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Pick of the day: Can animals be gay?

A couple of decades ago, I reported a story for a wildlife magazine about handedness in animals. Could chimps and other critters be left- or right-handed, the way people are? Among humans, right-handedness is the norm, by a whopping 90 percent. Just ten percent of us are southpaws.

Biologists had long assumed handedness was a uniquely human trait, a byproduct of the same left-hemisphere, right-hemisphere brain asymmetry that plays a role in language, our loftiest achievement. But I spent some time at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta with primatologists who thought they could show some distinct handedness among the primates in their care. (Among the experiments they conducted: packing a PVC tube with peanut butter to see which hand the animals held the tube with and which they used to scoop out the Skippy. Another experiment involved which hand they used to throw poop around. A third had something to do with masturbation habits. That was a jolly story to work on.)

I'm reminded of that experience by this fascinating tale by Jon Mooallem in the New York Times Magazine, Can Animals Be Gay. Like handedness, homosexuality was a trait biologists long assumed was reserved to mankind. As with handedness, researchers had seen plenty of same-sex interaction by individual animals, but were loath to attribute it any species-wide implications. As Mooallem writes, "Biologists tried to explain away what they’d seen, or dismissed it as theoretically meaningless — an isolated glitch in an otherwise elegant Darwinian universe where every facet of an animal’s behavior is geared toward reproducing. One primatologist speculated that the real reason two male orangutans were fellating each other was nutritional."

But now, a growing number of serious scientists are documenting, with peer-reviewed care, evidence that homosexual behavior, and even life-long relationships, are more than just isolated behavior by some individual critters walking on the wild(er) side. Exhibit A is a huge colony of Laysan albatrosses in Hawaii (which were once, believe it or not, lauded in a speech by Laura Bush for their lifelong monogamy. That was before the gull-on-gull action was spotted).

The research, of course, has become instantly controversial in the cruelest jungle of all, the world of human politics.

By Steve Hendrix  | April 14, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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