Birds Do It, Bonobos Do It

Marlene Zuk is a professor of biology at UC Riverside and the author of "Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn About Sex From Animals."

Anyone who doubts the relevance of homosexuality in animals to the current debate about gay marriage should consider Roy and Silo. The two male chinstrap penguins live together at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, eat raw fish and are rearing a chick of their own -- kind of like those sushi-loving San Franciscans who’ve been flocking to the courthouse in droves lately. Roy and Silo, the New York Times reported recently, have been inseparable for six years, having sex with each other and showing no interest in female penguins (who also showed little in them). After the pair tried to incubate a rock, a sympathetic keeper gave the penguins an orphan egg to hatch, which they sat on for more than a month. Then they fed the chick until it was able to fend for itself.

Animal homosexuality comes up in part because arguments against gay marriage often invoke phrases like “natural order,” “natural law” or “crime against nature,” which make it, well, natural to wonder about whether birds and bees do that, too. It turns out that sexual behavior directed at members of the same sex, up to and including copulation, is widespread among animals. According to Bruce Bagemihl, author of “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,” some form of it occurs in more than 450 species, from plovers to bighorn sheep to, yes, penguins. We don’t know how common it is in the wild, because if the sexes look alike, as they do in penguins, it can be hard to tell whether the members of a pair are male or female.

Scientists, who are as subject to social biases as anyone else, have often ignored or explained away homosexual behavior in animals, although the tide now seems to be turning. In primates like the sexually adventurous bonobos, smaller cousins of chimpanzees and close relatives of humans, same-sex behavior is now understood to be part of a complex social life in which sexual gestures are often used to defuse tense situations. So the idea that homosexuality is unnatural or deviant simply doesn’t hold up when we compare ourselves to other animals.

That said, analogues to gay marriage in the animal kingdom can go only so far. If homosexuality evolved in animals, it has to have a genetic component. Obviously, Roy and Silo cannot impart the biological tendency to pair with another male to their offspring -- they required the zoo equivalent of an adoption agency to obtain their chick. And exclusive same-sex pairing cannot persist in large numbers in a wild population since the genes associated with doing so by definition are not perpetuated.


But then, analogues to heterosexual marriage are imperfect in animals, too. Long-term pairing is rare, particularly among mammals; our only close relatives to exhibit it are gibbons, those long-armed apes that whoop like banshees across Asian rain forests. And as far as monogamy goes, we are not as devoted as many species, since partner changes and infidelity are common.

It is noteworthy that Roy and Silo belong to a species in which offspring are always raised by two parents. A similar male duo would be extremely unlikely in, say, peacocks, because male and female peacocks never stay together under the best of circumstances. Roy and Silo are still behaving like penguins in many respects, but if every penguin did exactly what they are doing, we would soon be sadly short of penguins. What that doesn’t mean is that no penguin should do it, or that doing it is somehow unnatural or wrong.

President Bush declared that “marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots,” but those natural roots leave humans huddled in a defensive little group of monogamists that includes gibbons, snow geese, marmosets, a couple of kinds of cockroaches, and of course those two penguins, gazing out at the hugely nonmonogamous rest of the natural crowd.

This hardly suggests that we resign ourselves to the breakdown of marriage as an institution, however. As virtually everyone examining animal homosexuality has pointed out, whether or not animals exhibit a behavior is not grounds for emulating it. Marriage itself is a social and legal invention, not a literal translation of other species’ actions. Roy and Silo can’t get married, but neither could a male and female penguin. Neither gay nor straight marriage is particularly natural, if by natural you mean that it is found among a wide range of animals or rooted far in our evolutionary past. This should not bother us any more than it should bother us that we are the only species with flush toilets. At the same time, we should not view marriage as a cultural weapon necessary to keep our “animal instincts” toward sex with anyone, anytime, at bay. Animals -- and people -- do a lot of different things, and forming long-term pair bonds is one of them.


What, then, does the homosexual behavior we see in other species, whether or not it involves lifetime pairing, tell us? For one, it suggests that among animals as among humans, sexual behavior is about more than reproduction. People unfamiliar with life in the wild often envision animals keeping their sexual contact to a bare procreative minimum, where male and female meet, mate and part as soon as the plumbing has everything lined up. Among some species that’s true, but among many others sex plays a more complex social role in communication and in competition. Female vervet monkeys will mate outside the time they are fertile, for reasons that are still not understood.

At some level, everything living organisms do is about sex, because reproduction is how we pass on genes. From a biological standpoint, anything that does not further our own reproduction -- not the reproduction of others of our species, but our personal ability to perpetuate our genes -- is useless. Viewed in this manner, staying warm is about reproduction, evading predators is about reproduction and regulating our heart rate is about reproduction, because without all of these we cannot pass on our genes, and if we do them without passing on our genes they are evolutionarily meaningless. Still, even if being warm is about sex, no one expects to get pregnant by putting on a sweater. Even behavior that is related to sex doesn’t have to lead immediately and inexorably to conception.

Going back to the bonobos, a student I once had in my animal behavior class was confused by the idea that sex was used to resolve social crises. Imagine, I said, that you and somebody else both wanted something, like a banana. If you were humans, maybe you’d fight over it, but if you were bonobos, you’d have sex. The student still looked puzzled. Yeah, he said, but then who would get the banana? By that time, I replied, you wouldn’t care about the banana.