Rainbow Research: Nature

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are hosting a ‘Rainbow Research’ series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag. In this post, Dr Numair Masud discusses the role scientists can play for LGBTQ+ activism, under the flag theme of ‘Nature’:

It’s Not Natural!

The role scientists can play for LGBTQ+ activism

Post provided by Dr Numair Masud

Nature meant for males and females to pair, so being gay cannot be natural. How often have I had this statement said to me as a gay man? I am afraid the answer is, all too often! As an early career biologist, I have noticed a fairly concerning trend among scientists. A tendency towards neutrality. Often, the justification behind this is the desire to be objective, to stand at a distance from a topic and see both sides of an argument. While superficially this may seem commendable, the underlying assumption here is that both sides of an argument are valid. As scientists, we dedicate our lives to discovering empirical truth. Truth that is based on evidence scrupulously collected as opposed to reliance on dogma. We proceed in our careers through falsification. Why then, should we use any other standard when assessing arguments that have a clear ethical implication? Here, I am going back to the very roots of the English word ethics, from the Greek êthos meaning character or moral nature1. Scientists often feel like ethical principles are too subjective to be involved with. However, let us consider the world we want to live in. I believe the world we want to live in as rational individuals is one in which we can accept that getting to the ‘truth’ of any matter is a laborious process with no guarantees (as any scientist will attest to!). I intentionally place the word ‘truth’ in inverted commas as our trajectory towards the truth may be asymptotic in nature. Any mathematician will appreciate the use of the word asymptotic, to describe any limiting behaviour where a process (I use process instead of the technical term function here- forgive me mathematicians!) reaches a specific value (which we may call the ‘truth’) in theory but may only converge to it as we approach infinity. So, you may appreciate that while we may not have an infinite amount of time to discover all truths, the endeavour is no less valuable! If we accept that science is dedicated to proceeding through falsifying statements, it is possible for us to use our scalpel of rationality to dissect arguments. Scientists such as Sam Harris have popularised the idea of a ‘Moral Landscape’ that we can navigate based on empirical testing2. While I will not extend on Harris’s argument as it was beautifully done in his book, I will instead utilise empirical arguments to highlight how scientists, especially biologists, are in a unique position to defend the vitriol that still exists towards the LGBTQ+ community.

science-role-model-lgbt-activism-

Dr Numair Masud, when he was chosen by Stonewall Cymru as a role model for the LGBTQ+ community. Credit: Stonewall Cymru (photographer: Sioned Birchall)

I am a gay scientist who is currently a refugee in the UK. This means that legally I am stateless, existing somewhere in a nebulous and poorly defined realm prescribed in international law that we will not discuss here!  You may be thinking, oh dear this person has scored the jackpot for intersectionality. Beyond the intersectional nature of my identities, they are also a reminder that the world we live in is not an all accepting place for LGBTQ+ individuals. Other than my main role as a research biologist investigating infectious diseases in fish, I also helped create and run a community-based LGBTQ+ group for ethnic minority individuals. While I acknowledge my privilege as someone who has a formal education that can be utilised globally, a great deal of my humanitarian education came from interacting with LGBTQ+ communities.  As scientists, we forget the value of our privilege and it is through my community activism that I have learned to utilise my education as a biologist to make my community a more understanding one. What do I mean by an understanding community? There are still people within the LGBTQ+ community that feel angst at the accusation that something about their type of relationship is not right, not natural. When I heard this, my course of action was clear- I must hold a talk dispelling this myth.

I recall vividly standing in front of an audience at Cardiff University for a talk I had titled ‘A Gay Scientist’s Perspective’. I had never done something like this before and I was understandably nervous, but I also realised that there were many people in the audience that were not aware of just how diverse nature is in terms of sexual behaviours and strategies. So, this talk was not just about me, it was also about my role as educator and its inherent value. Apart from telling people who I was and that I grew up in a country that still criminalises the LGBTQ+ community, I prefaced why this talk was necessary. The talk and indeed this article is inspired by a panel discussion I watched that consisted of a religious conservative person, a medical scientist and a trans woman. I was incensed when the scientist did not argue with the conservative man who proclaimed with temerity that there were only two immutable sexes in nature. If only the scientist had told the panel about clownfish which are sequential hermaphrodites and are able to change their sex from male to female. Or what about the dazzlingly beautiful moon wrasse fish that are all born females and then can transition to being males. I recall the slight sound of shock (or was it horror?) when I told the audience that Nemo, the Pixar based clownfish, was definitely a male and would, if he was big enough, become a female! Perhaps I was being unfair to the medical scientist on the panel. Maybe he was not aware of examples in ecology that he could have used to counter the nature argument? Here we must appreciate the value of an education that is grounded in understanding how the natural world works. Oh, how many a medical professional I have met who could have benefited from a course in ecology!       

While I cannot claim to know the reasoning behind why some scientists remain mute during what are often complex and heated discussions around sensitive topics, I certainly was not going to pass the opportunity to educate others. So, what does nature teach us about sex? Well for starters, nature tell us that our often-unhealthy obsession with sex is bizarre considering that majority of organisms get on just fine without it! Numerically, there are more asexual organisms than there are sexual ones! The evolution of sex is certainly a fascinating story and not the point of this article, but certainly worth exploring for those of you curious to know how a labour intensive and often risky procedure came to be selected for in nature3! Indeed, even within sexually reproducing organisms there are many species, especially gregarious ones where competition for mates is high, and only a fraction of the population is ever successful at reproducing. But what about same sex interactions? I will purposefully stay away from using the term homosexual and heterosexual when describing animal behaviour as I do not wish to conflate it with the socio-cultural complexities of human sexuality, which I acknowledge is notoriously hard to study.   

While there are over 1500 species where same sex interactions have been documented, here we shall look no further than one of our raunchy cousins, the Japanese macaques. Behold a species that has, arguably, been researched for its incredibly diverse same-sex behaviour more than any other mammal I am aware off 4. Japanese macaques, especially females of this species will engage in same sex interactions such as mounting, anal and vulvar stimulation that has clearly been identified in natura as purely sexual and not a sociosexual construct. Researchers often ascribe same sex interactions to sociosexual considerations, where the sex is considered not ‘true’ sex but instead enacted for social gains. However, Japanese macaques clearly demonstrate same sex interactions that demonstrate all the tell-tale signs of pleasure, as is also observed when viewing opposite sex interactions. Here, we encounter our communities’ own demons. Scientists are only too human and fall prey to the same fallacies as the rest of the human population. Researchers investigating same sex interactions have typically taken the approach that there must be an adaptive explanation for a trait that is assumed a priori to have overwhelmingly negative evolutionary consequences, i.e., not passing on genes to the next generation. In the search for evolutionary origins of same sex behaviours, scientists have assumed that different sex behaviours are the baseline from which same sex interactions have evolved. Unfortunately, to compound this problem many instances of same sex interactions have been observed incidentally and therefore data is very patchy in addition to the problem of researchers being influenced by cultural conditioning. However, only recently a more parsimonious explanation has been offered to explain why same sex interactions exists in multiple lineages5. This parsimonious model suggests that the ancestral state for sexually reproducing organisms consisted of indiscriminate sex, meaning both same sex and different sex interactions were occurring as our ancestral sexually reproducing organism was likely immobile and we cannot assume that mate recognition evolved before the mechanism of fertilisation. Therefore, the model argues that different sex behaviour as the predominant sexual interaction is a derived state. Hereto, nature provides us with living evidence of an ancestral state. The echinoderms, a well-known group of invertebrates and early branching lineage relative of us vertebrates express both same sex and different sex behaviours fairly indiscriminately and are likely an example of what happened in an ancestral state6.

japanese-macaque-britannica-pratchaya-lee

Japanese Macaques, taken from Britannica. Credit: Pratchaya Lee.

So, hopefully at this point no one reading this article is remaining unconvinced that same sex interactions are natural and if anything, you may appreciate that they may constitute a key aspect of the evolution of sex. Let me do something quite different now and hoist myself with my own petard! Let me assume that we are living in an alternative reality where indeed same sex interactions are a derived state, perhaps due to a mutation that remains in the population due to indirect fitness advantages or they are the product of an induced state caused by some environmental variable, perhaps a type of virus? How would the ethics of this world look? What can we as scientists say about this? Granted, this is not the reality of the world we live in, but we do live in a world where people believe it to be true and for them it is reality. We have all heard politicians wax eloquently about how they believe homosexual behaviour to be environmental. Even so, should we treat someone who has a derived feature or an induced state with any less respect and kindness than someone who has a ‘baseline’ feature? Shall we treat women rendered infertile due to ovarian cancer with less respect? Or what about men with testicular cancer? Or how about infections that can render potentially any sex infertile? You may have deduced where I am going with this reasoning. Nature has many mechanisms that prevent us from passing on our genes and halting that oft-considered divine moment of conception, not to mention the sheer number of organisms that exist in a parasitic state precisely to cause harm to potential hosts. As someone who researches infectious diseases within an ecological framework, I am all too aware of how nature does not always work in our favour as individual organisms.

Nature is a great teacher. Yes, her lessons can be harsh and while the moral and ethical dimensions we as humanitarians add to an amoral planet are often complex and ever adapting, we as scientists must play our part. We cannot sit by idly. We dedicate our lives to understanding natures ways and therefore are in a privileged position to offer understanding and knowledge, the power of which we cannot underestimate. We cannot guarantee that we will make a better world where there is greater understanding and appreciation of the sheer diversity of life in all its forms and function, but we must enjoy the endeavour. Nature will point the way.  

Dr Numair Masud

References

  1. Grayling, A.C., 2011. The Good Book: A Secular Bible. Bloomsbury
  2. Harris, S., 2010. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press
  3. Otto, S.P., Nuismer, S.L., 2004. Species Interactions and the Evolution of Sex. Science 304, 1018.
  4. Vasey, P.L., Duckworth, N., 2006. Sexual Reward via Vulvar, Perineal, and Anal Stimulation: A Proximate Mechanism for Female Homosexual Mounting in Japanese Macaques. Arch Sex Behav 35, 523–532.
  5. Monk, J.D., Giglio, E., Kamath, A., Lambert, M.R., McDonough, C.E., 2019. An alternative hypothesis for the evolution of same-sex sexual behaviour in animals. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 1622–1631.
  6. Daniel A. McCarthy, Craig M. Young, 2002. Gametogenesis and reproductive behavior in the echinoid Lytechinus variegatus. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 233, 157–168.

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