Homosexuality and Human Cultural Evolution

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Homosexuality and Cultural Evolution

Homosexuality and Human Cultural Evolution

Homosexuality is a topic of great debate among current populations descending from a significant number of European backgrounds. These people, who generally make up what is known as the Western world, debate or argue homosexuality based on conflicting views of the “naturalness” of same-sex relations. The conflict of homosexuality presents same-sex relations as either being un-natural, and therefore to be avoided, or natural and something to be celebrated. However, this approach is inherently flawed, as it contains no definition of what is meant by the word natural. Natural is generally associated with elements of the natural world but it has become socially corrupted. As ideas are developed within a society they are accepted and become socially normal or the norm/expectation of a given society. This definition of normal is then often inaccurately interchanged with the word natural. The interchange of these two words creates a challenging dualism between the social definition of natural and the more global definition of natural as pertaining to the natural world. Unfortunately the dualism between the two definitions often adds to the argument by creating a very strong sense of extremes (right and wrong, good and bad, etc) with little to no ground between the two limits.

The argument over homosexual relations is therefore not over naturalness vs. un-naturalness but socially normal vs. natural. Many of the debates over these views center on why same-sex relationships occur in the first place, are they a socially normal or natural occurrence? Most debaters agree that in some combination genes, fetal environment, and postnatal environment all contribute (Christensen) but there are also strong arguments that homosexuality has also played a significant role in cultural evolution. In order to argue any of these points one must first examine the evolution of homosexuality.

Sexual Relationships and Evolution

When aspects of human evolution cannot be studied due to the time lapse between the evolutionary event and the present, primates as the closest relative of the human, are often studied. In the article ‘Primate (Homo)Sexuality and the Origins of Culture’ Bagemihl questions the socially perceived sexual norm and how it has played a part in the ‘natural’ forward progression of cultural evolution (the word natural is used here as its definition is being discussed). He has done this by studying primate behavior. One of the main ideas perceived in the article centers around the presence of homosexuality and how it may be the driving factor for many behaviors typically considered human. Bagemihl focuses his discussion around four aspects of culture generally associated with humans: language, tool use, taboo, and ritual.

Culture is defined in the article as the innovation of a behavior and the passing of that behavior from generation to generation through learning. By this definition, sexuality is a form of cultural behavior. Cultural behavior also encompasses language, as a structured language is passed from generation to generation. But sexuality and language, especially the development of language, are not generally considered together. Language may have been developed for a number of reasons but the primate research discussed in the article points to the development of a sexual vocabulary as an important early step. Sexual gestures evolve into recognized symbols in a significant sequence that becomes language. These symbols occur most often in species having frequent heterosexual and homosexual encounters. Thus providing a link between sexuality and the development of language.

Some people may call this type of primitive language and its possible correlation with human languages a fluke, but even these skeptics generally associate advance tool use with humans and human cultural evolution. However primate research again demonstrates a correlation between sex and the construction and use of tools (e.g. Bonobo monkeys are known to create tools of self stimulation by binding leaves and other materials (Bagemihl)). Primates use a number of items as tools of sexual stimulation. Many of which are created rather than found showing creativity and displaying cultural behaviors. These actions are closely related to traits widespread among human beings.

The last two cultural items discussed in the article are taboo and ritual. Both are described as being part of societies that are culturally and sexually evolved. Humans and other primates avoid incest but display their avoidance not so much as a genetic trait but as a cultural one. This taboo is especially prominent in homosexual relationships. Since the fear of genetically inferior offspring is not a problem in these relationships the fact that the taboos still exist show that they are a behavior obtained through social learning.

These social lessons are also a part of ritual. Many encounters, both sexual and non-sexual, are seen as ways to establish and maintain trust. Homosexual relationships may play an important role in displaying trust and in fact making the human equivalent of an oath between participants.

While the beginnings of language, tool use, taboo and ritual seen here may or may not be given credit in the debate over the naturalness of homosexuality, they do suggest there is significant influence on sexual practices, and, not just for genetic reasons, on evolution.

The Evolution of Homosexuality

The four traits of language, tool usage, taboo and ritual can be seen as stemming from sexual practices. This is true not only for primates as discussed previously but for humans. Humans are also animals and as a species we have evolved over thousands of years. All of our skills, including language and other social skills, have been evolving with us. Studying what we know of our evolution and studying the habits of our closest living relatives allows the reasonable conclusion to be drawn that we were once a much more sexually open species. This includes both heterosexual and homosexual relationships as it does in our primate relatives. But why was homosexuality developed in the first place and if it did evolve then why is it now frowned upon?

Over 430 large animal species (mammals, birds, fish and reptiles) participate in scientifically confirmed homosexual relationships (Christensen). There are two main theories behind why this is so. The first is biological, the second social. The biological argument examines the fact that since homosexuality has been propagated through generations it must have some significance or it would have been removed through the process of natural selection. It is thus suggested that the advantages of homosexuality may revolve around dominance hierarchies (Pedro et al). This is generally known as the heterozygous argument and is described in more detail as follows:

“The heterozygous argument suggests that homosexuality results from genes for submissive behavior. An animal possessing only submissive genes would fail to reproduce for lack or trying. But an animal possessing only genes for dominance would also fail to reproduce because it would get killed for taking too many risks. It is the “heterozygous” males, who would most likely pass on their genes.” (Pedro et al)

Heterozygous is the biological term meaning that an individual has two different traits in one chromosome pair, in this case one gene for dominance and one for submissiveness. The heterozygous argument would leave a quarter of the population dominating, half the population heterozygous and likely to reproduce, and the last quarter of the population submissive. Submissive individuals are seen as more likely to be homosexual although not all will be so. While producing some traits that are ‘un-wanted’ this theory biologically provides for the most significant number of reproducing members while maintaining genetic diversity.

The social theory of homosexuality defines this type of sexual behavior as a way of keeping peace and helping to insure the survival of offspring. By not producing any offspring themselves, homosexual individuals are able to provide for the offspring of others, thus insuring a lower infant mortality rate as well as not overtaxing resources. Peace is also maintained through alliances and trust relationships emphasized and touted through homosexual acts. Thus such relationships can be seen as aiding individual and population survival. (Kirkpatrick, 11)

There is no concrete evidence that either of these theories is true but there is significant evidence that they are, in whole or in part, influential. However, examining these theories still doesn’t answer the question of why homosexuality is now seen as un-natural or wrong. The reason is probably because it isn’t seen this way. Homophobia is, for the most part, a Western concept. Sixty four percent (64%) of the worlds’ population engages in or approves of homosexual activity (Christensen).

Homosexuality as a general or approved practice in the West seems to have ended at a time when there was a great push for procreation, specifically, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution (Etiology). The expansionist and sociopolitical systems of the West at that time required a population that was as large as possible. Homophobia is a concept that is often associated “with objections to birth control and abortion” (Christensen). One of the largest supporters of the anti-homosexual mentality is the segment of the Christian Church that is dedicated to evangelism and expansion. These Churches are a primary factor in the naturalness debate as they promote biased scientific studies of the topic resulting in an emphasis on homosexuality being unnatural and therefore un-God-like and sinful. In reality they defined homosexuality as being socially abnormal or unacceptable to their populations. Through cultural behaviors impressed upon people by the Church, these ideas generally continue today in the societies the Church influences.

Cultural Views of Homosexuality

“… Most individuals express their sexuality in whatever manner their culture mandates. If you took a random American baby boy and gave him to a Sambia family to raise, he would almost certainly engage in homosexual activity as a teenager with no second thoughts. On the other hand, if you took a Sambia baby boy and raised him in the suburban US, he would almost certainly be as homophobic as most of his peers.” (Christensen) But why have these differences between cultures arisen? It comes from the importance of various relationships within a culture and the ways in which that culture defines “sexual identities, how much activity is permitted, associations of homosexuality with valued or undesired characteristics, etc.” (Pedro et al) Homosexual relationships are more likely to prosper in societies where survival depends more on personal alliance than on unbiased, abstract law applied to all. (Pedro et al) In many societies homosexual activity occurs as an important part of the educational system. There are also times when it reflects a patron client relationship or physically acknowledges friendship.

The inability of persons from the Western world to recognize and accept homosexual activity creates a cultural gap between the West and the majority of cultures that readily accept differing forms of sexuality. This gap is expanding quickly as economic globalization is spreading Western values on more and more cultures while doing very little to retain or understand the existing values of the people it is affecting. Western ideas of homophobia also create a gap in class among members of its own society. Children are born in large numbers to the working class; this adds to problems of poverty while providing an expendable workforce for employers who gain financially from large numbers of working people while giving them very little in return. Homophobic ideas can also be seen as oppressing women. They promote increased child bearing and emphasize women’s roles as mothers and caretakers while taking away their opportunities for further individual education.

The Natural Debate

So, how do cultural evolution, homosexual evolution, and varying views of homosexuality factor into the debate over the normalness or naturalness of homosexuality? In truth, they are the debate. Natural is defined as something present in or produced by nature. If homosexuality has been a significant part of human cultural evolution, thereby evolving with humans from our natural origin, homosexuality can thus be described as natural. Yet cultural beliefs and the impression of social norms have taught Western thinkers otherwise. Belief systems are a strong part of human consequence and the strong defense of one’s beliefs is expected and promoted by Western thought. Hence conflict is also important. It often helps to define what human’s view as right and wrong. Unfortunately, right and wrong are often interchanged with natural and unnatural to promote ideas that can be oppressive or damaging to people, places and even other beliefs.

In the homosexual debate ‘right’ or the belief that homosexuality is undesired is defined as a Western social norm which is in turn associated with natural, leaving ‘wrong’ or the belief that homosexuality is desirable to be associated with un-natural. The dualism between normal and natural becomes an argument over right and wrong with no median. The religious/expansionist social norm side of the dualism believes that they are the only ‘right’ answer thus finding everyone who believes otherwise ‘wrong’. Dr. Dean Ornish in his work ‘Love and Survival’ believes that it is just this dualism which will destroy our society and planet and is the greatest pollution problem we have… that people who are fervently ‘right’ will try what Hitler did to wipe out all they feel are ‘wrong’.

Normalness, Naturalness and Homosexuality Today

Hopefully, after reading the previous sections of this paper, the reader is aware that the debate over homosexuality is really a debate over social norms that have been defined as natural, and nature its self. And, that the solution to the conflict lies not in extinguishing the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ group but in breaking down the dualism, and other barriers of communication. The homosexuality debate is reduced to the question of how to create new concepts and social norms and to expand thinking to many shades of gray rather than the black and white concepts of right and wrong. This question extends far beyond just homosexuality and can be seen in many of the existing and developing problems of today: poverty, environmental degradation, and oppression. The dualistically ‘right’ maintain their cultural dualisms because they manage to keep the balance of power tipped in their favor by doing so.

How can this question be answered? The full answer may not yet exist, but its beginnings lie in education and the expansion of Western thought to perceive the global rather than local and individual consequences of its social norms and resultant actions on both an individual and social basis.

Points to Ponder… If I had another semester to do research.

Works Cited


Christensen, Alexander F. The Evolution of Homosexuality.

Http://anthropology.about.com/science/anthropology/library/weekly/aa061900b.htm 2001

The Etiology of Homosexuality (and divorce and...).

http://www.condition.org/homosex.htm 2001

Kirkpatrick, R.C. The Evolution of Human Homosexual Behavior. Current Anthropology

Volume 41 Number 3. Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. 2000

Ornish, Dean. Love and Survival.

New York: HarperCollins 1999.

Pedro, Joana Maria and Miriam Pillar Grossi. On the Evolution and Cross-Cultural Variation in Male Homosexuality. (Translation by dennis Werner)

http://www.iaccess.com.br/~dennis/homosexual.htm 1998