How Natural Is LGBTQ+ Diversity?”


Editor’s Note: Frans de Waal’s** new book, Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist, has generated some controversy and misunderstanding. ( Note. Professor de Wall died on March 20, 2024.)


He will address these issues in a series of short essays which will be published at 3QD and can all be seen in one place here. More comments on these essays can also be seen at Frans de Waal’s Facebook page.

Florida Senator Rick Scott recently declared that “Men are men, women are women,” adding “we believe in science.” He was talking about transgender athletes.

I wish the senator did believe in science, though, because to reduce the gender palette to just two colors with nothing in between hardly works for biological sex and even less for gender expression and identity. It’s an outdated view.

The social roles of men and women are surrounded by persistent myths, often accompanied by the term “natural” as a stamp of approval and “unnatural” for patterns that we condemn. Most natural/unnatural distinctions have little grounding in biology, however. This is because biology is much more flexible than people assume. In the same way that no two trees of the same species are identical, nature is marked by high individual variability. Variability is what evolution works with. Since every individual comes with a unique genetic make-up, we can’t expect them to show the same sexual orientation and gender expression.

As American sexologist Milton Diamond is fond of putting it: “Nature loves variety, even though society hates it.”

Over five decades working with apes, I have known quite a few that acted atypically for their sex. These individuals form a minority, but nearly every group seems to have one. There are always males with less machismo than others, and always females who act tomboyish. Males who ignore the social hierarchy may be muscular giants, yet stay out of confrontations. They never reach the top, but also don’t sink to the bottom, because they are perfectly capable of defending themselves. The typical status game (and the social tensions and physical risks that it entails) is not for them.

As for the females, let me describe Donna, who grew up in a large grassy outdoor area with twenty other chimpanzees at the Field Station of the Emory Primate Center, outside of Atlanta. As a youngster, Donna always ran up to me if I walked by to engage me in a tickling match while giggling her hoarse chimpanzee laugh. She also frequently sought out the alpha male of the colony for wrestle play. This large male roughhoused daily with little males eager to test their strength against him. That Donna enjoyed the same games was the first hint that she was different.

Donna grew into a robust female who acted more masculine than any other I have known. Her genitals were those of a female, but she had the large head with rough-hewn facial features, sturdy hands and feet, and broad shoulders typical of males. Even her body hair reflected this. As in our species, male chimpanzees are the hairier sex. This allows them to look larger than life when they “go pilo” (from piloerection, or bristling hair). Donna could go pilo all over her body like a male. She furthermore acted as if she was part of the male world, charging by their side during noisy hooting displays. You’d swear you saw a full-grown male.

Individuals born as one sex, yet feeling to belong to the opposite sex, are known as transgender. Transgender persons usually turn this around and prioritize their felt identity. They were born as one sex, but inside the body of the other. We have no way of applying this to Donna, because we can’t know how she perceived her gender, yet she clearly was far less feminine than other females.

Science often focuses on typical behavior, thus ignoring exceptional individuals, but once we start looking for it I’m sure we’ll find plenty of gender diversity outside our own species. This also holds for sexual orientation. Homosexual behavior is well-documented throughout the animal kingdom. In some species, such as dolphins and bonobos it is so common that I prefer to label them bisexual: they don’t seem to have a clear preference for sex with one gender or the other. In other species, homosexual behavior is less common than heterosexual behavior, but we know for penguins, sheep, monkeys, apes, and tons of other animals that such behavior regularly occurs, and not only in captive settings.

The first reports that wild male and female macaques frequently mount members of their own sex were met with disbelief and attempts to explain this behavior away (the poor monkeys must have been confused about their partners’ gender or else were only engaging in “pseudo-” or “shamsex”), but evidence is now overwhelming that homosexual behavior is deliberate and serves important social functions, which is why nature has added pleasure to it. It’s no accident that both dolphins and bonobos have the largest clitorises in the animal kingdom, considerably larger than those of human females.

The most important difference with other species is not so much the degree of gender diversity in our species, but the way we react to it. Other primates show none of the discomfort and intolerance that LGBTQ+ individuals face in human society. Their societies accept other individuals as they come. I have never noticed hostility towards individuals escaping typical gender patterns.

FURTHER READING

LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others. The “plus” represents other sexual identities including pansexual and Two-Spirit.

Milton Diamond interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MvNisJ7FoQ

The variable sexual behavior of bonobos is well-documented, and here is a 2021 report on chimpanzees in the journal Behaviour: “Sociosexual behaviour in wild chimpanzees occurs in variable contexts and is frequent between same-sex partners” (brill.com/view/journals/beh/158/3-4/article-p249_3.xml)

For further details and references to the literature, read “Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist” (Norton, 2022). A video about the book can be seen here: https://fb.watch/ffbauZBzNb/

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Published at 3 Quarks Daily ON 

**Professor de Wall died on March 20, 2024

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6 thoughts on “How Natural Is LGBTQ+ Diversity?”

  1. I love this statement:

    “Nature loves variety, even though society hates it.”

    There’s a sound reason for this: variety gives a species greater capacity for reacting successfully to changes in the environment. Indeed, variety has been one of America’s great economic advantages over other countries; American tolerance of variety (limited to urban populations) has give it greater flexibility and a faster rate of change.

    There are gobs of examples of sexual weirdness in the biosphere. Just the other day I saw a news piece about an animal shelter that had taken in a tortoise-shell kitten. Such cats have unique coloration, and they are always female. But when they attempted to spay the kitten, they discovered that it had no ovaries — it had testicles! It also had a vulva! This was a mixture of male and female. They suspect that it has XXY genes, making it both male and female simultaneously. So much for Senator Scott’s declaration that men are men and women are women.

    I do, however, have a reservation about the current efforts to free kids from the strict limitations on gender expression that our society imposes. We understand that personality undergoes dramatic changes during the teen years. We expect that a college education might well reveal unforeseen preferences; many people go into college expecting one future career and exit college aiming for a completely different path. If people cannot see their future life at age 18, how can they reliably choose their gender expression before that age? I think that, as with so many other important decisions, we insist that children adhere to narrow limits until they reach adulthood, which I’m willing to define as age 18.

  2. Well. Let me see. Natural does not seem accurate here, if and only if, one does not accept LGBTQ as natural. If, for example, we considered these states natural, we might need to ask how animal species reproduce and endure. I suppose Dinosaurs failed because of climate change or other catastrophes? …but not due to a failure to understand and participate in reproduction. So, we are much smarter. At least, far as we know, the primitive life forms knew what they were supposed to do…were not confused about sexuality. Hmmmm… I still don’t get the Q piece. Why? Because, to me, it is already there in the first four letters.

  3. not sure what you’re saying. Whether we can even draw a natural/unnatural distinction is problematic; if we can draw such a distinction that does not imply natural is good and unnatural is bad (bacterial infections are natural, antibiotics unnatural). As for LGBTQ behavior it is, as any competent biologist knows, all over the animal kingdom. In that sense it is quite natural. As for bigotry that seems mostly confined to humans.

  4. Hmmmm. The B in LGBTQ was not about bigotry. I must have missed something , bye, for now…

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