Evolution and The Gay: On research that “smoking” leads to lesbians


There’s a new round of the nature-nurture debate firing up thanks to a book by Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences neuroscientist Dick Swaab (no, really), who theorizes that an expectant mother’s lifestyle can affect the chances of her children being born bisexual or gay. For example, Swaab suggests that smoking, drugs, and stress can increase the likelihood of the stork arriving with a certain awesome flair.


As Lucy Hallowell pointed out when I brought the article to the AfterEllen ladies to knock around, Swaab’s theorizing isn’t terribly new in the grand scheme of things, and may fit in with chemistry-of-the-womb research on women being more likely to have a gay son after having other sons, or with other, more “nature”-based studies on the likelihood of gay men and lesbians to have different finger-length ratios or even different hair whorls than straight people.

Swaab himself believes that his theories are a positive thing for the LGBT community overall: More proof that sexuality is made, rather than chosen, and shouldn’t be demonized.

Me, I’m less sure. This sounds to me like yet more pressure that’s going to be brought to bear on pregnant women, who are already subject to constant scolding and are-you-SUUUUURE-you’re-not-a-bad-parent? trolling from the media, not to mention often-shouted helpful advice from strangers. It also sounds like a new wave of pressuring women to quit their jobs lest the stress turn their kids gay—or for women to not enjoy themselves too much, lest they spin the kids off plumb that way. (Do you really think Evangelicals won’t immediately issue tips for keeping the environment of the womb as straight as possible? And do you really think mothers won’t get blamed for “turning” their kids queer?)

Same Sex Couple Give Birth To Twins On The Same Day

It reminds me of the early psychoanalytical bunk that dictated that gay men were produced by “overbearing” mothers, or even of the old Victorian superstition that a frightened or startled pregnant mother could imprint a mental trauma on her developing child’s body.

…And that led me to what really bothers me about these articles: Even the LGBT-friendly, biology-based ones about finger length and birth order treat anything other than straightness as something that goes wrong, as a fascinating and often fun glitch in our biology, but nevertheless a glitch. These articles view anything other than straightness as natural, yes, but also as a puzzling evolutionary mistake.

Bull. (Speaking of things in nature that sometimes exhibit homosexual behavior.)

That misperception happens because most people don’t really get evolution, or how primate societies work. I’m firmly of the opinion that if you look at both, you’ll see that the wide spectrum of human sexuality is a feature, not a bug.

I repeat: The Gay/The Bi/The Queer is a big, awesome feature that helped us oh-so-homo sapiens not only flourish, but take over the goddamned planet. Attention must be paid.

First, The big one: Evolution is not about having the most children.

Seriously, take that one in, because it speaks to the general public’s biggest misconception about evolution: Just deposit enough sperm and/or pump out enough kids and you’ve done everything you need to do, right?

Well, no. If I have 30 kids and Heather Hogan has one kid, sure, it looks like I’m winning the evolution game for a while. But if all of my offspring are unable to resist going pogo-sticking on cliffsides at night, things start to even up.


And if my remaining five kids who make it to reproductive age can’t shut up about primate social dynamics long enough for someone to want to reproduce with them, but Heather’s one kid forms a stable bond and then produces two kids of her own, guess who just won?

Evolutionary success is about producing fertile offspring. Not just any old offspring; offspring that live to adulthood and are healthy enough to produce and raise kids of their own. And those offspring need to keep being fertile over generations.

That’s why your parents got so freaking antsy about when they would be getting grandchildren the second you reached adulthood—deep down, they know that until they have at least one grandchild, they’re not done yet. And it drives them up the walls in a primal, churning way that they cannot explain.

(That last bit about evolutionary success being about producing fertile offspring, by the way, is just one of the many reasons why dolts who claim that rape was a “viable evolutionary strategy” for low-ranking primitive males are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. But we’ll get to that another time.)

So what does this have to do with The Gay/The Bi/The Queer/The Curious saving humanity and propelling it to the point of world domination? Everything. Keep your pants on. God.

Get primed for some primates!

So if you’ll look at nonhuman primate societies—JUST FOR A MINUTE. STAY WITH ME.—you’ll notice that, as a general rule, you have your happy family unit or troupe or cluster of adult females with juveniles or hippie bonobo lovefest commune, and then when the kids start hitting reproductive age, you have a problem: It’s time to mix things up genetically, and pronto.

So in most primate social systems—and, hell, in most human social systems—the adolescents of one gender (and only one gender) leave home and find some primates who aren’t quite so closely related to bonk. (Only one gender leaves, of course, because if Bobby And Cindy Bonobo both leave the hippie commune and both end up at the same new commune three hills over, you have a problem again. But excellent TV ratings!)

So there the lonely young-adult primate sits, literally at the edge of an entirely new society, wondering how to be welcomed into the fold and have access to food and enough communal muscle to help keep one from getting eaten and, eventually, be allowed to score with new mates.

It is true that often that new face is welcomed by primates of the opposite gender who are really looking forward to a new face at the singles watering hole, thank you very much. But if the new member of the group really wants to be in, to rise up in the ranks and have access to the most desirable mates and enough good food to be healthy and enough protection to not get bullied out of the group or eaten, he or she has to forge and nurture some same-sex friendships, and fast.

In fact, if you look at our extremely close cousins the bonobos, you’ll see that it’s the females, and not the males, who welcome and draw in new young females hoping to join the group. And those new young females are welcomed in with close friendships.

Very close friendships.

In fact, those friendships invariably involve a practice that is demurely called “G-G rubbing” or “genito-genital rubbing.” It will, uh, look familiar to many of you. And those sexually charged friendship bonds with other females will actually be the closest bonds the new member forms in her adult life.

Obviously, bonobos are an extreme example. They are perhaps the most freewheeling, sex-havingest primates in all creation, and they are not big on secret longings or subtext. If someone made Rizzoli and Isles with bonobos, it would be called Oh, Did You Have a Crime You Wanted Solved? Because We’re Pretty Busy Having Tons of Sex.


To claw my way back to the point, same-sex friendships become important in a whole lot of primate societies, including us chatty hominids. Being able to form intense, long-term bonds with members of the same sex becomes a key evolutionary advantage: More protection, resources, and access to mates; more help looking out for your offspring (“For the last time, will you get the hell away from that cliff!”), and maybe even a little help keeping those offspring healthy and fed should you get injured.

So primate brains with a touch—or even a whole bunch—of The Gay actually end up having a significant evolutionary advantage. The ability to quickly form intense same-sex friendships, or, yes, more-than-friendships would put primitive you and your potential offspring in a much better position in countless ways.

I’m convinced that that’s why there’s so much variation in human sexuality instead of just ramrod-straightness. Everyone has experienced that platonic friendship with a mysterious extra oomph to it, even the narrowest of the straight. We’re even up to where we can refer to them a little bit in this weird, half-open and half-terrified culture we’re in: The bromance, the girl crush.

Those intense bonds that form completely outside of family ties, whether they’re explicitly sexual or just have a tiny, mysterious extra pull to them now and then, are what make us more likely to fight for each other, more likely to help feed each other, and more likely to commit acts of altruism—another thing that seems to make the individual lose the evolutionary race in the short run, but helps the whole species win the marathon.

Sure, a branch of humans that only had members that only experienced same-sex attractions might not do so well in the being fruitful and multiplying department. But a branch that only produced heterosexual attractions wouldn’t win the evolutionary game either.

Let’s take another look at that hypothetical mother who is more likely to produce a gay (or, presumably, bi) son after she’s had a few straight ones. The birth-order articles I’ve seen mention this as an oopsie—an unintended side effect of the mother’s body’s reaction to having had so many male hormones inside it.

But that logic only holds if you think of evolution as just a race to produce the most babies, which we are all now far too sophisticated to do.

If you look at Mama Arrgh’s sons as they grow up, the straight ones help the whole clan with the hunting and the gathering and the everybody-not-being-eaten-by-sabretooths, sure, but as they compete to be noticed and chosen by the available women in the group (We will talk about science’s tendency to look at women as completely passive prizes that men “win” another time…), the straight Arrgh boys foster intense rivalries and resentments right along with the children they’re producing.

But their exclusively gay younger brother, Oog, isn’t interested in intense competition to be noticed and chosen by the women in the group beyond general this-is-what-we-all-do stuff of joining in the footcoconut games and whatnot. Oog helps with the hunting and the gathering and the everybody-not-being-eaten-by-sabretooths, but he’s also interested in forming strong bonds with men in other families and he’s not pissing unrelated males off in a way that his brothers are. He’s a team player, if you will. An ambassador of goodwill for his family.

Unrelated males are more likely to form intense bonds with Oog—even the ones that are just friendships—with no element of sexual rivalry in them, which means that those unrelated males and their families are less likely to be so hostile to his straight-sex-having brothers. They’re thus more likely to share food with Oog’s kin group and look out for his nieces and nephews and maybe expend a little extra effort when it comes to pulling someone from the Argh family out of that sabretooth’s jaws.

Oog is not some mistake that Mama Arrgh produced, he is a straight up evolutionary advantage. She’s already got sons who are working double-time on making sure her genes get passed along. Now she’s got one who is making it more likely that her grandchildren—the big prize here, her real endgame—are healthy, well-nourished, and make it to reproductive age themselves.

Her grandchildren also have better connections to unrelated families, which means that the ones who stay with the clan have better inroads to meeting new mates themselves. Thanks to her boy Oog, Mama Arrgh is, if I may use a technical term, absolutely crushing it when it comes to evolutionary success. And her cave looks freaking amazing.

And if we get a little more real-world messy with this and assume that Mama Arrgh is actually having children with a range of orientations and attractions, her chances of having many surviving, well-fed, well-connected grandchildren only gets better. If her whole branch of humans is doing the same, they’re going to outcompete that strictly straight branch a few hills down in a matter of generations.

Swaab’s work may turn out to be bunk or it may be a piece of Something Interesting. And I actually enjoy those hair-whorl and finger-length factoids—even though I know how my fingers compare, I still double-check them every time that one comes up. But please, article writers and article readers, let’s stop looking at these traits as glitches, stop assuming that they’re just quirky signs that we’re nature’s little inexplicables, the mistakes that happen on the way to churning out more perfect straightness.

The messy, uncategorizable, wide range of human sexuality is a big, wonderful feature, not a bug. And it’s one that the whole species should be proud of.

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