The thing that terrified me most when I was a grad student was the prospect of standing up in front of people and presenting my research. The first time I did this was in a group of fellow graduate students who were supposed to be friendly and supportive. After giving my talk, dry-mouthed and heart pounding, I croaked, “Has anybody got any questions?”
The first question was, “Doesn’t the existence of gay men like me show that Darwinian theory can’t really tell us anything about human behaviour?”
A reasonable question. Gay men don’t have the kind of sex that results in children being born so their genes are not passed on. So how come they didn’t “go extinct?” It’s a question which many evolutionary psychologists have puzzled over and written papers suggesting answers. Unfortunately, for me, this was not the topic of my research or my talk and I was completely unprepared for it. In my state of anxiety, I couldn’t remember any of the arguments well enough to say anything coherent.
So I just blathered out the first dumb thing that came into my head, which was, “I think that just about every gay man I know would make a terrific husband and father. Perhaps, in the past gay men just married women and had kids.”
My questioner, who I recall being very good looking, gave a smile which suddenly made me feel much calmer and said, “Yeah a lot of my female friends say that … that they think I would make a good husband.”
Several years later, at a talk given by Belgian philosopher Andreas De Block, I learned that my answer wasn’t as dumb as I’d thought. Doing sexual things with people of the same sex has a long history in humans and is common in some other animal species. As is always the case with humans, there was much cultural diversity. What the homosexual sex was like, who did it and whether or not it was approved of varied enormously from time to time and from population to population.
But it is a simple historical fact that, until recently, people who enjoyed same sex sexual relations also got married to people of the opposite sex and had children. The simplest explanation for why so many people enjoy homosexual sex today is that in the past it did not affect their reproduction.
The idea that some people can be categorized as “homosexuals” and that this type of person will not want to mate with members of the opposite sex seems to have been invented in Europe, probably in the last 200 years or so. It is highly unlikely that Oscar Wilde considered himself a homosexual even though he was sent to prison for committing the crime of sodomy in 1895.
I say this not because Oscar Wilde was married and had two sons, but because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “homosexual” was first used as a noun in written English a mere 100 years ago, 12 years after Wilde died. If a word for something doesn’t exist, it is hard to imagine being one – even for Oscar Wilde. By contrast, the earliest writing that included the word “sodomy” dates back to 1297.
So when someone asks for a Darwinian explanation of why homosexuals exist they are really asking “Why did Europeans invent homosexuals in the 19th or early 20th Century?” I think I have the answer to this question and yes, it is inspired by Darwin’s theory.
It all has to do with economic development. After a population begins to industrialize, its members’ beliefs, values, and behaviours start to change in characteristic ways. They start to abandon their traditional attitudes and start to develop “modern” ones. Social scientists began to observe and write about these patterns of cultural change many decades ago and there is now quite a lot of evidence showing how patterns are similar and different in different populations. What social scientists can’t agree on is the reason for the change and why there is a pattern.
One reason that Darwinists should be interested in the modernization puzzle is that one of the patterns of change is particularly puzzling for us: People begin to behave less and less like Darwinian theory predicts. There is plenty of evidence (supplied by historians and anthropologists) that populations that aren’t economically developed do behave pretty much as if they are competing for fitness. For example, families tend to have as many children as they can afford and even quite young children are expected to work for their living and to look after their younger brothers and sisters. Women work hard too and their role as mothers and grandmothers is considered very important. Kinship is important. People expect to be able to rely on getting help from their family if they need it. If this is not available, friends and kind strangers may offer charity but no government organisations exist to provide help.
One of the first modern attitudes people adopt is that, even though they are getting richer, it is a good idea to have a small family so that they and the small number of children they do have can live more comfortable interesting lives. It’s easy to see when a population begins to adopt this new attitude; there is a drop in the number of children born per woman (what demographers call the “Total
Fertility Rate” or “TFR” of the population). The TFR of almost all human populations is now very low or falling rapidly.
It started first in populations of European descent (aka “The West”) where fertility began to decline in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since then, Western culture has adopted many changes that seem to make people even less motivated or less able to compete for fitness. Parenting styles changed, children went to school, spending less time at home helping and learning from their elders. Motherhood ceased to be considered such an important job. Some women started to want to do work that was considered valuable and paid them money. Before long, women working outside the home became the norm. Marriages became less stable, making parental partnerships fragile. The invention of homosexuals was just one change in a complicated change process.
Another reason why Darwinists should be interested in modernization is that, like all cultural change, it is a Darwinian process. We inherit our culture from members of our population that lived before us, like we inherit our genes from our parents. And we pass cultural information on to others like we pass on our genetic information to our children. In the process of being passed down the generations, culture changes. In other words, culture evolves, just like the genes in a population. Cultural change is “descent with modification”, just like Darwin said. Culture changes a lot faster than genes change but if we want to understand why the change happens we can do similar sorts of analysis and testing we when we look at genetic change. We need to understand the forces that are pushing culture to change in certain ways.
It seems reasonable that economic development could be causing people to adopt modern ideas. But how and why is it happening? A view popular among social scientists who don’t take a Darwinian approach to understanding human behaviour (e.g. Ronald Inglehart) is that people’s beliefs and values change as a natural consequence of them getting richer and feeling more secure. They no longer need to worry about just surviving and so they start thinking about all the other things they can do with their lives. They do more different kinds of things and they become more tolerant of other people doing different kinds of things, including being a homosexual, if that’s what they want.
But this reason for the cultural change doesn’t make sense to Darwinists. Why would modern behaviour, small family size, and homosexuals be a natural consequence of wealth and comfort? We are descended from people who had MORE children when times were good, not fewer children.
An idea more compatible with Darwinian theory is that the process is triggered by the change in people’s social networks. The whole structure of human communities changes when a population undergoes economic development. People start to have jobs and schools to go to and they become connected with other communities by travel and communication technology. Before economic development people don’t just LIVE with their family, they WORK with them and LEARN from them. Being connected with a family, by birth, by marriage or both, is not just of great practical importance. It is socially important too.
In modern societies, people are aware of belonging to many groups. We’re employees in a business, students in a school, fans of a football team, and so on. But this is a completely new way of life for humans. For almost all of human evolutionary history, membership in a family was most people’s most important social identity. People were strongly influenced by other family members and they shared a common purpose – to keep the family going.
In this social environment, it is not surprising that communities maintained cultural norms that often demanded loyalty to family above one’s own interests and desires. A young adult was expected to marry the person the family chose for them. A woman was expected to get pregnant again even if she nearly died giving birth to her last child. In hard times, when the family can’t afford new mouths to feed, young adults are expected to help raise their relatives’ children. Getting pregnant by accident and creating a child sure to suffer poverty and malnutrition is a terrible sin. People may have loved and desired one another, but this needed to be controlled even in times of relative abundance. This is because the main purpose of life was not achieving personal fulfillment but turning resources into viable offspring – just like other animals and just as Darwinian theory predicts.
Economic development creates opportunities for new social groupings that compete with the family for people’s time and attention. As a result, family promoting norms begin to weaken. The change is not instantaneous, of course, because people still learn and to some extent hold on to the norms they picked up as a child. The first reaction to the increased wealth and security economic development brings is to have larger families and a population explosion ensues but that soon changes. Nowadays in only a few countries, mostly in Africa, are families large. Other changes follow in due course and the change is likely to continue. It is an evolutionary process and likely to take many generations to play out.
Even in the West, where industrialization began in the 18th century, culture is still changing rapidly and there is still much disagreement over “family values” issues, such as beliefs about homosexuality. The United States population seems to be particularly divided, perhaps because quite a large proportion of Americans are immigrants from countries like Mexico, where economic development occurred much more recently than in populations of European descent.
At the moment there is considerable concern in the West that the populations of many countries are slow to adopt what Westerners see as basic human rights. These people are beginning to enjoy the greater wealth and comfort that economic development brings so why aren’t they on board about things like “women’s rights” and “gay rights”? Some don’t even realize (or admit) that there are homosexuals in their countries! Some parents even think it’s OK to send their children out to work in factories!
This all makes sense if you realize that cultural change is evolutionary. It took Western culture quite a while to invent the homosexual and even longer before the homosexual marriage idea caught on. It is unreasonable to expect people of other cultures to adopt these ideas immediately just because Westerners tell them they’re right.
The cultural evolutionary process has obviously begun in most countries because the population has begun to adopt family limitation. Is there a way to know when they’re likely to pass through the subsequent stages of modernization? One way to get an idea is to plot the year fertility began to decline in a country against the proportion of people in the country that accept the Western idea of homosexuality. We can do this because a few years ago the Pew Foundation ran a global attitude survey when they asked a question about homosexuality.
In countries like the UK, where fertility began to decline over a hundred years ago, acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle is much higher than in countries like Iran which began the cultural change process much more recently. This may be why the president of Iran and many of the citizens do not believe there are homosexuals in Iran. People living in Victorian England wouldn’t believe they had homosexuals either.