On Albatross, and Other Same-Sex Pairings

This week in Discovery Magazine online, scientists report observing same-sex parents entering into enduring relationships to raise communal albatross young.

The observation, by Lindsay Young and her colleagues at the University of Hawaii, shows albatross females entering into monogamous relationships to raise young, even where the nest contains only a single hatchling from either female.

The reason is fairly apparent. On Oahu, females outnumber males, so nearly one-third of these females are able to mate with, but unable to pair with, a member of the opposite sex. It’s sort of like living in New York city, but on a human scale. Of course, the fact that the females mate with males before forming these same-sex households calls into question the use of the word monogamous. Nonetheless, this same-sex altruism directed toward albatross young is rather remarkable in the animal kingdom – or so the tone of the article implies.

But is it? Not really, according to a 2006 study published in World Science via Oslo University, which states that same-sex pairings among animals have been observed in more than 1,500 animal species, and even among insects (an observation first noted by Watson and Crick in early fruit-fly studies). The pairings can either be male or female oriented and act as social buffers. For example, homosexuality may soothe the frayed nerves of immature males who are excluded from mating and solidify relationships among competing females in matriarchal societies (chimpanzees, for example).

Some will argue that taking examples from the animal kingdom is degrading. We are, after all, humans – more advanced and more civilized than the lesser creatures inhabiting the planet alongside us. It’s a valid argument in some respects, since we do have that artificial construct called technology, and that curious ability to reference future time (the only two things that really separate us from “lower” species). Even so, both are simply artifacts of two characteristics that are present, or potentially present, in other mammals (opposable thumbs and imagination), even if not well developed. Language, pain, empathy, grief and even reverence are shared characteristics. As, apparently, is homosexuality, which may be as much a social adaptation as it is a genetic one.

In any case, our society’s intolerance of it appears to be a purely modern, Western development, at least according to Foucault and planophysical theory. Unfortunately, this prevents us from seeing it for what it is; a sociobiological construct designed to create a certain social equilibrium in which stable but expanding populations propagate by specific selection. It’s sort of like seeing a photon as a wave, and then not being able to see it as a particle. 

If we could get past this single-minded sort of observational paralysis, we might realize that only advanced societies (ancient China, ancient Greece, etc.) even give rise to homosexuality. Developing societies, or social groups perilously close to survival in terms of resources, have no place for it because it imperils propagation of the species. Thus, homosexuality is a testimony to our advancing civilization (even if our behavior toward it often isn’t).

But enough of sociology. Whether social or genetic in origin, or some as-yet undiscovered combination of the two, we need to come to terms with homosexuality in our society. Social integration, in the form of same-sex partners being granted equal participation in health insurance programs in some corporations, has already begun. Some states, like Massachusetts and California, have legalized same-sex marriages, and NewYork state’s support, while not actually legitimizing these marriages, goes a long way toward making social and state services a lot more accessible to gay couples. 

Expect proposed legislation in liberal states to facilitate the process even further, protecting gays from the sort of discrimination most of us find distasteful when directed at racial or religious groups, as the federal government drags its heels on this issue, which is only slightly less divisive than abortion (at least until a new administration is sworn in, or perhaps beyond, depending on who wins the coming presidential election).

In the meantime, all those in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages can visit Credo Action’s Stand for Marriage Equality, and cast their vote.

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