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.
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.