WaPo buys into the “appeal to nature” with respect to sexual behavior and orientation

July 1, 2022 • 12:15 pm

Yesterday I wrote a post about how London’s Natural History Museum had embarked on a video “LGBTQ+ tour”, showing examples of same-sex sexual behavior or some cases of parthenogenesis (producing offspring without fertilization) as a way to show that non-“cis” sexual behavior in animals is common.  What this does do is dispel the idea that such behaviors are “unnatural” in our own species, though it tacitly assumes that the psychological and evolutionary basis for such behavior is similar in humans and other species.

What it does not do is show that non-“cis” behaviors in humans are “moral”, or give us a reason not to criticize them. While I have absolutely no problem with any sexual behavior or gender identification of any human adult, so long as a behavior is consensual, we should never point to behavior in animals as a “justification”, moral or otherwise, for similar behavior in animals. This is an example of the “appeal to nature”, which Wikipedia describes this way:

An appeal to nature is an argument or rhetorical tactic in which it is proposed that “a thing is good because it is ‘natural’, or bad because it is ‘unnatural'”. It is generally considered to be a bad argument because the implicit (unstated) primary premise “What is natural is good” is typically irrelevant, having no cogent meaning in practice, or is an opinion instead of a fact.

I had previously called this argument “the naturalistic fallacy“, but that in fact is not exactly the same thing, as was pointed out to me in a comment by reader ThyroidPlanet. According to Wikipedia, the naturalistic fallacy is this (it’s also distinguishes it from the appeal to nature):

In philosophical ethics, the naturalistic fallacy is the mistake of explaining something as being good reductively, in terms of natural properties such as pleasant or desirable. The term was introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica.

Moore’s naturalistic fallacy is closely related to the is–ought problem, which comes from David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1738–40). However, unlike Hume’s view of the is–ought problem, Moore (and other proponents of ethical non-naturalism) did not consider the naturalistic fallacy to be at odds with moral realism.

The naturalistic fallacy should not be confused with the appeal to nature, which is exemplified by forms of reasoning such as “Something is natural; therefore, it is morally acceptable” or “This property is unnatural; therefore, this property is undesirable.” Such inferences are common in discussions of medicine, sexuality, environmentalism, gender roles, race, and carnism.

So I’ll use the proper term “appeal to nature” from now on. That is “what is natural is good” as opposed to “what is natural is what we ought to do.”

These days, biology is now being infused with wokeness to the extent that this appeal to nature is becoming increasingly common. It’s now moved on to the pages of the Washington Post, as you can see from the title of its magazine’s article below.  Now “catching on” probably means here that scientists have previously ignored or covered up “homosexuality” in animals, same-sex bonding, or other behaviors that are considered “queer” in humans. And that is true: many biologists didn’t want to admit that such behavior existed because it was seen as shameful or degenerate. A great example, which I discuss in my lectures in Antarctica, is George Levick’s studies of sexual behavior in Adélie penguins.

But “catching on” could have a double meaning: that “the observation of such behaviors in animals somehow justifies LGBTQ+ people and activities as good or moral because they are seen in other species in nature.” In fact, one researcher in the article below, written by graduate student Eliot Schrefer, admits as much—the ideology drives the research, but the research is then said to buttress the ideology. It’s a self-justifying kind of circular research.

As I’ve said many times and don’t really want to repeat (but will), one should not justify human sexual proclivities, behaviors or identities by pointing to similarities in nature. First of all, showing that, say, homosexual behavior exists in some animals does not necessarily call for the approbation of gay behavior in humans. Long before researchers knew that animals like penguins and birds and other primates have same-sex sexual behavior, homosexuality was still denigrated in humans. That’s because it was considered “abnormal” in our species, and what happened in other animals was pretty much irrelevant. Oscar Wilde spent two years in jail not because Adelie penguins try to copulate with other males, but because homsexuality was seen as abnormal and degenerate in humans.

That view has now changed, but it didn’t because of observations of animal behavior. Yes, these observations of same-sex sexual behavior or pairing are of great value to the study of behavior, but they haven’t been a major factor in changing our views of gay people, transsexuals, and other members of the LGBTQ+ alphabet. Those changes have come about from changes in human morality: the realization that different people have different constitutions and impulses, and that their activities, far from damaging society, enrich it because we can imagine ourselves in such positions and recognize that the diversity is not in the least harmful. It didn’t take the observation of “races” in animals (yes, they exist, defined by botanists and zoologists as genetically distinguishable populations) to justify racial equality in humans.

Further, if we’re going to point to sexual behavior of animals as “natural” and therefore justifiable in humans, you’d have to accept stuff like forcible copulation in animals (i.e. “rape” in humans), copulation that can kill females (as in ducks), necrophilia, the consumption of your mate after copulation, hypodermic insemination (as in bedbugs, which bypasses a female’s choice), pedophilia (animals sometimes try to mate with juveniles), and so on. Not to mention other “natural” behaviors like infanticide, theft, adultery, murder, and the whole gamut of sins and immoral acts. Yes, the “appeal to nature” should not be a part of biology, nor used to justify human behaviors or proclivities. We have our own tools—the rationality and morality of our big brains—to adjudicate human behavior.

So I’m not a fan of articles like the one below. Click to read a long article on the appeal to nature.

You can read the piece for yourself by clicking on the headline; I’ll give just a few quotes to show its tenor. One argument that I won’t discuss much now, but needs discussion, is the idea that same-sex pairing, bonding, or copulation might actually be an evolved adaptation, even though it would seem that this would impede the production of offspring. (Natural selection, of course, would not favor the appearance of such an impediment.) This may be true in some cases, but in others is certainly not. In my fruit flies, for example, males have evolved to try to mate with nearly anything, while (as is often the case in animals) females are choosier and resistant to copulating with just any male. You might often see males courting or trying to copulate with other males, but that’s just a “spandrel” of their hypersexuality and the fact that they lose little by seeing nearly anything—including a small ball of dust—as a potential mate. Some of evolved same-sex behavior in other species may be examples of such spandrels. But more on that another day.

A few quotes. First, an ideological rationale for the work:

As a graduate student in animal studies, I’ve often faced an unpleasant prospect: The theory of natural selection, at least as it’s classically considered, could argue that queerness shouldn’t exist. In a Noah’s Ark conception of life, with dutifully procreating male-female pairs for each animal species, non-straight behavior seems to disrupt the natural order by preventing the transmission of genes over generations. This conundrum has started to feel far more than academic in recent months, as multiple states have passed legislation restricting reading about or even discussing LGBTQIA+ identities in schools. The logic behind such laws, it seems to me, goes something like this: If queerness doesn’t come about naturally, then it can be walled out of human populations by limiting access to the very idea of it.

The recent surge in same-sex animal scholarship, however, offers a powerful challenge to that thinking. For hundreds of years, it turns out, we’ve been looking at animal sex through too narrow a lens — with significant consequences for our beliefs about what counts as natural in our own species.

Ideological motivation for the work:

Evolutionary biologist Mounica Kota is a fan of Laysan albatrosses, for whom up to a third of the nests are female-female. “They’re like my lesbian moms. I have a big photograph of them in my office,” she told me. She’s part of the new generation of openly LGBTQIA+ scientists who are frank about how their personal identity aligns with their professional research, even if it opens them to accusations of partiality. Kota, who is a lesbian, struggled with coming out earlier in life, and she was heartened by a class in animal behavior that she took as an undergrad.

This is a slippery path to tread, because it almost begs your research results to align with your personal identity. How would you feel if it didn’t?

Some researchers are conscious of this bias, though, and try to compensate for it:

Sidney Woodruff, a PhD candidate in ecology at the University of California at Davis, has been studying conservation of the western pond turtle, which lacks sex chromosomes and whose sex is instead determined by incubation temperatures — a phenomenon turtle researchers dub “girls are hot, boys are cool.” Woodruff, who identifies as nonbinary and queer, feels kinship with animals who also cross sexual binaries — but they treat this personal element as a source of caution as much as anything else. “I have to keep in mind that if I’m researching sex and wildlife species, I’ll want it to be a certain way because of my own gender and sexual identity,” Woodruff told me. “It’s a lot of power that we have, but in our quest to find inaccuracies in previous research, we have to make sure we’re also being humble enough to know that we’re not always going to get the answer we want.”

When the article gets to the notion that same-sex behavior or bonding might actually have evolved by natural selection, however, the desire by some researchers to find an adaptive reason seems compelling, which could lead to “just so” stories. In contrast, though, we have anthropologist Paul Vasey, who after years of looking for evolutionary rationales for female-female sex in Japanese macaques, concluded that they do it “simply because they derive pleasure from it.” Like masturbation or sex between prison inmates, it need not be an adaptation, but a spandrel of evolved sexual desire.

To me, the article, though it does have caveats, seems like a long discussion motivated by the “appeal to nature,” and I wish the author would have discussed the fallacy of that kind of argument. Indeed, near the end of the article, Schrefer comes close to that in this sentence:

Like the Edinburgh penguins, many animals are sexually monomorphic, meaning males and females are indistinguishable to human eyes. This makes it all too easy to map our own assumptions onto their sex lives — and to tell ourselves a false story about which actions are “natural” and which are not.

And the article’s description of the variety of sexual behavior in animals is generally good, though of course it neglects the many species that do NOT have LGBTQ+-like behaviors, giving a biased view of sexuality in animals. And, at the end, author Schrefer can’t stop himself from nudging up against the appeal to nature:

We might have known about the sheer diversity of animal sexuality a long time ago if we, as a culture, had managed to lower our blinders. “We like to think we derive a lot of our ideas from the animal world, but it’s actually the opposite,” says Kota. “We put a lot of our ideas onto the animal world.” Now, we have begun to see a more complicated truth about animals — and also, perhaps, about ourselves.

I wonder what that “complicated truth” is.

27 thoughts on “WaPo buys into the “appeal to nature” with respect to sexual behavior and orientation

  1. Even worse than the naturalistic fallacy in the hands of the woke, is the counter fallacy, the woke-favourite “moralistic fallacy”. This says that whatever one wants to be true on moral grounds must actually be true.

    Examples of the moralistic fallacy are:

    1) If there is no God and no afterlife, then Hitler is not being punished. I want Hitler to be being punished. Therefore there is a God.

    2) On moral grounds, I want trans women to be women. Therefore trans women are women! (And anyone who says otherwise is ipso facto immoral.)

    3) The most moral, most fair thing would be if all humans were born with identical intrinsic capabiltiies. Therefore all humans are born with identical intrinsic capabiltiies! Hence woke blank-slateism. (And anyone who argues, say, for a genetic component of IQ must be a bad person.)

    [By the way, I think the distinction between “naturalistic fallacy” and “appeal to nature” isn’t worth sustaining! Sorry everyone! Everyone uses “naturalistic fallacy” in the “appeal to nature” sense.]

    1. Errmm… that doesn’t read so well … scratch the “good” – _great_ writing, of course, what was I thinking.

  2. Great post. The part of articles like Schrefer’s that I find most objectionable: he makes no distinction between same-sex attraction (well known among other animals and broadly accepted among humans) and trans-gender identities (unique to humans). But instead of focusing on the LGB implications of this area of behavioural ecology, Schrefer includes the TQ end of the rainbow spectrum under cover of these same-sex studies.

    Notably, he interviews Mounica Kota, a lesbian who studies same-sex behaviour in female albatrosses, but their interesting conversation about Kota’s excellent research doesn’t mention, e.g., whether albatrosses have a gender identity, or whether some female albatrosses in same-sex pairs suffer dysphoria and feel like a male albatross.

    The most important goal of articles like Schrefer’s seems to be to legitimize the current discourse about trans people and their oppression, under cover of studies that are only really relevant to thinking about same-sex attraction among humans and other animals. Increasingly, lesbian and gay people just want to be left out of the trans-dominated conversation (cf. Andrew Sullivan, and the British LGB Alliance).

  3. “We might have known about the sheer diversity of animal sexuality a long time ago if we, as a culture, had managed to lower our blinders.”

    Lowering our blinders might well have made things worse since for probably most of history (and now) humans fancied themselves as special creatures above animal behavior. It seems unlikely that a homosexual human could avoid persecution by pointing out that animals do it too. It wouldn’t help today even.

  4. I really wish we knew more about how all this gender and sex stuff works in our heads. It is a strange thing, isn’t it, that these two mental assertions develop in our minds. One is: “I am sexually attracted to X”. And why is that? For most people that comes out opposite to ones sexual morphology, but not always, and sometimes attraction is to both and sometimes attraction is to neither.

    The other mental assertion is: “I think my body should have sexual morphology Y”. Again, we have no idea why that is. Usually this is in line with ones actual sexual morphology (cis), but sometimes its the opposite (trans). And sometimes it hovers somewhere in between, and sometimes it gradually swings back and forth.
    Years ago I met a person who was like the latter. I thought at first they were full-on trans. She (?)(anatomically male, late ’50s early ’60s) but would dress like a conservative woman going to church. Sensible skirt, high heels, big fake pearl necklace, and a wig. I liked her quite well, as she was very funny and had a great sense of humor. But several months later the same person was more or less dressed as a man except for maybe earrings. She (he?) explained that she gradually swings from one gender identity to another, and that this is how its been most of her life.

    What can I say, but the brain is weird.

    1. Mark, I found this paper quite convincing. It’s more about genetics & behaviour, less about mentalizing and neurobiology. But it’s more evidence for an evolutionary (and adaptive) basis for variation in same-sex attraction. Doesn’t address the ideas about gender identity like your interesting friend. What do you think?

      https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01168-8

      1. I could only read the abstract, since behind a 32 U$D paywall, but the abstract begins by stating that SSB behaviour is heritable, which I do not think is well established.
        But if so it is a pretty clever, and plausible, take.
        OMCC! 😱 I have an exclusively gay uncle…🤪

    2. There is some research on sexual orientation, gender identity, and the brain. For instance, they have found that a sexually differentiated part of the brain, the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) differs among trans individuals and cis individuals. Among female-to-male transgender individuals, the size of the BNST is more similar to males. Among male-to-female transgender individuals, the size of BNST is more similar to females. Simon LeVay found differences in the hypothalamus of gay and straight men. As you can imagine, the ideologues and activists hate this type of research

  5. The claim that “We put a lot of our ideas onto the animal world” has become a very common argument among those who want to replace parental investment theory and sexual selection. They claim Darwin created a “sexist” theory of sexual selection due to the morals of Victorian England. I think this is complete rubbish, of course; it is the radical feminists and identitarians who are taking issue with those elegant and well-supported theories. By the way, I do not think sporadic homosexual behavior is a puzzle. If an animal copulates with a member of the same sex one day, but they still prefer sex with opposite-sex members, there is no puzzle there. The real puzzle is why someone would be exclusively homosexual and absolutely never have sex with a member of the opposite sex.

    1. The real puzzle is why someone would be exclusively homosexual and absolutely never have sex with a member of the opposite sex.

      I wonder how common that particular “exclusively homosexual” unicorn really is. Most homosexual men I’ve discussed the question with have tried “batting for the wrong team” at least once. Several have been fathers themselves. I doubt the situation is hugely different amongst the anatomically female half of the population.

  6. Your good critique, I think, misses the not-so-LGTBQ friendly elephant in the court. The museum or this article seem to pursue a rhetorical strategy against what is happening right now in the US supreme court, where Judge Clarence Thomas recently floated that same-sex marriage could be axed, too.

    By showing the variety in nature, the article dispels conservative talking points about same-sex activity being unnatural. The conservative rhetoric is cut back to biblical interpretation, with a narrower appeal.

    1. If I were Clarence I would have included sexual miscgenation, good way to get rid of Ginny.

  7. The woke should be careful to walk this ‘appeal to nature’ path. As our host points out, rape -or at least rape resembling behaviour- and infanticide (not to mention harems) are all found in nature, in our closest relatives, great apes, at that.
    One thing not found in eutherian mammals is changing sex. The ‘appeal to nature’ approach is DOA there.
    So yes, if I were woke – or even just a bit ‘wokish’- I would think twice before going down that road.

    1. if I were woke – or even just a bit ‘wokish’- I would think twice

      Contradiction in terms.

  8. The ‘Appeal to Nature’ may be dismissed thus: lions kill lion cubs if not their own. Shall we allow humans the same privilege? There are hundreds of suchlike examples. Why should we rely upon the one that buttresses our own position on one particular argument as being somehow more reliable and applicable than any of the others?

    1. lions kill lion cubs if not their own.

      I think the rule would be better expressed as “male lions kill all cubs they live with until they’re securely in control of a harem and getting laid frequently”. (With a caveat for sibling males sharing a harem – which is hardly altruistic.) The Christian God has already pre-approved this – it’s in the Bible.

  9. I sometimes play with the question: Is mankind part of nature? ie Is there anything that we do that is unnatural? While I am firmly in the “No” camp, I find people’s positions on this question enlightening at times. Is the dichotomy of natural and unnatural meaningful in any way?

      1. So very intelligent people are unnatural? I get what what you are saying, but they mean something like unusual. There is something emotive about the labels natural and unnatural.

        1. Jumping in here – interesting / fun discussion.

          Nature with a capital N is distinct from the adjective natural.

          I think it is a matter of level – what level are we talking here.

          Then there is invention.

          Eyeglasses are inventions. They are not found in Nature. They might be unnatural. Are they nonnatural? I don’t know because as mentioned this is a language confusion…?

          Vaccines are not found in Nature, at one level. Vaccines are inventions. Are they unnatural?

          It is clear, I think,… vaccines might be “unnatural” but so what? So are grocery stores.

          1. Anything we make is part of nature so grocery stores must be natural. But seriously, anyone using such words in a context where what is meant isn’t obvious needs to add more words to explain what they really mean. Unless, of course, they are using ambiguity as a rhetorical weapon.

            1. “Unless, of course, they are using ambiguity as a rhetorical weapon.”

              ^^^ there it is….

              NATURALLY….

              Ah ha ha ! I make myself laugh!

          2. Nature with a capital N is distinct from the adjective natural.

            This I believe is a magazine. Nature is a bit like when Christians capitalize One etc.

            But nature in your context almost seems to point to anything industrial.

            1. That was indeed serendipitous.

              However, serendipity is not medicine.

              And there might be an important distinction between “are found in Nature” is “can be found in Nature” (which I failed to make in the moment above).

Leave a Reply