Naturally Gay

William Saletan discusses a theory of homosexuality that I have seen before. That homosexuality in some men is compensated for by the increased fertility of their female relatives.

Gay couples can't have biological kids together. So if homosexuality is genetic, why hasn't it died out?

A study published last week in PLoS One tackles the question. It starts with four curious patterns. First, male homosexuality occurs at a low but stable frequency in a wide range of societies. Second, the female relatives of gay men produce children at a higher rate than other women do. Third, among these female relatives, those related to the gay man's mother produce children at a higher rate than do those related to his father. Fourth, among the man's male relatives, homosexuality is more common in those related to his mother than in those related to his father.

Can genes account for these patterns? To find out, the authors posit several possible mechanisms and compute their effects over time. They conclude that only one theory fits the data. The theory is called "sexually antagonistic selection." It holds that a gene can be reproductively harmful to one sex as long as it's helpful to the other. The gene for male homosexuality persists because it promotes--and is passed down through--high rates of procreation among gay men's mothers, sisters, and aunts.

The article is a very good in depth look at the question and its implications.

The article does not discuss a point that no one seems to have paid any attention to (What a surprise - no one is discussing what they haven't paid attention to - what will they avoid thinking of next? Elephants?). Is there a genetic basis for some male's antagonism to male homosexuality? If so then what?

Cross Posted at Power and Control

posted by Simon on 06.25.08 at 05:28 PM


So the gay gene would be something like the possible diabetic gene. Women who carry it have fewer misscarriages. Thus you have more births despite the risks of shortened life spans.

toad   ·  June 25, 2008 6:50 PM

if homosexuality is genetic, why hasn't it died out?

Maybe because "it" isn't genetic. Or at least, maybe "it" cannot be reduced to a single cause.

Why aren't scientists looking for a single cause of heterosexual behavior? Or fetishistic or sadomasochistic behavior?

Eric Scheie   ·  June 26, 2008 12:25 AM

Why wouldn't the same hold true for lesbians? Is it possible their mothers, sisters, aunts have more children?

Or is it possible that it doesn't matter so much with lesbians because they are more receptive to the idea of heterosexual sex in order to have children?

As for a heterosexual's antagonism toward homosexual males, isn't it enough of an explanation that they are warding off unwanted sexual attention?

I think we have enough scientific evidence for humans and our 'animal' relatives to conclude that homosexuality is evolutionarily normal. Or just normal, if you wish.

Donna B.   ·  June 26, 2008 5:24 AM

Like it or not, there's a certain historical and religious preoccupation with "normal" and "natural" in the context of sex organ functions which doesn't occur quite as much with other human biological processes or bodily functions. There's an emotional component as well, and I think it's contaminated by a desire for social engineering, grounded in an interest in maintaining well-ordered societies. Thus, while objections to homosexuality are often grounded in the failure of the conduct to produce children, the same objections could be made to masturbation or celibacy, but rarely are. Many people worry whether homosexual conduct is natural, and once cited its "nonexistence" in the animal kingdom as evidence that it was "against nature." Yet once clear evidence of homosexuality among animals was acknowledged, it became "animalistic" behavior.

Animals are not known for celibacy, though... Which begs the question of what is "nature." If it is different for humans, then why did people resort to the animal model at all? And why didn?t the Greco Roman world share these concerns?

There are many more inconsistencies, and I tend to be skeptical of scientists in this regard. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the search for genetic "explanations" of homosexuality has shifted from explaining the "unnatural" to bolstering advocacy of identity politics.

A bigger question (regardless of causation) is who decides whether one's sexual conduct or desires should be considered an "identity" any more than a person's age, size, temperament, skin color, or hair color? How is that the business of anyone except the individual?

Eric Scheie   ·  June 26, 2008 9:24 AM

Another possibility has been bandied about, which does not eliminate this one but runs parallel to it. There is a prenatal hormone correlation to homosexuality. Exposure of the male fetus to a different mix of hormones increases the likelihood of homosexuality. That, of course, is an incomplete answer, as both mother and child influence the hormonal wash. The fetus could be eliciting the change on the basis of its own DNA, or the mother's environment or genetic makeup could be creating the change. In either event, it is an increase, not an off-on switch.

That response by mother and child could have any number of procreative advantages or disadvantages: protection from certain illnesses, different sociability or temperament. It might only be advantageous in the presence of other genetic factors influencing sexual identity - or only in their absence.

I am one who believes the data is slowly pointing to a multifactor explanation, both genetic and critical-period environmental.

As to a genetic basis for antagonism, it will be hard to separate out antagonism to the merely different. Each society has differences it is highly suspicious of and those it accepts as unremarkable. I think the general like us/not like us division is hard-wired - an inborn tendency to set both a high and a low limit on the number of folks we tend to extend trust to. I would have a beer with Eric because cues tell me he is like me in some ways. If we actually did have a beer together and found that some previously unnoticed factor was different and important to one of us - if, say, one of us went on endlessly about Armenians or birdwatching - we would be less likely to meet again. Not like our kind is both an attractor and an antagonizer, but more of the latter.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  June 26, 2008 11:28 AM

Donna, I doubt that heterosexual antipathy is a natural response to unwanted sexual attention because there usually is no sexual attention to set it off. It's just there.

Since I believe that some degree of bisexuality (not necessarily 50-50) is extremely common and probably the real "norm", I have another theory. That bisexuality has social advantages that make it genetically useful. But as with most things in human nature, different people possess it to varying degrees, with relatively few at either extreme. But the few at the homosexual extreme get the attention and our current social pressure to be straight makes many bisexuals pretend to be on the other extreme, completely heterosexual.

tim maguire   ·  June 26, 2008 11:44 AM

Tim you got that right. I have known many bisexuals, both male and female. The difference is that only women are willing to admit it. Male bisexuals are almost always straight-identified, for the simple reason that any man admitting to bisexuality is considered gay. It's tyrannical, but that's life. Few men would willingly accept the practical limitation on their freedom that an admission to bisexuality entails.

It might be "just a label," but some labels have consequences.

This begs the question of what is homosexuality. Is it limited to the exclusively-practiced "lifestyle" variety, or is it any same-sex sexual desires or conduct?

A further question: Are gay activists helping maintain the stigma, and thereby doing the heavy lifting the moralists used to do?

Eric Scheie   ·  June 26, 2008 12:27 PM

While I cannot speak for anyone else, it is a matter of fact that I only object to homosexual *behaviour* (and increasingly, that includes the in-your-face arrogance and way outta line Folsom Street Fair-like garbage pulled) based on religious grounds.

Do I have a problem with homosexually-inclined people? Not as much as I used to; it was a visceral hatred, almost. But my boss is gay and her boss is gay, so what am I gonna do? Their sexual proclivities don't affect me in a personal sense (the boss' boss is about as fat as I am, for crying out loud, and the boss isn't what I'd call hot). Hence, not so much. Plus, they don't act stereotypically homo.

But when I was in school, it was a constant struggle not to result in violence, and it did erupt in a fistfight once. It could be something as simple as our visual sense not agreeing with our scent sense, causing cognitive dissonance and wanting to resolve it in as simple a way as possible.

I grant you if a woman stole away my girlfriend I'd be ready to kill, mutilate and generally go canni-ballistic.

Is finding ladyboys/trannies hot a sign of bisexuality? And yet I'd identify myself as heterosexual. Or is it a sign of confusion? I gotta tellya, some of those guys, yipes, ya know?

Gregory   ·  June 27, 2008 5:24 AM

Is finding ladyboys/trannies hot a sign of bisexuality?

I don't know the answer to that, and I've thought about it before. If you've seen the film "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," you may remember a scene in which a very hot young drag queen attracted the attention of a demolition contractor (who really should have known the girl was a guy) but once he suddenly "realized" his "error" he became extremely violent. The film presented the violent reaction as simple "homophobia," but I thought it was more grounded in the man's fear of being thought gay by his co-workers for having the attraction -- something which is not true homophobia, but maybe "homophobophobia."

Interestingly, a lot of gay men are attracted to certain boyish women, yet few would call them straight or even bi. If a gay man who is attracted to sexy boyish women is nonetheless gay, then it seems fair to me that a straight man attracted to a ladyboy/tranny would still be straight.

Whether his friends or society would think so is another issue, and logic has little to do with it.

The scientific answer would depend on how bi is "bi." I've read about the hetero/homo scale of 0-10, and I think a straight guy being attracted to drag queens would rate at the lower end -- maybe a 1. Hardly "bi" in the true sense of the word, which I think would have to be fairly placed in the 3 to 7 range.

Eric Scheie   ·  June 27, 2008 3:06 PM

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