Pinker sniffs out some sex questions

If Darwinian orthodoxy (think naturalism for a moment, not common descent) is the default god mechanism for Western intellectual elites (think New York Times editorial pages), then Steven Pinker’s “Sniffing Out the Gay Gene” piece is a rare chance to see a cluster of gods duke it out in the public square.

As always, GetReligion does not like to visit editorial pages very often. We are into news coverage of religion, as a rule. Yet this may be a case where there are more religion ghosts in a Times op-ed than in the news pages.

Every now and then, someone asks logical questions about homosexuality and natural selection. This is one of those times. The questions lead in all kinds of directions that should be interesting to reporters on the cultural right (alternative media) and left (mainstream media).

First of all, here is Pinker’s summary of the main news story, which you may already have seen elsewhere:

It sounds like something out of the satirical journal Annals of Improbable Research: a team of Swedish neuroscientists scanned people’s brains as they smelled a testosterone derivative found in men’s sweat and an estrogen-like compound found in women’s urine. In heterosexual men, a part of the hypothalamus (the seat of physical drives) responded to the female compound but not the male one; in heterosexual women and homosexual men, it was the other way around.

This is followed by the usual simple statements about massively complex research on “gay gene” questions that have caused such a, well, stink. Then the fun starts:

Homosexuality is a puzzle for biology, not because homosexuality itself is evolutionarily maladaptive (though no more so than any other sexual act that does not result in conception), but because any genetic tendency to avoid heterosexual opportunities should have been selected out long ago. Perhaps “gay genes” have some other compensating advantage, like enhancing fertility, when they are carried by women. Perhaps the environments that set off homosexuality today didn’t exist while our genes were being selected. Or perhaps the main cause is biological yet not directly genetic, like differences in hormones or antibodies that affect the fetus while it is developing.

And how is evolution linked to “the existence of homophobia”? What does all of this have to do with Dr. Laura Schlesinger? And the Boy Scouts? I would think that sex issues are tied rather tightly to issues of the survival of the fittest.

Like I said, there are lots of questions, and I don’t see even a hint of answers. Perhaps some of you do. But where you have massive questions and no answers, you should find interesting news stories — requiring chats with bright people on both sides of an issue that the MSM likes to think is settled.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    FWIW, while I don’t have any particular view on the subject myself, one of the more intriguing theories I’ve heard is this one, as summarized by conservative writer and statistician Steve Sailer:

    “The New Germ Theory actually originated in 1992 when Cochran got to wondering about the causes of male homosexuality. ‘The only thing we’ve seen worse in magnitude of genetic load [i.e. homosexuality's negative effect on Darwinian fitness] was sickle cell anemia,’ Cochran told me on Friday.

    “Male homosexuality could be a similar ‘self-destructive’ genetic defense against a major infectious disease, just as the ‘sickle cell gene’ defends against malaria at the price of increasing susceptibility to sickle cell anemia. But nobody knows what that illness could be. It would have to be major – and, presumably, relatively modern, like falciparum malaria, which is puzzling.

    “Or, as Cochran suggests, an infectious disease itself could cause homosexuality. It’s probably not a venereal germ, but maybe an intestinal or respiratory germ. If it spreads like the flu, and if it needs to strike at a particular stage of development before or shortly after birth, then more male homosexuals might be born in one season than another, just as more schizophrenics are born in late winter and in early spring, especially in cities with cold winters. This should be easily testable.

    “It’s radically unfashionable to call homosexuality a disease. But you can’t think rigorously about the gay gene theory without drawing straightforward analogies to genetic diseases. Both reduce the number of descendents, which is the number that counts in evolution.”

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  • Tom Breen

    I’d take anything Steve Sailer says with a grain of salt. He’s not a scientist, and is, after all, listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

    In December of last year, the New York Daily News wrote a story criticizing David Brooks for plugging Sailer’s work, pointing out that Sailer is a promoter of racist pseudo-science. His views on homosexuality have about as much credibility as his views on the “innate inferiority” of blacks.

  • Benny Nota

    There are a number of fallacies in the argument that “any genetic tendency to avoid heterosexual opportunities should have been selected out long ago”.

    Anyone who’s studied mathematical genetics knows full well that recessive genes cannot be bred out of a population (this is something established in the ’60s and any “scientist” who is ignorant of this isn’t worth the name). Secondly, the assumption that homosexuality is 100% dependent on “a gene” is simplistic to an extreme. There aren’t that many purely physical characteristics that can be explained by a single gene — gene clusters are a much more fruitful explanatory mechanism. Thirdly, any attempt to explain animal behaviour in terms solely of genes is too reductionist for scientists, let alone religionists. Finally, anyone who wants to feel a sense of wonder at nature’s diversity could do a whole lot worse than dipping into Bruce Bagemihl’s “Biological Exuberance”, an encyclopaedic survey of same-gender behaviour throughout the animal kingdom.

    If people are going to join in scientific debates, it should be done a) with at least some scientific understanding and backgrouind and b) leaving behind any religious presuppositions at the door.

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