Monday, October 26, 2015

Animal Homosexuality: Response from Aldo Poiani

In response to my previous post, Aldo Poiani (a biologist at Monash University, Victoria) has sent me the following email message, and he has allowed me to post it here:

I read your article and would like to point out the following: When it comes to using examples from biology to extrapolate to the realm of ethics, just about anything goes. You mention the important example of aggression, a rather adaptive trait in many contexts for both social and non-social animals. Ethically, we may put together some very sound arguments to limit the expression of aggression in society (hence the many laws doing so), and yet we regularly also put forward arguments (and laws) to justify aggression in other contexts (e.g. war, maintaining social order). Hence, this evolutionarily adaptive trait can be ethically acceptable or not depending on circumstances. This is the reason why I felt that a direct personal stance was required in order to clarify my ethical position regarding homosexuality. I gave arguments and evidence to suggest that homosexuality is not a pathology, rather it can be adaptive, and yet the extrapolation into ethics is ambiguous, something else is needed, and that something else requires a personal decision as individuals. This implies that acceptance of homosexuals in society rests on additional cultural and political work, it won't come effortlessly from the description of homosexual behaviour as biologically adaptive. In my view, such cultural and political work is rooted into our beliefs in democracy and the recognition and acceptance of cultural and biological diversity.

To quote from your article: "To argue, as Poiani does, that the science of animal homosexuality shows that homosexuality is a naturally adaptive trait and thus not a "pathology" or "disorder" is a scientific argument with normative connotations.  And yet, Poiani insists, science cannot claim to support normative conclusions without committing the naturalistic fallacy." As I mentioned above there are adaptive traits that can raise ethical questions leading us to one conclusion or the exact opposite. Infanticide, for instance, is a widespread behaviour among many vertebrates, it can demonstrably have adaptive value under specific environmental conditions, and yet infanticide can produce strong negative ethical reactions in modern Western societies. On the other hand, many argue in favour of abortion and also euthanasia. Navigating such ethically turbulent waters requires a long and serious work of cultural change.

Homosexuality is not a pathology, hence arguments against homosexuality based on such link to pathology should be simply dismissed. However, homosexuals are advised not to rest on this argument, but continue their hard work to open up the mind of other members of society to the acceptance of our human diversity. This is currently relevant (both in Australia and elsewhere) in the debate over marriage equality. Marriage equality strikes at the very core of our understanding of democracy, biology can only help by telling us that homosexuals are not "mentally sick individuals". This takes me to your last statement: "Is there any evidence that same-sex marriages harm children?"... The answer from psychological research is a resounding: No! There is no evidence that growing in a homosexual family leads children to develop more problems than those developed by children growing up in a heterosexual family. This is quite unsurprising, as in our evolutionary history children have experienced all sorts of social environments where a father or a mother may have been missing due to early death or other reasons, where heterosexual marriages have been unstable, etc.

Finally, I agree with your conclusion as it fits with life in a mature democracy: "Given what we know about the animal nature of homosexuality, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in societies with both heterosexual and homosexual individuals, then we ought to protect the liberty of homosexuals to live their lives as they wish as long as they do not harm others.  Consequently, the liberty of homosexuals would include the right to same-sex marriage as long as we know that this is not harmful to others." 

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