Friday, January 9, 2009

Why Are There Gay People? What Darwinian Purpose is there to, throughout time, having 10% of humanity be Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender?

This is a really good question.

From a Darwinian perspective, there needs to be some purpose to gay children being born to straight parents, or it wouldn't keep happening, generation after generation, throughout time.

So what's going on?

I'm reading a really old book, "Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk: A Study In Social Evolution" by Edward Carpenter (published in 1921) and in it (pgs 57-58) he addresses this exact question. I thought his answer was pretty fascinating, so here it is:

In the primitive societies the men (the quite normal men) are the warriors and hunters. These are their exclusive occupations. The women (the normal women) attend to domestic work and agriculture, and their days are consumed in those labors. But in the evolution of society there are many more functions to be represented than those simple ones just mentioned. And we may almost think that if it had not been for the emergence of intermediate types - the more or less feminine man and similarly the more or less masculine woman - social life might never have advanced beyond these primitive phases. But when the man came along who did not want to fight - who perhaps was more inclined to run away - and who did not particularly care about hunting, he necessarily discovered some other interest and occupation - composing songs or observing the qualities of herbs or the procession of the stars. Similarly with the woman who did not care about house-work and child-rearing. The non-warlike men and the non-domestic women, in short, sought new outlets for their energies. They sought different occupations from those of the quite ordinary man and woman - as in fact they do to-day; and so they became the initiators of new activities. They became students of life and nature, inventors and teachers of arts and crafts, or wizards (as they would be considered) and sorcerers; they became diviners and seers, or revealers of the gods and religion; they became medicine-men and healers, prophets and prophetesses; and so ultimately laid the foundation of the priesthood, and of science, literature and art. Thus - on this view, and as might not unreasonably be expected - it was primarily a variation in the intimate sex-nature of the human being which led to these important differentiations in his social life and external activities.

Wow. Heady stuff, isn't it? Gay people are the reason humanity isn't still in the stone age!

Enjoy thinking about that one.... I know I will!



ps- The image above is my attempt at the Darwinian evolution fish with a gay rainbow flag inside. If you can't find it, make it yourself, right?


Anonymous said...

All right, first, I apologize if I'm saying something totally offensive - I think you've seen enough of me to know I don't mean to.

Here's my question:

Does this passage assume, then, that homosexuality is or isn't genetic? The whole "people are born that way" which is, I guess, what I believe. (Just as, for example, I was born with a penchant for chocolate. Wait, that's not right....)

I'm not a huge Darwin scholar - I believe in evolution but I'm not scientifically curious enough to know how each species moved from one to another. I also believe in creation, so, you know, I'm quite the heretic in both faith and intellectual circles.

Sorry to ramble - you're my first blog read this morning.

fairyhedgehog said...

I think this implies that all people who aren't stereotypically male or female are homosexual. I'm sure that's not true. I was a tomboy as a kid but I'm attracted to men not women. My best friend, who is lesbian, is far more 'feminine' than I am.

It's a very complex issue. Is homosexuality 'caused' by a recessive gene that benefits offspring when there are any? Or is it beneficial to be part of a family where some uncles and aunts don't have offspring? Or is sexual orientation decided other than strictly genetically?

It will be interesting if we ever find out the answers, as long as people don't then use those answers to tell people how they 'should' be.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

No offense taken, Aerin!

I'm pretty sure he's saying that homosexuality IS genetic - and that the evolutionary reason humanity keeps giving birth to Gay people is that as a race we need Gay people to progress us forward into all the realms (science, literature, art, etc...) where Humanity might otherwise not have gone, if we were all "normal" men (who only focused on hunting) and "normal" women (who only focused on child-rearing and the domestic realm.)

Now, of course, I don't think the point is to offend straight people, or to say that they can't be philosophers, magicians, artists, etc... as well - but it's a fascinating argument for there being some PURPOSE for Gay people in evolutionary terms (because the usual evolutionary arguments are that only the strongest/fastest are the ones that survive to have offspring, and so every generation gets stronger/faster than the one before... Looking at it that way, there's no real "evolutionary" push to men that aren't the strongest/fastest... and yet here, Edward has one very interesting answer to that!

Anonymous said...

What a great quote, Lee, thanks for sharing it. I'll be thinking about that one all day, and probably longer.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

you're right - not every man that isn't interested in hunting is gay, nor is every woman not interested in domestic/child-rearing a lesbian. That said, we could ask why are there men and women with other interests?

It's a fascinating discussion - thanks for being part of it!


Anonymous said...

Gender and sexuality get all tangled up in each other, and I think straight gender-norm folks find this very confusing.

I've always liked the old two-spirit idea, that both gender queers and sexuality queers throw something entirely Other into the mix. I'm not sure how that works evolutionarily, since evolution is all about offspring, which is about the individual genetic code...unless you think more of a sort of spiritual/cultural evolution, with a group genetic code, which I think Carpenter is implying.

Angie said...

That's an interesting idea. I could see that playing a part. [ponder/nod]

I read somewhere (sorry, I collect bits and pieces and hardly ever remember sources [duck]) that among apes, if the alpha female gets angry with one of the others and the situation looks like it might escalate to actual violence, one of the other females will often go up and offer her sex to calm her down. They didn't mention whether the males do this too, but it seems that among groups where the females mostly hang with other females and the males with other males, this could be a significant peace-keeping factor. For social animals, keeping peace and order within the group are important enough for mechanisms which support it to be inherited, so why not gay sex?

There are other animals which use sex to keep peace and/or order within a social group, too. Everyone's seen dogs or wolves using sex (humping) to establish pack hierarchy. I remember a TV program which showed the alpha female of a wolf pack humping another wolf to reinforce her dominance. Obviously this wasn't a sexual act per se, but rather purely a social act. I've read that dolphins use sex to quash the behavior of a younger dolphin who's getting annoying -- again, social animals.

I think that's probably the key, or at least a key -- same-sex behavior has important social functions (when the animals will let it [sigh]) which contribute enough to the survival of the group that they're worth selecting for.


ReadWriteGo said...

Lee - Great post, and it correlates nicely with an article I just read in Psychology Today ( This stuff is fascinating!

Unknown said...

Interesting stuff. Have you read Evolution's Rainbow? It's by a Stanford Professor whose name I forget. She studied the occurence of homosexuality throughout the animal kingdom. There are several hundred different species that have documented cases of homosexual individuals.

None of these have exactly brought about progress for their species, but they do occur generation after generation.

I'm planning on putting the book on this year's TBR list myself.

Jay Asher said...

Very interesting quote. It actually finds a nice balance by mixing the science of evolution with a sprinkling of spirituality...people having a purpose. So our existence isn't only about the most fit surviving and reproducing, but it's also about advancing humankind.

Me like!