WHAT DID I DO WHEN I FIRST RECEIVED Biological Exuberance--a 750-page book that upends the traditional notions of animal behavior, and introduces a new paradigm of scientific thinking--a work hailed by the Chicago Tribune as "a landmark in the literature of science"?

I looked at the pictures.

In my living room, I pawed through photo after photo of red foxes, flamingos, bighorn rams, bonobos--hell, even bugs--doing it in every conceivable combination: homosex, oral sex, even masturbation.

Local author Bruce Bagemihl's exhaustive compilation of sexual goings-on in the animal kingdom combines history and biology to challenge the stigma against acknowledging animal homosexuality. (Even as recently as 1987, articles like W. J. Tennent's study of homosexual blue butterflies in Morocco, "A Note on the Apparent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera," display bias in a science that supposedly promotes objective thinking.)

Sex itself has dubious evolutionary benefit. In the natural world, it makes more sense to reproduce asexually--passing on a full genome (not half) without expending energy finding a partner. "There is a whole range of behaviors and phenomena that fall outside the concept of natural and sexual selection--although those concepts explain a lot," Bagemihl says. "The French philosopher George Bataille developed the fundamental idea of biological exuberance--that abundance or excess was the driving force of natural systems, rather than limitation or functionality, scarcity of resources, etc. He said natural systems need to expend a huge amount of energy, and the way to do that involves three fundamental things: one is eating, the consuming of other organisms; the second is the death of organisms; the third is sexual reproduction. This idea, which I developed further, is that the natural world is filled with 'useless or wasteful activity.' Sexual reproduction, non-reproductive heterosexuality, and homosexuality are fundamental ways that energy is expressed or used up in a natural system."

While Biological Exuberance has been taken up by advocates for gay and lesbian rights (which Bagemihl says is fine with him), it also discusses occurrences like rape and murder in the animal world. "People would rather the ugly side of sexual expression not be presented and known. I think it's important to present the complete picture, because it's too easy to fall into the trap of saying that, because homosexuality occurs in animals, it must therefore be natural in people. We have to remember that animals do all these other things that we wouldn't consider acceptable behavior in people--rape, incest, and so on. We can't automatically conclude or base our decisions about human behavior on animals."

Motivation is dicey ground when it comes to the feral mind. How, for instance, do we know that animals experience pleasure? Bagemihl agrees that we can't actually know: "Even for people, who can speak directly of their personal experiences and feelings, it is often extremely difficult to ascertain the extent, quality, or even presence of pleasure. However, we can observe and measure external signs that are known to be associated with orgasm in mammals. These include behavioral and physiological cues such as muscle contractions (including inside the uterus), clitoral engorgement, changes in heart rate, vocalizations, patterns of eye contact or touch between partners, and many other factors. By studying these cues, scientists have concluded that many female mammals experience orgasm and/or pleasure during sexual encounters--although the issue still remains controversial.

"What I find interesting (as I discuss in the book), is that historically, female orgasm and pleasure in animals were assumed not to exist until 'proven' by these supposedly objective means. This parallels the silence and erasure that has historically surrounded female sexuality--as well as homosexuality in general--in humans."

Bagemihl also breaks new ground in his exploration of transgendered animals. "We see that nature is full of continua in sexual expression. This extends to gender. I mean, there are variations--males and females and things in between. And it's not even that these are two polarized ends of a continuum, it's almost like it's a circle [with] multiple layers of variation. [People] are beginning to discuss the idea of transgender and the de-pathologizing of it... [but] people don't realize this occurs in the animal world, and that it's not just a disease or a symptom of some problem.

"The more you learn about the natural world, the more you realize how little we know and how many mysteries there are. That's part of what I wanted to do in this book--to restore a sense of awe and say, 'Isn't this beautiful and amazing?' So what if we don't necessarily have an explanation for all of it--can't we appreciate the beauty and wonder of it all?"

Join Bruce Bagemihl, Ph.D., on Sat April 24th, 2 pm at Elliott Bay Bookstore, 101 S Main, 624-6600, free (advance tickets).

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