Going against Nature, easier said than done
Few things get Trinbagonian blood boiling faster than a discussion of sexual orientation or preference. People make religious, moral, reasoned, passionate, hasty and/or personal judgements. Some feel that certain sexual practices are ‘against nature’.
A quick peek into Nature’s bedroom shows us that, far from being prudish, she is pretty broad-minded. The long and short of it is that gender, sexuality and even sex are human concepts that do not map well onto the natural world. When we draw our lines in the sand, Nature gleefully washes them away.
Same sex relations
The animal kingdom is also home to same sex partners. Researchers have documented same sex relationships among many animals including black swans, penguins, primates and even bottlenose dolphins. Among the most discussed is work by Dr. Lindsay C. Young and colleagues who studied the Laysan albatross, known for their monogamy and lifelong commitment to each other. Dr. Young’s work revealed that a third of the monogamous pairs at her study site (Kaena Point, Hawaii) consisted of two female birds, not one male and one female. These females quickly copulated with males but incubating their eggs, bonding and their social interaction was with another female. Males and females look the same, so the assumption prior to her work was that all pairs were typical ‘straight couple’ male and female.
Nature’s cross dressers
Nature has those that pretend to be the other sex, the cross dressers, ranging from lemurs to damselflies. Garter snakes for example, emerging after a long sleep, need to warm themselves up and, of course, mate. Snakes use pheromones as part of their communication and leave a pheromone trail for others to find them for mating. Snakes can distinguish between female and male pheromones. Scientists have shown that male garter snakes can produce both male and female pheromones and in the mating season, these males fool other males into attempting to mate with them. More importantly, this encourages a huddling session that causes the transfer of heat, allowing them to warm up quickly.
More than one reason for sex
For better or for worse, many people have sex with no intention of making a baby, and we humans are not alone. Bonobos are non-human primates who are one of our closest extant relatives. They are known for their enthusiastically high levels of sexual behaviour. In the bonobos’ world, sex is suitable for pretty much every social occasion. We’re fighting? Let’s have sex. I like you, well let’s have sex. Sex is used for affection, conflict resolution, social status, bonding, excitement and as a stress reliever. Bonobos engage in many of the sexual activities known in the human world such as oral sex, tongue kissing and face to face genital sex. Sexual behaviour is not limited to male-female pairings. Bonobos also engage in female-female and male-male sexual behaviour. Scientists believe this is a factor in the lower levels of aggression seen in the bonobos when compared to the common chimpanzee and other apes.
Climate change, pollution and sex
Animals like our leatherback turtle and alligator let the temperature of the ground around their nest influence the sex of their babies. For the leatherback, higher sand temperatures tend to produce more females, but over time and with rising global temperatures, this may cause trouble with the species’ sex ratio of male to females. From endocrine disruptors to pesticides, there is increasing evidence of sex changing chemicals that lurk in our water and soil. We cannot seem to hide from the effects man-made pollutants and neither can the rest of the living world. From the polar bear to the frog, researchers are uncovering sexual abnormalities associated with man-made pollution. Unfortunately, gender bending due to our interference can seriously disrupt wild populations, ultimately affecting their survival.
Right up our noses
In nature, reproduction is everywhere. Invisible to the naked eye, all sorts of reproductive activity is happening around and inside us. Welcome to the human microbiome, a load of microorganisms including bacteria that inhabit our body and even outnumber us cell for cell by 10 to 1 (bacterial cells are much smaller on average than human cells). Of course, all of these bacteria reproduce. Although they do this asexually, by dividing into two identical clone cells, they can transfer genetic material between each other. They do this by absorbing genetic material from their environment, or by transferring genetic material via a virus, cell-to-cell contact or a pilus (an appendage on the surface of bacteria). This exchange of genetic material can occur between different types of bacteria and within a single generation. Drawing moral lessons from this behaviour is challenging at best.
The natural world is a strange and wildly diverse place. In the end, if Nature will not give us strict rules by which to sort out gender, sexuality and sex, we will just have to rely on the very human capacities of reason, mutual respect and our shared values.
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