Thursday April 16, 2009
The most magnificent quote from the news over the last week must be the following, from Michal Grzes, a councillor in the Polish city of Poznan: “We didn’t pay 37 million zlotys for the elephant house,” Grzes is alleged to have said, “to have a gay elephant live there” (see the Reuters link here). The thing is, Poznan zoo has taken possession of a ten year-old male elephant who prefers keeping intimate company with other males to other females. The elephant keeper has come quickly to the animal’s defence, saying that the poor lad is only young and confused about his sexuality; and everyone is no doubt ardently hoping that he’ll grow out of this phase by the time he reaches sexual maturity at fourteen.
The Polish elephant is not, however, alone. Although the moralists like to imagine the animal world marching in and out of the ark two by two, the reality is simply not like this. As Jonathan Balcombe points out in his wonderful book Pleasurable Kingdom, the animal kingdom at large is a pretty sexy place, what with thick-billed murres (a kind of seabird) having their wicked way with clumps of vegetation, masturbating reptiles, lesbian hedgehogs (I kid you not), gay fruit bats, dolphins with sex toys, and bonobos being pretty much up for anything at all. Even the otherwise unimpeachable Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat – despite having been neutered – has a more than slightly alarming affection for my meditation blanket, although to preserve the delicate sensibilities of my readers, I will not go into details here. Let me just say that when he and the blanket are together, I prefer to leave the room.
Certain kinds of moralists like to claim that homosexuality is unnatural; but our elephant friend in Poland, as well as the increasing evidence from the biological sciences documented by Balcombe, suggests that this is simply a load of nonsense. But behind this idea that homosexuality is unnatural lies another load of nonsense, and that is the idea that “natural” and “unnatural” are moral categories in the first place. After all, infanticide is a fairly natural kind of behaviour, but (thankfully) not many of these same moralists advocate such a practice. Not only are “natural” and “unnatural” pretty much dead-in-the-water as moral categories, I suspect that they are not very useful categories for any purpose. Wouldn’t it be better to view all behaviour naturalistically, and to start from there?
Michal Grzes may fulminate, the moralists may get hot under the collar, but such arguments do not stand up. If we want to talk about morality in relation to sex, then it would be better to start from a different viewpoint. And a good place to start might be this: by developing a robustly naturalistic view of what we are, and on that basis by seeking to diminish the harm that we cause ourselves and others.
Anyway, I really should go and rescue that meditation blanket. Shoo, Bodhicattva! Shoo!
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