Monday, June 16, 2008

Biological Exhuberance - a review

Biological Exuberance by Dr. Bruce Bagemihl

Biological Exuberance
has it's faults. In addition to being long winded, it's more of a polemic than a purely scientific work. I personally am a little uncomfortable with the almost New-Agey gushiness the author lavishes on aboriginal "wisdom" and some edge science (particularly Gaia theory).

That said, this is a very sensitive reading, and an impressive (even exciting) articulation, of a very real body of marginalized scientific data.

One of the criticisms that cultural conservatives level against homosexuality is that it is Unnatural (tm). I think Dr. Bagemihl will single handedly put that old chestnut to rest with this very thorough catalog of homosexuality in the natural world.

More than half of Biological Exuberance's 665 pages consist of case studies of homosexual, polygamous, or non-reproductive behavior in creatures ranging from great apes to parrots.

Sounds dry, you say? Sometimes. Dr. Bagemihl makes exhaustive lists of sexual activity in animal species, and repeats them a bit too often.

The wealth of detail can hardly be faulted, though, because this is information that rarely appears in this kind of concentrated form. And it's just fascinating to read about the variety of sexual activity in various animals. It's also a little eerie to realize that identity is probably variable for animals as well as humans.

Bagemihl can be downright entertaining when he describes examples of ascientific prudery among naturalists. One scientific (?) article is titled: "A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera (Butterflies)." Do butterflies even have morals?

Even funnier is his description of how direct genital contact in same-sex animals is described as "food exchange, social bonding, or greeting" behavior... not SEXUAL behavior! Talk about missing the forest for the trees!

Does this book explain the biological roots of homosexuality? Not really. But it does enlighten us as to the variety of its expression, and make said information available in a way that I think is stunningly new.

Bagemihl isn't a shoddy philosopher, either. Though much of the last chapter reads a lot like "I Sing The Body Electric" on a cosmological scale, it also outlines an empirically based ideology for valuing diversity in many forms. Bagemihl combines an abundance of rigorously gathered fact and elegantly progressive theory to highlight the effervescent abundance of existence. "Each life," He states, "Whether procreative or just creative, is fueled by the generosity of existence." Pre-industrial societies recognized the ambiguity of gender in nature and incorporated it into their magical worldview. Maybe modern society should take off the blinders and recognize the fact of homosexuality in nature - and incorporate it into our rational worldview.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

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