Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Masks of Sexuality I

So of course this post was bound to come sooner or later. Might as well be now. I feel like there are many masks of sexuality, it's not just "sexuality." What mask a person wears depends on the situation and the people he's around at that time. You'd act one way around your guy friends, another way around your girl friends, another way around your parents/siblings, and yet another way around the person(s) you love (sexually). So sexuality is a rather amorphous thing, in my opinion, and it's like everything else in my philosophy: it's quite simple, but also so incredibly complex.

In this first post (in a series of probably 3), I want to take on the ambitious undertaking of explaining my reasoning for heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality, and why they must exist. Of course, being the science person I am, my explanation will skew towards biology, but with a bit of anthropology and psychology mixed in. So this is going to be a LONG post (just a warning). The first question seems to always be, is sexuality nature or nurture? Is it in-born or a choice? In both of those I believe it's both, and here's why.
1. Nature - genes
I don't believe there is a "gay gene," that's too simple for something as complex as human sexuality and behavior. Rather, it's more likely that there are a set of genes governing basic sexuality that have an additive effect; basically, the more of those genes are turned on/off, the greater the effect is to either side of the spectrum. For the purpose of this hypothetical set of genes, let there be 10 genes, with "on" being heterosexual and "off" being homosexual. In this way, it allows for a wide spectrum of sexuality.

Now if all 10 genes are "on" then the person is overwhelmingly heterosexual. And if all 10 genes are "off" then the person is overwhelmingly homosexual. I believe most people probably have 1 or 2 genes turned off, so they're slightly bisexual. This part is fairly simple. But can it explain why most people are heterosexual? Yes, it can.

Take for example, sickle-cell anemia. It's a mutation that's bad if a person is homozygous for it (meaning they have both sickle-cell genes). But heterozygotic individuals (with 1 normal gene and 1 sickle-cell gene) are fine and don't harm the fitness of the group, and being heterozygous for sickle-cell anemia actually protects one from malaria. So in this way, most people are still homozygous for not having sickle-cell anemia, but the gene for sickle-cell is kept in the population at low proportions because the heterozygotes are favored over both and live to pass on that mutation.

I think sexuality is much the same way. You have so many people with the genes turned on that it just overshadows those with it turned off. But since many (if not most) people have at least a few of those genes turned off, it stands to reason that some proportion will arise where all the genes are turned off. So some small proportion of the population will be homosexual, and everything in between that and heterosexual. This is very much like sickle-cell in a sense because sickle-cell only individuals don't survive, and homosexuals probably won't reproduce to pass on their genes either. So it rests to the majority with some of those genes turned off to pass that on. If this were on a curve, with 0 = all off and 10 = all on, then the curve would probably be skewed towards 10 (or rather, closer to 7 to 9) so the area under the curve is the greatest towards that end.

2. Nature - evolution
Now, some argue that homosexuality doesn't make sense in evolutionary terms, because one of the key things about evolution is that the fittest survive to pass on their genes. How then can homosexuality be reconciled with evolution if homosexual individuals are clearly not the fittest because their behavior makes it unlikely for them to pass on their genes? Well, I've an interesting theory (and a different take than other biologists).

There are studies looking at homosexuality in various animal species. It's interesting to see how homosexuality behavior seems to be mostly present in social mammals with few/no natural predators. In these situations, what factors or mechanisms might help to prevent overpopulation? Overpopulation is clearly a problem that's not conducive to fitness, and having too many individuals fighting for limited resources will put excessive burden on the environment until everything collapses. I think it's possible that homosexuality behavior in such social mammals might serve as an internal mechanism to help prevent/slow overpopulation.

The article in the gay animal link above actually says that most animals aren't strictly homosexual, but rather have some kind of bisexuality. Even so, enough individuals at any one time will be with another individual of the same gender that a inhibition against overpopulation might still occur (not as strong as if the individuals were strictly homosexual, but still). Extrapolated to humans, with our current problems in overpopulation, homosexuality might be a good thing. And anyone who's against homosexuals unknowingly want the human population to grow beyond the Earth's ability to sustain us.

But also, sex is sex and sex feels good/is fun. For animals that are only in heat (can reproduce) for a few weeks/months out of the year, it's possible that they're really horny the remainder of the year. And if they can't have sex with the opposite gender, then sex with the same gender might help release some of that sexual tension. So in addition to population control, homosexuality might serve as a byproduct to release tensions that could otherwise build up and become unhealthy.

3. Nurture - culture
Now in my anthropology courses I've learned that the Western dichotomy between straight/gay isn't present in many other human cultures. And this is interesting. We are all products of our upbringing and circumstances. And this does have an effect on everything. For example, if you grew up in a household where education and hard work was emphasized, you're like to value education and hard work. But that isn't foolproof as you still have the choice and ability to rebel against that.

And some kind of bisexuality is tolerated or even encouraged and institutionalized in many cultures. Notably might be the ancient Greeks. Homosexuality wasn't seen as something offensive to the ancient Greeks, and many individuals were indeed bisexual as well. Some of it was institutionalized into laws and customs. If I remember correctly from something I saw on the History Channel, when Spartans married, the women would approach the men in men's clothing on the first nights of marriage because up to that point, the men have only had experiences with men and might feel awkward around a full woman. Homosexual encounters were allowed before marriage and sometimes even encouraged in the military, as it could foster brotherhood and camaraderie (take that "Don't ask don't tell policy").

So this is good and all, but how does it help explain our current cultures? Particularly Western culture? Well, the same cultural influences could (and do) pressure a person to conform towards the heterosexual majority. It could suppress any same-sex attraction that person may have because it's wrong or whatnot. And circumstances might play a role too. For example (although not a great example), if you were a gay guy and every guy you grew up with you found ugly, whereas all the girls you know are insanely hot for some reason, you're probably going to be more attracted to girls than guys. So this scenario doesn't exist in today's society due to our increasingly growing connection to every corner of the world, but at one point in time it might've been potentially relevant.

In summary, culture, society, circumstances, definitely play some role in determining sexuality. And that's why it forces so many into the proverbial closet. But again, it's not foolproof and people can consciously choose to rebel and come out of the closet. Yet in many other cases, it could even succeed into "brainwashing" people into following the majority unknowingly.
So that's my 3-point theory on sexuality. Of course I've no way to prove it (and I don't think anyone will develop a way anytime soon) so it's all speculation. Compared to the nature reasons, from which I drew and extrapolated some of my biology knowledge, the nurture argument seems weaker but I still consider it valid. The end point is, heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality all exist, they all make sense, and they're probably all necessary.

That's my view anyway. Comments/opinions/feedback welcome.


Pete said...

Nice post! I agree with most of this. A few other things to take into account: hormone exposure in the womb. It would make sense if this would effect the child's sexuality. Also, it is well-documented that men with older brothers are more likely to be gay than those without.

I'm an only child, so it doesn't apply to me, and there is also lots of research on homosexuality among mixed twins: among boy-girl twins, the girl is increasingly likely to be lesbian and even if she's not, the risk of her having stillborn or handicapped children is greater.

Cody said...

For the most part, I find your explanations to be in line with what I think as well. (I also can totally relate with your views on religion) You did a very good job explaining things. I soooooo envy your writing ability. :P

B said...

I agree that sexuality is too complex to be due solely to genetics. One theory I've found that I think has some merit is Daryl Bem's Exotic Becomes Erotic theory. Good mix of nature and nurture.

James said...

Well put, as always. That's true about cultures not having the dichotomies. Mongolians marry to reproduce, there is a shortage of population in the nation, so having kids is good and very much encouraged. But there are a number of men that still have sex with other men. But there is no category for them. You get married, have kids...anything else is just what it is.