Slog - The Stranger's Blog

Line Out

The Music Blog

« The Death of Black American Gr... | More from those Depressed 1970... »

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Thanks, Science! Now, About That Parade…

Posted by on June 21 at 12:02 PM

I read this article in Seed Magazine a week or so ago, loved it, and have been meaning to Slog about it ever since. Erica beat me to it yesterday, but I want to add two things from the homo perspective, since it’s gay pride week and all.

One: With our current discussions about homosexuality so often stuck in the realm of pseudo-religious morality (“You’re immoral” vs. “No we’re not!”) it’s refreshing to read about people who are trying to answer a more interesting and fundamental question: Why do homosexuals exist? As any homosexual will yell you, this is not a question of small import.

The question touches on the political dimension of being gay, yes, but it touches more profoundly on the existential dimension—a realm that is often ignored in all the political focus on homosexuality.

While Annie may have some issues with Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden (the article’s subject) and her attack on classic Darwinian sexual selection, if Roughgarden is proven right in her hpyothesis that being gay isn’t a “maladaptive trait”—well, that would be nice news for a lot of homosexuals. Here’s the key passage on that issue:

Roughgarden’s first order of business was proving that homosexuality isn’t a maladaptive trait. At first glance, this seems like a futile endeavor. Being gay clearly makes individuals less likely to pass on their genes, a major biological faux pas. From the perspective of evolution, homosexual behavior has always been a genetic dead end, something that has to be explained away.

But Roughgarden believes that biologists have it backwards. Given the pervasive presence of homosexuality throughout the animal kingdom, same-sex partnering must be an adaptive trait that’s been carefully preserved by natural selection. As Roughgarden points out, “a ‘common genetic disease’ is a contradiction in terms, and homosexuality is three to four orders of magnitude more common than true genetic diseases such as Huntington’s disease.”

So how might homosexuality be good for us? Any concept of sexual selection that emphasizes the selfish propagation of genes and sperm won’t be able to account for the abundance of non-heterosexual sex. All those gay penguins and persons will remain inexplicable. However, if one looks at homosexuality from the perspective of a community, one can begin to see why nature might foster a variety of sexual interactions.

According to Roughgarden, gayness is a necessary side effect of getting along.

People in the arts, babies who’ve been given up for adoption, and couples in need of interior decorating advice know this already. But if the culture at large starts to see homosexuality as helpful (necessary, even) to smoothly functioning human societies, and as a natural part of vertebrate biology—well, it may not be long before our current labels for sexual behavior prove insufficient. That’s the second thing I found most interesting about this article. As Roughgarden says in the piece:

“In our culture, we assume that there is a straight-gay binary, and that you are either one or the other. But if you look at vertebrates, that just isn’t the case. You will almost never find animals or primates that are exclusively gay. Other human cultures show the same thing.” Since Roughgarden believes that the hetero/homo distinction is a purely cultural creation, and not a fact of biology, she thinks it is only a matter of time before we return to the standard primate model. “I’m convinced that in 50 years, the gay-straight dichotomy will dissolve. I think it just takes too much social energy to preserve. All this campy, flamboyant behavior: It’s just such hard work.”

Perhaps. But in the meantime, it does make for an interesting parade.

CommentsRSS icon

It does? Seattle's Pride Parade is pretty boring.

As a Hegelist I agree the straight-gay binary is only an illusion.

Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

To educated people there is no straight-gay. Both are right and conflict is illusory. Queer theory teaches to diconstruct binaries. As a man-woman, who somedays is sissyqueer and other days is butchsissy, I defy the oppresive catagories that white males impose on society.

The Stranger needs a Z boi as editor to get ya'll up to speed.

I've maintained for years that without us queers all the breeders would still be living in un-art-adorned caves, raping women, and having only just discovered fire. We're not only biologically necessary, we make the world a functionally better place cause we're in it.

Tho', as FNARF notes, you couldn't tell from the crappy ass, ugly, fashion and design disaster that is the Seattle Pride Parade year after year...

So, does this mean bisexuals will finally be vindicated? Or am I totally missing the point?

i am utterly unconvinced that campy, flamboyant behavior is expensive in any evolutionary sense. no one's so busy wrapping themselves in rainbow flags that they forget to eat or drink. unless other substances intervene.

oh z boi. please keep the dramatics and self-absorption to a minimum.

This take on homosexuality seems pretty closely connected to Wilson's writings on altruism, a trait that also apprears initially to have no evolutionary advantage. In fact, though, those who are altruistic take better care of their offspring than those who are selfish, and so those traits are more likely to be passed down. Could (gasp!) the same thing be true of homo pairings?

I thought the spirit of this study was cool, since it makes sense to want to move the evolutionary conversation about homosexual behavior beyond simply "deficienct" or "maladaptive", but I kept getting the sense that the researcher wanted to use her evolutionary studies to validate her own sexual identity, or even use it as a tool to influence public policy or stir up social change. However, evolutionary science is a poor startingpoint for social change. So what if homosexuality is 'good' or 'adaptive' in the animal kingdom? Should that scientific "value" be elevated as a moral or social value for human cultures? Should all adaptive traits or behaviors in the animal kingdom be valued by humans because they are otherwise successful or ubiquitous? Whether re-generated by heterosexual, homosexual, or monoclinous sex or binary fission, an adaptive trait (or behavior) is not inherently valuable in itself, only in its adaptability to persist despite the in-flux values of ever-hostile, changing environments, which could wipe out any previously valued trait in a split second, season, century, etc.

And with that said, creating an evolutionary theory to prove the cultural "value" of modern human sexual identity (one informed by human genomes as well as culture, history and politics) seems to me to be a poor and misguided reason to create a scientific theory, and a reason which will inevitably distort one's findings, however interesting they are. So just as Darwin's theory was framed and limited by heterosexism; Roughgarden unfortunately articulates her theory as an excercise in Gay Pride.

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 45 days old).