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The binary fallacy of evolutionary sexual preference

March 23, 2011


To make an obvious, self-evident, and specious observation: If homophobia has an adaptive evolutionary benefit, then it certainly hasn’t been successful. I mean, teh gays, they’re still everywhere!

Jesse Bering, evolutionary psychologist & often entertaining explorer of salacious human behavioral marginalia, has found some actual science in the form of a 1993 study by research psychologist Gordon Gallup that Bering feels passes the smell test in placing the cultural norm of homophobia within the explanatory framework of evolutionary psychology.

So far, so good, in theory. Human behavioral norms are certainly deeply embedded in our genetic coding. Evolutionary psychology is an attempt to tease out these threads and account for their fitness as benefits the survival of the species. Yay for science!

But science has its own norms, and as Jeremy Yoder, Jon Wilkins, and P. Z. Meyers (all of whom, as opposed to me, are actually real live scientists) have written, there are many legitimate questions to raise about the scientific veracity of the Gallup study that Bering has championed.

I’m gonna defer to their tingling spidey-science sense, but I’ve got some serious tingling of my own going on about what appears to be foundational assumptions in Gallup’s whole approach to gay/anti-gay social studies — the notion of sex preference as dual-state.

This passage from Bering’s recent interview with Gordon Gallup reveals a decidedly un-nuanced view of sexual desire:

GALLUP: Now, what about homosexuality? For most of human evolutionary history, exclusive homosexuality would have been tantamount to a ticket to reproductive oblivion. Even today, adult male homosexuals who also engage in heterosexual intercourse are the exception rather than the rule. If homosexuality were only heritable, it would have disappeared long ago. In the context of our discussion of homophobia, what would have been the fate in future generations of genes being carried by parents who went out of their way to encourage and engineer homosexual lifestyles among their children? Enough said? Not quite. What causes homosexuality? Heterosexuality does, both literally and figuratively. Unless you’ve been conceived through artificial means, everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, owes their very existence to the heterosexual activity of their parents.

Homosexuals who also engage in heterosexual intercourse,” huh? This must be kin to the “one drop rule” of race. At the risk of shrinking reader boners with economic terms, human sexuality is fungible, not zero-sum; like, well, just about any other damn interest humans feel compelled to pursue.

The distinct cast molds imposed by a culture can obscure this diversity with the result that more marginal behavioral norms get suppressed, hidden, or glossed over among those who can adjust to the constraints. Among those who can’t, or won’t, the expression of the non-normative behavior is that much more of an outlier. And so we are left with a false binary impression of a common behavioral norm on one side, an smaller opposite ab-norm on the other, and little lunch meat in the middle. This allows us to use (or read) phrases like “homosexuals who engage in heterosexual sex” without blink or challenge.

When we talk about the cultural conditioning of sexual preference, that’s where the beef of the beast is. Just as those conservative cultural crusaders love to warn, so-called “gay culture” does indeed influence an individual choice about how comfortable one feels expressing non-heteronormative sexual preference. This is the way cultural identity works. Just as exposure to vibrant alternatives to politics, fashion, music, can deeply influence profound decisions about what square or hipster tribes we join up with.

Talking about being gay or straight as regards sexual behavior is about as valuable as talking about being Dem or GOP as regards political behavior. Which is to say, extremely valuable in certain contexts, and absolutely douchenozzle in others.

All too human...

So let’s get real about what gets us off, shall we? Humans are undeniably sexually motivated, and within cultures that are permissive a wide and surprisingly variagated feast of off-getting gets on. & yes, Furries are most definitely included among my definition of humans.

So I’m thinking I can see another plausible adaptive benefit to homophobia not investigated by Bering, Gallup, et. al. The benefit being that a homophobic or otherwise sexually conservative culture pushes all those devious pervs who’d like to get it on with similarly-sexed-up folks into constrained but reproductively fertile situations. Yep, they get married & have kids. And all those perverted genes can live to see another generation.

Take that bigots!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2011 12:29 am

    Not the first time Bering’s favored a simple story over the complexity of sexuality either:

  2. Sean Patrick Santos permalink
    March 30, 2011 1:37 am

    I was actually surprised by this bit too:

    “If homosexuality were only heritable, it would have disappeared long ago.”

    Uh, no it wouldn’t? There are lots of genes that reduce reproductive success in some individuals and increase it in others. A gene that has positive effects on brain development, but also slides you a bit up the Kinsey scale, can stick around. Also, a “lesbian gene” might have a different effect in men, and all that. So lots of mildly pro-homo genes can be swimming around in us without collapsing the human race. Not to mention that lots of non-heritable traits are still biological in nature and unpreventable after birth (birthmarks, anyone?).

    The train of thought is like saying that, because short people tend to have lower status and be less strong, being short must not be entirely heritable, and therefore parents would benefit from shunning short people and pressuring their kids into being tall. (Especially with those short lifestyles, all being jockeys and working in submarines and stuff, rather than being professional basketball players like normal people.) Gallup’s just silly, really.

    I do like that picture, though. The first group of bisexual-ish geeks I met, other than my random personal friends, were furries. They really helped with the ditching-cultural-baggage stuff after I figured myself out. I’ll have to show them that photo if they haven’t seen it already.

    • April 1, 2011 11:22 am

      There’s far too little introspection of cultural bias in human sex studies. Using a term like “homosexuality” in context of genetics and evolution without making damn sure you’ve spent the time to understand how you’ve defined it is as credible as discussing “race” without distinguishing what’s social construct & what’s phenotypic.

      Damn horse jockeys & submarine crewmembers, with their deviant small-stature lifestyle!

      • Sean Patrick Santos permalink
        April 1, 2011 1:30 pm

        Oh, yes. I think any biologically based study of “race” that doesn’t, for example, take note of hypodescent, or of passing, isn’t really taking itself very seriously. In my own family, my father is probably more than half European (in the abstract, ancestors 600 years ago sense), but he has darker skin so he’s what they’d call “non-white Hispanic”. My brother and I are blond (recessive genes and all that), so we are regarded as white. I have cousins who are siblings, and yet get regarded differently from each other. It’s all just people looking at skin color (and skin color 1 or 2 generations back); there’s nothing more profound about it.


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