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The Dawkins FAQ.
November 27, 2004 12:01 PM   Subscribe

The Dawkins FAQ. Interesting Q&A session about evolution, biology, genes, etc with an expert. Dawkins claims no final answer on the "gay gene" or a Darwinian explanation of homosexuality.
posted by skallas (56 comments total)

 
I would have thought Dawkins would have answered, "So as to enable a significant percentage of population to taunt fundy nutballs, and free me up to do the book tour and lecture circuit." He can't do all the heavy lifting by himself.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:15 PM on November 27, 2004


Whilst it is clear that there is no clear cut answer to this one (yet?): Is nuture!, no its nature!

I must say that I'm having real problems getting my head round Prof. Dawkins theory of the 'sneaky male' theory. Straight men go out and hunt and do manly things whilst gay men stay at home looking after the kids and having sex with the women.
So, all those sneaky gay men only pretending to be gay so that they can... oh, just a minute that doesnt make sense.....
posted by qwerty155 at 12:46 PM on November 27, 2004


It's not that crazy. Females make mating decisions either on a conscious or subconscious level, determining whether their kids will have a good chance at surviving.

A balance of mating is needed with men who do go off and fight for territory, go hunting, or whatever it is straight guys do, along with men who stay closer to home and help raise (protect) the children, so as to have that population range of offspring with the same characteristics.

Additionally, more non-straights means less maters and more competition among the mating pool.

It all comes down to what mix of features and numbers have made the human population as a whole survive long enough to do the whole mate-and-raise-kids thing all over again.

It's not so much sneaky gay guys so much as a mix of extremes with the middle-ground-skewed-to-straightness that has kept our population mix robust and healthy — it's why we're all here today.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:01 PM on November 27, 2004


The sneakiest males defeat the robust, healthy, alpha male by knocking off his cock- amamie Christmas display.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:26 PM on November 27, 2004


No! No! No! The best explanation of homosexuality from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, was put forward by English biologist Robin Baker in his astounding book, "Sperm Wars: the Science of Sex" What's brilliant about Baker's theory, is that homosexuality survives and the "gene" is passed down, because under some circumstances, homosexuality is a successful reproductive strategy. Everyone is assuming that the homosexual male is "sterile" in terms of passing down his genes. Baker begins with the (somewhat controversial) observation that women's reproductive systems evolved to accommodate multiple sexual partners, and sperm from two, three or more men at the same time. The sperm from different men (this has been observed), fight it out in the fallopian tubes, with a single man's semen containing differently functioning sperms, including blockers, runners, and self-sacrificers, rather like a roller derby team. In any case, in a competitive sperm environment, the homosexual frequently enjoys an advantage, that you'd actually have to read Baker's book to understand.
As I say, Baker's theory of competitive sperm is controversial, but the big important thing he contributes to the conversation is to take the persistence of homosexuality out of the realm of natural selection, and attribute it to sexual selection -- which is a whole different evolutionary arena (see peacock's tail).
posted by Faze at 1:27 PM on November 27, 2004


Dawkins:: As long as the (always implausible) social science orthodoxy was maintained that homosexual inclinations were entirely made, not born, there was little problem.
Bwah? The basic orthodoxy has for years attempted to factor out the various sources for human behavior, including genetic predispositions to certain kinds of behavior. Contrary to popular belief, neither Watson nor Skinner denied the existence of "nature." However the kind of "nature" arguments pushed forward by contemporary social darwinists were considered to be simplistic and not very useful.

The primary reason why social science has focused on environmental influences is because social science has not just been about describing why humans do what they do, but about improving the human condition. Educators don't have any control over the genetic heritage of their children, they can control how the environment is structured to maximize learning. City planners don't have any control over the genetic heritage of residents, but they do have control over geography, transportation, and tax rates within a city. Physicians and nurses don't have any control over the genetic heritage of their patients, but they can influence the morale and motivation of their patients. As a result, social science research has been more interested in what we can control, rather than what we can't.

I also think that the "gay gene" issue is a bit misleading. Genes for alcoholism do not program people to engage in college binge drinking for example.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:36 PM on November 27, 2004


Genes for alcoholism do not program people to engage in college binge drinking for example.

No, but statistically there is correlation, and scientific discussion about genes and behavior is about populations and not individuals.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:44 PM on November 27, 2004


AlexReynolds: No, but statistically there is correlation, and scientific discussion about genes and behavior is about populations and not individuals.

If only it were that simple. In actual effect, discussion about genetics and behavior is transformed into discussion about individuals. In the case of the "gay gene" quite a bit of political weight is being placed on homosexuality as an immutable characteristic. This is becoming the basis for personal identity politics, and ways of seing the world.

In fact, I think that part of the problem in regards to discussion of genetics is that the genetics that is taught at the HS and basic college level are the very simple Mendelian genetics that rarely looks at examples more complex than blood type. Quantitative genetics and complex gene-environment interactions is something most people are never exposed to.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:59 PM on November 27, 2004


Dawkins' greatest achievement has been to bring theories tying genetics and behavior out of the obscurity of academia and into mainstream discussion. Thanks for posting this link. I think that Dawkins and his ideas deserve the widest possible exposure.

I had the good fortune to meet him once, just after The Selfish Gene was published. I was studying ethology in grad school, and he was kind enough to answer a lot of dumb questions from a young student.
posted by wadefranklin at 2:08 PM on November 27, 2004


professor dawkins was once kind enough to answer one of my questions too...i asked him about how hiv/aids might evolve, and his response terrified and fascinated me.

he talked about how a parasite manages to eat just a tiny bit of an ant's brain, just enough to remove the ant's instinct to go underground, so the ant crawls to the top of a grass stem instead. sheep are more likely to eat ants at the top of grass stems than ants that are underground, so the parasite gets a free ride into the sheep, where it eventually lives and reproduces.

similarly, rabies inspires dogs to range far and wide and bite strangers, thereby spreading rabies more efficiently. malaria makes us sick enough to stay home, where mosquitos can more efficiently feast on us and transmit the sickness to other victims. common colds keep us well enough to go about in society, where our sneezes and coughs will transmit the cold to others.

in other words, viruses and parasites are great at evolving so that they can be spread more efficiently. he says that biologists have been waiting for years for an std to come coupled with a drive for promiscuity. can you imagine if hiv actively made us horny? we'd be screwed. and if a worm is slick enough to eat just a tiny bit of an ant's brain, just think about how easy it would be for a disease to control our behavior like that.

[shudder]
posted by equipoise at 2:13 PM on November 27, 2004


Is it just me or do a considerable subset of gay people tend toward a certain type of appearance? And not the kind you can cultivate, I mean facial structure wise. Philip Seymour Hoffman or Michael C. Hall both show have that as well, which is presumably part of why they've been cast in gay roles. Anyway, IMO it's too subtle to just be a stereotype, especially since it's not even that feminine.
posted by abcde at 2:38 PM on November 27, 2004


There are a lot of ways to look at this. If you look at human sexuality and identity there's a whole slew of issues ranging from transsexualism to homosexualism. There may not necessarilly be an evolutionary backdrop to explain the behavior. The best explanation could be that evolution "just works well enough" and "wiring issues" like having the wrong genes in the wrong gender is part of the DNA soup we're part of.

Evolution explains many macro issues like how species act, live, breed, etc but when it comes to micro issues it may be best to recognize that animals (humans included of course) just barely get by and if their biological anomolies aren't too big of an issue they will continue to travel within the gene pool. No need for overly convuluted theories about how eventually homosexuality "helps" the group anymore than you need theories on how the appendix helps the human.

Sure, its biological origins are interesting to figure out, but there may not be much to figure out. The crapshoot that is making babies isn't that great of a mechanism and produces all sorts of anomolies, many of which have no purpose. Like, say, down's syndrome. I guess this could be called the pathological way of looking at this.
posted by skallas at 2:48 PM on November 27, 2004


equipoise - I don't think it would really be that easy for a disease organism that could control our behavior to evolve. For one thing, our brains are far more complex than those of ants. And as Dawkins explains so well in The Blind Watchmaker, such an effect can only come about by a very unlikely chance combination or mutation of genes. It's possible, and maybe even probable over a great span of time, but not in the short run. Of course, as the human population increases, so do the populations of our parasites, and the greater the population, the more chance combinations occur...
posted by wadefranklin at 2:49 PM on November 27, 2004


wadefranklin--i'm just relating what he said, not posing it as my own theory. perhaps i've mangled some terms in the retelling, but i think i got the basic concepts right.

as i understand it, these chance mutations happen all the time. dawkins has taken considerable pains to show how often they occur, and how quickly they can affect evolution. there have been a variety of stds throughout human history, and one would think that--given the huge pool of viruses and hosts--such a mutation might occur. in fact, he said, the folks who study these things are surprised that it hasn't occurred already (as far as we know). as you noted, the number of chance combinations is only increasing.

if the mutation ever does manifest, it will probably be extremely successful; natural selection will select for the virus with that mutation rather quickly. this is true for any std, not just aids, but the deadliness of aids and its long incubation period would make it the scariest std when coupled with horniness. its incubation period already makes it an efficient killer--if people keeled over immediately after contracting the disease, they wouldn't have much time to pass it along, and it would die off pretty quickly.

anyway, i certainly hope you're right about it being difficult to control our behavior! it's comforting that no real aphrodisiac has been discovered/manufactured yet....if we can't do it, maybe hiv can't either. but i'm pretty impressed with a worm that can chomp just one tiny part of an ant's brain, no matter how simplistic that brain might be. how much more difficult would it be to chomp through some of the crude controls on our sexuality?
posted by equipoise at 3:04 PM on November 27, 2004


It’s misleading to think of organisms as being clever, or "good at" something. That's partly why fundies don't understand evolution. Might as well think of a puddle being clever enough to lie down in just the right quantity and shape for the hole in the road.

When you don’t see the failures, the survivors look “clever”.

Even "clever" human behaviour can be a misnomer. You can hear the difference between a penny and a dime hitting the floor because, long before money, your ancestors' lives depended upon that level of auditory discrimination.

Deadly horny viruses may have existed, but only long enough to kill off their hosts. Long-term survivors are finely balanced with their predators and hosts, just like our social systems. If most people did their jobs perfectly, billions of people would be out of work. Police need crooks. God knows Bush needs war. We’re all parasites.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:12 PM on November 27, 2004


I agree with wadefranklin's first comment: the greater the exposure to Dawkins's ideas, the better, even if he does sometimes run into brick walls of self-contradiction or not-totally-sensible answers.

He's a really interesting and important thinker, partly because of his missteps, I think. What I mean is that, in books such as THE BLIND WATCHMAKER and CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE, Dawkins comes dangerously close to pedantry, restating his point so many times that he seems to be talking down to his audience. That said, the point clearly needs to be made, if
37% of Americans don't want "evolutionism" to be taught in school.


And then there's his concept of "Brights," , to which, I guess, I belong, as I agree with its precepts, but which also does a terrific job of alienating non-believers with its smarter-than-thou approach, as discussed quite intelligently here.

Actually, I think Dawkins is often intentionally controversial, so that his ideas, and debates about them, may be disseminated more widely. For this, he should be commended. He is, himself, a master of the meme.

skallas, thank you for the link.

abcde: I think you might be talking out of your ass.
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:30 PM on November 27, 2004


weapons-grade, i know these viruses aren't "clever," but they can do something that i find impressive. i can admire a rose even though the rose isn't "clever" for having produced such a lovely scent and design, right? call the viruses efficient, if you'd prefer.

your point about deadly horny viruses killing off their hosts is exactly the point. maybe such a virus would be so "successful" that we'd all fuck ourselves to death, and then the virus would die too. but, uh, that would suck.

and i'm gonna have to agree with dr. wu: abcde, you think gay men have similar facial structures? no way. sure would make cruising easier, though!
posted by equipoise at 3:49 PM on November 27, 2004


If only it were that simple. In actual effect, discussion about genetics and behavior is transformed into discussion about individuals. In the case of the "gay gene" quite a bit of political weight is being placed on homosexuality as an immutable characteristic. This is becoming the basis for personal identity politics, and ways of seing the world.

My point was that scientists don't look at individuals but populations, by necessity. Individuals are subject to too much randomness to draw much signal or meaning from studying them. Sufficiently large sample sizes with clearly defined groups are part of good methodology. In the case of alcoholism, there is a significant correlation between genetic inheritance and anxiety-related behaviors, including alcoholism. Other studies show that drinking can change the brain in similar ways. The genetic component can alter brain development in such a way as to influence future behavior, but it doesn't guarantee that you have to drink.

There are studies that show correlation between sexual behavior, endocrine levels and brain development, also genetically influenced. Other linkage studies have focused in on an X chromosome gene Xq28, which many studies support, but a few dispute. Its a young science, and plenty of time for pop behaviorists to write bestsellers on the subject.
posted by AlexReynolds at 3:51 PM on November 27, 2004


Faze, the Baker & Bellis research to which you refer (which is over a decade old at this point) has been largely discredited by scientists in the field (a member of the duo-- I forget whether it's Baker or Bellis-- has even renounced his involvement in the theories). If you actually look at their data, it was often taken from extremely small sample sizes (one study was blatently just Baker and Bellis recording their own semen output) and anecdotal evidence from horses. The idea that there are different types of sperm has been wholly debunked. Besides, what's the advantage of having a type of "homosexual sperm" that's especially good at fertilizing eggs if the person they reside in only wants to mate with eggless individuals? As others have pointed out on this thread, the sneaky male hypothesis-- while realistic for fish, perhaps-- is not relevant to human homosexuality.

A plausible alternative has already been discussed on mefi. This theory-- that a gene could aid fertility when posessed by females, but lead to homosexuality when coupled with an XY genotype-- is not that new, but recent evidence has emerged in favor of it.

Also, if I can chime in on the facility with which viruses and parasites can rewire the human brain: there are all sorts of ways in which pathogens make us more likely to pass them to others. Some are behavioral but not strictly neural (e.g. the flu making you sneeze), but others target the nervous system directly. To take two common examples, Ebola induces spasms which cause contagious fluids to be splattered everywhere, and rabies leads one into an aggressive frenzy, thus making one more likely to bite and infect passersby.
posted by mowglisambo at 3:54 PM on November 27, 2004


Good article, skallas, thanks for the link.

Personally, I always subscribed to the "sterile worker" theory. The idea that whilst homosexual men may not themselves pass on genes, their relatives (cousins, siblings, nephews and nieces) will. Therefore, the added bonus of having men around who don't go out hunting, or don't take up a mate ("spare men", to put it crudely) will provide added protection for the young. They will also presumably provide education and general support for the rest of the group.

Of course, not being a biologist, i don't fully understand what's going on, but this seems a pretty clever idea.

Talking about evolution and natural selection is *definitely* a good idea. Understanding Darwin's theories puts a whole new perspective on many every-day things, and is so fundamentally crucial to our existence that it *must* be taught.

(And gay men looking different? On which planet?)
posted by iso_bars at 3:55 PM on November 27, 2004


It's worth remembering in all this that natural selection is itself something of a misnomer. The process is actually more akin to natural rejection. Selection is passive, for the "not unfit", as defined by reproductive success. Over time, of course, at the population level, this can result in some slightly more adaptive traits becoming dominant, but it also allows for a wide range of mediocrities to continue, some of which form the variational basis for further selection/rejection under changing circumstances. Keeping this front and centre helps guard against the sorts of "purposive" evolutionary ascriptions that Dawkins correctly criticizes, many of which are a kind of naive voluntism.
posted by Rumple at 4:08 PM on November 27, 2004


Dawkins should be mandatory reading.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:42 PM on November 27, 2004


The sperm from different men (this has been observed), fight it out in the fallopian tubes, with a single man's semen containing differently functioning sperms, including blockers, runners, and self-sacrificers, rather like a roller derby team.

Now there's a reality tv show worth watching...
posted by rushmc at 4:58 PM on November 27, 2004


equipoise: OK, lets take the rose. The rose is a very old plant, but the new varieties exist because of human cultivation. There's nothing objectively "impressive" about the smell of a rose. If that asteroid hadn't hit the earth, and intelligent dinosaurs ruled, they might cultivate skunk cabbages or amorphophallus titanum, and think, "How efficient, how clever!" and the rose wouldn't be clever at all; it might be dead. We see everything from our point of view, and think, how wonderful, or how icky!

rushmc: or a video game--pinball, maybe.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:09 PM on November 27, 2004


wgp--we're saying the same thing here. i wrote that *i* admire the scent of a rose. *i* think a worm that eats a tiny part of an ant brain is neat. yes, that's my point of view. that's all.

fff--i agree about dawkins being mandatory reading. let's put stickers touting his theories in bibles, which many of us have to read in school. "remember to analyze this story of the world's creation with a critical eye. it hasn't been proven, and professor dawkins says..."
posted by equipoise at 5:16 PM on November 27, 2004


Dawkins is great. I think as he's got older, his certainty has looked more and more like arrogance (understandable, I'm sure most people would get a bit grumpy when they had to explain something for the thousandth time). This may be a barrier to some people fully accepting what he says, which is a shame, but for the true believer (*genuflects, makes burnt offering*) it can be great fun.


My own favoured explanation for the genetic portion of predisposition to homosexuality is one that hasn't been fully mentioned yet - similar to both the 'sterile worker' and 'sneaky male' theories, but somewhat simpler. Put crudely, it's that in complex social animals, the normal characteristics of the alpha male are not necessarily the best strategy for maximising the number of offspring which survive to breeding age. As such, genes for a wide range of more 'feminised' behaviours (in the broadest sense - non-aggressive, nurturing, close peer bonding, etc.) may be selected for, and each of those genes would increase in frequency within the population. A predisposition to homosexual tendencies may simply be a result of the combination of a few too many (as it were) of those genes.

Possibly I prefer this theory because it clearly places sexual behaviour on a spectrum of sexual preference (it's like a non-sneaky version of the sneaky male), as opposed to sterile worker-type theories which seem to come with an either/or assumption built into them.

It does have the downside, however, of suggesting that metrosexuals are the high-point of human evolution. Dang.


Now there's a reality tv show worth watching...

Funny you should mention that. (I used to work for Endemol, and the branch of the company which proposed that idea was like the embarassing uncle who'd always drink to much at parties and get his willy out.)
posted by flashboy at 6:26 PM on November 27, 2004


Personally, I think there are very few strictly homosexual and heterosexual people. I think the normal human sexuality is omnisexual, and that it's only because of social conventions that we don't run about fucking anything that moves, and some stuff that doesn't.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:34 PM on November 27, 2004


Brian Dawkins, much like Noam Chomsky, is one of those figures regarding whom we believe prominence implies correctness. And similar to Chomsky, while his theories continue to hold sway in the world of popular or lay science, many serious researchers in both their respective fields (evolutionary genetics and linguistics, respectively) have long since discarded the theories of both men. While I'm so used to Dawkins-worship that it doesn't really phase me any more, bear in mind that his celebrity and relevance outside the world of serious academic biology and psychology far outshine his prominence inside.

On preview: for the true believer (*genuflects, makes burnt offering*) it can be great fun.

I had to smile when I read that. Some day soon a great holy war will erupt in genetics labs across the country, and the beakers will run red with the blood of the un-believers.
posted by ChasFile at 6:35 PM on November 27, 2004


I'm an idiot. I said Brian Dawkins (DB - Phi) when of course I meant Richard Dawkins. Shows you where my head is at right now, the night before Brian's crucial intra-divisional match-up tommorow.
posted by ChasFile at 6:41 PM on November 27, 2004


The irony, of course, is that Brian Dawkins (like most of the Philadelphia Eagles) is a hardline supporter of Punctuated Equilibrium.
posted by flashboy at 6:44 PM on November 27, 2004


Also, prominence was probably a poorly chosen word. He is after all, perhaps the single most prominent figure in the field. Let's say that the adulation he typically enjoys from the lay scientific crowd far outstrips that he recieves within the field, where he and his theories at best remain controversial.

I'm told, flashboy, that Donovan McNabb is a recalcitrant postpositivist, flatly rejecting the notion that empericism can ever provide ipso facto insight divorced from subjective experience, viz. culture. He also love's his mom's Campbell's Soup.
posted by ChasFile at 6:53 PM on November 27, 2004


his celebrity and relevance outside the world of serious academic biology and psychology far outshine his prominence inside

That's because he is blowing their cover as sneaky reproducing scientists...
posted by srboisvert at 6:54 PM on November 27, 2004


As a card carrying evolutionary biologist and bisexual who (as Kevin Smith put it) "loves the cock" and plans on breeding....what the hell is it with folks that think people are either "gay" or "straight"?
I'm sure that there are people out there that are Kinsey 1's and Kinsey 6's...but do they really form a statistically significant portion of the population? And do they really stick to that through all their reproductive years?

I'm a fan of Carol Queen (and others) notion of PoMo Sexuality. PoMo Sexuality, in a nutshell, is a Post Modern notion of sexuality in which context and situation is intrisic in the construction of identity. So you may have a woman who grows up, gets married, has 2 kids, meets a woman who rocks her world and decides to get a divorce, settle down with this woman and becomes a happy couple with her. Is this woman Gay? Is she bisexual? Was she straight and now Gay? Does the fact that she had children have anything to do with it? This is what happened to my doctor..she was happily married for awhile and considered herself straight. Things went sour. Now she is with a woman that she loves deeply and is forging a new life with. She now runs in "gay" circles socially because they are more accepting and she mostly identifies as a lesbian.

When biologists (and I count Dawkins as one of my personal heroes) start talking about "gay" people, it makes me think of meteorologists who talk about it being "partly cloudy with a chance of rain". Which is not to say that there aren't people that are Gay with a capital G, but biologists have a tendency to use the term in the sense that they say that "this is a Labrador and this is an Irish Setter" when really its just a playful pile of puppies whose heredity is pretty much unknowable.

So how does this fit in to the notion of a Gay Gene? Of homosexuals contributing to the fitness of the next generation? I think it comes down to sexuality (reproductively) being a set of acts rather than an orientation. Sexuality as an orientation is very very important. However, when it comes to reproduction, sexuality comes down to at most a few individual interactions. And if you add in an extended notion of sexual selection that includes a reproductive fitness for individuals that contribute to the success of an offsping that they are related to but not direct parent of, it seems that the notion of a Gay Gene is doomed due to the lack of data. You could have same sex interactions hundreds of times, have an opposite sex interaction once that leads to an offspring, and still be considered "straight" from an evolutionary perspective.

I personally think that there is a genetic component to sexuality...things like androgen release during development and the subsequent primary/secondary sexual characteristics argue for it. That being said, I don't think we will be able to really tease out inter-relationships between genetics and social dynamics until everyone sees gender and sexual orientation as a fluid dynamic with both genetic and social components.
posted by afflatus at 7:03 PM on November 27, 2004


Chasfile: I'm curious about your statements that seem to imply that Dawkins is outdated within the serious academic realm. His primary theories are considered the strongest defense of Darwinism yet produced and Darwinism can hardly be considered a passing fancy. The fundamental notion of the Selfish Gene is that natural selection based on descent with modification and differential survival is a universal principle, rather than an attribute of a specific biological system (i.e. genes). I've yet to see a serious study that shows that that opinion is mistaken...care to provide one?
posted by afflatus at 7:19 PM on November 27, 2004


Well, as I was saying the other day to Eagles running back Reno Mahe (a paleogeneticist by training, and a Popperian in the tradition of Medawar), Dawkins has for some time now been a generalist, and has claimed to be little other. As such, I think his recent public writings on evolution are relatively uncontroversial. It is, perhaps, a shame than many other scientists picked up the meme thing and ran with it, often in the wrong direction. Reno pointed out that Dawkins often demurred when asked about the wilder end of 'memetics' and evolutionary psychology, suggesting that it perhaps works better as a conceptual tool than as a practical theory of the mind.

However, as Mr. Mahe has of late been somewhat distracted by a cladistic dispute over the precise nature of H. heidelbergensis, and as such is not familiar with the latest literature, he was wondering what other theories promoted by Dawkins are now regarded poorly? We were both under the impression, for example, that the central point about selection operating on the genetic level was still the only reasonable position to hold.
posted by flashboy at 7:52 PM on November 27, 2004


I'll say it again: humans are omnisexual.

If you've used the web for more than email... actually, come to think of it, probably especially if you use email, you've seen the proof:

People have sex with ANYTHING. From cucumbers to sheep, anything that can be shagged is shagged.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:10 PM on November 27, 2004


equipoise,
Your ant brain comment reminded me of a short story I read once. It was about a virus that made people altruistic. Altruistic people are much more likely to donate blood, and that's how it actually spread. Good story. I wish I could remember who wrote it or what it was called.
posted by Vulpyne at 8:10 PM on November 27, 2004


Flashboy: my reading of Dawkins would not indicate that he believed that selection operates on the genetic levels as genes do not reproduce...individuals do. So genetic selection still operates at the level of individuals....Dawkin's point was that genes success/failure was a conflict at a smaller scale and their success depends on the individuals in which they reside being succesful at the passing on of those genes. So selection is still acting upon the individual, upon the phenotype, but the success of that phenotype is determined by the evolution of cooperation and antagonism of the genes (or rather alleles) in the individuals in question.
posted by afflatus at 8:13 PM on November 27, 2004


abcde: Is it just me or do a considerable subset of gay people tend toward a certain type of appearance? And not the kind you can cultivate, I mean facial structure wise. Philip Seymour Hoffman or Michael C. Hall both show have that as well, which is presumably part of why they've been cast in gay roles. Anyway, IMO it's too subtle to just be a stereotype, especially since it's not even that feminine.

Actually, it is a stereotype, and one that has drawn some criticism from gays and lesbians.

skalas: Evolution explains many macro issues like how species act, live, breed, etc but when it comes to micro issues it may be best to recognize that animals (humans included of course) just barely get by and if their biological anomolies aren't too big of an issue they will continue to travel within the gene pool. No need for overly convuluted theories about how eventually homosexuality "helps" the group anymore than you need theories on how the appendix helps the human.

Well, there are a couple of different layers at work including environment and culture. One of the things that I think Dawkins nails is that we should treat arguments for the evolution of a behavioral trait that make assumptions regarding paleolithic culture with a fairly high degree of skepticism. A large part of contemporary homosexuality is constructed, no matter how antiquidated or "politically correct" we might consider looking at cultural histories. Much of these arguments seem to be based around some pretty ethnocentric assumptions that homosexuality is constructed and expressed the same way everywhere. I know that from what I've heard from gays from Arabic and Latin American cultures, that is not a safe assumption.

AlexReynolds: My point was that scientists don't look at individuals but populations, by necessity. Individuals are subject to too much randomness to draw much signal or meaning from studying them.

Of course, and my point is that once we say "trait X is influenced by gene Y" then we open up a whole can of worms in terms of politics, identity and ethics. As a practical example, should people with a family history of a genetic disease be tested for a marker for that disease. The answer to this question is not always simple.

flashboy: It is, perhaps, a shame than many other scientists picked up the meme thing and ran with it, often in the wrong direction. Reno pointed out that Dawkins often demurred when asked about the wilder end of 'memetics' and evolutionary psychology, suggesting that it perhaps works better as a conceptual tool than as a practical theory of the mind.

Which I would argue is a good thing. I have a strong personal dislike for memetics because while evolutionary biology can be phrased in terms of information theory, it does not mean that all types of information are well described by the same kinds of tools used for evolutionary biology. Dawkins is great within his domain, and overrated when he steps out into other domains.

Since this seems to be a topic for proposing genetic theories of homosexuality (and interesting that these theories seem to focus on homosexual men!) another model might be "more of a good thing." Some level of same-sex affection is necessary to get along in cultural groups after all.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:31 PM on November 27, 2004


equipoise: if you found that interesting, I highly recommend you run, don't walk, and buy Paul Ewald's Evolution of Infectious Diseases.

Essentially, Ewald demolishes the old dogma that pathogens necessarily evolve towards benignity. He shows that virulence tends to vary with the transmission vector (specifically, an external vector not relying on the infected organism's mobility allows the pathogen to increase in virulence without penalty). He also argues that sudden appearances of virulent pathogens is not necessarily the result of species-jumping, as is normally supposed, but rather an environmental change that encourages a pathogen's evolution toward virulence. (It should be noted to those unaware that bacteria, for example, evolve very quickly and can substantially evolve even within the lifetime of colonization of a single host.)

He spends a lot of time in the book looking at HIV from this perspective and argues that HIV was a relatively localized and relatively benign pathogen until recently. He makes a good case, but, alas, time has proven him quite wrong on this matter.

waderfranklin: there are a number of parasites/pathogens that affect brain function of mammals, causing, for example, the desire to eat dirt (geophagy). That's probably not so hard since we're apparently wired for that urge anyway to correct serious mineral malnutrition. Something like sexual desire is so basic that I can't imagine that it would be "difficult" for a pathogen to influence it.

The thing about STDs, though, that people always forget is that the only reason they are STDs is because they are relatively fragile pathogens that need a very specific environment to be transmitted. For most of them, I would think, a far more likely and successful mutation would merely be greater hardiness such that they no longer require sexual contact for transmission.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:49 PM on November 27, 2004


The sex life of the average paleolith was probably reduced to nocturnal group huddling and snuggling with a bit of groping, when it wasn't outright capture and rape. It seems the potential to be anything other than some primitive version of the humping dog would have to wait for culture.

Is it just me or do a considerable subset of gay people tend toward a certain type of appearance?

Have you ever heard of gaydar?

Check out the story of Silva Tomkins and the Kukukuku
posted by svenvog at 9:00 PM on November 27, 2004


My best friend, whose persona is not stereotypically gay in any sense, really, and who sympathizes with my impatience with stereotypical gay personalities such as the ultra-feminine variety, offered this explanation: "We don't really have role models. Our society offers straight male and straight female role models; is it a surprise that many/most gays adopt a variant of one of these two?"
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:14 PM on November 27, 2004


afflatus: that selection operates on the level of the gene is one of the basic premises of sociobiology, and it's absolutely what Dawkins' point in The Selfish Gene was. The individual organism may be the victim of natural rejection, as Rumple pleasingly put it earlier, but selection is reserved for the genes alone.

Having googled aimlessly for a while, I suspect that the what ChasFile was talking about (in terms of Dawkins being not so well regarded) was a resurgence in multi-level selection as a concept. Hmmm. I think it's poo, myself, but maybe that's why nobody pays me to do evolutionary biology.


another model might be "more of a good thing." Some level of same-sex affection is necessary to get along in cultural groups after all.

KirkJobSluder, I think that might be termed the "Oh Sam Oh Mr Frodo Hypothesis" (hey, there's another reason why I'm not an evolutionary biologist). But yes, it seems very plausible. Amongst bonobos, the homosexual activity has clear social benefits, and apparently social motivations; perhaps sexual desire was simply a useful pre-existing drive, co-opted to encourage evolutionarily beneficial homosocial bonding. Many animals display homosexual behaviour, but it there is little or no long-term bonding that accompanies it (which is why some people reject the notion that it is 'true' homosexuality). But as social complexity increases over time, if such behaviour helps to reinforce selectively advantageous social co-operation, why wouldn't it be selected for? This has the benefit of explaining lesbians as well...
posted by flashboy at 9:27 PM on November 27, 2004


Don't mean to initiate a lovefest or anything, but: thank you to everyone for keeping this conversation very intelligent and interesting.
This thread is a really good and informative read.

peace out,
Dr. Wu
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:32 PM on November 27, 2004


George Williams's book (which I recently recommended here, didn't I?), published in, um, '66 and marks the beginning of contemporary evolutionary theory, was a broad attack on group selection theory and the like. But he said then, and later, that he wasn't claiming that selection never could be a factor at these levels, just that there's rarely any reason to assume it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:43 PM on November 27, 2004


Never mind evolutionary explanations -- I want to hear GOD explain what he was thinking when He invented gays.
posted by QuietDesperation at 9:55 PM on November 27, 2004


sounds like an interesting story, vulpyne. let me know if you think of the name.

and thanks for the reading recommendation, ethereal. i must admit that i knew professor dawkins before i knew his theories, and now i'm a big fangirl of both....but i have some reading to do before i can claim to know much about this topic.
posted by equipoise at 9:56 PM on November 27, 2004


I knew someone, went to school with her and had some friends in common (okay, also I had a crush on her) that spent a year at Oxford, had Dawkins for a tutorial and also regularly had tea with he and his wife. She liked him a lot. However, the last I heard, and this was six years ago, she had some strong antipathy to "memetics" and was preparing some kind of attack on it. Don't know the details.

If only Dawkins had either left that chapter from the book or qualified his thoughts more thoroughly.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:01 PM on November 27, 2004


Another theory I've heard, that hasn't been brought up in the thread yet, is that exclusively homosexual members of a population start being born in increasing proportions as a natural countermeasure to overpopulation. Has this been thoroughly debunked?
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:59 PM on November 27, 2004


Faint: To me that smacks of the common misconception that evolution "knows what it's doing", so to speak. Since there's no actual genetic information being transmitted between people aside from parent to child, there's no way for the human genome as a whole to make informed decisions like that.

Bligh, or whoever: why is meme theory the object of so much scorn, anyhow? It always struck me as an excellent illustration of the universality of the principle of natural selection...
posted by squidlarkin at 12:45 AM on November 28, 2004


squidlarkin: I suppose my view is that the whole meme thing is very provocative and interesting and valuable as such; but it is so far from being even remotely rigorous that dealing with it seriously is, well, laughable. It's far too much like late-night undergrad philosophy rap, you know? The people that have and are most likely to run with it are the folks that prefer to work in areas where everything is so speculative that bullshitting is pretty much all there is. And the people that work in areas that brush right up against (and occasionally stray into) bullshit territory are eager to not be guilty by association.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:31 AM on November 28, 2004


why is meme theory the object of so much scorn, anyhow? It always struck me as an excellent illustration of the universality of the principle of natural selection...

Memes are too vague a concept. I mean, what is a meme, once you get past the "its information that reproduces" part. Makes it difficult to study (and get grant money for), but easy and fun to argue about at faculty cocktail parties.
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:37 AM on November 28, 2004


Faint: To me that smacks of the common misconception that evolution "knows what it's doing", so to speak. Since there's no actual genetic information being transmitted between people aside from parent to child, there's no way for the human genome as a whole to make informed decisions like that.

If there's overpopulation, pregnant mothers might provide less resources to a developing fetus, which might trigger development in a certain way as to increase the numbers of non-reproducing offspring. Its not evolution knowing what its doing, so much as a theoretical feedback mechanism keeping populations in check. I don't know how much progress has been made on this theory.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:15 AM on November 28, 2004


squidlarkin: Bligh, or whoever: why is meme theory the object of so much scorn, anyhow? It always struck me as an excellent illustration of the universality of the principle of natural selection...

Which is the basic point. Natural selection is not a universal process, it is a process that works if we place some constraints on the information existing within the system. Some of those constraints include:

Low modification rate: Evolution works when major functional modifications are relatively rare. In contrast, current research in the nature of knowledge and ideas suggests that concepts, ideas and procedures are recreated and modified every time they are used. (Research by Loftus is particularly provocative in this case.)

"Meaning" is independent from context: The genetic code is pretty much unambiguous. A "word" of three nucleic acids produce one amino acid. The same protein is produced if the gene is transfered from a human to a bacterium or a yeast cell. In contrast, the meaning of a concept depends a great deal on what other concepts are currently considered to be important. A person asked to evaluate a house for security risks is going to have a radically different interpretation of the concept "window" as a person asked to evaluate a house as a potential buyer. (Going back to the 1960s and work by Piaget.)

Modifications are random: This is a key point. Overall, evolution assumes that the modification of genes is statistically random. However, modification of ideas is non-random. Every time we "remember" or apply an idea to a situation, that idea is modified to fit the context. Genes are Darwinian, ideas are Lamarckian.

But another reason why memetics hasn't caught on has to do with problems of presentation. Michael Benton has an interesting comment in When Life Nearly Died that there is a tendency for people in the "harder" sciences to wade into the "softer" sciences assuming because they come from a different discipline that they have a better approach. Almost always, the proposed "hard" theory fails to take into account some critical facts that are well known by the "soft" scientists. Alvarez's theory about the K-T boundary was the exception to the rule, Benton documents 100 bad theories as to why the dinosaurs died. Most were proposed by people with very little understanding of paleobiology and the event they were trying to explain.

Likewise memetics has been pulled into a discipline where there are already some darn good theories. Roger's Diffusion of Innovations for example takes social status and tradition into account in a way that memetics fails.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:22 AM on November 28, 2004


On the topic of parasites, mind-altering or not, I can highly recommend Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer. Zimmer hints at some very interesting things about the brains of those with Toxoplasma cysts.

Oh, and I, too, doubt that there are many Kinsey 1s or 6s.

[this is interesting]
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:47 PM on November 28, 2004


afflatus, I agree with your comments about most people falling in between on a Kinsey scale, rather than at one end or the other. It seems that most traits (non-physical, anyway) seem to follow a normal curve, whether you mean sexuality or intelligence or shortness of temper or any of those other myriad "mental" traits that humans have. Classifying them as "psychological" implies a greater degree of control over some of them than is likely possible, but to ignore the effects of upbringing and culture feels shortsighted.

I'm betting the best we'll ever do about a "gay gene" is establish a predisposition whose ultimate degree of expression is shaped by post-conception influences.

I think there have been some studies involving rats where overpopulation correlated with increased incidences of homosexual behavior, but given that homosexuality has been observed in populations whether they have too many members or not this doesn't provide a whole explanation.
posted by schroedinger at 3:45 PM on November 28, 2004


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