Gay swans, heartwarming poodles, etc.

Just read “The Emperor’s Embrace” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a book about parenting and child-rearing, particularly fatherhood, in animals. The author has written a coupla books, mostly calling for a recognition of animals as emotional beings, but isn’t soppy about it. (Which I appreciate, since generally once someone says “Animals have emotions, damnit!” it inevitably devolves into a series of heartwarming anecdotes about heroic poodles.)

It’s not bad. The premise of most of his work is pretty simple–there’s a tendency in animal behavior study to put serious blinders on and say that every animal behavior is done strictly according to instinct, that every member of a species is exactly true to type, and that animals lack emotions of any sort–anything that looks like emotional behavior is simply instinct (or worse, anthromorphism!) And this is obviously hogwash–animals are individuals, not Platonic species ideals. And as for emotion–well, you could say that humans lack emotions of any sort, and anything that looks like emotional behavior is purely instinct, and if the humans you’re talking about don’t have an opportunity to say “Hey, buddy, that’s a load of crap!” how can you be proved wrong?

I am deathly against romanticization of animal behavior–people telling me about how animals live in Harmony With Nature may wish to dial 9 and 1 first, and then dial 1 again when I come at them, screaming–but I think the opposite, belief that human emotion is some weird unique thing that no other animal has, and that has no bearing on any other species, is just as bad. There’s got to be a happy medium where we say “Yeah, we can’t be sure, but it sure looks like they’re angry/happy/sad/whatever,” between the mindless emotionless automatons and the heartwarming poodles.

Anyway, that said, it’s not a bad book at all, and has some very interesting points. One chunk was rather interesting, on homosexual parenting, which I thought was rather timely, given the events of the day. For example, homosexual male black swans have an 80% survival rate in their eggs, whether one mates with a female, then drives her off after she lays, or if they drive off a heterosexual pair and take over their nest. Heterosexual black swans, on the other hand, have a 30% or less survival rate on eggs. That’s a 50% increase in survival for having gay male parents, which from an evolutionary standpoint is pretty damn impressive. 5 to 6% of black swan couples are gay males. And then there’s penguins…

Obviously, if the argument is “Think of the children!” then homosexual couples are a damn good idea. So, uh…somebody, think of the children!

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