Unnatural Practices

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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#1 · jcs

16 April 2009

Discussing this could potentially hurt some feelings, so I’m going to apologize up front to anyone who feels this conversation is somehow demeaning or overly analytical in regards to something they feel is a key part of their identity. My purpose is only to explore these ideas intellectually and not to insult or condemn anyone.

One reason why the “unnatural” argument may have some modicum of scientific justification behind it is that being exclusively homosexual would obviously prevent the transmission of that genetic trait to future generations. Although I haven’t done extensive research, I would expect to see bisexuality (or omnisexuality in the case of your cat!) instead of exclusive homosexual behavior in animals since, being hyper sexual in general might serve to improve the evolutionary fitness of an individual, while being exclusively homosexual clearly does not. So, (and this sounds much more offensive that I mean it to be) homosexuality in some cases could be viewed as a failed mutation (ouch! sorry!) if it randomly pops up in a population without being inherited and then quickly dies out since it isn’t passed on.

Now, given the enormous amount of wonderful things that gay people have added to my world, dismissing their situation as a “failed mutation” or “unnatural” not only seems morally inexcusable but also unsatisfying intellectually. I’d also like to add that people with a predisposition for celibacy would fall into a similar camp from a genetic perspective and I doubt you’ll find many people arguing that Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa or Ghandi were unnatural failures!

So the question then becomes, how can science account for the high frequency of human homosexuality around the world? Well, it could be that some homosexuals conform to societal pressures at some point and reproduce just often enough to keep the genes from starving off, which would be analogous to my bet that most animals species do not contain many exclusively homosexual members. However, a more interesting explanation may come from a surprising place, Ants.

A recent book called “The Superorganism” talks about how natural selection may actually operate on levels other than the individual, meaning that non-reproducing members of a society may have their genes indirectly passed on if they somehow benefit the overall fitness of a society! This idea is especially appealing to my Buddhist sensibilities since it seems to capture a small part of what “interpenetration of beings” may mean from a naturalist perspective.

One disclaimer is that I am NOT an evolutionary biologist. So, please don’t take my inkling to be iron clad proof that these ideas apply to human sexuality (or Buddhist philosophy for that matter)! I just thought it might be an interesting place to look for someone who’s interested in these ideas.

Lastly, even if a good natural selection argument can’t be made at this time for the existence of homosexuality, it’s important to remember that nature is often cruel and uncaring in ways that humans are not compelled to be. Evolution could just as easily lead to the beautiful color patterns on the wings of a butterfly as to the infanticide practiced by many primates. I doubt we would want to live in a world where the “natural = good” and “unnatural = bad” argument leads us to label things like infanticide as good and caring relationships between two human beings as bad!

#2 · ramon sanchez

17 April 2009

hi i enjoy your blog and it often sets me thinking; its clear that in humans homosexuality is a minority norm, wheres the harm anyway?.whats strange about f.w.b.o. which i find to be the most open minded sanga i have found in london, is that being liberal on sexuality (most Buddhists are vehemently opposed to homosexuality)does not lead to cultural liberality generally.I’m thinking of drugs and having it large generally.I have found hallucinogenic drugs central to my exploration of being over decades and sitting stoned is a cultural norm and has been since sitting began.why so straight?Isnt it fear?which also drives hatred of gays and most exclusiveness?forget the argument feel the emotion.

#3 · Will

22 April 2009

Interestingly, Ramon, the Balcombe book gives lots of examples of animal uses of intoxicants; so this is not purely human behaviour either.

I’m not hugely interested in discussing the various positions or perspectives of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, nor is this post really about the question of how homosexuality can be adaptive within a Darwinian framework (although I’m not sure that this is such a problem as all that); but I would say, Jes, that my conception of “natural” here is perhaps a little broader than yours. So I would not limit that which is “natural” to that which is in the interests of the gene, because we – you and I and all the rest of us – are not genes, but we are organisms, within a complex world, and our interests are not necessarily the same as the interests of our genes. But our interests are still very much a part of what we are as natural beings.

So my argument really is simple: that “natural” and “non-natural” as moral categories don’t get as very far, and that whatever the behaviour we are talking about – from strange goings on with blankets, to the ingestion of intoxicants, to the singing of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs (which is one kind of practice that I might be tempted, in my weaker moments, to deem profoundly unnatural) – we need to find ways of talking about the ethics of these practices, without resorting to the categories of “natural” and “unnatural”.

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