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Challenging Darwin: Is sex really all about the genes?
April 15, 2004 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Author challenges Darwin's theory of "sexual selection." To Darwin, mutations that don't enhance survival, like peacocks' tails, must be aids to attracting mates to pass on genes. Homosexuality, therefore, is to Darwin and the Christian-right both an unnatural aberration. But with ever growing evidence of homsexual behavior in animals, from bonobos to penguins, isn't it time that Darwin's theory get replaced?
posted by dnash (55 comments total)

 
No.
posted by bshort at 7:59 AM on April 15, 2004


Why are social selection and sexual selection mutually exclusive theories?
posted by fuzz at 8:00 AM on April 15, 2004


What?

I'm sorry, this post is so ignorat it's mind boggling.
posted by delmoi at 8:07 AM on April 15, 2004


Ahh.. I love this one. I asked the same question to a biology chum who's a huge dawkins fan.

His response:

Basically stop thinking about a 'gay gene', think about a 'loving cock' gene. Let's say a lady loves cock. In this situation the gene is likely to survive, as long as she satisfies her loving and isn't too careful about contraception. So 50% of her kids will love the cock. And 50% of them will be male. So there's a 25% chance that she'll give birth to a dude that loves cock. And any daughters could carry the gene on, so it would survive.

I'm sure that's oversimplifying everything from genetics to sexuality, but we were drunk and at that mature point where just saying the word cock is really funny. Of course we went on to discuss the 'loving pussy' gene at great length.
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 8:07 AM on April 15, 2004


I'm not sure there's anything in homosexual behavior that cancels out the sexual selection theory.

Among bonobos, for example, sex (homosexual or otherwise) is used to diffuse conflict. In other words, it has a survival function that has nothing to do with procreation, so why is that at odds with the sexual selection theory?

I haven't read the book, but based on her interview answers she's being pretty sensationalist -- I'd think you'd be hard pressed to find a scientist who disagrees with "her theory" of "social selection". The theory of evolution has developed a wee bit since the Origin of Species, you know.

Presenting the debate as a need to "replace darwinism" is just silly, theories evolve (hehe), and this bit of theoretical evolution already happened, as far as I know. I mean, I specifically remember discussing this aspect of evolution theory w/r/t Bonobos in a college biology class 10 years ago.

Need to sell books, I suppose.
posted by malphigian at 8:08 AM on April 15, 2004


This is a lot like saying "Unnatractive people reproduce, thus Darwin must be wrong."

What's missing here is the genetic cause of homosexuality. Is it some kind of check on over-population? An evolutionary dead-end? The product of recessive genes that when both people in a couple have them tend to produce homosexual children? A fetal development issue?

Tossing out sexual selection, which can be verified at any local bar for something as nebulous as 'social selection' seems a bit drastic and ignores simpler genetic explanations.

There might be some bias here as the author Joan Roughgarden was a man until recently. I wonder how her transexuality has colored her views.
"I was looking at all these people and realising that my discipline said they weren't possible," she recalls. "Homosexuality is not supposed to exist, according to biology."
Again, I don't think that's fair. Anything can really exist (men with nipples, one's appendix, etc), but there are probably better explanations that don't involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
posted by skallas at 8:13 AM on April 15, 2004


skallas, "Unnatractive people reproduce, thus Darwin must be wrong." well put.. *laughing*
posted by dabitch at 8:17 AM on April 15, 2004


If the best argument that any homophobe can come up with is that homosexuality is "unnatural" there is a long list of other unnatural behaviours that we should probably stop first.

For example, I suppose we should also allow are physically and developmentaly disabled people to die. And while we're at it, we should get rid of natal care, after all, babies that are born premature or ill were "meant" to die.

Evolution is an observational theory, not a prescription for behaviour.
posted by aubin at 8:26 AM on April 15, 2004


I can't believe that nobody has mentioned the very CONCEPT of natural selection: random mutations that may or may not benefit the species, where "good" mutations typically prevail.

The thing is, many random mutations won't hurt or help a species - they just happen.

Assuming homosexuality is genetic, which I personally believe it is, it's nothing more than a random mutation. Why does it have to have a purpose?

Blonde hair and blue eyes are recessive traits - genetic differences that don't really benefit or hurt us in a profoundly significant way. Even if all blonde people on earth stopped reproducing immediately and held it up for the next 200 years - there's going to be more blonde people born.

Assuming it's genetic, the same should apply for homosexuals - for obvious reasons they aren't going to reproduce, but this recessive trait will still exist now and then.
posted by twiggy at 8:33 AM on April 15, 2004


Reproduction is *not* the sole criteria for Darwinian success. For example, look at a wolf pack. ONLY the Alpha Male and Alpha Female are allowed to reproduce. ALL the other wolves perform other functions necessary to the long term survival of the pack.
A pack is far more efficient at guaranteeing the *best* progeny then two lone wolves.

It has also been noted recently that just sheer numbers don't add up to lasting survival. A few "quality" offspring are worth any number of "ordinaries."
posted by kablam at 8:42 AM on April 15, 2004


The notion that the only survival advantage that a trait can convey to a species is to fuck more and have more babies -- or even to "love the cock" or "love the pussy" more -- is absurd on its face. What if the presence of homosexual behavior in a species boosts societal well-being in more subtle ways? More adults available for nurturing children, for instance -- or, to get away from the whole reproduction issue, what if the presence of minds like Michelangelo's, Whitman's, Turing's, Proust's, Colette's and Stein's is good for the race? The buzzy "Darwin is wrong" spin does no one justice.
posted by digaman at 8:43 AM on April 15, 2004


Twiggy is right, but it gets more complicated than that. It's possible that some of the genes for homosexuality have other purposes as well (see: Flat Feet Pete's reasoning), so that even if a certain combination of "gay genes" result in a fully homosexual individual, who may have a lower chance of passing on his / her own genes, an individual that gets less than a full complement of "gay genes" may still have an greater than average chance of reproducing.

And I still think this author is just trying to turn a quick buck. As everyone else has pointed out in this thread, just because perfect sexual selection doesn't happen in every case doesn't mean that the theory is wrong, or that it should be thrown out in favor of "social selection", which, what does that mean, anyway?
posted by bshort at 8:47 AM on April 15, 2004


Humans are the first and greatest exception to a whole host of evolutionary/ecological principles simply because we have adaptive powers (...activate!) not available to any other species. IMHO, using reductionist biological principles to explain complex human behaviour or justify social or political goals (i.e. skull measuring to support racism; crude Darwinism to support eugenics, et cetera ad infinitum) is just dumb.

See this for a run-down of some studies on 'the gay gene'.

Specifically in this case: There is a wide range of scientific dissent about the relation of substitutions at the molecular level to natural selection: Some (neutralists) think most substitutions (aka mutations) are selectively neutral and don't matter; some (selectionists) think neutral substitutions are rare and either eliminated or fixed if advantageous.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:48 AM on April 15, 2004


The interviewee, herself, is useless. Consider that she bases her new evolutionary theory of non-reproductive utility of sex in part on the proposition that "a typical couple has sex once a week for 50 years, but has only two offspring." Homo sapiens evolved over billions of years, of which only the last hundred or so has featured the reliable artificial birth control which enabled people to have sex weekly over 50 years and have only two children.

This is not to say that there's no evolutionary basis for homosexuality. The fitness that matters is not individual but clan/tribal -- genes propogate succesfully through small related populations not strictly through individual descent. It is entirely possible that either having homosexuals directly benefits a population, or that some biological agent in producing homosexuals throws off other benefits for the population. (As an example of the latter, perhaps its the same genetic pattern of interuterine hormonal exposure which causes some boys to be gay which causes other boys to be strong and aggressively heterosexual, and beat out tribes where the hormal exposure is flattened to the median, yielding fewer gays but also fewer super-aggressive men, either.)
posted by MattD at 8:50 AM on April 15, 2004


Wait.. homosexuals reproduce! Did Darwin really say gays dont reproduce?
posted by stbalbach at 8:51 AM on April 15, 2004


What if the presence of homosexual behavior in a species boosts societal well-being in more subtle ways?

The Queer Eye benefit.
posted by srboisvert at 8:57 AM on April 15, 2004


My dog likes to hump my leg. There is no chance of my dog reproducing there, so Darwin MUST be wrong.
posted by Robot Johnny at 9:00 AM on April 15, 2004


We should disaggregate "evolutionary benefit of homosexuality" from "evolutionary benefit of childlessness." The last few decades aside, females lacked the social agency to determine whether or not they'd reproduce, regardless of their preferences. Homosexual males may reproduce at somewhat lower rates, but they still reproduced throughout evolutionary time.

Who knows, maybe the real evolutionary answer is that homosexuals actually provide better for their OWN biological children than do heterosexuals, meaning that the current social manifestation of homosexuality in ways that preclude, or greatly reduce the likelihood, of biological reproduction are actually underming the evolutionary benefit of homsexual orientation.
posted by MattD at 9:03 AM on April 15, 2004



> isn't it time that Darwin's theory get replaced?

No.

stbalbach:
It is entirely possible that either having homosexuals directly benefits a population

I heard that explanation before. Simple computations show that having non procreating males or female benefits the clan by (1) slightly altering the food distribution (amount brought over amount to redistribute;) and (2) being available with time to spend to the benefit of the group (for instance, to help others raise offsprings.)
posted by NewBornHippy at 9:05 AM on April 15, 2004


One misconception that should be noted: saying that homosexuality is "genetic" is biologically inaccurate. The sexual orientation in the brain of a mammal happens about halfway through gestation. In males, a squirt of testosterone from its testes goes to its brain and tells it that it is a "male brain". Females do not get this testosterone, so their brains remain female.

This is clearly demonstrated when that testosterone squirt is blocked (chemically) in male fetuses, or given artificially to female fetuses. Their physical orientation and brain are not the same. It is also noteworthy that if testosterone is made available to only *half* the brain, then the mammal exhibits *both* male and female sexual behavior at maturity.

The unnerving part of this research is that plant estrogens, now widely used to stimulate agricultural plant growth, in quantity might affect this testosterone transfer.
posted by kablam at 9:13 AM on April 15, 2004


Digaman covered the same point that I wanted to, but I also was struck by this part of the interview:
So what is the purpose of sex in nature?
It’s an incredibly effective form of tactile communication.
So that's what the kids are calling it these days.

Seriously, how can she reduce it to that, taking reproduction out of the equation? Everything from babboons to orangutans, from the stray cats in my neighborhood to the frat boys in my neighborhood, tell me that anonymous sex with no long-term involvement (and, presumably, little need for communication) is quite common in the natural world.
posted by adamrice at 9:18 AM on April 15, 2004


Okay, first up, I think the poster needs to read "The Selfish Gene" and take a look at Neodarwinism. In a nutshell, this is a gene centric rather than an individual centric view of evolution. It helps explain family/tribe/pack groupings, simply because group behavior that might not benefit you or your offspring directly, might benefit individuals who share many of your genes.

Which brings me around to the theory I've heard, but can't seem to attribute right now. Essentially it states that homosexuality is nature's birth control.

Studies in rats have shown that exposure to prenatal stress hormones can "masculinise" the sexual behavior of female rats. They've also shown links between stress hormones and brain development in humans and other mammals. There seems to be a link between homosexual offspring and a stressed mother.

Now let's go back to the hunter gatherer times when human behavior was all laid down. If a population is under stress from lack of resources it's in it's benefit to lower it's rate of growth. However it's also in it's interest not to loose any contributing members of the group.

Since homosexuals are less likely to reproduce than heterosexuals, they fit this bill neatly. By contributing to the survival of the group, and the other offspring of the group they enhance the survival chances of the genes the carry. There is a neodarwininan rationale for how homosexuality can fit into evolution without introducing a grandiose new theory or tossing out Darwin et al.

Now this doesn't address the issue of a gene for homosexuality, and i don't know if there is one. I do think however there's a gene that controls how the brain responds to hormones in the womb. If there's a genetic basis for homosexuality I think it's more likely that than some recessive "loves cock" gene.

It's only a matter of time before the clones or the robots make all sex obsolete anyway, so we should all enjoy it how we can when we can.

Grimgrin
posted by Grimgrin at 9:21 AM on April 15, 2004


The fitness that matters is not individual but clan/tribal -- genes propogate succesfully through small related populations not strictly through individual descent.

Exactly!

The early tribes with a homosexual were more likely to thrive. Why? More hunters for fewer females. More food for the tribe, less competition back at camp, etc. The homosexual was so important to the tribe that he eventually got his own role: shaman. I forget where I heard this, maybe Dawkins?
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 9:30 AM on April 15, 2004


I don't know if this article has been discussed on here before, but I found it interesting, and it does make a brief mention of homosexuality here.

This leads to a subject that Ewald is not shy about bringing up in discussions with colleagues and in professional lectures: homosexuality. Various pieces of evidence have been adduced in recent years, by prominent researchers, for some sort of genetic component to homosexuality. The question arises as to whether natural selection would sustain a homosexual trait in the gene pool for any length of time. The best estimates of the fitness cost of homosexuality hover around 80 percent: in other words, gay men (in modern times, at least) have only 20 percent as many offspring as heterosexuals have. Simple math shows how quickly an evolutionarily disadvantageous trait like this should dwindle, if it is a simple genetic phenomenon. The researchers Richard Pillard, at the Boston University School of Medicine, and Dean Hamer, at the National Cancer Institute, are not persuaded that natural selection would necessarily have eliminated a homosexual trait, and offer ingenious counterarguments. (And they note that historically the fitness cost may not have been very high, when gay men stayed in the closet, married, and had children.)

No one, of course, has ever isolated a bacterium or a virus responsible for sexual orientation, and speculations about the manner in which such an agent would be transmitted can be nothing more than that. But Ewald and Cochran contend that the severe "fitness hit" of homosexuality is a red flag that should not be ignored, and that an infectious process should at least be explored. "It's a very sensitive subject,"Ewald admits, "and I don't want to be accused of gay-bashing. But I think the idea is viable. What scientists are supposed to do is evaluate an idea on the soundness of the logic and the testing of the predictions it can generate."


*Note* It's from a reputable magazine, I am not a bigot in any way, nor do I have any problem with homosexuality whatsoever. This is an article that doesn't examine the political or social aspects of anything, merely the scientific and biological. The focus is not on homosexuality, rather on a re-examination of genetic and evolutionary traits. I cannot comment on its validity, and it may already be disproven as it was published in 1999.

Sorry for the disclaimer, but it is a pretty touchy subject and can really be taken badly. It's a really interesting article, read the whole thing if you can!
posted by loquax at 9:39 AM on April 15, 2004


Assuming homosexuality is genetic, which I personally believe it is, it's nothing more than a random mutation. Why does it have to have a purpose?

Just a bit of a bone to pick. Even in my classes on the evolutionary biology of such things like body size, and genetic disease, biologists tend to talk in terms of a multitude of factors and gene-environment interactions rather than just "genetic" vs. "environmental." However perhaps one of the failures of biology education in our culture is that in our search for making Mendel's peas relevant to human beings, we focus on the big diseases: Haemophillia, Cystic Fibrosis, Parkinsons, and Sickle Cell Anemia. The nice simple lethal mutation that shuts down an entire metabolic pathway is the exception to the rule.

It may suprise people to know that Darwinism was not an instant hit. The tipping point for Darwinism came with a synthesis of Natural Selection, Gene Theory, and hard statistics that enabled Biologists to think it terms of changing distributions of normal curves over time.

At any rate, as a bisexual man, I approach a lot of this with a fistful of salt. No one seems to be willing to consider that homosexuality in populations is an evolutionary spandrel for example, a feature that does not serve an evolutionary "purpose" on its own, but is a consequence of the fact that we must socialize in both cross-sex and same-sex relationships. A systems developmental approach as envisioned by Fausto-Sterling in which genetics is but one layer of a complex of interactions is more likely than many of the "just so stories" used here.

And another caveat is that culture is critically important, I'm starting to get into Solitary Sex, A Cultural History of Masturbation in which Laqueur argues that in less than a century masturbation was transformed from an ubiquitous but trivial sin to a critical public health crisis by the Enlightenment. (Puritan sexuality has been given a bad reputation, in spite of what appears to be a tacit and sometimes explicit awareness that courting couples were sexually active.)

Ultimately though, these questions are pretty much trivialities. I'm rather fond of Pinker's claim, "If my genes don't like it, they can go jump in a lake."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:02 AM on April 15, 2004


From the article which loquax quotes:

Simple math shows how quickly an evolutionarily disadvantageous trait like this should dwindle, if it is a simple genetic phenomenon.

Note that "it is a simple genetic phenomenon" is a massive unjustified assumption. It seems much more likely that homosexuality, like most interesting human behavioral traits (intelligence, aggression, creativity, etc.), is related to genetics in a complex way, being the product of the interaction of several genes with the environment. This strikes me as a major weakness in Ewald's argument. It's certainly possible that bacterial or viral infection could be one of the environmental factors affecting the development of homosexuality, but given the existing evidence, that's just wild speculation.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:29 AM on April 15, 2004


The best estimates of the fitness cost of homosexuality hover around 80 percent: in other words, gay men (in modern times, at least) have only 20 percent as many offspring as heterosexuals have. Simple math shows how quickly an evolutionarily disadvantageous trait like this should dwindle, if it is a simple genetic phenomenon.
I think that stat is only true for the current generation of adults, and was definitely not true throughout human history. In human history, I'd bet gay men and women reproduced at around the same rate as heterosexuals. Societal/familial pressure, tribal/clan rules, societal proscriptions against certain behaviors, the ability to have casual sex with other men yet still have a family at home, the lack of viable alternatives to standard societal patterns, etc. It's only very very recently that most gay men and lesbians are free to live our lives the way we see fit.

Until very recently, everyone was pressured to get married. Oscar Wilde had a wife and children if I'm not mistaken, and millions of other gay people throughout time as well.

And, throwing a curve into that theory of gay people passing on gay genes, straight couples give birth to new gays and lesbians every day all over the world. If the number of gay people in the population starts to decline (i believe it won't, as my siblings/cousins are procreating, and passing on whatever gene(s) it is), then there's a case, but that won't be known for 100 years or so. I believe there was (and still is) enormous social utility in having non-procreating people around, but I think most people were procreating, straight or gay. If I were alive 200 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, I don't know if i could have avoided being married off by my family, and I certainly would have been expected to produce offspring, whether i liked it or not.
posted by amberglow at 10:31 AM on April 15, 2004


mr_roboto - Yes, you're totally right, I think they particularly highlight any links to homosexuality as being very speculative. This thread just reminded me of the article though. The rest of it does draw closer links between presumed genetic diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and viruses. The homosexuality (and schizophrenia) portions come at the end of the article as possible extensions of the theory that have not been explored.
posted by loquax at 10:38 AM on April 15, 2004


Since homosexuals are less likely to reproduce than heterosexuals, they fit this bill neatly.

Less neatly when you consider that the fact that the idea that some people are "homosexuals," while others are "heterosexuals," is a comparatively recent one.

Those infamous boy-loving Greeks were almost always married to women, with children of their own. Heterosexual behavior perpetuated the race, while homosexual behavior perpetuated the highest standards of the culture.

While it's true that effeminate "nancy-boys" and what-all have been familiar figures on the human stage for centuries, most of the gay sex enjoyed by humanity throughout history has been indulged in by men we would consider "straight."

This pattern continues in, say, countries like modern Italy, where the prohibitions against premarital sex by the Church encourage women to wait before giving it up, while their future husbands recreationally fuck one another with gusto into their mid 20s.

I'm not discounting that there might be some complex set of genetic components that shape primary sexual orientation. I'm just saying that I may have had sex with the current father of your children when I was at Oberlin, and in most cases, we both enjoyed it, outside of these convenient categories.
posted by digaman at 10:44 AM on April 15, 2004


I take exception to the statement: "Homosexuality, therefore, is to Darwin and the Christian-right both an unnatural aberration."
Evolution is not a religion. It makes no moral claims. If it exists in nature it isn't unnatural.
Human societal dynamics have made starved and unhealthy young women into ideals of sexual attractiveness. How's that for a death blow to simplistic interpretations of evolutionary theory?

Assuming homosexuality is genetic, which I personally believe it is...
There is substantial evidence that homosexuality is not purely genetic.
posted by talos at 10:46 AM on April 15, 2004


with ever growing evidence of homsexual behavior in animals, from bonobos to penguins, isn't it time that Darwin's theory get replaced?

Sure, do that as soon as homosexual "behavior" starts producing offspring.
posted by 111 at 10:52 AM on April 15, 2004


_sirmissalot_: The early tribes with a homosexual were more likely to thrive. Why? More hunters for fewer females.

what if a tribe's homosexual individual was a woman, not a man? would a lesbian woman be a hunter?

looks like a couple of people think this post is stupid because the author in the article says some stupid things (like the HUGE flaw MattD points out -- he echoes my reaction exactly). i just want to say i think this is a very good post, sparking a good discussion.
posted by edlundart at 11:29 AM on April 15, 2004


talos, doesn't your link also point to substantial evidence that it is genetic? (the much, much higher rate for identical twins, and even above the regular rate for fraternal twins)

I guess, edlundart, going on a strictly stereotypical behavior thing (which always seems to be used when talking of cavemen and early humans), that the lesbians babysat while the women cooked and cleaned and picked berries or something.
posted by amberglow at 11:49 AM on April 15, 2004


what if a tribe's homosexual individual was a woman, not a man? would a lesbian woman be a hunter?

i believe the conventional wisdom is that women did not have much choice in hunter/gatherer societies--but that is open to debate. who knows what the women did when the men were out hunting?

and don't forget the amazons . . .
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:51 AM on April 15, 2004


i think humans have reached a point where Meme transfer is just as important as Gene transfer. Thats Meme as in, replicating behaviours rather than those 2 year old "cool" links your relatives send you when they first get an email account.

My wife is a pretty damn good artist, and people always say--because her mother teaches art--that "she must have art genes". Her response is usually, "no, I was raised with a brush in my hand." So a few generations of teaching kids that art is important you get a family art meme that will have just as much or more of an effect than some unprovable genetic predisposition--which, could in fact exist. But either way you get there, you get there.

Gender being a social construct, the Male or Female option is a common but not exclusive way of dividing up traits, functions, fashion preferences, etc...but imho isn't the only determining factor is sexual orientation. We don't need to divide people up by sexual preference. Hopefully someday all of that can be dropped and humans can go the bonobo route--or maybe, go Back To the bonobo style of free love.

End with a quote from Stephen J. Gould's Mismeasure of Man.

We must be wary of granting too much power to natural selection by viewing all basic capabilities of our brains as direct adaptations....

....We need not view Bach as a happy spinoff from the value of music in cementing tribal cohesion, or Shakespeare as a fortunate consequence of the role of myth and epic narrative in maintaing hunting bands.

posted by th3ph17 at 11:57 AM on April 15, 2004


i believe the conventional wisdom is that women did not have much choice in hunter/gatherer societies--but that is open to debate. who knows what the women did when the men were out hunting?

not conventional wisdom, early male-dominated lets-study-the-savages anthro wisdom. Human society has been an extremely complex thing for much longer than we have been able to record it.

/end of the phil wishes he stuck with anthropology instead of graphic design posts

I'm just saying that I may have had sex with the current father of your children when I was at Oberlin, and in most cases, we both enjoyed it, outside of these convenient categories.

digaman, you rock.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:09 PM on April 15, 2004


sirmissalot: i believe the conventional wisdom is that women did not have much choice in hunter/gatherer societies--but that is open to debate. who knows what the women did when the men were out hunting?

One of the reasons why I consider evolutionary psychology to bordeline pseudo-science is how many conclusions about contemporary life are derived from how little data we have about paleolithic cultures. Even with the late neolithic there are problems. The long standing belief is that civilazation started in the Middle East and Africa and spread northwest into Europe. However, more and more late neolithic finds Northern Europe and Britian reveal complex social systems including specialized priests who were exploring math and astronomy. The Middle East and Africa bear the title of being cradles of civilization due to quirks of climate and ecology. When you live on an arid river plain, you build in stone and mud brick which lasts forver. When you live in a forest, you build in wood which lasts a few centuries.

Too often, evolutionary psychology relies on weaving a "just so story" around their pet theory, usually based on some noble savage idea vision of contemporary Hunter-Gatherer societies.

th3ph17: i think humans have reached a point where Meme transfer is just as important as Gene transfer. Thats Meme as in, replicating behaviours rather than those 2 year old "cool" links your relatives send you when they first get an email account.

Meme theory is just a bit better grounded than many of the evolutionary psychology theories go, but seems to be a horrible example of domain transfer. Just because genetics can be explained in terms of transfer of information, does not mean that all transfers of information can be explained by analogies to genes. Behaviors and ideas both violate some of the key properties of genes that makes evolutionary biology work. If we are going to understand how cultural transmission works, it is not going to be by using a flawed analogy to genes.

There is also a recent series of articles about HIV transmission and homophobia on historically black campuses. Even within the United States where the gay community has put forward gayness as a separate identity, there are still populations of "straight men" who have sex with other men while living heterosexual lives.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:20 PM on April 15, 2004


If we are going to understand how cultural transmission works, it is not going to be by using a flawed analogy to genes.

it is such a nice, small word to package cultural transmission into though... but I do see your point, creating analogies between social and biological elements leads to problems.

As far as evolutionary psychology goes...it always reminds me of golden age science fiction writers visions of the future...interesting, but just a different time seen through the same cultural lens. Too much of a clan of the cave bear taken as fact mentality.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:43 PM on April 15, 2004


Less neatly when you consider that the fact that the idea that some people are "homosexuals," while others are "heterosexuals," is a comparatively recent one.

Point taken, I should have phrased that something like "The more exclusively an individual engages in homosexual behavior, the less likely they are to reproduce.". I think the general point in my post still stands.

I'm just saying that I may have had sex with the current father of your children when I was at Oberlin, and in most cases, we both enjoyed it, outside of these convenient categories.

Again, I wasn't speaking in terms of socially constructed categories, but in terms of probable effects that a given behavior would have on a population in evolutionary timescales.

We need not view Bach as a happy spinoff from the value of music in cementing tribal cohesion, or Shakespeare as a fortunate consequence of the role of myth and epic narrative in maintain hunting bands.

We have this horrible fear of having an intellectual understanding of beautiful things, a fear which strikes me as being almost wholly misplaced. The quote above is a classic example of this false dichotomy. I know that a persons attractiveness is based on skin tone, facial symmetry and how close their proportion is to the population average. It doesn't mean I don't turn my head to look at someone beautiful. It doesn't mean I don't respond in other ways.

In the end understanding what we are and why is important, if only to try and develop a counterbalance to the ideological distortions that have wreaked such havoc throughout history.

Grimgrin.

"That turned out way too pretentious, sorry"
posted by Grimgrin at 1:10 PM on April 15, 2004


Grimgrin: We have this horrible fear of having an intellectual understanding of beautiful things, a fear which strikes me as being almost wholly misplaced. The quote above is a classic example of this false dichotomy. I know that a persons attractiveness is based on skin tone, facial symmetry and how close their proportion is to the population average. It doesn't mean I don't turn my head to look at someone beautiful. It doesn't mean I don't respond in other ways.

I think that Gould's point went way over your head. Gould was not saying that we should not try to understand Bach, but that it would be a mistake to explain Bach's talent as a direct adaptation as a result of natural selection.

Some things are happy accidents rather than adaptation. For example, the proverbial "why do men have nipples?" Men have nipples due to an feature of development. The sexual dimorphism of mammary glands does not really kick in until puberty. The fact that many men find nipple stimulation to be arousing is best explained as a "spandrel" a feature that is a by-product, rather than a selected result of natural selection.

In the end understanding what we are and why is important, if only to try and develop a counterbalance to the ideological distortions that have wreaked such havoc throughout history.

Which is missing the entire point of Mismeasure of Man which is that measuring how and what we do is frequently based on ideological distortions. In many cases, the evolutionary psychology explanation is more mythology than intellectual understanding.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:50 PM on April 15, 2004


amberglow: yes of course, that's why I said it isn't purely genetic. As in most things with the nature/nurture dispute there is the influence of both nature and nurture. It's just that lately it's the "purely genetic" side to everything that seems to be making headlines....
posted by talos at 4:04 PM on April 15, 2004


Robin Baker's Sperm Wars does try to explain homosexuality in terms of evolution. The idea is that homosexuality has its own sexual niche. There's two points in this argument: Point one is that very few homosexuals are exclusively homosexual. This is known. Point two is that homosexuals tend to be familiar with sex at an earlier age than heterosexuals. For the most part, this and other traits actually make them somehow more attractive to women. So, overall, they tend to spread their genes just as, if not more, successfully than heterosexuals. The trade off is that there are a certain minority of homosexuals who are exclusively homosexual, and they never reproduce.

The book explains it in much better detail than I could. I highly recommend it.
posted by aznblader at 6:07 PM on April 15, 2004


Hmm. What bugs me about this is it is concentrating on the sexual activity difference between 'gay people' and 'straight people' as the only important difference.

I put the 'doubt quotes' there as I am a Kinsey-ist in my understanding of sexual psychology, ie I think that orientation is a statistical function, and divisions are imposed for reasons of cultural identity. I think that most 'gay' men will be attracted to a minority of women, and most 'straight' men will be attracted to a minority of men. Whether we do anything about it--leaving the attractee's receptiveness aside for now--is a cultural thing.

Furthermore, how relevant this is to women is questionable, as women are not, psychologically, the mirror image of men. Women and men have, in my view, statistically variable 'female' and 'male' psychologies, as well as statistically variable helpings of the un-gender-divided stuff that we all, firstly as living creatures, secondly as mammals, and thirdly as humans, share.

Anyway, that's my terms of reference. My point is that mostly-gay men are notably different, psychologically, from mostly-straight men. It is possible that the classic 'camp', 'queer', or 'effeminate' behavioral model is a cultural identity mask assumed to fit in with other gay men, but I doubt it. It seems to me that mostly-gay men are more likely to be sensitive to emotional cues, more likely to express aggression through verbal and social means rather than physical means, and less likely to engage in physical risk-taking than mostly-straight men. In summary, mostly-gay men have more 'female' psychological characteristics, which includes sexual attraction to males.

So I'm saying there's a hell of a lot more to being gay or straight than whether or not he loves cock or pussy, and trying to come up with an evolutionary model for homosexuality while ignoring these other factors will lead to a flawed model. Concentrating on the sexual activity aspect might be putting the cart before the horse, in that sexual behavior derives from an underlying difference.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:46 PM on April 15, 2004


aes: It is possible that the classic 'camp', 'queer', or 'effeminate' behavioral model is a cultural identity mask assumed to fit in with other gay men, but I doubt it. It seems to me that mostly-gay men are more likely to be sensitive to emotional cues, more likely to express aggression through verbal and social means rather than physical means, and less likely to engage in physical risk-taking than mostly-straight men.

There are a couple of problems here. First of all, the whole "queer" and "effeminate" cultural identity mask is an outsider's view. When straight men look at gay men, all they see is camp. When gay men look at gay men, they see a range of gender expressions from queens, and twinks all the way up to "Tom of Finland" hypermasculinity. The two subcultures don't always get along. Bears and twinks especially seem to be fond of needling each other.

More sensitive to emotional cues? Um, yeah right, whatever. Less likely to engage in physical risk taking? Don't think so.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:33 PM on April 15, 2004


I don't think so either...see gay football players, wrestlers, cops, firemen, soldiers, that Mark Bingham guy, and so on and so on...
posted by amberglow at 7:40 PM on April 15, 2004


For example, look at a wolf pack. ONLY the Alpha Male and Alpha Female are allowed to reproduce. ALL the other wolves perform other functions necessary to the long term survival of the pack.

That just blew my mind.

I think humans have reached a point where Meme transfer is just as important as Gene transfer.

I think life is entirely a meme transfer. We don't have sex to pass on our genes: our genes have humans to pass themselves on.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:28 PM on April 15, 2004


KirkJobSluder First of all, the whole "queer" and "effeminate" cultural identity mask is an outsider's view. When straight men look at gay men, all they see is camp.
Point taken.

More sensitive to emotional cues? Um, yeah right, whatever.
I'm referring to the 'sensitive gay friend' stereotype; again that's an outsider's view, filtered through fictional portrayals. (Though that's the same view we get of any group we're not part of, I may point out.)

Less likely to engage in physical risk taking? Don't think so.
Hmm. I meant 'stupid boy stuff' like football and soldiering and fast cars and beating each other up, and I meant it as a generality. Of course individual gay men are going to do that kind of thing. Of course individual straight men are going to avoid it. But, on the average, is there a difference? Which bouncers work harder, on the average: the bouncers at bars frequented mostly by gay men, or the ones at bars frequented mostly by straight men?

Anyway, less specific, more elemental: I'm arguing that there are more differences between gay and straight men, and between gay and straight women, than the gender of their preferred partners, and I further argue that it is in these differences that the species advantage of having a proportion of homosexual members is to be found. What are your thoughts?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:28 PM on April 15, 2004


Me Which bouncers work harder, on the average: the bouncers at bars frequented mostly by gay men, or the ones at bars frequented mostly by straight men?
Thinking about it, cultural factors like social class and income are more important drivers of bar violence anyhow. So that's a dumb question.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:31 PM on April 15, 2004


I'm arguing that there are more differences between gay and straight men, and between gay and straight women, than the gender of their preferred partners, and I further argue that it is in these differences that the species advantage of having a proportion of homosexual members is to be found. What are your thoughts?
The question is which of those behaviors is learned, and which--if any--are innate, and not a temperamental inheritance from a parent, but a specifically gay or lesbian thing. (I think you'd probably not find any)
posted by amberglow at 8:35 PM on April 15, 2004


Flat Feet Pete, your friend's insight is astounding. if al franken can get published, shit, anything's game today
posted by shadow45 at 9:04 PM on April 15, 2004


For an ecologist, he feels awful comfortable writing a book on evolutionary theory :P
posted by abcde at 9:29 PM on April 15, 2004


This topic is very very complex. The group selection ideas are wrong. Gays aren't here to help society out, and we are not birth control. that is not how selection works.

The wolf pack analogy is wrong because wolf-pack-status is not genetic, you are not born a beta wolf. A beta wolf may well become alpha later, or maybe he has been alpha in the past. A gene for a beta wolf would not survive. A series of genes for this social system is ok, but all the wolves have the same series.

The like-cock gene is the best explanation, it may significatly increase a woman's fitness, and lower a man's only somewhat, which as they stated above are only half of the woman's kids anyway. It's almost certainly more complex than that though, 50% on twin studies is high, but that means there is still significant non-genetic causes for homosexuality. Maybe it's a group of 20 genes, and you have to have geneA, geneB and geneC, or instead of C maybe you have geneD and geneE with some hormone problem in utero, or maybe geneF and some environmental stimulus.

Who knows, it might be very very complex. It certainly doesn't spell the end of neodarwinism though. Worker bees die when they sting and are sterile, that seems like more of a problem for darwinism than gays. (it isn't a problem) but it's not as flashy as talking about the homos I guess, haha
posted by rhyax at 11:57 PM on April 15, 2004


aes: I'm referring to the 'sensitive gay friend' stereotype; again that's an outsider's view, filtered through fictional portrayals. (Though that's the same view we get of any group we're not part of, I may point out.)

I guess my view from limited experience is that gay men are not especially more emotionally aware. The whole "sensitive gay friend" appears to be more due to the fact that gay men don't treat their female friends as sex objects (at least not to their faces. Gay men can rival straight men for misogyny when no one is looking.)

Anyway, less specific, more elemental: I'm arguing that there are more differences between gay and straight men, and between gay and straight women, than the gender of their preferred partners, and I further argue that it is in these differences that the species advantage of having a proportion of homosexual members is to be found. What are your thoughts?

I think the entire starting point, that behavior X found in culture Y must be linked to direct Darwinian rationale Z is highly suspect to start with. For one thing, you are making a pretty whopping generalization from a handful of stereotypes about American gay culture to Homo sapiens at large. For one thing, one of the unique quirks about American culture is how romantic love has become the central goal of sexual relationships.

I'm a heretic, I don't believe that people are born "straight" or born "gay" any more than people are born speaking English.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:20 AM on April 16, 2004


I'm a heretic, I don't believe that people are born "straight" or born "gay" any more than people are born speaking English.

Um, that is not to say that genetics are not involved in sexual orientation. Only there is a heck of a lot that goes into gay and straight identities that appear to be unique to our modern culture. I was not born knowing how to have sex with men or women. I had to learn it through through experiences that ranged from lots of fun to lots of pain.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:44 AM on April 16, 2004


After reading through, like fifteen people use the long discredited theory of "group selection", without one person objecting, it was nice to finally see that one person here actually understands evolution.

I blame Creationists, who control the schools.
posted by dgaicun at 10:44 PM on April 16, 2004


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