thought- provoking. Female homosexuality has been recorded among the grizzly bears and among the American black bear. These bears are essentially solitary, polygamous creatures, with both male and female having several sex partners in a mating season. In fact, cubs from a single litter may have different fathers.

Male bears take little responsibility in raising the cubs they spawn. It is not uncommon, therefore, for two female bears to bond and raise their cubs together. In some instances, a female will nurse her own cubs as well as those of her same-sex partner. However, if one of the females dies, the other will sometimes kill the dead bear’s cubs.

Bagemihl also cites instances of male-to-male sexual contact among bears, as well as the female family structure mentioned above. From the available research, an estimated 4 percent of the bear population, in which about 9 percent of all grizzly cubs are raised, involves same-sex situations. He concludes from the research that about 20 percent of all female grizzlies observed had at one time or another participated in same-sex bonding and in the coparenting of their cubs.

In a concluding statement to part 1, the author writes that the perspective presented in this book “dissolves binary oppositions, uniting dualities while simultaneously cherishing unlikeness.” Early biologists often tried to explain away the homosexuality that was clearly evident in the animals they observed. Now, a more enlightened, less homophobic group of biologists is seeking to fit animal homosexuality into the broad pattern of sexuality among all creatures.

Sources for Further Study

The Advocate, February 16, 1999, p. 61.

Booklist 95 (December 1, 1998): 627.

Lambda Book Report 7 (March, 1999): 13.

Nature, February 4, 1999, p. 402.

Publishers Weekly 245 (December 21, 1998): 37.

Time 153 (April 26, 1999): 70.

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