Gay penguins? Not so fast.

August 16, 2019 • 11:15 am

Two male King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) at the Berlin Zoo have adopted an egg rejected by a female penguin, and the world has gone crazy. Why? Well, for one reason, it’s because Skip and Ping are perceived as “gay penguins”, since they’re a same-sex couple. Here’s the New York Times article about it:

The story of Skip and Ping from the NYT:

The zoo knew they were a couple when they arrived from Hamburg this year, and it became clear within weeks that they wanted to start a family, he said.

“It is very common that two penguins of the same sex come together. I don’t think it is the majority of penguins, but it is not rare either,” Mr. Jäger said on Tuesday. “We are sure they would be good parents because they were so nice to their stone.” [Before they got an egg they brooded a stone.]

So the zookeepers decided to give Skip — short for Skipper — and Ping a shot at fatherhood after a 22-year-old female, called The Orange because of the color of her wings, laid an egg in July. She had never hatched a chick of her own.

“We just had to put the egg in front of one of them, and he knew just what to do,” Mr. Jäger said. “He took his beak and put the egg on his feet and then put his stomach over it, which is the normal thing penguins do.”

And if you Google “gay penguins”, you’ll see a bazillion articles that characterize the couple that way, although biologists would use “same-sex couple”. Here’s a screenshot of just a few the many pages you get when you do a Google image search for “gay penguins:


I think one of the reason people like this so much is because it seems to vindicates the fact that gay couples or gay behavior is fine in humans—because it occurs in nature. And of course same-sex coupling does occur in nature, but should we anthropomorphize it by calling it “gay”? In fact, gay humans are fine, but not because there are “gay penguins.”

First of all, we’re not at all sure that same-sex couples in animals are analogous to same-sex couples in humans. Some of them might well be, and that would be if “gay” animals were like gay humans in having an ineluctable attraction to couple and pair with members of the same sex. We’re not at all sure, for instance, that animals who form same-sex couples have that feeling (and how could we know?), and I doubt that these male penguins are sexually attracted to each other. In other cases, animals might pair up with others because, even though they’re “straight”, those feelings spill over onto whoever is available, which might be members of the same sex. In jails, for instance, males and females might engage in same-sex relationships, but not because they’re “gay” in the conventional way, but because that is the only outlet they have for their heterosexual urges. The fact is, in most animals we just don’t know.

But the animals, by analogy with humans, are nevertheless deemed “gay”, and without any qualifications. The New York Times says this explicitly, and implies that this somehow vindicates homosexuality in humans (look at the first sentence, which implies that heterosexuality might be some kind of “hangup”):

Homosexuality has been observed in a number of species of animals, who tend to have fewer hangups than humans. But gay penguins seem to be unusually prominent in the world of animal homosexuality.

There have been same-sex penguin couples at many zoos, including the Central Park Zoo in New York, Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in Australia and regional zoos or aquariums in Denmarkand Ireland.

And then there is the London Zoo, which in June celebrated Pride month — and its six gay Humboldt penguins — with a banner in the penguin exhibit that said “Some penguins are gay, get over it.”

If there are any other gay animals at the Berlin zoo, the zookeepers said they had not made themselves publicly known.

“We don’t know if there are any other gay animals in this zoo,” Mr. Jäger said. “There may be.”

What I mostly object to here is not same-sex coupling in any species, but the use of phenomena in nature to justify human behavior, using traits like same-sex coupling. This is what we call “the naturalistic fallacy”: what is natural is good. Or, in this case, what is natural in nature is natural—and good—in humans.

I have no prejudice against gay humans, and have always promoted equal treatment and rights for gay couples, including marriage and everything that goes for heterosexual couples. We just shouldn’t say that because animals have same-sex behavior, it’s exactly the same thing in humans, and is therefore acceptable and moral. No, it’s moral because there is no good reason to keep people apart, or to discriminate against them, if they happen to be of the same sex. (Religionists may feel otherwise, but they’re wrong.)

We shouldn’t base our moral judgments on what we see in other species. For if we go that route, then we can justify all kinds of behavior as “natural”: the killing of your new spouse’s children (lions do it), xenophobia and carnage against other groups (chimps do it), or rape (ducks and bedbugs engage in forced copulation that can kill females).

How we regard human behavior should be based on our tendencies to be rational, humane, and empathic. It should not be based on weak or unsupported analogies with penguins like Skip and Ping. Maybe they really do have the same feelings for each other as do human gay couples, but we just don’t know.

The big story here, to the media, was not same-sex rearing of an egg, which after all is not that rare, but “gay penguins”. And such unsupported comparisons not only give people false ideas of what animals are feeling, but, as in the case of other “natural” (but more odious) behaviors, could lead to justifying traits that we don’t like at all.

22 thoughts on “Gay penguins? Not so fast.

  1. T.H. Huxley:

    Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest … but of those who are ethically the best…. The ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.

  2. Los Angeles Zoo had a male/male pair of Cape Vultures. They chose one another. They also repeatedly ”stole” other birds’ eggs. Obviously, they wanted to parent!

    Finally, keepers let them incubate/hatch and raise a chick. Everyone was happy.

  3. I fully agree with what you said, behaviour in other species should not be used to mark some human behaviours as normal or abnormal. Still, it might push back to marking some behaviours as ‘unnatural’ though.
    As far as these penguins go, they have an egg! A precious egg! And male penguins are taking care of, nay brood, eggs. That is what they do.
    If you’d want to compare it to them being ‘gay’, we should at least see some copulatory behaviour, which we didn’t. If we want to find ‘equivalencies’ with human behaviour (not recommended per the OP), it is more like a male finding himself stuck with a baby and his male friend gets into taking care of it too. Is that gay?

    1. +1👍! I was thinking of a similar tack (just before seeing your comment) related to the “heat circle” gatherings wherein penguins squeeze together to stay warm.

  4. As with most instances of SJWs falling into the naturalistic fallacy, this one is predicated on a moralistic fallacy — that is, presuming one’s morals are exhibited by nature.

    1. This is absolutely true. However, I will admit to enjoying seeing (in a virtual sense) homophobes loose their minds when it is pointed out to them that other animals can form same sex couples.

  5. If these King penguins are gay, then Adelie penguins as a species must be designated polymorphous perverse.

    We already know that there are transsexual animals of all kinds. I don’t think it’ll be long before the blue-banded goby or a similar creature becomes a poster child for the transsexual rights movement.

    Goby fine but not Tiresias.

  6. I like to watch those TV nature documentary programs. One of them noted a pair of male Orcas who were observed travelling together regularly. The narrator unaccountaby missed the opportunity to suggest that they were “gay” killer whales, and suggested instead that they might have been brothers. Ohh, and they hunted together all the time too, including their favorite prey: dolphins. We can await a breathless NYT piece about gay, cannibal killer whales—and a suggestion that, in nature, one might have fewer hangups if one eats one’s relatives.

    1. Isn’t “longtime companions” the way they used to put these things in the more circumspect obituaries?

  7. Interesting. King penguins are supposed to be serially monogamous. Is this male-male chick raising seen in the wild? Do these male-male pairs break up and form bonds with females in later years? That would imply they aren’t “gay” in the human sense. A zoo is probably a bad place to draw conclusions about wild behavior.

    1. Clearly, you’ve little experience with a ”zoo” world, where breeding opportunities mimic those of the ”wild.” A little research will prove to you that ”extra pair” relationships are common in many birds and mammals.

      Let me direct your attention to the lives of bonobos…(along with chimpanzees)our nearest relatives. Studies in the wild demonstrate unequivocally that sexual relationships are based on commerce of desired food items, social encounters during the day and are as ”normal” as normal can be.

  8. I agree with this post.some context might be helpful.

    I will add that a big reason for gay-rights activists pointing to ‘gay’ animals is in response to an old homophobic talking point. The attack on homosexuality is that gay sex is an ‘unnatural’ act, and if it were not a perversion it would not be seen in nature. In that sense, it is a good counter-argument to point to animals that engage in same-sex activities.
    This breaks down when you say these animals are gay in the human sense. Being a gay or straight person involves human culture and behaviors that have no real analog in the animal kingdom. It’s like comparing tool-making finches to computer factories.

  9. In Nature, same-sex behavior can be reliably observed in 10% of the populations of all animals with backbones, where it seems to be a population-regulating device. During hard times, a heterosexual couple will often adopt a third adult who mates — if at all — with the member of the couple who is of the same sex, and therefore will not breed, but will assist willingly in the care, feeding and defense of the couple’s offspring. In effect, this gives the same number of offspring three parents instead of two. The survival value of this arrangement is obvious.

    1. The survival value is not obvious at all, as that arrangement is profoundly undarwinian. The ‘third parent’ doesn’t benefit from the arrangement at all and the genes promoting such behaviour wouldn’t be spread.

      Some variant of this idea may still make sense, for example if the third parent is related to one of the other two and so the offspring carries some of its genes. But as it stands it wouldn’t be compatible with standard evolutionary theory.

  10. I completely agree with your point about not using nature as a justification for morality, but for what it’s worth, there definitely are examples of ‘gay’ animals to pretty much the full extent of the definition.

    In particular, this has been observed in horses, sheep and goats, where males have been seen to form pair-bonds with other males that are sexual in nature, and to exclusively mate with other males even when sexually receptive females are around them.

    There are lots of other examples of homosexual behaviour among both males and females in many other species, although often it’s not exclusive (the same animals will engage in male-female couplings as well)

  11. The sexual behavior of animals does not have any value as a guide for humans. My sister once had pet rats. A big male rat named Templeton would copulate with almost anything that moved. He would mount male rats, female rats, his own children, other rodent species (hamsters), and got so excited that he would cream the walls of his cage whenever the lid was taken off and he got to get out. You wouldn’t want humans behaving like rats, would you?

  12. Even in humans, sexual and social behaviours of same-sex pairings are very variable. Kinsey’s details are likely wrong, but I do think it makes sense to say that sexual orientation comes in degrees (or, better, is multidimensional) and hence it makes some sense to suggest that these penguins are in that sense “partially gay”.

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