Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Argument from Nature

One of the most common fallacies in reasoning committed by supposedly sophisticated people is the identification of the "natural" with the "good", and the "unnatural" with the "bad." That this is a fallacy ought to be obvious when we consider how many things which are entirely natural are harmful to us, like viruses, toxins in uncooked food, or natural disasters like droughts and tornados, while in contrast many of the activities that make our lives worthwhile are deeply unnatural - bathing with soap, brushing with toothpaste, vaccinations, taking antibiotics, even reading books. In light of the manifestly false assumptions on which such arguments are built, it strikes me as a poor tactic for a political movement to resort to them to bolster its arguments, yet that is precisely what this New York Times article on homosexuality in animals proceeds to do, despite a half-hearted attempt to question the logic of such reasoning.

Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, are completely devoted to each other. For nearly six years now, they have been inseparable. They exhibit what in penguin parlance is called "ecstatic behavior": that is, they entwine their necks, they vocalize to each other, they have sex. Silo and Roy are, to anthropomorphize a bit, gay penguins. When offered female companionship, they have adamantly refused it. And the females aren't interested in them, either.

At one time, the two seemed so desperate to incubate an egg together that they put a rock in their nest and sat on it, keeping it warm in the folds of their abdomens, said their chief keeper, Rob Gramzay. Finally, he gave them a fertile egg that needed care to hatch. Things went perfectly. Roy and Silo sat on it for the typical 34 days until a chick, Tango, was born. For the next two and a half months they raised Tango, keeping her warm and feeding her food from their beaks until she could go out into the world on her own. Mr. Gramzay is full of praise for them.


Roy and Silo are hardly unusual. Milou and Squawk, two young males, are also beginning to exhibit courtship behavior, hanging out with each other, billing and bowing. Before them, the Central Park Zoo had Georgey and Mickey, two female Gentoo penguins who tried to incubate eggs together. And Wendell and Cass, a devoted male African penguin pair, live at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. Indeed, scientists have found homosexual behavior throughout the animal world.

This growing body of science has been increasingly drawn into charged debates about homosexuality in American society, on subjects from gay marriage to sodomy laws, despite reluctance from experts in the field to extrapolate from animals to humans. Gay groups argue that if homosexual behavior occurs in animals, it is natural, and therefore the rights of homosexuals should be protected. On the other hand, some conservative religious groups have condemned the same practices in the past, calling them "animalistic."

Even if it could be established that homosexuality was rampant in other animal species, that would still tell us nothing about whether we as humans ought to endorse it: after all, cannibalism is rampant amongst animals too, but we refrain from giving it our approval. On the other hand, even if it could be shown that in no other species had homosexuality ever occurred, we would have no justification for ruling it out in our own - no other species builds skyscrapers, drives cars or watches movies, either. Rather than waste time and energy on a spurious appeal to an ill-defined concept of what is "natural" or otherwise, I think gay activists are better off taking the libertarian position: "it's my life, I'm not forcing you to join me, so leave me alone." Appeals to homosexual behavior in penguins are all too easily swatted away by the opposed as simply an indicator that certain mental illnesses aren't confined to humans.

UPDATE: In an amazing stroke of luck, I've just come across an old Reason article by Virginia Postrel that makes exactly the same point I'm making - that the argument from nature is a trap to be avoided, whatever the state of affairs in the rest of the animal kingdom.