Thursday, April 1, 2010

All in the Family

Another interesting bit from the New York Times Magazine article I wrote about yesterday.

Since 2003, in addition to his investigation of female-female macaque sex, Vasey has also been studying a particular group of men in Samoa. “Westerners would consider them the equivalent of gay guys, I guess,” he told me — they’re attracted exclusively to other men. But they’re not considered gay in Samoa. Instead, these men make up a third gender in Samoan culture, not men or women, called fa’afafine. (Vasey warned me that mislabeling the fa’afafine “gay” or “homosexual” in this article would jeopardize his ability to work with them in the future: while there’s no stigma attached to being fa’afafine in Samoan culture, homosexuality is seen as different and often repugnant, even by some fa’afafine.)

There's nothing particularly remarkable about these men. "They're attracted exclusively to other men" -- presumably not to each other; if I'm right, they fit a pattern that turns up in societies around the world, including the US. Even the repugance for "homosexuality" is familiar: from Annick Prieur's Mexican vestidas who are repulsed by the idea of two mustached men kissing each other, to Megan Sinott's Thai toms and dees who reject the label "lesbian" because for them it refers "to two feminine women who are engaging in sex with each other", to any same-sex but hetero-gender-oriented people who think of two sissies having sex as "lesbianism" or "cannibalism." The ideas in this article conform to the tendency I've pointed out before, of confusing roles in sexual activity with sexual orientation.

In a paper published earlier this year, Vasey and one of his graduate students at the University of Lethbridge, Doug P. VanderLaan, report that fa’afafine are markedly more willing to help raise their nieces and nephews than typical Samoan uncles: they’re more willing to baby-sit, help pay school and medical expenses and so on. Furthermore, this heightened altruism and affection is focused only on the fa’afafine’s nieces and nephews. They don’t just love kids in general. They are a kind of superuncle. This offers support for a hypothesis that has been toyed around with speculatively since the ’70s, when E. O. Wilson raised it: If a key perspective of evolutionary biology urges us to understand homosexuality in any species as a beneficial adaptation — if the point of life is to pass on one’s genes — then maybe the role of gay individuals is to somehow help their family members generate more offspring. Those family members will, after all, share a lot of the same genes.

Yeah yeah yeah, we've heard this before. But there is no evidence to back it up: no evidence that these "superuncles" are genetically different from other Samoan men, no evidence that this pattern occurs outside Samoa, let alone that it appeared in prehistory. ("Prehistory" is a convenient place, where anything is possible, little can be proved or disproved, and people can be supposed to be driven by their biology with little interference from culture.) I expect that this "hypothesis" will dissolve when further research is done in other places and other situations; that's the normal outcome.

Is there a genetic basis for this tendency to assume that every human difference is the result of genetic difference? I once had an online exchange with a gay man who had a degree in some biological science. He said that all his scientific training required him to assume that there must be a biological cause for any human trait, including behavior. This may well be true -- so many scientists make exactly that assumption, and refuse to let go of it when it is undermined by evidence. Which is what I replied to this guy: I thought science was supposed to be a quest for truth, not the imposition of assumptions on reality. In many cases, clearly it isn't. But that makes it difficult, maybe impossible, to come up with useful, testable hypotheses about the real world.

Vasey and VanderLaan have also shown that mothers of fa’afafine have more kids than other Samoan women. And this fact supports a separate, existing hypothesis: maybe there’s a collection of genes that, when expressed in a male, make him gay but when expressed in a woman, make her more fertile. Like Wilson’s theory, this idea was also meant to explain how homosexuality is maintained in a species and not pushed out by the invisible hand of Darwinian evolution. But unlike Wilson’s hypothesis, it doesn’t try to find a sneaky way to explain homosexuality as an evolutionary adaptation; instead, it imagines homosexuality as a byproduct of an adaptation. It’s not too different from how Vasey explains why his female macaques insistently mount one another.

Again, Vasey and VanderLaan are assuming that having more kids must be genetically determined. It could be (almost anything is possible), but there is no scientific evidence to support it, no reason to believe it, and of course the very idea has its roots in long-discredited scientific racism. This "hypothesis" reminds me of Dean Hamer's genetic marker theory for gay men, which has not been replicated, but still gets cited by biological determinists of various sexual orientations.

Read that second sentence carefully: "this fact supports" an already existing "hypothesis": "maybe there's a collection of genes ...". There's no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland. (I also notice that the reporter is violating the requirement of not calling the fa'afafine "gay" in this paragraph; if the Samoans refuse to work with Vasey in the future, we'll know who to blame, or who to thank.) I'm beginning to suspect that, since it is now well established that a single-gene theory can't explain the traits or behavior that biological determinists have their eyes on, they are now stipulating "collections of genes" to suggest a vague complexity that they don't understand either. ("Predisposition" was a popular hand-waving term for a while too.) This is a pretty speculation, but it isn't even a hypothesis yet.

Something else occurs to me. It looks as though the Times writer (and possibly Vasey too), however he tiptoes around the delicate cultural sensibilities of the Samoans, does not agree that the fa'afafine are not "gay" or "homosexual." Presumably they both buy into the standard scientific conception of homosexuality as a "third gender" (far from being a primitive notion of colorful native cultures, this is the foundation of contemporary scientific work on homosexuality), where the "homosexual" is by definition and genetic endowment the "catcher" sexually. (In women, the "homosexual" is the one in the smoking jacket, smoking the cigar, with a dildo.) So there's a lot of same-gender copulation going on this world, that the psychologists and biologists (along with the vestidas, the fa'afafine, the toms and dees, the bakla, the katoey, and so on) can't begin to account for, and may not even be aware of. The biological types they postulate can only be tip of the iceberg of same-sex eroticism, yet apparently these scientists and science writers are only interested in this sub-group, because it fits their primitive concept of what sexuality is.