Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Natural mechanisms that make some women have more babies may make fewer men sire them; more on the Immutability Argument

In recent years, there have been some credible claims that sexual orientation (and gender identity, which is a different thing) has a biological basis.  Of course, this has been debated for years, back to the time of Chandler Burr’s 1996 book “A Separate Creation” (Hyperion).

For example, on Nov. 18, 2014, Nature World News has an article “Homosexuality is genetic, strongest evidence yet”.  The basic idea is that a gene (or set of genes) on the X chromosome might make women who carry it more fertile and likely to have more children (and bear them as healthy, without miscarriages).  The same genes might make some men less interested in women (but more satisfied by submissive behavior), or mighty in rarer cases affect gender identity.  Or they might affect personality in some basic way like “polarity”, the concept developed by Paul Rosenfels in the 1970s.

But a 2013 Slate article by Joseph Stern “Born this Way?” presents evidence that men with older brothers are somewhat more likely to be gay.  The article argues that this does not work out well for a lot of gay men, who may be born onto larger families that tend to be more religious and conservative.

The mechanism could be epigenetic, that prenatal influence on the limbic system of the developing brain (especially the hypothalamus) in some ways quasi-feminize it, although not the rest of the body.  But the same influences on a female child may make her more fertile as an adult.

There is a shocking lesson in the collective nature of biology and evolution.  With many animals, raning from social insects to wolves, not all members reproduce.  In some (lions) not all are allowed to survive.  Nature tends to favor reproduction by the most “successful” species.  But if a genetic system makes some women have more healthy babies, at the cost of some men siring fewer (or even no) children, the tribe as a whole may reproduce more and thrive, a net gain in population over generations.  It’s even more ironic:  the more fertile women are more likely to have second or third sons that turn out to be gay. But part of Nature’s trick seems to turn out strong and healthy additional sons who do things other than reproduce, creating other cultural tensions.  (None of this theory seems to apply to lesbians, which is a whole different discussion.)

So it's women who control a society's birthrate and population replacement. Patriarchial men (and authoritarian politicians like Vladimir Putin) don't like to admit it.  Back in the 1980s, conservative author George Gilder admitted as much when he spoke of "female sexual superiority" as essential in nature.

Of course, this raises issues of social specialization, which run counter to modern ideas of equality. The Catholic Church, with considerable difficulty and controversy, tries to utilized this with a celibate priesthood. Some Native American societies have treated gay men as having priestly or altruistic functions, to serve the reproductive aims of others.  No one would view Alan Turing, who practically saved western civilization from Nazi Germany himself, as subservient or “second class” (Benedict Cumberbatch plays him as personally quite assertive in “The Imitation Game”) – until the British government shamefully punished him and drove him to suicide in the early 1950s, only to make an official apology recently.

But, all this said, it is still wrong to use “immutability” (or “born that way”) as the sole moral basis for “gay equality”. The trouble is, many other behaviors are genetically or biologically influenced, and we don’t accept these actions.  Psychopathy may be partly genetic, and may have helped men survive in more primitive environments of the past.  But we can’t accept some psychopathic behavior today. Susceptibility to alcohol and drug addiction seems to be partly genetic, but we hold people responsible for what they do when they drive.

The right question to ask of “homophobes”, in my view, was “why is my personal life your business anyway”?  That’s the libertarian pose.  It’s true there was a serious “chain letter” argument made about public health in the mid 1980s, which fortunately did not hold political traction because it did not turn out to be correct.  The biggest reasons for prejudice against homosexuals – men particularly – seems like a real historical mystery. It’s very hard to articulate, and most younger gay men today have no clue as to what it was like in the 1950s and 1960 (before Stonewall, and long before AIDS).  But a big clue comes from Sam Nunn’s arguments in 1993, in the early days of the debate over Bill Clinton’s proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military.

The biggest problem seemed, in my own experience, was that my own presence in a somewhat intimate environment (a college dorm in 1961) reminded less secure men that they could fail physically to make it with women.  I seemed to be the alien observer, ready to judge who was the most fit and “desirable” to even have a lineage.  (It sounds like a private kind of fascism.) Kibitzing or gawking but not playing – not having skin in the game – is a moral no-no with a lot of people, even if it directly has little to do with the law.  Other straight men would rather see someone like me make it with women and even be potential romantic rivals, than be someone who can make them feel less adequate and who could send a signal to women not to be submissive to them. It’s a bit of a paradox.   One problem is that I would have to make a female want me and feel satisfied.  But to other straight men that would be a reassuring sight – that there is indeed someone for everyone.  Another instantiation of this whole line of thinking is the idea that you don’t allow sexuality to be expressed in any form (even fantasy or masturbation) until marriage.  So you have to make anything else not OK, and make examples of those who deviate.

Ironically, once I was in the Army (in 1968) all of this melted away because the authoritarian, regimented environment kept distractions at bay anyway.
Today, as a whole, young better educated heterosexual men are not as concerned about “the lives of others” as was the case in past generations.  But that’s mainly the case only in the West, where society is wealthier, and where people put more emphasis on their own “accomplishments” and put less psychological capital in future generations.  And that’s underneath a great deal of international tension today.

The biggest question, when characterizing the moral compass that should be expected of anyone, is where are the limits on personal autonomy?  Are people born into a world that automatically confers on them certain obligations that they don’t choose?  If so, then, as people are born with different biologically influenced propensities, everyone would face a unique pattern of “sacrifice” for a supposed common good, which could include sustainability.  Debates about equality would fall to the wayside.  But modern western liberalism (and libertarianism) support the idea of self-definition, in conjunction with harmlessness and “keeping promises”.  The “moral problem” (or “bad karma”) may be that practically all of us have dependencies on others who made sacrifices for us, and we can’t see these hidden sacrifices of the past now.  So, in principle, it sounds possible to expect anyone to place a priority on helping to raise the next generation of children (even for the childless) and to take care of others.  But this confounds the modern idea of choice and narrow idea of “personal responsibility”, even as it affects the meaning of marriage.

No comments: