Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Explaining the Gay: A Swing and a Miss!

How does the "gay gene" survive over the generations?

Everybody seems to be scratching their heads about homosexuals these days. For evolutionary theorists, the question is: Why? If homosexuality (at least male homosexuality) is largely heritable, as seems to be pretty well documented, how does the "gay gene" persist in human populations over evolutionary time? If gay men – pretty much by definition – take themselves out of the gene pool, why are their genes still in there splashing around?

The currently dominant theory turns on self-interest, as is the case with most current evolutionary thinking. Gay men, the theory posits, will be much more nurturing of their nieces and nephews than would heterosexual men (who would, after all, have their own kids to worry about). Thus, in increasing the reproductive potential of their nieces and nephews (by helping more of them survive to adulthood), a fraction of the man's DNA is carried forward to future generations.

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To my way of thinking, this theory seems to be bending over backward to account for something that really needs no explanation. Human sexuality in pre-agricultural societies was likely to have been more about maintaining relationships than about basic reproduction itself. Don’t believe me? E. O. Wilson, the founding thinker of what’s come to be known as evolutionary psychology, wrote that homosexuality is “above all a form of bonding,” and that, like “the greater part of heterosexual behavior,” homosexuality is “a device that cements relationships” (1978, p. 144). This notion that human sexuality evolved to be more about establishing and maintaining relationships than just reproduction is something we explore in depth in Sex at Dawn.

I’ve just read a news release concerning a new paper that takes what seems a promising approach to investigating the issue. Canadian evolutionary psychologists flew off to Samoa to observe the behavior of gay Samoan men. Aside from the obvious attractions of the South Pacific for shivering Canadian researchers, Samoan society includes a third gender category in addition to male and female. Fa’afafine (neither man nor woman) tend to be effeminate men who are attracted just to adult men. This isn’t nearly as unusual as it probably sounds to most readers. Many North American Indian societies had a similar gender category. (If memory serves, Dustin Hoffman even marries one in Little Big Man).

According to the news release (the actual paper hasn’t yet been released) the researchers confirmed that the fa’afafine were more likely to report (on a questionnaire) willingness to help out with their nieces and nephews than with other, unrelated kids. The take-away is that this lends “strong support to the kin selection idea.”

I don’t think so. To me, this seems to confirm nothing more than that we’re more likely to help someone we know and love than an imagined stranger. If I ask you about your nieces and nephews, you picture actual people you’ve spent time with. If I ask you about “other, unrelated kids” you picture . . . who?

In prehistoric bands, everyone’s kids would have been familiar and very likely related to you on some level. In contemporary foragers, shared names, clan membership, and simple friendship are often more important social bonds than blood lineage – a concept to which we attach especial attention only because we’re obsessed with property rights. As we argue in our book, social bonds are different in societies not oriented toward getting and holding onto material wealth (which are more than ninety-five percent of all human societies that have existed).

Given that most people know very little about prehistory, it’s almost impossible for them to understand how radically the underlying fabric of human societies has changed in the past few millennia. Really understanding these deep roots of human nature requires not just familiarity with new information, but learning a different way to think about this information. This can be difficult, but it's essential to understanding where we are today and how we came to be here.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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