City Thanks, Science! Now, About That Parade…
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.