FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Providential and Evolutionary Purpose Of Homosexuality 27 March 2008

I’m sure there must be a respectable scientific theory about how homosexuality fits in with the evolutionary world view. My brief web search didn’t throw one up, however; there’s not even a learned article in Wikipedia. On the face of it, homosexuality appears to contradict the theory that we all have an innate interest in breeding in order to perpetuate our genes.

But there are two cultural assumptions in a statement such as this: firstly, that everyone does naturally wish to reproduce; and secondly, that you can draw a neat dividing line between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The theory that we are pre-programmed to try to disseminate our gene pool as widely as possible throughout subsequent generations could be said to exemplify and re-formulate in the modern scientific vernacular the age-old cultural beliefs and values that emphasise the critical importance of having a family – in some cultures (for certain men) several families.

Equally, the view that homosexuality might run counter to the normal functioning of natural selection is already in itself a manifestation of this sort of selection: the assumption is being made that heterosexuals will generally have a preference for heterosexual partners and, similarly, that there will always be a preference for same-sex partners on the part of homosexuals. In this way, inherent in the theory itself, there is a sort of ‘de-selecting’ of homosexuality from the description of normative ‘natural selection’, and a preferential selecting of heterosexuality as the type of sexuality that best fits the theory and the cultural preconceptions about reproduction. Hence, the theory of evolution itself mediates a culturally procreation-centric (’heterosexual’) view of sexuality.

But if the homosexual gene – if such a thing exists – has managed to perpetuate itself over the course of millennia (and recent evidence suggests it’s not about to die out), then either or both of the following propositions must be true: 1) not all sexual attraction, and sexual action, has the urge to reproduce as its core motivation, driver or underlying impulse; 2) homosexuality must have some positive purpose that could be explained in evolutionary terms as being connected with ensuring the survival of the species.

In relation to the first of these propositions, it’s ironic that evolutionary theory and traditional Christian doctrine (so often, but not always accurately, viewed as antagonistic belief systems) are in this respect the strangest of bedfellows. Certainly, the Catholic Church views reproduction as the fundamental natural purpose of the sexual instinct. It is seen as the duty of the Church to ensure that this instinct is expressed within a social, cultural and sacramental context (marriage) which most effectively suppresses that instinct’s innate tendency towards selfishness (the selfish gene) and helps to lead the individual into a more self-giving, loving existence of the kind to which all souls are called in Christ. It is because homosexuality does not – or at least, appears not to – fit this description of the procreative purpose of carnal desire that the Church refers to it as unnatural or disordered.

But you could look at this differently. It’s possible to view the sexual / reproductive instinct as expressed in conventional marriage as in fact being a rather selfish way of life: a life that places the satisfaction of the sex drive and the urge to reproduce at its very centre, albeit that the tendency of this instinct towards anarchic selfishness is restrained. Having a family is obviously a huge responsibility and a tremendously challenging task. But it’s also fundamentally what people choose to do for themselves; and it naturally involves putting themselves and their families first with respect to their needs, comfort and protection.

By contrast, gay sexuality could be seen as beginning to enact a movement away from selfish / reproductive desire towards love as the primary motivation for choosing to be with someone. Let’s say, rather, that gay sex – freed from the instinctual selfishness of the reproductive instinct but also from the social restraints upon free-flowing sexuality – tends to veer towards the extremes of either stable, loving, faithful relationships that are often more enduring than marriages; or else towards a self-centred, loveless, promiscuous way of life. Either way, homosexuality appears to be a form of sexuality that resists a description as being fundamentally concerned with reproduction and genetic self-replication. In Christian terms, one might say that homosexuality inherently implies a call to a higher love even than that which is expressed in Christian marriage: love for its own sake, distinct from the drive to reproduce, albeit only perfectly expressed in celibacy.

If homosexuality implies a natural tendency or spiritual calling towards altruistic love, perhaps this helps to explain why some heterosexuals are attracted to homosexuals; or – looking at it in evolutionary terms – why homosexuality might be a characteristic that it could be in the genetic self-interest of the individual or the species to perpetuate. It’s certainly an observable phenomenon that there are many women who are attracted to gay men: those that they know to be gay as well as those they don’t. I’m not sure whether the reverse phenomenon is equally as frequent: straight men being attracted to lesbians. The male sexual fantasy of lesbian sex is a well known cliché; but this is rather different from actual attraction or otherwise towards Lesbian women in the real world.

But as far as women being attracted to gay men is concerned, it’s not unknown for this to result in marriages and children – whether the gay man later comes out and the marriage breaks up, or not. Some of the men involved in such scenarios must deliberately suppress their homosexual leanings (in the sense both of not discussing them and of actually succeeding, if only temporarily, in denying them and displacing them onto attraction for their wives) in order to fulfil their own instinctual drive and desire to have children. Others may not be aware of their gay side and this surfaces only later – after the man has fulfilled his urge to reproduce.

This may sound somewhat fanciful. But there are many examples of this sort of situation, including in the Church: one thinks of the much-maligned Anglican Bishop of New Jersey, for instance. I know from my own experience that it’s possible to be largely unaware of one’s homosexuality for part of one’s adult life. When I was in that condition, I had a relationship with a woman (who, incidentally, definitely appears to have an inveterate tendency to be attracted to gay and / or feminine men) that might well have resulted in children. And I strongly suspect – again, partly based on personal experience – that the phenomenon of men who are less able to suppress their gay side after having raised a family is much more extensive than is commonly thought: still a largely hidden issue, as the men concerned very often continue to hide their homosexuality from their partners and families.

Looking at this from the perspective of natural selection, what interest do homophile women have in choosing gay men as the fathers of their children? Firstly, following my arguments above, gay men may well be perceived by such women as less selfish and aggressive in pursuing their own reproductive agenda: less alpha-male-like and, by that token, less likely to be unfaithful, misogynistic or exploitative – seeing women as mere brood mares. Secondly, if gay men are perceived as being more feminine than heterosexual / alpha males, women might choose this characteristic as it makes it more likely for their own feminine traits / genes to prosper and be reproduced in subsequent generations. This does not necessarily run counter to the interests of species survival, as femininity in men is not to be confused with homosexuality: gay men are often feminine but not all feminine men are gay. Therefore, when a woman chooses a gay partner, she might be choosing him for his feminine / female-friendly characteristics which, even if her partner subsequently turns out to be gay, could result in sons and grandsons who carry the feminine genes without the gayness.

In a more general sense, these scenarios suggest that unselfishness and a relative absence of procreative drive could in fact be genetic characteristics that it might be just as important to perpetuate through the generations as the self-replicating selfish gene. The perpetuation of homosexual characteristics may be one way in which humanity resists and mitigates the effects of instinctual selfishness, which has such potential to be a force for destruction in the world. Equally, it is far from clear that the alpha-male drive to spore as many offspring as possible from as many women as possible is a very desirable trait in an over-populated world where the human race appears not to have too many problems in multiplying.

It strikes me as ironic, for instance, that a country like China goes to enormous lengths to keep its population level down with policies such as one child per couple (to the extent of carrying out forcible abortions of subsequently conceived offspring), while at the same time it has a rather repressive attitude towards homosexuality. Perhaps it would be better to let men with homosexual leanings freely express their gayness, rather than applying cultural pressure on them to sire a male heir, resulting in the killing of unwanted female foetuses or, on occasions, of actual baby girls. This could be seen as an example of a culture that has traditionally sought to foster the alpha male, while at the same time, this has created a population crisis resulting in desperate and immoral measures of control.

Equally, this example suggests another way in which homosexuality could be said to serve a positive purpose with respect to species survival; and in this respect, one could say that gay men are complementary to alpha males. If a certain proportion of the population is gay, this increases the ratio of heterosexual men to women who are seeking prospective fathers for their children. This makes it easier for men to find prospective mothers and, in the case of the inveterate alpha male, multiple mothers for their children. Equally, a reduction in the number of men chasing the available ‘breeding stock’ of women could be said to reduce the probability of conflict between rival men, which might otherwise – in extreme cases – even result in the deaths of some of the alpha males. This is perhaps another example of where homosexuality can be seen as serving a ‘vocation’ to reduce the overall levels of aggression in society and to mitigate the destructiveness of the reproductive instinct.

To what extent do these evolutionary benefits of homosexuality really correspond to a vocation, and can they be said to have a providential purpose? From a Christian point of view, any real human and social benefit must be seen as an expression of divine Providence: a manifestation of God’s presence and action in the world. If you accept that the benefits from homosexuality I have discussed are indeed real, then it follows that Christians must see them as providential. This does not mean that homosexuality per se must be seen as morally good. Like many aspects of human life, it is morally neutral, and it will be judged, ultimately, in relation to how each gay or bisexual individual chose to live out their calling: as a person with homosexual tendencies and as a person made in the image of Christ.

But the fact that, to some extent, homosexuality places the individual outside the human thrall to the reproductive drive (at least, in its more obvious, selfish manifestations) is at least a reminder that we are all called to a love that transcends our own personal and, indeed, familial needs and ambitions. It also acts as a corrective to the narrower understanding of human evolution, in that it suggests that sometimes it is not always the selfish gene that prospers.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 7 August 2007.)