1/ Gay—a mistake or an adaptation?

This is part one of a series looking at the rise of the gay movement and what it means for society and the world at large.

 ‘Gay’ in social life vs homosexuality in nature and society

Simon Jones sj958@yahoo.com

The traditional view about homosexuality is that in most cases it is an aberration, that while it may be an inborn phenomenon in some people, most exclusive homosexuality is a psychological issue, one which could be resolved, or cured if you prefer, by psychotherapy, if the person really wanted and was prepared to make the effort.

Homosexuality is a complex issue, as both pro and con factions will admit. The mind, with its long, slow development, its dependence on choice, its potential for osmotic or unconscious learning, and the unperceived influence of the subconscious on personal choices, makes any comparison of humans with fish, sheep or even baboons in their sexual behavior specious.

Central to the gay experience are the arts, where emotional sensitivity is vital. Whatever it is that turns sheep on has nothing to do with Sleeping Beauty. In Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality, Simon Levay warns that “[a]lthough homosexual behavior is very common in the animal world, it seems to be very uncommon that individual animals have a long-lasting predisposition to engage in such behavior to the exclusion of heterosexual activities. Thus, a homosexual orientation, if one can speak of such thing in animals, seems to be a rarity.” So while nature is interesting and instructive, it does not provide answers to the current dispute over homosexuality in humans, let along the legitimacy of the term ‘gay’.

There are many factors which could derail normal sexual development in a sensitive person—fears based on childish misunderstandings about sex; fear of the opposite sex’s mysterious genitals; an overbearing mother or father; shocking childhood encounters or traumas, such as sexual abuse; even revenge for real or imagined adult wrongdoings of a nonsexual kind. Self-esteem problems are yet another factor, such as fear of impotence, or the belief that one is ugly or undesirable.

Childhood experiences are the most important influence on a person’s character, and bad ones can traumatize the individual for life. In nature, the early experiences are called imprinting, as so starkly shown by the way a gosling follows whichever adult it sees upon first hatching.

So, is it right to ignore the complexity of factors that contribute to a radical divergence from normal sexuality, and tout homosexuality as really no different from heterosexuality? Dubbing homosexuals euphemistically as ‘gay’ (i.e., happy)? Or are some young people being misled down a path they had no need to follow? This is the conservative view.

The conservative acknowledges that there are fleeting attractions during puberty, especially in environments such as a single-sex boarding school or a broken home. Nervousness about the opposite sex and the sexual act and the fact that homosexuality is the easy way out in such contexts can result in a lifetime of homosexuality.

Using the word ‘gay’ to describe homosexuals supports the psychological case. Euphemisms are employed when people wish to avoid awkward subjects; or want to deflect attention; or seek to disguise their meaning, or don’t want to confront the truth about things. All of which issues are psychological at root. The pressure on media to stop referring to homosexuals and use the term ‘gay’ is intense. A google search of ‘gay’ gets 777m hits, while homosexual gets only 44m.

Here I will try to use homosexual for the most part, which I fail to see as disparaging, and use ‘gay’ to mean the contemporary movement to equate homosexual and heterosexual as both equally ‘normal’. I will also use msm to refer to males having sex with males, and sfs for females having sex with females. But gay is so widely used even by the scientific community that it makes more sense when quoting studies to use their terms, which generally means using gay when in fact what is meant is homosexuality.

Some statistics

There are no reliable statistics on life expectancy of gays vs heterosexuals (straights makes better sense than ‘gays’, so I will use it here). A 1997 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology examined how HIV affected the mortality of gay and bisexual men in Vancouver from 1987 to 1992 and found that life expectancy at age 20 among gay and bisexual men in Vancouver was 8 to 21 years shorter. But this was at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Researchers insisted this was not an adequate basis to estimate the true death rate comparison, but did not follow up the study. The new drugs to fight AIDS and the spread of AIDS among straights no doubt levels the mortality rates somewhat (though this sidesteps how straights came to be part of the epidemic in the first place). That said, homophobia is wrong, a direct violation of human rights, for right or left, anti-‘gay’ and ‘gay’.

A 1999 study found that suicide attempts were made by 28% of teenage bisexual/homosexual males (vs 4.2% for heteros), and 20.5% of bisexual/homosexual females (vs 14.5%). In addition, these youth are more likely to report engaging in multiple risk behaviors and initiating risk behaviors at an earlier age than are their peers. Respondents living in high-prejudice communities died of suicide on average at age 37.5, compared to age 55.7 for those living in low-prejudice communities, a difference of 18 years. “Male suicide rates were highest in the 45-64 age-group.” Gays in the stigmatizing communities had a shorter life expectancy by an average of 12 years.

Given the fluidity of the categories and changing mores, there probably never will be good statistics, but these grim figures are not optimistic. Statistics comparing homophobic communities to more neutral environments suggest that if you are ‘gay’ and grow up in a well-off, well-balanced family, and manage to finish college, you have an outside chance of achieving closer to a straight’s life expectancy. There are gays who live into their 80s and even 90s, though few, and they all have the above good fortunes, plus a ‘life partner’, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

Either God/ evolution produced this anomalous human behavior for some as yet inexplicable reason, or he/it was mistaken. It is anomalous everywhere in societies and nature. Homosexuals constitute approximately 2% of the human population. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention and an Australian study found that 3% call themselves gay, lesbian and bisexual and 3.9 percent as “something else”. A 2003 Australian study found 1.6% were homosexual and 0.9% were bisexual. As with all things gay, it is hard to know the facts.

If homosexuality is a mistake in nature, then logically the mistake would have petered out. So we must conclude there is some reason for this behavior.

Nature’s say

In recent years, there has been a veritable explosion of studies in biology about different homosexual behaviors in animals, and in anthropology about different cultural behaviors. For animals, its reason is clear. Studies have shown a wide range of homosexual behavior, especially in fish.

Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People (2004), uses dozens of examples to show the importance of homosexual behavior from an evolutionary point of view, which can be used in support of the gay agenda. She argues for a new theory of evolution that emphasizes social inclusion and control of access to resources and mating opportunity.

She challenges Darwin who asserts that male/female obey universal templates—males ‘ardent’ and females ‘coy’ (they choose a mate for superior genes, i.e., best male vs best match). She says Darwin ignores social selection, where animals exchange help in return for access to reproductive opportunity, strive for mutual assistance with reproductive opportunity as the currency.

Organisms flow across bonds of any category. In biology, nature abhors a category. Roughgarden asserts a diversity-affirming theory of sex vs a diversity-repressing one (Darwin’s sexual selection).

North Sea pipefish have a complete sex-role reversal, polyandry, where a male harem looks after eggs. Female sex coloration is more ‘beautiful’ and females are larger than males. It is same with different birds (wattled jacanas in Panama). But not with mammals, because of high parental investment by the mammalian female (milk, pregnancy).

So there’s not much there for the gay agenda—a few fish and exotic birds. Vampires provide an interesting case, since they rely on mutual assistance/ reciprocal altruism (they can’t afford to miss a meal two nights in a row, hence food sharing). Animals with ‘nice’ reputations may be included in cooperative activities and ‘meanies’ left out, so strict gender roles are less important there.

Canary-bird fish have large male guards lording it over a big collection of eggs laid by 5 females, with smaller males who mature at younger age and are silent, not defending territories or fighting for the harem, but darting in to fertilize eggs being laid in the larger male territory. In sunfish, there is a similar complex relation between three different male types. In hundreds of fish species there are males in two or more genders. But none of this has any homosexual component.

Support for gaylib (gay liberation, though I like the catchy shorter version, actually the name of a French gay political party opposed to gay marriage) comes from the European flycatcher where the aggressive male courts a feminine male before the female arrives and encourages him to be a neighbor. Sexual attraction is used as a bonding mechanism, though the ultimate goal is male-female bonding and the relationship between the two males is strictly hierarchical.

Clearly, there is an important role for the homosexual in nature—as a social support mechanism in reproduction. So Roughgarden has a point in her critique of the Darwinian theory, which ignores homosexuality as an important element in many cases as helper/ cooperator/ friend/ guard/ teacher/ peacemaker.

Roughhouse sees Darwin’s broad emphasis on the strong, beautiful male—famously the peacock— as patriarchal. In addition to the pipefish and jacanas (rare), where females are larger, more beautiful, there are a very few instances where male-male competition seems completely absent. But there are no gay peacocks. In some fish, two males cooperate to build nests, court a female, with spawning in trios—a menage a trois, but this again is purely devoted to rearing offspring.

The logic for the female in choosing a mate is the totality of reproduction, including growth and protection of young. Copulation provides a shared paternity ‘staying incentive’.

Ruffs (sandpipers) mate in common lekking breeding ground. Birds have two male genders: The dark-ruffed controllers and white-ruffed assistants (who spend time with females off the lek), and jointly court and mate with the female. Females choose not great genes but well-connected genes. When female chooses a male with special colour on his tail, it is not for fashion but rather because she senses this will endow the offspring with a bodily marker of culturally inherited power, like the Tudor nose and/or the likelihood of delivering on promise of parental care

The most bizarre sexual configuration is perhaps the bighorn sheep, where the female is only receptive for 3 days. Almost all m have msm (men having sex with men) (genital licking nuzzling, and anal intercourse. The few males who refuse msm are labeled ‘effeminate’, living with ewes acting like females. But attempts by farmers to breed out the effeminates didn’t work, destroying the domestic social system, and they are left in peace now.

The best example for gaylib are dolphins where males bond in adolescence for life, sex occurs in 3somes and 4somes, more than heterosexual activity.

Interpreting nature

If homosexuality is not directly to further survival (the adaptationist position), why was it not bred out? The neutralist position claims that homosexuality is a neutral byproduct of evolution of other traits. Homosexual behavior is harmless so there is no need to remove it. Anything goes for pleasure as long as it’s not harmful. So if it enjoyable, it should last, even if it is for a small minority. One-zero for gaylib.

The primates are extremely diverse in msm behavior, and there are no clear rules about ‘keeping peace’ or guaranteeing parental care.

  • Baboons indulge in much msm – diddling greeting behaviour, long-lasting coalitions, where 20% of mountings are between males and 10% between females. They have a notoriously violent social life. Same-sex courtship is used for coalition-building but powerful males can break up coalitions.
  • Gibbons breed only every 2-3 yrs and nonabusive intrafamily (incestuous) same-sex behaviour is common. The male parent and offspring engage in penis-fencing.
  • The gorilla has a range of family troops, ranging from one male with his females and offspring to coalitions of 3-5 males, where msm is common. Male mountain gorillas sometimes stay in their natal troops and become subordinate to the silverback. If the silverback dies, these males may be able to become dominant or mate with the females.
  • The bonobo female ape is receptive continually and , and experiences earlier sexual maturity. Both msm and fsf are very common. Some fsf is for 15 minutes every 2 hours. The reasons are to facilitate sharing (sex before eating), reconciliation, integrate new arrivals, and form coalitions against aggressive males.

There are fascinating cases of traditional homosexual behavior and rituals among premodern human tribes. They always involving religious initiation rituals for boys making their transition to manhood. The only cases of long term homosexuality are shamans in Asia and the two-spirit people of some indigenous North Americans, who are considered women in male bodies. Again, the phenomenon is interpreted in religious terms. Homosexuality is a spiritual gift, rather than an excuse for indiscriminate erotic pleasure.

Evolutionary innovation that began around 50m years ago has created a startlingly complex array of societies in the animal kingdom, where homosexual behavior is condoned to manage both within- and between-sex relationships, which are facilitated by physical contact and bodily symbolism and behaviours. Gaylibbers can take comfort from both the adaptationists and neutralists (homosexuality is not a primary adaptation, rather merely for pleasure), but the complexity of human behavior and social relations requires something more than ‘scientific’ observation.

The case of human societies is very different from that of animals. The unique feature of human evolution is the highly developed brain, which allows reason to come to grips with problems around us, and which led to the development of language, spirituality and religion as guiding forces in our relations, including sexual ones.