Do seahorses validate “queerness”? The naturalistic fallacy committed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust

January 21, 2022 • 11:15 am

Every day I get six or seven links from readers about the infestation of society by performative brands of DEI (i.e., “wokeness”). The links are often distressing and depressing, but I have to tell readers “I’m sorry, but I can’t write about everything!”

But when I am compelled by the laws of physics to write about something is when people try to bend biology to fit their ideological narrative. The most egregious example of this is the claim that there is no such thing as a sexual binary in humans and other animals, which is just wrong. Males have small mobile gametes (that’s the definition), and females big and immobile ones. Just like my Drosophila, about 99.99% of humans are either male or female by this definition. Hermaphrodites or other intermediates are not “other sexes”; they are developmental anomalies. (That’s not a slur on human intermediates; it’s a statement that you get the very rare intermediates only when development slips off the rails that have evolved to ensure a sexual binary.)

These attempts to refer to nature as a way of validating human behavior, morality, or ideology is, of course, an example of the “naturalistic fallacy,” usually described as the fallacy of saying “what’s seen in nature is good in humans.” And it’s a dumb fallacy, because a lot of animals behave in nature in ways that we would consider immoral in our own species. (Chimps, for example, attack other bands of chimps and rip individuals apart while they’re still alive. Some spider females kill and eat males after mating.) We can’t look to nature for morality, because, at bottom, nature is amoral, for animals don’t have the capacity to argue and make considered judgments about how to behave. Often “considerate” behavior towards others is the evolutionary product of reciprocal altruism or kin selection.

So when the Sussex Wildlife Trust tries to use the pregnancy of male seahorses as a justification for “queerness”, as they do below, they’re committing the naturalistic fallacy. The reason we shouldn’t discriminate against non-cis people is because discrimination is wrong and hurtful, not because male seahorses (and, by the way, male pipefish and sea dragons, contra the tweet below) get pregnant. Mallard drakes sometimes kill females during forced copulation, which in humans is the equivalent of rape. Does that make rape okay? You get my point.

Here’s the tweet. The original has been deleted (I wonder why?) but here’s a screenshot of the original:

 

Now a bit of biology before we go on to the associated article.  Seahorses have a fascinating mating and breeding system. They’ve evolved so that the males largely take care of the eggs. (In many species, males do at least half the tending and rearing). In seahorses, pipefish, and sea dragons, this occurs by males sequestering the eggs in their kangeroo-like pouches, fertilizing them there, and sequestering them until hatching.  (This may be a way to increase offspring number by favoring those individuals who protect their reproductive investment by protecting fertilized eggs.)

The important thing is that, in seahorses, sea dragons, and pipefish, the females produce eggs faster than the males can put them in their pouches, so females are always looking around for an “empty” male. Because—unlike in most animals—females are thus competing for males’ attention, and sexual selection is reversed. It’s the opposite of what happens in most other species, in which males compete to fertilize females. This is why, if there is sexual dimorphism in seahorses, it’s the females who are more elaborately decorated and with more secondary sexual characteristics. (See also here.)

Note that the males, while they take care of fertilized eggs and in that sense are pregnant, are still males, as they produce sperm rather than eggs. So you could say that “males get pregnant”, but that’s not the same thing as transsexual men who can sometimes get pregnant, nor does seahorse pregnancy somehow show that transmale pregnancy is “okay” or “moral”. It IS perfectly okay, but not because you find it in some marine species.

I like to show students the video below of a male seahorse giving birth, which looks almost as laborious and painful as labor in human females. This form of reproduction, given the female’s rapid rate of producing eggs, may have evolved to protect eggs and embryos from predation. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that males have a form of pregnancy, but this says nothing one way or the other about transsexual pregnancy in humans. The pregnant seahorses are neither queer nor transsexual, but males, and there’s no morality in the fishes (yes, seahorses, sea dragons, and pipefish are “fish”).

I wouldn’t have written all this if reader Al, who was steamed, sent me this associated link from the Sussex Wildlife Trust news (click on screenshot to read).  Now I’m not going to go after this very hard, as I want to just reiterate the naturalistic fallacy and how it’s used as a justification or valorization of human behavior. And yes, pregnant seahorses do show that animal behavior is diverse and unexpected.  But pregnant male seahorses remain males, and they’re not “queer,” either, as the author seems to imply in her piece.

But the seahorses are used to somehow buttress the insecurity of a woman trying to come out as queer.

A few quotes:

As a keen zoology undergraduate who adored, almost worshipped, Darwin’s theory of evolution, I couldn’t quite come to terms with his theory of sexual selection. It really didn’t add up as I was tentatively stepping out of the queer closet back in 1996. I lived and breathed evolutionary theory but where did I fit in? A deviation? An anomaly? A kink in the genetic spiral of life? So, of course, I started studying the evolution of sex and soon discovered how incredibly diverse and fascinating the plant and animal kingdoms (more like queendoms or even queerdoms) really are in terms of gender and sexuality.

. . . .In the plant world too there is a whole host of queerness to explore. In fact bisexual flowers are described as “perfect”, having both male and female reproductive structures. Examples include roses and lilies but also the horse chestnut, highlighted in a wonderful project by the Queer Botany Society at the Walthamstow Marshes SSSI.

Now, with my work for the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project much of my favourite flagship “queer” marine species are linked directly to our conservation work here on the Sussex Coast. For example bottlenose dolphins who are known to engage in homosexual behaviour and sex for fun, again thought to increase social bonding and cooperation. The black seabream which are all born female and change to male at maturity (known as protogynous hermaphrodites). And finally the incredible seahorse species that in my opinion can claim the throne of the animal drag-kingdom in having the only true reversed pregnancy.

I’m sure Darwin would agree that rather than it all being about nature versus nurture we should focus more on nurturing our true nature, that part of us that is wild and free and far from binary. Wouldn’t it be dull if everything were so very black and white… life and love is in fact gloriously technicolour thanks to evolution’s rainbow.

Now people can find solace where they will, but I think it’s misguided to look to nature to validate a behavior in humans. For every mammalian species that shows homosexual behavior, there are a dozen who don’t.  (Do those show that homosexuality is “unnatural, ergo wrong?” Of course not!) And homosexuality in humans, which often involves attraction solely to members of your own sex, is not at all the same thing as homosexual behavior in dolphins. For when a the male wants offspring, he knows where to go. Should a rapist find validation by studying ducks?

The last sentence of the piece above, referring to “evolution’s rainbow,” is likely a reference to Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, a book-length attempt to justify human non-cis-ness by looking at animals (Roughgarden is a transsexual female). I reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement in 2004. My review is no longer online but I have a copy and will send it to those who want to read it. Here’s the last part of my review (it was mixed: I found Roughgarden’s descriptions of behavior being very good but her moral “lessons” untenable). Yet the warning about the naturalistic fallacy is apparently is as relevant today as it was when I wrote this 18 years ago:

But regardless of the truth of Darwin’s theory, should we consult nature to determine which of our behaviours are to be considered normal or moral? Homosexuality may indeed occur in species other than our own, but so do infanticide, robbery and extra-pair copulation.  If the gay cause is somehow boosted by parallels from nature, then so are the causes of child-killers, thieves and adulterers. And given the cultural milieu in which human sexuality and gender are expressed, how closely can we compare ourselves to other species? In what sense does a fish who changes sex resemble a transgendered person? The fish presumably experiences neither distressing feelings about inhabiting the wrong body, nor ostracism by other fish. In some baboons, the only males who show homosexual behaviour are those denied access to females by more dominant males. How can this possibly be equated to human homosexuality?

The step from “natural” to “ethical” is even riskier. As the philosopher G. E. Moore argued, identifying what is good or right by using any natural property is committing the “naturalistic fallacy”: there is no valid way to deduce “ought” from “is”. If no animals showed homosexual behaviour, would discrimination against gay humans be more justified? Certainly not. Roughgarden’s philosophical strategy is as problematic as her biological one.

Roughgarden believes that evolutionary biologists, with their enthusiasm for the “classical” gender roles of the neo-Darwinian theory of sexual selection, are partly responsible for society’s unease with gay and transgendered people. She is wrong. This theory is powerful and largely correct. Yes, there are nuances of behaviour that require special explanation, or that we don’t yet understand. But nobody, least of all Darwin, ever claimed that evolutionary biology is characterized by ironclad laws. Our field is not physics. Nevertheless, some generalizations, such as the pervasive competition of males for females, can be powerful and useful.

Yet in the end, all of this is irrelevant to the gay and transgendered community’s genuine concerns about repressive social attitudes. Rather than wringing her hands about the theories embraced by her biological colleagues, Joan Roughgarden might consider visiting a school board meeting deep in the American Bible Belt. There, ironically, she would find where opposition to a sexually diverse society really thrives, as does opposition to the very theory she is partly lambasting, Darwinism. It is not the intellectuals who are the problem; it’s the anti-intellectuals.

Nature, as varied as it is, can be used to “validate” any human behavior, therefore it can validate NO human behaviors.

59 thoughts on “Do seahorses validate “queerness”? The naturalistic fallacy committed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust

  1. These are excellent posts to review.

    I can feel the excitement when people start talking about how turtle “gender” (facepalm) is determined by level in the nest and temperature. Yes – fascinating – but for turtles it is fascinating. It is turtles that bury eggs in the ground. Where exactly is this conversation going with this? Then the conversation tends to spiral off into not turtle biology.

      1. Oh and the “eggs” are in fact fertilized genuine eggs. … oh right – temperature “dependent” but its a threshold, not a gradient of sex.

        1. The statement “Hermaphrodites or other intermediates are not “other sexes”; they are developmental anomalies” might be modified, since they are “normal” in species such as C. elegans (as you know), That said we recognize them by the fact that they produce both sperm and eggs,

      2. The ‘temperature dependent’ sex holds true with the Australian Bush (or Brush or Scrub) Turkey. The male uses its beak to monitor the temperature of the (very large) heap of vegetable matter into which visiting females have deposited their eggs. Material is added or removed to regulate the temperature. At 34deg C the sex of hatched chicks is 50/50 but changes in temperature will alter that ratio.
        The chicks are precocious, BTW, needing neither parent for care and feeding after hatching.

  2. Hear, hear!

    I’m of a sufficiently libertarian bent that I would support the rights of the LGBT community regardless of whether it’s “nature” or a choice. I think that’s a more valid moral stance than relying on naturalistic fallacies, for all the reasons you mention.

  3. Even if it were correct to say that male Seahorses can get pregnant, wouldn’t that be more of a case of the exception that proves the rule?

    1. Yes, in the sense that the apparent exception tests (the correct sense of “proves” here) the rule. In doing the test you find that male seahorses don’t actually get pregnant in the mammalian sense and so the rule that only females produce large sessile gametes is found to be valid in the case of seahorses, too. Where the fertilized eggs are gestated (if that’s the right word for fish) is immaterial to the rule.

      It is nonsensical to say that an exception can prove a rule in the sense of demonstrating it to be valid.

      1. I used to puzzle over the meaning of the phrase, because it didn’t seem to make sense. I finally decided that what was meant was that if there is only one exception, then it shows that it’s a pretty solid rule.

        1. Think of the street sign that says “No Parking on Sundays.”

          In the sense of the idiom, “prove” means to test or establish the limits — as in the US Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.

        2. If you have some Spanish speaking friends, you would know that ‘proves’ is the same as ‘probes’.
          In the case of ‘the exception proves the rule’, it may indeed be about equivalent.

        3. The exception is important, because we have to find out why it is an exception, we ‘probe’ the rule by investigating the exception. If that can be established, we may basically ‘prove’ the general rule.

  4. There’s some degree of the naturalistic fallacy that we just can’t help. A fictional cow-sentient might find any predation immoral. Animals have feelings, after all, to kill them causes pain. Yet a predator-sentient is stuck with it. Going even more fictionally far afield, a tree-sentient or scavenger-sentient might easily declare it horrifically immoral for any species to kill any other living thing for food – it is, after all, all killing. The only moral way to subsist is off of dead or never-living matter. But no non-scavenger animal species adopting that morality could survive. On the other extreme, some potter wasp-sentient would likely tell you that of course it’s moral to paralyze an animal, stick it in a prison, and let your young feed off of it’s still-living flesh. It’s just nonsense to call that evil!!! Torture? Bah humbug, that’s just plain old good parenting!

    Which is to say that social adaptations such as notions of fairness, morality, treatment of other species, etc. are very widely flexible, but probably not infinitely flexible if a species is to survive. There are likely some moral instincts or beliefs that are just long-term untenable due to biology, and thus “naturally” not adoptable. Yes, the naturalistic fallacy “eating previously living matter is good” is invalid. But sincere, put-your-money-where-your-mouth is breatharianism will never be viable in humans. We are stuck with the naturalistic fallacy in that case, and probably a few others. And different species, were they sentient, would have their own set of “stuck with” naturalistic moral boundaries, different from ours.

    It’s a bit like a more limited version of Hume’s problem of induction: yeah it’s invalid. But in some limited cases, we can’t help using it.

    1. Who said that eating and breathing are morally good. They’re what an individual must do to survive, just like circulating blood and running the Krebs cycle. Is having a Krebs cycle good?

      I can resist using the naturalistic fallacy! 🙂

  5. As Steve Novella wisely says, one should not justify your morals on science unless you are prepared to change your morals should science the science be overturned.

  6. Male Seahorses Are Nature’s Mr. Mom, Researchers Say
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080501125451.htm

    -Male seahorses are nature’s real-life Mr. Moms — they take fathering to a whole new level: pregnancy. Although it is common for male fish to play the dominant parenting role, male pregnancy is a complex process unique to the fish family Syngnathidae, which includes pipefish, seahorses and sea dragons.

    *****”When seahorses mate, the female inserts her ovipositor into the male’s brood pouch (an external structure that grows on the body of the male) and deposits her unfertilized eggs into the pouch. The male then releases sperm into the pouch to fertilize the eggs.”*****

    “Male pregnancy has interesting implications for sex roles in mating, Jones explained, because in most species, males compete for access to females, so you usually see the evolution of secondary sex traits in males (for example, a peacock’s tail or antlers in deer).”

    “From a research standpoint, it’s interesting because there aren’t very many species in which there is a sex role reversal,” Jones said.”

  7. “nature is amoral”

    You’ve probably heard this before but I worry that this statement can easily mislead people. When we say a person is “amoral”, we usually mean they have “bad” beliefs. Nature, on the other hand, has no beliefs at all. Perhaps “unmoral” would be better.

      1. And I believe made using the correct word. Nature is certainly not immoral but it is amoral. Unmoral seems to be an unnecessary neologism.

        1. “Unmoral seems to be an unnecessary neologism.”

          Yes, prefixes “un-” and “in-” are confusing. Is there some fundamental difference between the two? If not, it seems one should go.

          Consider a few of numerous double-letter (for lack of a better discriptor at the moment) words: illegal, illegible, immoral, immature. I speculate (No doubt Professor McWhorter knows for sure) that the prefix of this type of word originally was “in- (of course meaning meaning “not”), and over time the “n” of the prefix was changed (to “l” and “m” in the examples) simply because it’s easier to say. It seems that such doubling is only with practical with consonants. E.g., “inactive.” One doesn’t see “iaactive.” Re: “inactive,” it seems that “unactive” works just as well.

          As compared with “immature” and “immoral,” the “im-” (“in-“) of “imply” and “impress” surely means “in” as with, e.g., “inserting” (a key), as does the “em-” of, e.g., “employ” and “empower” (and the “en-” of “envelope”).

          Seems it would make linguistic life simpler if “in-” meant only “in” and “un-” meant only “not.” (But then one might get words like “ullegal,” “ullegible,” “ummoral” and “ummature”?)

          Professor Hitchens’s “invigilate” comes to mind. (If the word “unvigilate” existed, would it mean not watching? I think I’ve gone down a rabbit hole.

    1. Without reading on the language :

      We do not atie a knot, but we definitely tie them.

      Enzyme inhibitor categories include competitive, noncompetitive, and uncompetitive.

      I think “a-” means, in “plain English”, not applicable, while “un-” suggests an un-doing of a process.

      1. I think un- also means not having a property. That said, my main point is that amoral means something to most people that is not applicable to nature. It is certainly not wrong based on a short dictionary definition but potentially misleading in this context.

    2. I forgot – yes, “amoral” sounds bad!

      But it doesn’t mean that. … but… well, I suppose elephants show evidence of morals, … maybe other animals…

      Bacteria, no way. Amoral.

  8. I agree with most of what you’re saying here – we certainly shouldn’t be looking to nature for morality. The only thing I would say is that the existence of homosexual and gender-non-conforming behaviour in other species is still an important counter to the very common and even less valid claim that queerness is *un*natural because it does *not* occur in other species. It’s definitely worth noting that sexuality is a complex business all across the animal kingdom, and humans aren’t in any way unique for having a wide range of sexual preferences and behaviours.

    (For anyone who’s interested, Adam Rutherford’s piece on homosexuality in giraffes is well worth a read: https://www.queerty.com/excerpt-giraffes-mostly-homosexual-20190323)

    1. Surely you’re not saying the a dolphin who engages in some homosexual activity occasionally is the same thing as a gay human. You simply can’t make that comparison with any credibility, and if you can’t, then saying that homosexual behavior in dolphins is just as natural as homosexual behavior in humans. They are not the same thing at all.

      I don’t think homosexuality in all animals is as complex as it is in humans. If I keep male flies in a vial without females, they try to make with other males. They are just horny and exercising their evolutionary imperative: “mate with anything about your size.”

      1. Once Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention told how they played at the same venue as Kiss but in different halls on the same night. Before the show, for a laugh they went over to compare groupies. After extensive descriptions of the quality and quantity of the Kiss groupies, DM summed up Fairport‘s as “anything younger than 40 without a beard”.

      2. There are definitely instances of sexual orientation in animals that go beyond occasional activity. Exclusive homosexuality has been observed to my knowledge in horses, sheep and goats. For instance, here’s a personal account by a horse owner of a stallion who had no interest in mares, even when they were on heat, but would exclusively choose to mate with a male donkey instead. https://www.quora.com/Could-my-horse-be-gay/answer/Victor-Wren?ch=2&srid=hOyAE

        Of course, I agree with you that homosexuality in other animals is not as complex as in humans, but of course the same goes for all sexuality (and pretty much everything else as well). The point I was making was mostly that it’s such a common claim that homosexuality is “unnatural” that it’s definitely helpful to be able to point out that there are examples in nature – even while at the same time agreeing that even if that wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t matter.

        1. Does your comment, then, justify the claim that infanticide is “natural”, as is murder, rape, and robbery? According to your argument, if someone said that rape is “unnatural,” would you be the first person to jump in and say, “No it’s not–forced copulation happens ALL THE TIME.” I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make except that both good and bad things (by human lights) occur in nature. I would not engage in an argument about whether we should look for examples of homosexual behavior in nature to buttress an argument for the morality of homosexuality in nature.

          I can say this, with truth–there are no examples of TRUE ALTRUISM in nature (except in humans). Does that support the idea that we should all be selfish?

          1. I think it’s arguable that rape, murder and so on are indeed “natural” in that sense. But the naturalistic fallacy, as you rightly said, is to argue that *because* something is natural, it is therefore morally acceptable, or conversely, that if something is unnatural, it must be morally wrong, neither of which are true.

            As I said, even if there was no such thing as homosexual behaviour in other animals, that wouldn’t make being gay morally wrong. All I’m saying is that, as it happens, homosexual behaviour genuinely is common in other species to one degree or another, so it happens to fall in the intersection on the Venn diagram of *both* moral and natural. And that means that on those occasions when someone says “I don’t have anything against gay people but it’s not natural, is it?”, it’s possible to reply “well, not that it matters, but yes, it’s totally natural”.

            Regarding your final example, this is probably going onto too much of a tangent now, but I’m not at all convinced there are no examples of true altruism in nature (at least to the extent that we can say it exists in humans). Corvid gift-giving seems to me to be a good example – to some extent it might be reciprocal altruism but there’s no obvious sense that the corvids want anything in return for their gifts, they just seem to be giving them out of friendship. And there are quite a few cited examples of altruism in elephants. Again, this doesn’t affect the question of whether altruism is morally right, but it’s still nice to know we’re not alone.

            Honestly, I’m quite surprised to see you taking this particular line. I think it’s quite good for us as humans to recognise that, exceptional as we are as a species, we’re still part of the natural world and many of the things we’ve previously thought to be particularly unique to humans turn out to exist in other intelligent species too. That doesn’t have anything to do with morality, it’s just a good way to see our connection with the other species we share this planet with.

            1. Sorry, but I’m talking about true biological altruism where you give up reproductive success to help an unrelated individual gain reproductive success–all in the net. Any group that lives in associated packs where reciprocal altruism can evolve (even without relatedness, though elephant packs surely share some relatedness) is reciprocal altruism but not true altruism. I’ve explained this before, but you don’t seem to have read it.

              Reciprocal altruism is not true biological altruism, which I’ve discussed before.

              But you didn’t read the Roolz and so have made an insulting remark in your last paragraph. Sorry, pal. You could have said everything you did without that last bit of snark, and I don’t tolerate snark towards the host.

    2. I don’t know what really goes on in the heads of gay penguins or lesbian seagulls, but even if humans are unique in having these orientations, sometimes, it is still natural to humans. (Sometimes).

      In my search I just came across “lesbian sea shanties”! I think I’ll have to check those out!

    1. Yes. I have been keeping an eye on this – as I was the one who sent it to the Professor. I promised him I would ‘report back’.

      The replies were all negative and reasonable – nothing nasty or abusive. Just angry, irritated and bemused people questioning this ‘concept’.

      It is pathetic. The smallest bit of genuine scrutiny and these ideas go up in smoke. As soon as a real scientist stepped in – they ran away!

      1. The SWT article is just part of the capture of the Wildlife Trusts happening at a national level as part of its general EDI programme (much of which is sorely needed). I’ve sat through an IDAHOBIT talk that couldn’t be any quicker at saying the LGBALLIANCE is a transphobic hate group and telling us all to write to our MPs to support the conversion therapy ban bill. I’ve heard of a senior manager talking about “punching the air with happiness” when he saw someone with they/them pronouns in their zoom name on a national meeting because “it meant we’d become so inclusive that they felt comfortable doing so”. There’s huge amount of virtue signalling going on by people who wanting to be kind and inclusive and not thinking things through to their logical end points, whilst others fit into full TRA mode. I’m a GC gay guy who feels uncomfortable enough with it all and is just having to play along with it. Guessing I’m not the only GC LGB but no way of safely knowing. We’re meant to be an organisation based on science. It’s so depressing.

  9. Perfectly agree with the post (couldn’t be put better), with the exception of this clause: “pervasive competition of males for females” (referring to humans). In humans, socioeconomic circumstances in addition to any biological predilections are a great determiner of who competes for whom. In bands of hunter-gatherers, it may well be the men who compete for women (and who embellish themselves with headdresses and the like, while the women are relatively unadorned). But in settled, propertied, stratified patriarchical societies, it is at least as much and probably more the females who compete for high-quality males who can provide for them when they have children. And different from most species, female humans in such societies tend to embellish themselves more than males. Women used to fear not finding someone who would take them until they were, say, 29. For males, the risk incurred by turning down a “barely good enough” candidate to see if something better might pop up later was much lower than for women. With changing social conditions (e g state support for single mothers, availability of contraceptives, higher ratios of rich independent women), incentives for sex and marriage (now divided) will change, and conditions will be different again in societies with arranged marriages, but I’d say the traditional western society has been one where women competed for men at least as much as vice versa.

    1. Not according to the data. In all societies examined, the variance in reproductive success among males is higher than among females. And that is all you need to show a difference in competition. We’re talking about reproductive success here.

      1. Besides which, “settled, propertied, stratified patriarchical societies” are probably only 10-50K years old (at least, the ‘settled’ part). Not a long enough situation for major changes in biological adaptations in humans. Human instincts about competition and mate selection will still be those of hunter-gatherers, even if society makes a complete hash of how successful those instincts are. You can take the girl out of the country….

        1. I didn’t talk of biological changes at all, but of the adaptability of human behavior to different conditions (including the overriding of what I called biological predilections). Also, human evolution accelerated after the Neolithic revolution, say population geneticists, so the shortness of time is not an argument, even though I did not want to suggest that biological adaptations had occurred.
          The greater male variability in offspring will exist independently of any behavioral sex differences simply because the tail end with males is longer for physiological reasons. No woman can have 100 children, even if she slept with a different male every day, but males can and some very rare males do. However, the median difference for typical cases in western societies must be small, and obviously actual human mating behavior (like human violence) is guided as much by socioeconomic conditions and cultural/social/legal mores as by biology. Some societies have regular cousin marriage, some hardly ever. It is not normal for a fertile (i.e. not biologically infertile) woman in hunter gatherer societies or West African or Arabian peninsula societies to have no children, yet a large percentage of presumably fertile women in traditional western societies died childless.

      2. I had always believed that, too (higher male variance in all societies), and still did so when I answered Eric (below), then tried to find some actual data, as my assumption was that the variance differential must be small in western societies. It was a bit difficult finding numbers (fertility data almost never give variances), but one study that tested how reproductive success translates into the grandchildren generation “in an industrial human population” (1950s birth cohort) incidentally gave the variances (without tests of significance), and females had a very slightly higher variance (probably insignificant) in the number of own children and a (probably significantly) higher variance in the number of grandchildren. (See Table 1 here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3903217/). Could be an artifact if more of the men than the women had children not known to the study authors. Monogamous !Kung also had no significant variance difference, contrary to my assumptions on hunter gatherers in my other answer. (See slides 3 and 4 here https://www.unl.edu/rhames/courses/ppoint/polygyny.pdf). Officially polygynous societies are as expected (large variance difference)

  10. I also am amused by the argument that thing A “isn’t natural”.

    Well, corrective lenses and dentistry aren’t natural either – what is this distinction doing?

  11. I’m glad you chose to write about this “biological bending”. I don’t blame the LGBTQ community for trying to find examples in nature to normalize their sexual preference, just as I understand the community wanting to find a “gay gene”. Society pressures are such that a silver bullet is earnestly looked for. But you correctly show that this is a fallacy, and human sexuality is more dynamic than nature’s anecdotes. I support gay rights, but I don’t think biological bending helps the cause.

  12. Goodness, if we may take examples from nature to validate any human activity, I presume I may emulate the trout and eat my young? Or a lion and eat my neighbour’s young? There’s no end of entertainment to be had, though not all of it pretty – I shall try not to use the shrike as a role-model.

  13. There’s already a huge amount of evidence to show that homosexuality occurs among a whole variety of species, from bonobos to penguins to sheep. Ranchers are quick to identify male homosexual bulls and sheep because they try to mount each other. However in the females it is more difficult. This information was suppressed for years in order to argue that if it did not exist in nature, that this made humans who engaged in the behavior “freaks of nature.” We can see from various comments that this reasoning is fallacious. In fact some argue that in highly social species that homosexual traits might actually aid in some sort of social bonding, and this could be why the traits continue to be passed on.

  14. The tweet may have been taken down, but Sally Ashby’s article, on which the tweet was based, is still there on Facebook. What she says about sea-horses is: “ And finally the incredible seahorse species that in my opinion can claim the throne of the animal drag-kingdom in having the only true reversed pregnancy”.
    Is she just wrong, in your opinion?

    1. You read the article, didn’t you? So you know what I think. It’s even worse when she equates the seahorses with people who dress in drag.

      I don’t know how you can read what I said without knowing what I think about it. And no, it’s not just seahorses that do this, it’s also sea dragons ahd pipefish (related but different groups). And I wrote at length about the naturalistic fallacy.

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