Sunday, June 10, 2012

Anthropomorphism is Dangerous in Science

'Depraved' sex acts by penguins shocked polar explorer

 Scientists now understand the biological reasons for behaviour Dr Levick considered to be "depraved"

Accounts of unusual sexual activities among penguins, observed a century ago by a member of Captain Scott's polar team, are finally being made public.
Details, including "sexual coercion", recorded by Dr George Murray Levick were considered so shocking that they were removed from official accounts.
However, scientists now understand the biological reasons behind the acts that Dr Levick considered "depraved".

The Natural History Museum has published his unedited papers.
Dr Levick, an avid biologist, was the medical officer on Captain Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910. He was a pioneer in the study of penguins and was the first person to stay for an entire breeding season with a colony on Cape Adare.
He recorded many details of the lives of adelie penguins, but some of their activities were just too much for the Edwardian sensibilities of the good doctor.

He was shocked by what he described as the "depraved" sexual acts of "hooligan" males who were mating with dead females. So distressed was he that he recorded the "perverted" activities in Greek in his notebook.

Graphic account
Levick notebook (Image: NHM/R Kossow)  
  On his return to Britain, Dr Levick attempted to publish a paper entitled "the natural history of the adelie penguin", but according to Douglas Russell, curator of eggs and nests at the Natural History Museum, it was too much for the times.
"He submitted this extraordinary and graphic account of sexual behaviour of the adelie penguins, which the academic world of the post-Edwardian era found a little too difficult to publish," Mr Russell said.

Pages from Dr Levick's notebook with some sections coded in Greek
The sexual behaviour section was not included in the official paper, but the then keeper of zoology at the museum, Sidney Harmer, decided that 100 copies of the graphic account should be circulated to a select group of scientists.
Mr Russell said they simply did not have the scientific knowledge at that time to explain Dr Levick's accounts of what he termed necrophilia.

"What is happening there is not in any way analogous to necrophilia in the human context," Mr Russell said. "It is the males seeing the positioning that is causing them to have a sexual reaction.
"They are not distinguishing between live females who are awaiting congress in the colony, and dead penguins from the previous year which just happen to be in the same position."
Sexual coercion
  Only two of the original 100 copies of Dr Levick's account survive. Mr Russell and colleagues have now published a re-interpretation of Dr Levick's findings in the journal Polar Record.
Mr Russell described how he had discovered one of the copies by accident.
"I just happened to be going through the file on George Murray Levick when I shifted some papers and found underneath them this extraordinary paper which was headed 'the sexual habits of the adelie penguin, not for publication' in large black type.

"It's just full of accounts of sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex, and finishes with an account of what he considers homosexual behaviour, and it was fascinating."
The report and Dr Levick's handwritten notes are now on display at the Natural History Museum for the first time. Mr Russell believes they show a man who struggled to understand penguins as they really are.

"He's just completely shocked. He, to a certain extent, falls into the same trap as an awful lot of people in seeing penguins as bipedal birds and seeing them as little people. They're not. They are birds and should be interpreted as such."



Gay, straight or necrophiliac, a penguin isn't a human being

All ages of man have tried to understand penguin sexuality in human terms

An Edwardian notebook has gone on display at the Natural History Museum that describes the sexual activities of the Antarctic penguin. Read it and you’ll never look at Pingu the same way again.
The text was compiled by George Murray Levick, a scientist with the Scott Antarctic Expedition, and it contains details of homosexuality, pederasty, necrophilia and rape. In the Antarctic summer of 1911-1912, Levick observed the breeding cycle of the Adélies colony at Cape Adare. To his horror, he witnessed male penguins attempting to make love to the long-dead bodies of females, males getting it on with other males, and coercive sex acts with females and chicks that sometimes led to violence and death. It was Sodom in the snow.

It’s hardly news that penguins are motivated entirely by their loins, but what reports have seized upon is the charming way in which Levick processed this information. Being an Edwardian gentleman, he blamed the orgy on the male “hooligans,” perhaps believing that the lady penguins were incapable of bad behaviour. Describing what he saw as “astonishing depravity,” he recorded it all in Greek code and his findings were suppressed for many years. Reading Levick’s work, it’s hard not to spot traces of Judeo-Christian morality that seem inappropriate in the context of zoological study. Anything that an animal does cannot be depraved because they don’t have morals, or a rational soul.

But the temptation towards Anthropomorphism (the identifying of human characteristics among animals) didn’t stop in the Edwardian era. We still do it today – rationalising animal sexual behaviour in a different, yet still heavily politicised, way.

Take the case of the gay penguins. Inca and Rayas met at the Faunia Park in Madrid and seemed so devoted to each other that the zookeepers gave them their own egg. The pair have been dubbed “gay” and elevated to the status of the Elton and David of the animal kingdom. They are proof, for those seeking it, that gay monogamy finds a template in nature.

The problem is that the term “gay” is as inappropriate to describe what’s going on here as is Levick’s use of “depravity.” Gay is a term that has only been in use since the rights revolution of the 1960s and which describes far more than just homosexual activity; it denotes a politicised identity that makes no sense unless it is self-aware and publicly understood. Levick’s penguins face no moral choices, so they cannot be depraved. Inca and Rayas cannot conceptualise sexual category or identity, so they can’t be gay in the sense that a human being is. They certainly can't go through the rite of passage associated with being gay, "coming out." The thought of them waddling up to their parents – flipper in flipper – and telling them to prepare themselves for a shock is absurd.

Indeed, their zookeeper insists that they are not even homosexual – just “the best of friends.” There’s every expectation that they will, eventually, mate with a female. That’s happened in Tornoto, where the star “gay” couple, Buddy and Pedro, was paired off with females. The “bromance” was over when Buddy made it with a girl called Farai. Pedro chased the luscious Thandiwey for several weeks, but got nowhere. Buddy and Pedro’s relationship was never sexual, but instead social. That didn’t stop people asking if it was “homophobic” to separate them, as if some fundamental human right was being broken.

And what is happening here is the projection of human values onto a different species. At the same time that we more ruthlessly exploit animals than ever before, we also seem determined to find qualities within them that we can empathise with. We want to turn them into mirrors of ourselves. Sometimes – as with the Dachshund UN – the result is unbelievably cute. But in most instances it misleads about the nature of animals and blurs the lines between man and nature. Humanity shouldn’t judge its moral code by the sexual standards of the penguins. It should be guided by the uniquely human qualities of reason and compassion.


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