Tag Archives: natural law

New Scientist: Fish that change sex – and back again

At  New Scientist, “Zoologger” has a post up on the transsexual abilities of the hawkfish (species Cirrhitichthys falco), which is found off Kuchino-Erabu Island in southern Japan. As the post notes, transitioning in fish occurs in many species – but this one reverses the process. (Even this ability is not unique though – see Joan Roughgarden, “ Evolution’s Rainbow  “).

Transgender fish perform reverse sex flip

When it comes to selecting mates, hawkfish keep their options open. The flamboyantly coloured reef dwellers start life as females but can transform into males after maturing. Many marine animals do this, but these fickle fish have a rare trick up their fins: they can change back when the situation suits.

Tatsuru Kadota and colleagues from Hiroshima University in Higashi-Hiroshima, Japan, have observed reverse sex changes in wild hawkfish for the first time in the subtropical reefs around Kuchino-Erabu Island in southern Japan.

Hawkfish live in harems, with one dominant male mating with several females. Kadota’s team studied 29 hawkfish and found that when it comes to sex change, the size of the harem matters.

If a male hawkfish took on many females, one of the two largest females would change sex and take over half of the harem, mating as a male. Conversely, if that new male hawkfish lost a few females to other harems and was challenged by a larger male, it reverted to mating as a female, instead of wasting precious energy fighting a losing battle. “The ability to undergo bidirectional sex change maximises an individual’s reproductive value,” Kadota says.

– read the full article at  Zoologger /New Scientist,06 January 2012 .

Footnote:

A reader, Mario, has shared a link to a fascinating story about a domestic hen that transitioned to a cockerel, after an injury. I’ve known about transitioning in fish species for years, but this is the first time I’ve come across an instance in birds.

Thanks, Mario.

Books:

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity

Long, John A:The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex

Long, John A: Hung Like an Argentine Duck: A Journey Back in Time to the Origins of Sexual Intimacy

Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

 

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Aquinas, "Nature" – and Sex.

Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law are often trotted out by the rule-book Catholics alongside the half-dozen clobber texts as a supposed justification for denying respect and equality to sexual minorities. I have absolutely no expertise in Thomist theology, but was intrigued by this observation, in a longer article (“The Other Side of the Catholic Tradition”), at the Washington Post.
Thomas Aquinas, who followed a century after Hildegard, wrote commentaries on 10 works by the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, even though the pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle. So controversial was Aquinas in his day that the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy. For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.” Aquinas insisted that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority (emphasis added).

There are clear echoes of this in the modern world, where so many religious reactionaries insist on ignoring the clear findings of science, inserting instead their own established prejudice. If we accept Aquinas’  thesis that “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God”, the implications for Catholic sexual ethics are profound. The first of these would have to be a recognition that same-sex attraction is tu entirely natural and non-pathological dominant sexuality for a small but distinct minority of people, and  a smaller part of the sexual make-up of many more. This much is familiar, as is the knowledge that many animals (possibly even all or most mammals, but also birds, reptiles and insects) also practice degrees of homosexual activity.

No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphids. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue.
But even more important, and not nearly as well-known, are the findings from science that natural sexual activity, as observed in the animal kingdom, is not after all solely geared to procreation. This has been the traditional assumption, but thanks to empirical evidence, we now know better. In several animal species, an extraordinary range of non-procreative sexual activities occur.
  • In some animals, sexual intercourse begins as much as a year or two before physical maturity and the onset of fertility – and so with no prospect of procreation.
  • Some species practice anal intercourse. or conventional intercourse without ejaculation, or intercourse outside of the estrus period.
  • Many species engage in masturbation, alone, or with others of either sex. Where they lack hands they use alternative strategies.
Autoeroticism also occurs widely among animals, both male and female. A variety of creative techniques are used, including genital stimulation using the hand or front paw (primates, Lions), foot (Vampire Bats, primates), flipper (Walruses), or tail (Savanna Baboons), sometimes accompanied by stimulation of the nipples (Rhesus Macaques, Bonobos); auto-fellating or licking, sucking and/or nuzzling by a male of his own penis (Common Chimpanzees, Savanna Bonobos, Vervet Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Thinhorn Sheep, Bharal, Aovdad, Dwarf Cavies); stimulation of the penis by flipping or rubbing it against the belly or in its own sheath (White-tailed and Mule Deer, Zebras and Takhi); spontaneous ejaculations (Mountain Sheep, Warthogs, Spotted Hyenas); and stimulation of the genitals using inanimate objects (found in several primates and cetaceans)
-Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance
 
  • Dolphins engage in non-procreative sex that has no human counterpart. They use their partners’ blowholes as additional orifices available for penetration.
  • Some species practice oral sex – including oral self-pleasuring (“auto-fellatio”)

Animals of several species are documented as engaging in both autofellatio and oral sex. Auto-fellatio or oral sex in animals is documented in goats, primates, hyaenas, fruits bats and sheep


  • Remarkably, some primates even make their own sex toys, fashioning dildos out of liana vines, and masturbation aids from suitable fruits.
  • Chimpanzees and penguins have been found to engage in forms of prostitution, exchanging sexual favours for food (chimps) or pebbles used in nest-building (penguins).

The implications for sexual theology are profound.

To forestall the standard reaction to this argument, I am not arguing here that because these sexual practices are found in nature, they are therefore acceptable. Animals also engage in incest, intercourse with juveniles, and necrophilia – none of which I recommend. What I am suggesting, is that we must remove the argument from nature in deciding on sexual morality. Much of the traditional Catholic theology on sex derives from Aquinas’ concept of “natural law”, which he in turn derived ultimately from his reading of Aristotle. We now know conclusively that whatever his value as a philosopher, Aristotle has no value whatsoever as a natural scientist. By Aquinas’ own reasoning, to follow Aristotle’s mistakes about nature is to make mistakes about God. To be really true to the spirit of Aquinas, we must therefore reject his own conclusions about nature in the light of the scientific evidence, and find alternative sources on which to base our sexual ethics.
What other sources are there? Traditionally, these have been the Bible and the early Church fathers to go on. Modern Biblical scholars are finding that many of the traditional interpretations of Scripture on sexual matters are flawed, while the ascetic elevation of celibacy as a Christian ideal, and the accompanying disapproval of all sexual acts, was based on a belief in the parousia – an imminent second coming of Christ.
If the traditional sources are now shown to be flawed, what else is there? The example of Aquinas in fact, helps us here, but pointing to his commitment to studying the best scientists of his day. We too can learn (and the Vatican agrees) from the best scientists of our day, not in the field of animal behaviour, but in the modern discipline of human sexuality and related fields. The findings by these scientists are that sexuality is a fundamental part of our human make-up, that diverse orientations are entirely natural, that a healthy and active sexual life can contribute directly to both physical and mental health,  and that sexual expression serves many more purposes than simply procreation alone.
Probably the majority of Catholic theologians already accept this. It is time that the Vatican paid more than lip-service to its claim that we must take seriously the findings of natural and human sciences, and did so too.

Books:

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A Theology of Gay Inclusion, Pt 1: ‘Homosexuality is Unnatural.’

In March this year, Fr Owen O’Sullivan published an article in the theological journal “Furrow” on the inclusion of gays in the Church. The CDF seem to have found this article dangerous, and have ordered him not publish anything further without prior approval. In the modern internet age, this attempted censorship simply does not work: the original article has been published on-line in a series of posts at an Australian Salvation Army blog, “Boundless Salvation”. 

Here is the first extract:

 ‘Homosexuality is unnatural.’

‘Nature’ is a loose peg on which to hang a theology of human relationships. The word has multiple meanings: the Concise Oxford Dictionary lists nine for nature and fourteen for natural. In Victorian times, Europeans spoke of Africans as ‘children of nature’, meaning they were brutal, primitive, and savage, in need of the wise, firm and civilizing hand of the colonial master; this was to justify European exploitation of Africa. For centuries, slavery was regarded as natural; it had a long and virtually universal tradition behind it, as had the subjection of women to men. It was natural, too, for gentlemen of quality to rule the lower orders. The word has been pressed into the service of several racial, political, social and cultural agenda. Today, people like food to be natural, meaning free from artificial chemicals. But mildew, ants, aphids, cockroaches and rats are natural, and will happily occupy food. Is it natural to have them on it?

Some argue that the natural purpose of sexuality is procreation, and that, since homosexual relationships are not procreative of life, they are therefore unnatural. The argument draws on teleology (ends) or finality as seen from one viewpoint, and seems to imply that since procreation is the principal purpose, then it’s the only legitimate purpose of a sexual relationship. Where does that leave non-procreative heterosexual love, or sexuality simply as play? Does it not also mean that the non-use of genital sexuality, as in celibacy, is likewise unnatural?

Is anatomical structure the determinant of what is normative in human behaviour? If the natural purpose of nipples is to give milk, why do men have them? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) states, ‘The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.’ (Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1 October 1986; CTS, London, n.16.) A teleological argument from biological nature is no less reductionist. Homosexuals find it natural to engage the body as it is in sexual relationships, and consider it suited for the purpose.

Throughout history, and across the globe, as art, history and literature testify, same-sex attraction and acts have been a consistent feature of human life. In that sense, they cannot be called unnatural or abnormal. Same-sex attraction is simply a facet of the human condition.

As is often the case, our use of language is not helpful. The word ‘straight’ implies that someone who does not fit that category is crooked, deformed, or queer. It’s a by-product of a culture of contempt and repression towards homosexuals on a par with calling black people niggers, and it helps perpetuate prejudice. In this article, I use the word homosexual to describe same-sex attraction, whether between women (lesbians) or men (gays). And homosexuality is not just about what goes on between the sheets, or in clubs or the ‘gay scene.’ The latter is often as far removed from a committed, loving relationship as the activities of a brothel are from a committed, loving marriage. Homosexuality is about the way human beings relate to each other in their totality.

Does homosexuality exist objectively – clear, cut-and-dried – like Plato’s forms, regardless of relationships? According to the president of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association, between eighty and ninety percent of Northern Ireland’s wider gay community are married with families. In Latin America, the “active” (top) male partner in sex between men is not regarded as gay, only the “passive” (bottom) partner. Gays estimate that between one-third and two-thirds of men who frequent gay clubs or bars live in a heterosexual relationship. And it is not uncommon to find lesbians who have had a child. There is some of the straight in every gay, and some of the gay in every straight. (If all the gay people in society came out, it would banish homophobia overnight.) Some of what is included in the ideas of homo- and hetero- are cultural constructs, such as our ideas of beauty, for instance. It might be nearer the truth to think of homosexuality more in terms of what one does, or how one relates, than of what one is.

The hope some people have is that a homosexual gene will be found; it would let them off the peg on which they’ve hung themselves. Homosexuality could then be considered natural. (How do you persuade people who think they have to be right in order to be credible that their credibility would be enhanced by an admission that they could be wrong?)

Is there a ‘homosexual gene’? I don’t think anyone knows. I hope not; it might lead to homosexuals being treated ‘compassionately’ as freaks. But surely the question is irrelevant. Whether a homosexual orientation is genetic or environmental, inborn or acquired, from nature or nurture, it’s there, and that’s what counts. Most homosexuals experience it as a given, no more a choice than the colour of their eyes.

A more important question is, ‘What sort of human being is this?’ ‘What sort of relationships does s/he engage in?’ And the great challenge is for people to be true to themselves.

Shakespeare wrote: –

‘This, above all,
to thine own self be true,
and it must follow,
as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.’
(Shakespeare,
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 78-80.)

Is homosexuality unnatural? Yes, it is – if you’re heterosexual.

Natural Law, Natural Sex, Natural Families.

A favourite argument used by the religious right against homoerotic relationships, and by the Vatican theologians against any form of sexual expression outside of marriage and not open to making babies, is that such sexual activities are “against nature”, and that the “purpose” of sex is procreation. Well, the people making these claims have never considered the actual evidence from, well, you know – “Nature” itself, which shows the exact opposite.  In a famous exchange, Anita Bryant once remarked that the things that homosexuals do were so disgusting that “even barnyard animals wouldn’t do it.” When it was pointed out to her that actually, barnyard and other animals do “do it”,  as is well known to farmers, she simply replied, “Well that still don’t make it right”. No, and it don’t make it wrong, either.  On sexual ethics, “Nature” is morally neutral.

“Anita Bryant, Reality Denier”

Some time ago I embarked on an investigation (which still continues) into just what we can learn from “nature” about sexuality and natural sex, reading up on sexual practices as observed in the animal kingdom, and also in non-Western and pre-industrial human societies from different periods and geographic regions. The results have been truly bewildering, and the time has come to share with you some of my findings and conclusions. In particular, there is clearly no single pattern of sexuality that can possibly be described as “natural” in all societies, human or animal.  What is “natural” depends entirely on culturally determined social practices, which vary extraordinarily.
In modern Western debates about gay marriage, we often hear arguments about “traditional” marriage, as based on the Bible, or on “Judaeo-Christian values”. The Biblical family was headed by a male patriarch, who controlled an assortment of wives, concubines, children and slaves, as well as his adult sons and their wives.
We commonly assume that most people are either “heterosexual” (the majority) or “homosexual” in orientation. But in many societies, men may be engage in sex with both men and women, either sequentially, at different phases of their lives, or at the same time. (In Chinese culture, there has always been powerful social expectations that men should marry and raise children – but that in no way prevents them taking male lovers as well. In a famous Chinese painting, two men are engaged in erotic play, while the wife of one watches from behind a screen. )


We assume that in a “traditional” family, the husband is male, the “wife” is female. In many traditional African cultures, numerous ethnographic studies have shown that the “husband” is the one with the wealth and the power. Where a woman was able to acquire sufficient wealth and could pay the bride-price, it was entirely acceptable for her  to marry wives, and take on the role of “husband”. (In these families, procreation and child-bearing were necessarily arranged outside of the family – but were raised inside it, and recognised the female head of the family as “father”. In one remarkable instance, Nzinga was a woman who came to the throne by military skill – but only men could be kings, so necessarily she was accepted as male. As king, she required a harem of wives – but as she was entirely heterosexual in orientation, she had no need of female wives, and instead kept a harem of male wives.(“Africa’s Female Kings and husbands”). Elsewhere in Africa, some wealthy men also included a male or two among their wives, valuing their strength for certain household tasks.
Nor do all cultures think only in terms of two genders. Commonly in South Asia, North America, and in some parts of Africa, societies accepted as a distinctive third gender biological males who took on female roles, or females who took on male roles (possibly but not necessarily included the corresponding sexual roles.) In the animal kingdom, especially among fish, there are many species with more than one gender, or where the physical appearances of some biologically male individual males resembles that of females or vice versa, or where individuals quite literally change biological sex, in an animal counterpart to human cross-dressers and transsexuals.
We also tend to assume that same sex interactions, where they occur, apply to a minority of individuals, or to a relatively brief period in their youths, before settling down to “normal” married life. But in some New Guinea societies, “natural” sex requires that as young boys, they first go through a period whereby they act as recipient partners in sex with older boys, because it is believed that the essence of manly virtue is contained in the semen – which they need ingest in regular doses before they can become real men. As they grow older, they adopt the active role in sex with younger boys, completely avoiding heterosexual intercourse until they are strong and manly enough to withstand the “debilitating” effects of women that they will be exposed to in marriage. In one specific group, the combined period of partnership with males typically lasts about thirty years, before he marries at around forty. In this culture, homosexual sex is certainly a far greater portion of a man’s life-long sexual experience than heterosexual experiences. For them, it is homosexual actions that are “natural”.
The Vatican claims that homosexual “act” lead people away from God.  Many societies take the exact opposite view, believing that “homosexuals” generally, and the third gender exemplars in particular, have extraordinary spiritual gifts. Frequently, it is they who will take on the roles of religious leaders or spiritual guides. (Is it any surprise that a disproportionately high proportion of Catholic and Anglican priests are believed to be gay?) In some places, this association of spirituality and male-male sex combines with a variant of the New Guinea practice – young men become  sexual partners of religious leaders in order to ingest their spiritual wisdom.
We also often equate “masculine”, macho virtues with heterosexuality, and homosexuality with effeminacy. Among both humans and animals, this is not always so. For the ancient Greeks, the Japanese samurai, and many others, homosexuality was especially associated with the military. There have been times even in European history where “effeminate” dandyism was characteristic of rampant heterosexuality. Among bighorn sheep, most rams are exclusively homosexual in their activities, and the few that have heterosexual intercourse display remarkable submissive, behaviour – that in humans we might describe as “wimpish”.
It is also simply not true that in the natural world, even heterosexual sex is exclusively directed at procreation. Non procreative sexual activity is commonplace, including full intercourse during pregnancy, immediately after giving birth, or outside fertile periods Some primates females reaching sexual maturity, and begin sexual activities, several years before becoming fertile and capable of giving birth. Also common are  mounting behaviour without penetration or ejaculation, oral sex and masturbation (alone or with another). Some animals even make dildos and masturbation aids – or use natural objects for the purpose.
So what is the “purpose” of sex in nature?
Writing about Bonobo Chimps, Joan Roughgarden puts it neatly, in describing “at least six” situations that lead to sex :
    1. Sex facilitates sharing (for example, reducing conflicts over food supplies)
    2. Sex is used for reconciliation after a dispute
    3. Sex helps to integrate new arrivals into a group
    4. Sex helps to form coalitions
    5. Sex is candy – females sometimes barter sexual favours to obtain gifts of food from males
    6. “Oh, I almost forgot – sex is used for reproduction”
              Recognising the diversity of sexual and gender expressions in “nature” is not a licence for a code of “anything goes”. There still remains a need for a coherent system of sexual ethics, but the study of “nature” does not help us to find one. There simply is no sexual “law of nature”. To construct sexual ethics, we must look elsewhere.

              See Also:

              Gay Soldiers? Role Models, at the Foundation of Democracy.

              Gays in the Military: Japan

              Animals Use Sex Toys, Too

              Same Sex Parents, Furred and Feathered

              Natural Law, Laysan’s Albatross,  and the Question of Evidence

              The Wildlife Rainbow

              Queer Bonobos: Sex As Conflict Resolution

              Exclusive Heterosexuality Unnatural?

              Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros


              Books:

              Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)

              Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

              Naphy, William G: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

              Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

              Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

              Animals Use Sex Toys, Too

              The more I explore the nature of sexuality in the animal world, the more amazed I am at the extraordinary number of ways in which animals show all the diversity of human sexuality, and more. Male dolphins and whales have an extra orifice to penetrate (their partners’ blowholes); some primate male couples can indulge in “penis fencing” while hanging from a tree branch (I bet you’ve never tried that); and female spotted hyenas have a pseudo- phallus that they can (and do) use for penetration. More familiar activities are the usual mounting and penetration, either vaginal or anal, usually from the rear but sometimes from the front, or even the side; masturbation, using hands if they have them, but also flippers or just the ground; oral sex – forms of both fellatio and cunnilingus are known; and just plain cuddling and caressing.
              Squirrel Threesome

              Relationships are equally diverse, including long term pair bonds, in both between-sex and same-sex couples, one-off copulation, strictly monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, polygamy, polyandry and group orgies.

              Families and child rearing are diverse. There’s male and female pederasty, incest, and likewise butch/femme female relationships. There are single parents, between- sex parent couples, and same-sex parent couples, who may acquire kids by finding sperm donors (if female), surrogate mothers (if male), or by adoption. (In some species, male couples turn out to be more successful parents than between-sex parents, just like research suggests for humans).

              As in humans, there are a range of “purposes” of sex, from the obvious one of simple pleasure, to asserting domination and status, to procreation. Bonobos even use it as a form of social peacekeeping. There’s also a negative side: rape and sexual violence also occur. I confess I’ve not yet come across the wildlife equivalent of consensual S/M, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. Just about everything else is there, including transgender (routine in some species), transvestism, and the use of sex toys.

              Yes, sex toys, as in dildos and masturbation aids, but instead of visiting a sex store or going on-line, they just make their requirements themselves. Bruce Bagemihl, in “Biological Exuberance” describes numerous examples among the primates, including female Orang-utans and Bonnet Macaques who manufacture their own dildos from plant materials, males who make masturbation aids by forcing a hole in a leaf, and others who simply use natural materials as they find them, twigs, stones, or fruit, for rubbing against their genitals or for inserting into a vagina. (There are not yet reports of male use of dildos, but no doubt that too will be observed some day.)

              The use and manufacture of tools by primates is considered an important example of cultural behaviour in animals, and a forerunner of the activities that are so widespread among human beings.although many different forms and functions are evident in animal tool use, these examples show that nonreproductive sexual activities are part of the overall behavioral pattern: the primate capacity for object manipulation extends seamlessly into the sexual sphere.

              Similar types of activities occur among people too, of course, and sexual implements of various sorts have a long and distinguished history in human culture. …Examples have been found from as far back as the Palaeolithic through to medieval times – including some Biblical references – as well as in the ongoing traditions of many indigenous peoples throughout the world.
              -Bagemihl, Bruce, Biological Exuberance.

              Related Posts:

              The Wildlife Rainbow

              Queer Bonobos: Sex As Conflict Resolution

              Lesbian Lizards

              Bisexual Snails

              Gay (Wild) -Life

              Natural Law and Laysan’s Albatross

              Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros

              Lifting the lid on animal sex

              At Seed Magazine:

              Sex At Dawn The effeminate sheep and other problems with natural selection


              Books:

              Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)

              Long, John A: Hung Like an Argentine Duck: A Journey Back in Time to the Origins of Sexual Intimacy

              Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

              Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective