Female Laysan albatrosses have a habit of building nests together and sharing child care responsibilities. Does this make them lesbians? Scientists say no. Still, there have been dozens of news headlines trumpeting the discovery of gay marriage among albatrosses. Now, to fight back, two scientists have done a study on how often the media misrepresents animal sexuality. Their findings are hilarious.
Writing today in Nature, biologists Andrew B. Barron and Mark J. F. Brown explain the scope of the problem:
The vast majority of studies reporting sexual contact between pairs of males or females were presented in media articles as documenting gay, lesbian or transgender behaviour. This is not innocuous - these are terms that refer to human sexuality, which encompasses lifestyle choices, partner preferences and culture, among other factors.
More worryingly, studies that invoked atypical sexual behaviour through genetic or hormonal manipulation were reported as inducing gay or lesbian behaviour or changing the animals' sexual orientation, even in the case of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, which has males and hermaphrodites, rather than males and females.
Humans have spent thousands of years heaping cultural ideas on top of our behavior. So when a human says she's a lesbian, it can mean a lot of things that are fairly complicated. When an animal has sex with another animal of the same sex, it doesn't really mean any more than when they have sex with an animal of the opposite sex. It's simply a variant on sexual behavior.
Barron and Brown call out one headline from New Scientist as a perfect example of this issue of translating dry scientific headlines into more exciting (but incorrect) ones:
For example, ‘Female-limited polymorphism in the copulatory organ of a traumatically inseminating insect' became ‘Bat bugs turn transsexual to avoid stabbing penises.'
The problem? Transsexuality is a human category. Animals do not have to go to a doctor, take hormones, and get their gender designation changed with the social security office in order to engage in the biological function described in the paper. Also, FYI, not all "copulatory organs" are penises.
Here is a funny (and sad) chart Barron and Brown made of some of the wild ways that the media has twisted studies of animal sexuality (click to enlarge).
But is it always wrong to point out that animals engage in homosexual sex, or that they have a lot of sexual variations that go beyond male/female coupling? As biologists like Joan Roughgarden (author of Evolution's Rainbow) and Bruce Bagemihl (author of Biological Exhuberance) have argued, it can be instructive to reveal that same-sex sexual behavior occurs throughout nature. Humans who prefer same-sex partners are not "ill," or "unnatural," but simply behaving the way many animals do naturally. Roughgarden is fond of pointing out that the existence of nature's many sexual permutations — from hermaphroditic worms to male cuttlefish who camouflage themselves as female — helps put human sexuality in perspective. Sexual diversity in nature reminds us that human sexual diversity is not an aberration, nor does it undermine evolutionary fitness.
Still, it can be hard to explain that animals are not gay nor lesbian, nor are they transsexual. They engage in behavior that looks so similar to those human ideas that we want to project human feelings onto them. This is the same urge that makes us want to make birthday cakes for hamsters and project complicated psychological motivations onto our cats when they barf on the pillows. Yes, animals do have feelings; and yes, they have sex in a lot of different ways. But that doesn't mean they're "passive aggressive" or "lesbian" in the way humans are.
We've had many debates about this at io9, most recently when a study came out about male cuttlefish camouflaging themselves as female to avoid conflicts with other males. Researchers had amazing pictures of a male cuttlefish who had transformed only one side of his body to look female — the side facing another male. So he had a kind of Victor/Victoria look, female on one side and male on the other. How do you explain that in a headline without coming across as wrong or douchey? Were these cuttlefish transvestites? Absolutely not. Were they two-faced deceivers? In a sense, but we worried that a headline like that, using "two faced," would imply that gender transformation was negative. We finally settled on this headline: "Secrets of the half-male, half-female cuttlefish revealed at last." That isn't exactly perfect either, but we felt that it described the image of the cuttlefish accurately (half-male, half-female) — and the "secrets" part of the headline hinted to the reader that the image was also more than it seemed.
Writing is not an exact science. Plus, humans are so fascinated (and terrified) by our sexuality that it's especially hard to avoid getting our knickers in a bunch over the scientific study of sex. But if we truly want to understand why humans do it, we'd do well to report as objectively as possible about how everybody else is doing it. Hopefully, by seeing animal sexuality for what it really is, we will learn to see human sexuality for what it is too.