Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On gayness

I don't have a great deal of time for evolutionary psychologists because although it's doubtless true that we became the way we are for certain reasons, EPers generally work from the reasons backwards. In other words, they pick something they want to be true about us and then figure out how its evolution helps us in our quest to reproduce.

I do not of course deny that our purpose, if we have one, is to reproduce. That's what we, and all living things, are all about. We live and die and attempt to pass our genes on. You really do have to look at human beings in that light because even if we want to believe we are "post-Darwinian", we are still animals and we are still in the business of passing on genes. Survival of the fittest does not mean that animals evolve to a peak of fitness in some absolute sense. It means that whoever best fits their environment at the time survives. Our environment can just as well contain people competing for power and resources, or whatever else we do, as a peacocks can contain peacocks competing to impress peahens with their tails.

Before I say any more, I want to make a couple of things clear. First, I do not believe biology is a measuring stick for judging people. If I were to conclude that we are "supposed" to compete for women so that we can have more children, that doesn't mean that I think more or less of those who are successful at it. That "supposed" is not a value judgement: it's simply a fact about biology. We do not have to bow the knee to all facts about biology! For instance, we may say that we have a tendency to aggression in one situation or another, which may have sound motivation in our genetic history, but that doesn't mean that nothing else plays a part in our reacting aggressively or not. Second, my position on homosexuality is pretty clear. I hold it because I have reasoned it to be correct, not I hope because of prejudice, and I would only change it if I were shown my reasoning was wrong, not because of an emotional appeal. It's as follows.

I personally do not feel there is anything wrong with being gay or lesbian. It doesn't bother me that people are. I don't feel like it is anything to me who someone fucks. I don't mind if gay men want to fuck me, any more than I care about anyone else wanting to who I am not interested in. Indeed, I'm just as flattered as I am when a woman wants to. Why wouldn't I be? However (you probably knew there was a however), I don't consider gay to be a separate cultural identity. I understand the desire to create ingroups and to have signs and signals of belonging, so I am not particularly critical of them, but I don't have to think it's particularly praiseworthy. I don't either believe gays are any more sensitive, artistic, good at talking to women etc etc than anyone else just because they're gay. It may be that they are more apt to become stronger in some of these areas because of different cultural pressures.

What I mean by that last thing is that it's very clear that in, say, English youth culture, boys are pushed into certain sorts of behaviour and understandings of the world. The pressure on us to be competitive, parochial, xenophobic (in terms of in- vs outgroup rather than a more narrower racism), conventional and misogynist are huge, and few, if any, of us ever escape being stuck with some of these things as part of our makeup. Gays are clearly outsiders, and have reasons to avoid some of these outcomes because they are aware that they are not like others. There's no particular reason this should be true: it's a cultural outcome and this is quite easily shown by looking at other cultures, for instance, that of the early Roman empire, where being gay did not necessarily entail taking on, or rejecting, a set of cultural baggage (in other words, men could be gay without feeling any need to "be gay").

It's also not really something to be "proud" of. Not being ashamed of something is not the same as having pride, and I've never really liked the whole "gay pride" idea, although of course I do support, very much so, the idea that gays should be visible and unashamed of their sexuality. It was somewhat patterned on black pride, but it's forgotten that black pride was a racist reaction to racism. Why say that? Well, black pride was all about saying "we're not inferior, look at all these ways we're superior to you". It helped, rather than hindered, the entrenchment of stereotypes and prejudice: that black and white are different and clear lines can be drawn between them. I find it hard to say how anyone can say that they are "proud" of something that is a genetic outcome. You think you were born gay, so what's to be proud of? It's like my being proud I have green eyes or that I'm tall. I suppose I strongly associate pride with merit and not with fortune.

However, homophobia needs to be understood in the same light as "being gay". Both are driven by the same desires: to find cohesion, to mark the ingroup. I think that when we are discussing equality we should remember that we are basing that discussion on principles that are not grounded in anything. It is axiomatic that we should have equity. We are willing to accept so much other unfairness that it's hard to argue that straights cannot, if they choose, discriminate against gays simply because they outnumber them. We may well feel it is unfair to punish someone for being born gay but is it any unfairer that we punish them for being born poor or in Afghanistan or unattractive? Our judgements of people are so often arbitrary that they resemble those of peacocks, and the outcomes of those judgements can be very inequitable. Ask yourself whether it's really fair that people are allowed such a very large chunk of our resources because they are cleverer than others, or even because they are given better environments in which to develop their cleverness. They are not all contributing more. My view is that people who work in sanitation are for more vital than lawyers and clearly if we were forced to choose to shoot all derivatives traders or all nurses, it wouldn't be a difficult decision.

From my point of view, the ideal would be that no one gave a shit about gayness: we would all just accept that we love whom we love, fuck whom we fuck. We'd all just hold hands and kumbaya: straights wouldn't feel gayness was a big deal and neither would gays.

So here's my thesis. What I think needs to be explained is this: why would human beings evolve a type of behaviour that on the face of it prevents the passing on of genes? This seems entirely counter to our "purpose". Being gay looks like an evolutionary dead end, which should have been evolved away, at first glance.

Well, we can ask ourselves whether there's a simple reason: we could look at bees, for instance. Some bees are not able to reproduce, but are supportive of other bees who share their genetic material, so that they are able to work to ensure the passage of their genes without passing them on themselves. You can even go as far as suggesting that even though they have separate bodies, bees are not separate organisms. One bee can be thought of as differing from another only as much as a liver cell differs from a heart cell. Just because one is bound into a larger framework and the other isn't is not a good reason for thinking they are qualitatively all that different.

But gays do not have this role in human society and I don't think you can make a good case that they ever have had. Gay men don't seem any more or less willing to support people who share their genes. While humans do show altruistic behaviour, I'm not aware that gays do more or less than straights do. And I'm sure that lesbian women are equally as caring and supportive as their straight counterparts, but I'm not aware that they are any more or less willing to support their genetic sisters than they are their nongenetic ones. I mean, the straight-out counter to this possibility is that we do not have large families.

Well, we do not now: we obviously had more children in the past. However, I do not know much about the evolution of human society but my understanding is that we likely evolved living in bands, in which children could be raised communally. So any tendency to altruism helps other people's genes as much as it does our own. Of course, those bands likely contained people we were somewhat related to, but it seems a stretch to suggest that that is the cause for gayness. Apart from anything else, there's no sign whatsoever that gayness and altruism are closely linked, or linked at all. Most of the characteristics of gayness that we can see are cultural: we cannot find a genetic basis for liking musical theatre. And humans in a band, even if that band contains kin, are not as closely related as bees in a hive.

Could we have evolved gayness as a way to keep the numbers down? I mean, you have to ask it but the answer seems to be obviously not. Humans' numbers were limited by environmental factors before they developed agriculture. Our circumstances, and hazard, prevented our numbers from rising too rapidly and we had plenty of world to expand into. I just can't see it, to be honest.

I think it's easier to understand gayness if you simply abandon one of the axioms of the modern liberal orthodoxy. That axiom is: some people are just born gay. Replace it with this one: men are born with a largely undifferentiated sexuality that becomes more specific because of environmental and cultural factors.

OMG, I must be a homophobe, right? I did just say you're not born that way.

How can what I said be true? Well, I think that evolution does not dictate that men should be selective. As in other animals, it's the females who choose. Peacocks will bang any willing female; peahens are looking for fit males. Selection is stereotyped in peacocks in a way that makes it very clear who does it and who doesn't. It's less clear in human beings because we conventionally assume that we choose each other, but there are plenty of other indicators. For instance, men can abscond and women find it harder. Women bear the children, after all. If I make you pregnant, I can disappear without ever seeing the kid's face, yet I still pass on my genes. You can't.

Most importantly, what harm does it do my reproductive chances if I fuck men? None, so long as I also fuck women. I make plenty of sperm. When within my best reproductive years, I could make enough sperm to impregnate a woman several times a day. I could have fucked people to the point of physical exhaustion without running out of sperm. Of course, I should typically be fucking women because, dur, they bear the kids, but here's the thing: evolving specificity is harder than simply evolving an undifferentiated sex drive. So long as I'm horny enough, it will work.

Did I just say men are like dogs? Yes, I did. I think a lot of our confusion about ourselves derives from not understanding that we are born with relatively undifferentiated sexuality (I'm not sure whether it's entirely undifferentiated or lies along a spectrum) and much of our cultural bias against homosexuality derives from our fear of our own sexuality.

So how do some men become gay? Well, Freud wasn't wrong about everything. Let's say small children are beings in the process of being socialised and in the process of figuring out how they interact with their environment. Part of what they learn is that certain drives within themselves can be satisfied by certain things in the outside world. It can be as simple as some things becoming hardwired in the juvenile brain. So if your mum satisfies your sexual drives when you are a toddler, you are predisposed to become straight. The massive cultural pressure to develop that way doesn't hurt.

Am I saying that straight men are mummy's boys who learned to love the feel of their head against soft tits and gay men hate their mums? Well, the first bit yes, the second bit not so much. I'm not a developmental psychologist so I don't know how it could work exactly. It's just a thesis.

Okay, but that leaves lesbians as a real puzzle. Women are selective. In the same way that a peahen is compelled to select its sexual partners, so are women. You generally choose who fathers your kids. We rarely produce kids by rape, and I doubt we ever did in our evolutionary history. This would be a seriously poor way for evolution to work, given that successfully rearing kids is not simply a matter of getting chicks knocked up. Men are not solitary, womanhunting rapists for good reasons. I won't rehearse them here because I think that the benefits of living together in something approaching harmony are quite clear. Apart from any other reason, women are not compelled to bear the products of rape, and even if men had been evolved to try to force random women to have children by raping them, we'd soon realise that it was a poor strategy when we realised that they could terminate pregnancies in some, if not all, cases. Not that rape isn't about sex. I have never bought into the pablum that rape is solely about power. Men are much easier to understand and conceptualise if you accept that they really do want sex a lot.

So why, if we are saying that we are products of evolution, would we have evolved lesbians? This is the most controversial part of my thesis. I think that it's fairly easy to accept that no one is born gay and we only say that to make fundamentalist Christians shut the fuck up about something's being a choice when it really isn't (even in my conception that I outline here, it's nothing you can choose to do or not do: the process is not within our control and it's not easily or perhaps even possibly reversible because the word "hardwired" is fairly important--you don't imagine you could reverse your ability to speak English! It would be possible, and people do in fact forget their native language when they spend a lot of time speaking another, but it's not something you can do by talking to a preacher). But it's another thing to say that no one is born lesbian and it is purely an environmental outcome. But I think it probably is. It's just so hard to see any good reason to evolve lesbianism. How can it possibly help a being produce offspring if it is biologically incapable of finding the other half of the genetic puzzle suitable as a partner?

I think it's fairly conclusive that while we can find plenty of animals who exhibit gay behaviour, we find very few that are lesbian.

Why would a woman become a lesbian? Ah, the cry of teen boys throughout history, I think! But seriously, one could imagine they do so because they are turned off men in one way or another, or in some cases because they want the cultural outcomes of male roles.

Did I just say that women are "turned lesbian" or they're just butch? No. I am saying I find it hard to think of any good reason for them to have evolved to be lesbians and would look for the reasons in their environment and culture, and those are two possibilities among many others.

What I doubt is that you will ever find a "gay gene" or even that gays and lesbians share patterns of genes that indicate gayness. I don't just doubt it; I'll flat out say that you never will. I think that all men are born gay and no women are, and our environments shift us one way or the other; possibly, that process is sufficiently complex and individualised that we will never understand it. There are outside reasons to believe it: sexual tastes vary, and they vary in ways that you can readily ascribe to environmental causes. You get turned on by being suffocated? Were you suffocated as a child, perhaps? You like your balls to be tickled? Perhaps the nappy's tickle as it went on turned you on?

Well, take it or leave it. I'm not married to it. Feel free to prove me wrong. But you can't because it's true: all men are born gay and no women are.


At 11:45 pm, Anonymous Bob said...

A lot of food for thought here.(Thought, the ultimate aphrodisiac!).
I personally know men who are 'born gay.' And strange voices like Christopher Pearson who writes for the execrable Oz recounted once how he had that fixation for other boy's bottoms at an early age. Kind of like being born left-handed, one supposes.
--The ancient Greeks would take a male lover occasionally with their wives' approval.
Perhaps the most telling gay writer of the previous generation--Gore Vidal-- eschews sexual categories.
I look back on my anxiety-ridden youth and reconstruct a scenario where I had it off with Reggie next door... (my age and very randy, and a homo). Sweet explosive orgasms and helpings of jetted cream. It didn't happen-- I wish it had because up to forty years old the more shattering the orgasm the better.
The one time he tried to 'seduce' me his battle-axe mother turned up out of the blue so it's just as well we weren't jerking each other off...
Don't know 'bout the socio-biology thing. The mystery of jostling genes. Just know that from the earliest age I wanted to peek at a girl's groove; long before I knew I had to insert me pee pee to get a bit of action going. Later I became a master of cunnilingus as all men foolishly consider themselves to be.
I will revisit this post after loftier cogitations... at you leave, Dr. :)

At 11:40 am, Anonymous Looney said...

Funny, that sort of goes along with the thought I've entertained here and there that maybe some guys went gay cause it was a lot easier to get blowies -

At 9:51 pm, Anonymous Bob said...

I think you're onto something there, Looney. :)

At 2:30 pm, Anonymous gekko said...

Z, sorry, didn't read the entire thing cuz I'm gettin' groggy, but I wanted to say that as far as I read I am in complete alignment with you. Dunno if gayness "evolved" so much as something that fulfilled some human need as it was simply a characteristic that has not been bred out.

Your postulation regarding the communal nature of early humans is supported in arguments put forth in a book I'm reading now, titled "Sex at Dawn: The Preshistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality" and the same arguments that a community assisting one another overall ensured the continuation of the gene pool. It was probably not necessary for gayness to be bred out of the genome, as gay uncles and brothers cared for the young and enabled the success of the young just as readily as did their fathers. Further, gay men and women do recreate -- not in as great of numbers as hetero- or bisexual people, but they nevertheless do sire and birth children.

So. Anyway. Like what you wrote.

Loons: "going gay" is maybe a bit different? I mean, there are guys who have played with homosexual sex, but they aren't necessarily in it for a lifelong career. There are some who did the homosexual sex routine while at a fairly young and impressionable age who then did follow the path, but who later discovered they like girls too. Sexuality seems mutable in some respects. But there are quite a number who seem to have known from the youngest age of knowing that they preferred people of the same sex, and had no sexual interest in people of the opposite.


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