Evolution of Sexuality 26 June 2006Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Science, Sexuality.
In a recent review, seedmagazine.com lays out the arguments of Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden in her recent article in Science and her book of last year, Evolution’s Rainbow. “The Gay Animal Kingdom” stirs up controversy in the field of evolution by laying out Roughgarden’s basic argument that Darwin’s notion of “sexual selection” was simply wrong, as evidenced by the over 400 species of vertibrates who exhibit wide range of sexual behaviors. [As a side note, some of Roughgarden’s detractors point to the fact that she is an MTF transsexual to discredit her; but I find those arguments to be disingenuous at best and really beside the point. Roughgarden makes thorough, substantiated arguments that should be addressed on their merits.] As I read the review (full disclosure: I’ve not read Roughgarden’s original article or book, so I may misrepresent her arguments based on the review), I couldn’t help but have some pretty serious doubts as to the reliability of Roughgarden’s conclusions (I also found it problematic journalistically that the serious doubts of Roughgarden’s peers were relegated to a pargraph at the end of the article).
As a background to my objections, let me bring up some social scientific data. In a post a couple weeks ago, I laid out the basic outlines of the study of the biological origins or basis of homosexuality among humans (see Biology and Homosexuality). It is pretty clear that there is a strong biological component of same-sex attraction and behavior, but that’s only part of the story. I had mentioned on that post a work by Stephen O. Murray called Homosexualities, which is a kind of clearinghouse of anthropological and historical data about how numerous cultures around the world have organized same-sex sexuality, how the understood it, controled it and channeled in through their society. Murray argues that there have been in human history for basic patterns that overlay the specifics on the ground: age-differentiated homosexuality (that is, between younger and older individuals (e.g., ancient Greece)); gender-differentiated homosexuality (where same-sex sex is understood in terms of gender presentation of the individuals (e.g., certain Latin American cultures where a “straight” man (masculine) has penetrative sex with a “gay” man (feminine) without loss of status or aquiring a salient sexual difference)); ritual homosexuality (associated with a religious rite or practice, usually a subset of age- and gender-differentiated homosexualities (e.g., hajira in older hindu practices, which is a gender-differentiated ritual homosexuality)); and finally egalitarian homosexuality (e.g., gay and lesbian identities in contemporary U.S., and a mode of homosexuality spreading around the world right now). [I would be interested to read a similar breakdown of the ways that human beings practice opposite-sex sexuality.]
The point is that although there is ample evidence for the biology of homosexuality, the complexity and diversity of human sexual expression can only be explained by bringing the biological and the cultural together (where they belong). It is hopefully intuitively obvious to most that human beings have sex for many different reasons, as I’ve explained elsewhere before: horniness/arousal, boredom, to give pleasure, to receive pleasure, to dominate, to inflict pain, to establish social status, to reproduce, to fulfill an expected role, religious or legal duty, gender identity, power, bonding or intimacy, etc. In fact, when you think about why human beings have sex, it is rare indeed that an individual has sex because of his or her orientation; that is, being homosexually oriented or heterosexually oriented doesn’t seem to be a reason to have sex in and of itself. Further, given the many social and personal reasons that human beings actually have sex, it should be hopefully clear that, although perhaps related and overlapping, sexual orientation and sexual behavior are not the same thing. This point is vitally important when trying to see both the biological and social scientific data at the same time.
Problem 1: The review represents the evolutionary theory of sexuality as positing that homosexuality is maladaptive (it is unclear if this is just the journalist’s take or if it comes from Roughgarden). Most theorists have actually quite a bit more comlicated notions of the mechanisms of adaptability. Evolution doesn’t select against something unless it causes harm in the current environment. All organisms have “extra” features or qualities which are actually adaptively neutral. Homosexuality (or gender variance) may or may not be one of these “peacock tails”, depending on the species in question. In otherwords, homosexuality may simply be adaptively neutral in the species current environment(s).
Agreement 1: Roughgarden argues that when you study animal sexual behavior, it becomes clear that among vertebrates, and especially mammals, sexual behavior is much more than mere reproduction. Most notably, sex serves vital social roles, especially of bonding and conflict resolution, of utmost importance among social animals. This seems pretty obvious to me, given the many reasons why humans have sex. The trick, though, is to adequately connect the social and biological for any given species.
Actually, following John Dewey’s naturalism, I believe that the dichotomy of culture-biology is a false one to begin with, as the two are actually parts of the same thing and completely interconnected; culture is produced and transformed through biological pathways (e.g., sensory data, brain work, etc.) and our bodies and environments are shaped by cultural perceptions. The connection between these two is inextricable.
Problem 2: The article (Roughgarden?) just completely misrepresents the state of the field of “sexual selection” on two levels. First, the current field of evolutionary biology sees to overlapping processes occuring simultaneously, micro- and macroevolution. At the micro level, natural selection works to gradually effect change within species; at the macro level, when for whatever reason a major environmental upheaval occurs that requires adaptation or extinction, a number of processes kick in for speciation. [I’m ignoring the irritating academic pissing matches between Dawkins and Gould’s, going for what seems to be a synthesis of the evidence on mechanisms as we now have it.] The problem is with Darwin himself, who argued that sexual selection was a mechanism of perpetuating fitness as males competed for access to females; given what we now know about evolution and the wide variety of sexual behaviors in the animal kingdom, this position must be taken only provisionally, that is, it may be true in a particular species at a particular time, but isn’t a biological constant. Secondly, the idea of sexual selection in current theory has moved beyond Darwin’s early formulation. We now think of sexual selection as one of the primary methods of micro-evolution, or change within a species.
The article blows off Darwin’s peacock example as dated and no longer viable; yet the data are pretty clear that species evolve appearance and behavioral traits based on sexual preferences. Their are many features of organisms that serve only to attract mates (e.g., bower birds). This critique is given short-shrift at the end of the Seed review, which is too bad. One biologist quotes makes the point that Roughgarden has basically set up a Darwin Straw Man who doesn’t exist. And so, to me, the current understanding of sexual selection seems not at all affected by the data Roughgarden presents; I cannot see how the diversity of sexual behaviors among vertebrates eliminates the power of sexual selection. Roughgarden’s version of sexual selection is that it is a straightforward form of reproduction, which is why she wants to reject it; this however isn’t at all what sexual selection has come to mean, and indeed, sexual selection has never been used to explain the origins of homosexuality.
Agreement 2: To be fair, Roughgarden’s argument is actually that because of the centrality of heterosexual reproduction in the propogation of species, homosexuality has been seen as an anomoly or a genetic mistake by biologists. That is an issue that is important. One of Roughgarden’s projects is to prove that homosexuality is not maladaptive. As I mentioned above, homosexuality among humans is probably evolutionarily neutral. It however might be adaptive in a different species. And this brings me to problem 3.
Problem 3: Roughgarden treats “homosexuality” as a pan-species thing. This is a tricky discussion, because we must both be able to compare across species, but we must never collapse like traits in different species as being the same. So on one hand, it is highly instructive to note that across vertebrate species, homosexual behavior is virtually universal, which at the very least, gives incredible weight to the ‘naturalness’ of homosexuality. On the other hand, the relative adaptiveness or homosexuality in any given species would depend on that species’ characteristics and environment. For example, the life-partners (and sometimes threesomes) among male bottle-nose dolphins might be highly adaptive, by giving these pairs protection against predators and companionship; these males often hunt for females and copulate with females together from time to time. Among bonobos, where basically everyone has sex with everyone else, there is perhaps a strong social cohesion created, such that sex in general is highly adaptive. But does that mean that “homosexuality” write large and across cultures is adaptive? I don’t think so. Just as different human societies have organized sexuality differently, I would argue that different species do so for specific evolutionary/adaptive reasons, and that the function or adaptiveness of human homosexuality has to be judged in its own, species-specific context.
For a great run down of the careful thinking that must be done in comparing species’ sexual behaviors, I highly recommend a book I’ve actually read, Marlene Zuk’s Sex and Selection: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals.
Agreement 3: The easy gendering of sexual behaviors as Darwin’s Victorian context understood it have indeed been deeply assimilated into Western consciousness (although I would argue that the origins are actually Western culture itself, and not Darwin, who was simply making the basic mistake of confirmation bias in his research).
Problem 4: Roughgarden ultimately draws the incredibly problematic conclusion that human beings are actually biologically bisexual and that it is only culture that “trains” us in our sexuality. This is an idea with origins in Freud that will not die. Besides my frequent irritation with Freudian theory, my real problem here is that there is no, absolutely no, historical or biological evidence that would support this. Instead, we have evidence that some species may be biologically bisexual, most notably, bonobos. Other species may have a primary homosexuality that is interrupted for occasional breeding, like bottlenose dolphins. Human populations, as far as we can tell, have a couple things in common accross time and place: humans tend, as a species, to pair bond (the exceptions of polygyny and promiscuity speak to the complexity of our sexual behavior) and that homosexuality, although with a function in every society we know about, has always been a minority thing. It could be that our species is evolving toward a more bonobo-like existence, and it is also clear that there are social contexts wherein people can have a relative comfort with all kinds of sexual contact and behavior (cuddle pile, anyone?), but as a whole, we ultimately tend to choose a bond with another individual (a series of bonds, usually), and they tend to be heterosexual. I do believe that there are some humans who are bisexual and homosexual; but most really are biologically heterosexual. Human sexuality seems to run, with what we know now, on orientations, and its adaptability needs to be studied on its own terms.
In short, I think Roughgarden has really over-reached.
This should not prevent us from examining human sexual diversity and unweaving the connections between biology and culture; nor should it prevent us from examining the possible evolutionary functions of sexuality in humans. I don’t think this means that our tastes are determined by genes; nor do I believe that our behaviors are determined by culture. But I do believe, given what we know about sexuality (biology, evo-devo, genetics, sociology, anthropology, history) at the moment, that there are basic orientations that our cultures work with for various reasons and with varying results.
Cool Blog: Cognitive Daily 25 June 2006Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Science.
Just trundling around the blogosphere this morning and stumbled upon a blog that is a kind of clearinghouse of cognitive science research and commentary.
Women, Priesthood and Religious Struggle 20 June 2006Posted by Todd in Christianity, Gender, Religion.
Having been raised in a religion that demands obedience and deference to leaders, I find the internal strife of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. refreshing. The threat of schism has been looming since the Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson to its bishopric. Yesterday, the American Episcopal church elected Katharine Jefferts Schori to be the Primate of the American church, to serve a term of 9 years. At least three diocese of the church who do not recognize the ordination of women have decried the retreat from tradition and have even said that Bishop Jeffrets Schori won't be welcome in their churches.
All of this, however, feels exciting to me because the structure of the church is so much different from the Mormonism I grew up with. Here you have a group of people who are actually struggling with each other over what compassion means, what the message of Jesus actually was, what it means to embrace our humanity and extend an arm of welcome and love to the outcast of society. And in having that discussion, what does that mean for a 2000 year old religion, especially a religion, along with the other monotheisms, whose historical claims have been severely undermined in the past 25 years.
As someone who doesn't believe in a separate, transcendant, personal God and one who values and insists on evidence and rational thought for the establishment of knowledge, I still find a depth of possibilities in the Christian tradition, possibilities missed and denied by most Christian churches in America today. Perhaps the Episcopal church, and other denominations whose focus is on ethics rather than orthodoxy, are working out a Christianity that can still be relevant in the 21st century.
Salon.com's analysis struck a chord with me:
The struggle isn't just about gayness, of course, but, rather, a more fundamental conflict between believers who crave certainty and those who embrace ambiguity; those who insist Scripture is inerrant and unchanging, delivered once and for all time, and those who believe the Bible is only part of God's ongoing revelation. The struggle is also about how to define a Christian: as one who seeks to keep religion “pure” or one who welcomes outcasts. It's hardly a conflict unique to Anglicanism or, for that matter, Christianity. As Chris Linzey, an English priest who edited a book on Anglicans and homosexuality, wrote, “The agenda of conservatives is a rolling one: today it is gays, but biblical inerrancy, interfaith worship, women bishops, remarriage after divorce will surely follow. The logic of all purity movements is to exclude.”
And yet God, according to the stories we know, tends to show up in the most unlikely places: in humiliated, unclean women, in helpless babies, speaking in ways that upset the established order and turn tradition on its head. As with Bishop Robinson, Jefferts Schori may provoke schism, and further dismembering of a denomination that has shakily held together despite differences in style, politics and theology. But she may also be a reminder that the institution of the church — of any human religion — is, finally, so much smaller than the promise it embodies.
The book was horrible. I couldn't make it past the first two pages. Among the worst prose I've read in my life.
The movie was boring. Except for the hot british guy (Paul Bettany) made up like a homicidal albino standing naked in front of the mirror to beat himself…with a flog! Dirty monkies…
While perusing Butterflies and Wheels this morning, I happened upon a scathing critique of western culture for even giving Dan Brown the time of day, by Joseph Hoffman, head of the Center for the Scientific Study of Religion. The concluding paragraph of “Death by Da Vincititis: Of Professorial Pimps and Humanist Harlots” says it all:
I once cringed to read Robert Heinlein’s judgement, that, “The difference between science and the fuzzy subjects is that science requires reasoning while those other subjects merely require scholarship.” Yet what hope is there even for the fuzzy subjects if specialists market their wares with an indifference to “certainty” – imperfect as it may be in history – and a contempt for judgement? And what hope for the fuzziest of thinkers outside the academy when scholars at some of our best universities convince themselves that their badly reasoned judgements are as good as true because they conform to a social matrix in which truth is a negotiation about facts. The Da Vinci Code says nothing so loudly as that the academy, which once rewarded caution as much as originality, has arrived at Hannah Arendt’s endpoint, where the choice is between the original and the irrelevant, and where what passes for learning “is the development of a pseudo-scholarship which actually destroys its object.”
Academic Freedom 15 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Cultural Critique, Politics.
In the now stunningly long thread about Prof. Nielsen's dismissal from BYU, much of the argument has been revolving around the issue of Academic Freedom. I've been trying to take large, complex issues and squeeze them into little blog comments, to little effect. And so I thought it would be worthwhile to put some great articles up here for those readers interested in thinking through issues of Academic Freedom with more care and detail.
First, an important print debate between David Horowitz (a right-wing culture crusader, and author of the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights” which would seek to exert state control over university education) and Stanley Fish (a long-time professor and university administrator and erstwhile commentator at the Chronicle of Higher Education).
And finally, a couple weeks ago, Michael Bérubé delivered a speech to the AAUP in which he addressed the Horowitz campaign and the meaning of Academic Freedom in our current political climate, and the importance of defending academia from state control. [I would also highly recommend reading the comments section to Berube's piece.]
These will give you a feel for the debates going on both within the academy and in state legislatures around the country right now. Hopefully, it will also illustrate what is at stake in this struggle and illuminate what academic freedom should actually be.
Earlier today, a guest raised a morality argument about homosexuality by conflating it with pedophilia, a favorite and hateful red herring of the conservative anti-gay agenda. Here is a modified version of something I wrote for another forum when someone posed the question whether it is ethical or worthwhile to compare homosexuality to pedophilia, even if the two are apples and oranges. I'm sure most of you can skip this post, as you already understand how ridiculous this conflation is, but recently I've been having a lot of believing and practicing Mormons stopping by, so I figure it is worth rehashing some of this publicly.
When is it a useful and meaningful project to compare homosexuality with pedophilia? Or is it always inappropriate, given their incommensurability as categories?
1. The problem is that since the mid-19th century, homosexuality has been conflated in the Western mind with pedophilia, because many of the early sexologists mis-categorized homosexuality as a psychopathology. To be fair, some sexologists (e.g., Havlock Ellis and Mangus Hirschfeld) understood quite early that homosexuality was not pathological, and made arguments for its naturalness and the rights of gay and lesbian individuals and even transgendered people as early as the 1910s. These researches figured out a long time ago that pedophilia was quite different. Unfortunately, in the public mind, especially where religion is involved, the conflation of the two has been long-lasting and intractable. “Save Our Children” is a favorite rallying cry of Christian anti-gay forces, from Anita Bryant to Pat Robertson to Russel M. Nelson (Mormon apostle). So when in the course of public discussions about gay rights people casually compare homosexuality and pedophilia, people accept the association as a given, without thinking about what they are saying.
Because of the refusal of such false and calomnous ideas to die, we live in a culture where we will inevitably have the conversations comparing pedophilia to homosexuality. [We should also be comparing to heterosexuality, but that doesn't happen.] And so I say, in the words of our fuhrer, W., Bring It On. Let's have the argument, and once and for all dislodge this bit of deeply harmful bullshit from our collective consciousness.
2. If you frame the comparison as the etiology of homosexuality vs. that of pedophilia, it seems like an incomplete question. If pedophiles are claiming that their sex acts are the result of a 'sexual orientation' and not a socio-pathology, then pedophilia must be compared to heterosexuality as well. Whether or not it is a sexual orientation comparable to homosexuality/heterosexuality is a valid scientific question that can be researched. I won't rehearse all the data in detail, but I will point out the basics. Whereas homosexuals and heterosexuals have no demonstrable socialization commonalities as groups, pedophiles do; and whereas both homosexuality and heterosexuality are demonstrably heritable, no studies have found any evidence of heritability among pedophiles.
What emerges among pedophiles is a picture of idividuals who are sociopathic. Some kinds of sociopathology are biological (faulty frontal lobes, usually); but other kinds are acquired and/or learned. In the case of pedophiles, they share almost universally histories of childhood violence (not necessarily sexual) and as an adult, the need to control or hurt using sex as the weapon. Pedophilia almost always manifests as a pathology that seeks to control its object. Key here, these are similar pathologies as those found in other sexual criminals, such as serial rapists or spousal abusers.
To return to the question at hand, to make comparisons among heterosexuals, homosexuals, and pedophiles is a perfectly legitimate thing to do scientifically. In fact, we learn alot from doing so. We learn that pedophiles actually are a different category altogether from the basic sexual orientations of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and in fact belong in the cateogries of criminal pathologies. You discover that pedophilia has the characteristics of rapists and spousal abusers, for example: 1) need to control, 2) inability to empathize, 3) the sincere belief that their victims “want it” or “deserve it”, 4) sexual pleasure from violence, etc.
This then helps us more clearly see that heterosexuality and homosexuality describe an individual's orientation separate from a sexual pathology. A heterosexual man, for example, can be a pedophile who preys on little boys; homosexual woman can be a spousal abuser.
In the end, the key thing to remember is that the conflation and comparison of homosexuality with pedophilia is a red herring at best, and a homophobic lie at worst the perpetuates hatred, fear, and violence against gay men and women.
Human Evolution (Book of the Week) 14 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Evolution.
I didn't make it all the way through Theory and Reality yet, but will be picking it back up in a few days. I find the philosophies and arguments in scientific method to be stimulating, to say the least, but the reading is challenging me to rethink a lot of my treasured assumptions about research and science. So I needed to take a break. Here's the next book on my list:
Roger Lewin has written a lot about the development of evolutionary theory and especially about the rapidly progressing field of human evolution. I just finished the first “unit” in this textbook this morning, and I'm really excited. I feel I finally get the relationship between macro-evolution and micro-evolution, and also finally understand the relationship between natural selection (gradualism) and punctuated equilibrium.
One of the things that really stood out to me in my emerging thoughts about the relationship between evolutionary theory and social theory, is the development of the theory of broad adaptation and distribution to avoid extinction. Although it sounds obvious, it took a while for scientists to build up the mathematical models and the evidence to support it. Basically, over the past 25 years or so, biologists and paleontologists have demonstrated that species that are broadly adapted (versatile) and can move from one ecosystem to another are less likely to go extinct; further, species with a broad geographical distribution are most likely to survive extinction events. Combine this with the notion that sometimes adaptations aren't the cause of speciation, but rather the effect of geographical separation and external pressures on a species. Scientists have also found that the related homonin species (radiated adaptation) were all increasing their brain size (encephalyzation) at the same time.
Which brings me to the no-shit conclusion that hominins' and eventually the genus Homo's brain size increased (timing appears to be after bipedalism) in a punctuated equilibrium mechanism that gave rise (quickly) to homo sapiens, with their big brains, producing an incredibly diverse species, capable of surviving in nearly any environment.
For me this is significant because it links human culture (knowledge, language, symbol systems, meaning) to humanity's nature: it is an adaptation. Culture, as powerful and amazing as it is, must not be seen as an ultimate cause (as it is often assumed to be in the humanities and social sciences); rather it must be seen as a kind of adaptive tool. This would explain, in evolutionary terms, how the findings of cognitive science (and the evolution of mind) overlap with social and cultural theory. Now what this all means, I'll have to figure out later.
BYU Professor Fired 13 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Cultural Critique, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Mormonism/LDS Church.
[This is a continuation of the discussion about the BYU professor who protested the church’s political and partisan backing of the Federal Marriage Amendment earlier this month. See my two previous posts, BYU Professor Speaks Out and BYU Professor, Part 2.]
The Salt Lake Tribune reported today that, as expected, Jeff Nielsen, adjunct professor of philosophy at BYU, was terminated based on his letter to the editor challenging the church’s political stance on same-sex marriage. The termination letter from the department chair, Daniel Graham, read in part,
In accordance with the order of the church, we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements of the church. … Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over.
I have an unverified letter from Nielsen responding to his termination. I’ll get a citation as soon as I can and post it here. I thought Nielsen’s thinking about the role of the church in the academic freedom of BYU to be worth putting up here for those of you concerned with issues of free speech, academic freedom, and the role of religion in American politics. I think it specifically illustrates the deep intellectual problems inherent in an institution of higher learning that tries to “serve two masters.” [Emphasis in letter mine]
June 13, 2006
Daniel W. Graham, chair
Department of Philosophy
Brigham Young University
I regretfully read your letter of June 8 informing me that because of my opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune of June 4, you have decided not to rehire me to teach the philosophy courses I had already been scheduled to teach through next year. I have only the utmost respect and admiration for you and for the students, faculty, and staff in the Philosophy Department at Brigham Young University. In my experience, the students and faculty have always been engaged and lively participants in the academic pursuit of truth. Now let me address some of the issues you expressed in your letter.
Church leaders have consistently opposed same-sex attraction and gay marriage. I have never agreed with this position believing that it was based in misunderstanding and in a purely human bias of cultural place and time and not reflective of divine will. Yet I have never publicly, or in the classroom, opposed their policy. Yet when church leaders take a political stand on a moral issue, then I am not only engaged as a member of the church, but also as an American citizen. As an American citizen, I publicly expressed an honest opinion contradicting a political statement by our church leaders. I fear for the church and the university if the time comes when the members of the church, including faculty at BYU, are not allowed to disagree, either in public or private, with political positions taken by the church. If such conformity is required, then we deserve to be called neither a church nor a university.
I also strongly disagree with the implications of your statement that faithfulness and loyalty to the church and church leaders never permits expressions of disagreement, or questioning of our church leaders – especially in an academic setting. Unquestioning acquiescence and blind loyalty to leaders in positions of power over human beings have no place in any institution of higher learning that values the pursuit of truth and search for justice. And in my mind, what is philosophy but the quest for truth and justice. I believe that there is great potential at BYU that will never be realized if the faculty, in certain areas of study, are limited in their research and work by the necessity of arriving at pre-approved answers given by church leaders.
Finally, when it comes to the sustaining of church leaders, I will always argue for the privilege of church members to examine, question, and dialogue with each other and with their leaders in order to genuinely sustain and support church doctrines and teachings. I do not believe that sustaining leaders requires either silent acquiescence or unquestioning conformity, but it does require active engagement with one another and with our church leaders, regardless of our place or position within church leadership hierarchies. If sustaining our leaders is to be real and genuine – not a sham as are elections in totalitarian governments – then members must be free to examine, question and benevolently criticize. Ultimately, I strongly believe that every person possesses the privilege to speak and the obligation to listen.
Again, I have only respect and admiration for you. I have enjoyed our association, and I also wish you the best.