30 June 2006

Homosexuality and the problem of scale

Too many people make efforts to screen homosexual orientation -- theirs and others -- from view. Others (scientists) don't even see homosexuality even when animals are doing it right before their eyes. But as gay invisibility among humans and animals start to fall away, there needs a rethink of the place of homosexuality in nature. Full essay.


matt said...

Hi Alex.

I remembered when the late great choreographer Goh Choo San died from aids, there was also this large silence on the exact cause of his death. I guess just as much as you want to hear the acknowledgement that Mr Yap is homosexual, there are probably others (friends, relatives?) who do not wish that information to be brought up publicly. I do not know Mr Yap personally, but I think there are probably other views on this. But I agree, 'your goodness' makes us look at it from another angle. Lovely.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bravely pointing out the late Arthur Yap's sexual identity and politics. It is sad that the mainstream media filiters this aspect out conveniently.

Kai Khiun

Anonymous said...

I think it is profoundly ironical that the present civilization is promoting the propagation of homosexuality. This happens when gays are closetted and forced to marry and keep up a facade of family life, producing children of their own.

Just as much as genes certainly propagate physical resemblance from father to son, I do not doubt that to some extent, the gay orientation is also propagated from father to son. Hence by present social conventions, gays are in hiding and producing offsprings to add to the proportion of homosexuality in society.

If nature were to take its course without the distortions created by human civilization, as would presumably take place in the animal world, gays would partner off among themselves and their union would not produce offsprings.

I'm certainly of the view that gays are a part of nature, in animals as well as in humans. I'm also of the view that hetero couples may also produce gay offsprings according to certain statistical variances, just as a gay parent may father a hetero offspring by the same statistical principles. The above is just to point out that human civilization has developed artificial forces that increases the proportion of gays in the population instead of letting nature take its course.

Robert L

holly p said...

Robert L - do you know what you're talking about?

no use speculating about genes unless you first read up the scientific facts. as far as I know, it is not "propagated from father to son".... and in any case, women are gay too.

you say, "human civilization has developed artificial forces that increases the proportion of gays in the population instead of letting nature take its course."

did you even read yawning bread's essay before mouthing off? his essay spoke about how homosexuality is prevalent among animals, and that it is naturally occurring.

you seem to think that the best percentage of gays in a population is nil and you're trying to create arguments to that effect. but what this essay (and the background article that it cited) is saying is that there is likely to be a positive/beneficial reason why homosexuality exists in a population.

Anonymous said...

About "holly p" comments - reading carefully through, we seem to be agreed on most points, though what I said has been totally distorted.

"not propagated from father to son" - I did approach this issue delicately. I started off with a son inheriting his parents' looks and traits. Nobody would dispute that. Then I carefully extended that by saying that homosexual traits too would be inherited TO SOME EXTENT.

"his [Alex's] essay spoke about how homosexuality is prevalent among animals, and that it is naturally occurring." - I'm in complete agreement. I've said so in at least three places within my short contribution. Let me prove that.

1st instance: "as would presumebly take place in the animal world, ..." - This expresses my agreement that gay behaviour also takes place in the animal world.

2nd instance: "gays are a part of nature, in animals as well as in humans" - I'm at a loss how to make myself clearer than this. Surely what I said was loud and clear?

3rd instance: "hetero couples may also produce gay offsprings according to certain statistical variances" - think about it: this would mean that even if the whole gay population were magically wiped off from existence, the remaining hetero population would still produce a proportion of gay offsprings according to the statistical norms of the animal world.

Lastly, I would request readers not to nitpick on male or female gays, as it should be understood that gays refer to either gender. I understand I would be less than perfectly correct to say "a gay parent may father a hetero offspring", but it would look ludicrous to say "a gay parent may father or mother a hetero offspring". So please bear with the shorten version! I hereby apologise for all those instances where I used male when I should have carefully included both genders.

More from "holly p's" comments - "you seem to think that the best percentage of gays in a population is nil and you're trying to create arguments to that effect." -

No, nothing is further from what I really said. I said that gays will always be present, and you only have to look to the animal kingdom to see the proportion of gays naturally occuring. The main, BIG point in my post is that the proportion of gays INCREASES when society forces them to hide and produce offsprings.

Robert L

Anonymous said...

hello there. was reading your article and as always, interesting stuff. i did not know of Arthur Yap's work before the news of his death broke, but now i'll have a better idea of where he was coming from. thanks.

and on another note, who are the men you mentioned in the passage pasted below? care to enlighten?

"Right here in Southeast Asia, there's a king who's gay, and another neighbouring country has had at least 2 gay prime ministers, though no one too writes openly about what are well-known facts."

- mathilda

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,

This is kinda late but wanted to respond to your essay about Arthur Yap.

I was acquainted with him as a student, though I don't claim to know him well. We had some conversations about my own writing when he was well, then lost touch.

I did go to his wake and spoke to his sisters, who told me he had even requested not to have an obit published.

He was a private man to the end, you see. So I am not sure if he would have appreciated his gay identity published in ST. (Am I re-outing him in this public space? Hmm)

Yes, it's a tough call but in this instance, the ellision I think, was the right one.

Of course, Sor Fern's piece alluded to Keith that many of us knew was his significant other. And I suspect someone reading his poetry, especially "Your Goodness" could have teased out this strand of info, though arguably it is not necessary for a sound interpretation. (Incidentally Yap dedicated an earlier volume of his poems "Commonplace" to Keith too.)

But yes, of course, the mass media, the entire Singaporean society can only grow if we acknowledge the gay and lesbian people in our midst, and recognize their many contributions to our country, liminal status notwithstanding.

Keep writing - yours is fresh, committed, intelligent voice which Singaporeans can do well to read more of.

Best regards,

Julian said...

Hi Alex,
I agree that the 'invisibility' of homosexuality (whether among humans or non-humans) is an obstacle to increased understanding and acceptance among the public. And I agree too that this invisibility might be a symptom of prejudice, as well as a cause.

However, as a researcher in evolutionary psychology (and a queer citizen, too, btw), I would like to correct several confusions that arise again and again in discussions about 'nature'. There is a persistent tendency to equate 'natural' with 'good' or 'acceptable'. The equation goes something like this, "commonly found in animals" = "natural" = "normal" = "good". Conversely, "not commonly found in animals" = "unnatural" = "abnormal" = "bad".

Stated in this bald way, of course, it is easy to see how this sequence of equations (known as the 'naturalistic fallacy') can lead to all sorts of confused judgments. Male lions, when taking over a pride, are known to kill unrelated infants, bringing the female lion into her fertile phase earlier. Some primates do the same. Does that mean that killing infants is "OK"? Chimpanzees form gang-like coalitions to kill individuals from rival groups. Ants engage in 'war'. Forms of coerced sex have been observed in many species, including dolphins. The list can go on. Does all this make war, rape, murder 'natural' and therefore acceptable? I don't think so.

Conversely, there are thousands of things that humans do that no other animal does -- talking, cooking, wearing clothes, blogging, etc. Are these 'unnatural?' The fact that these are not found in the rest of 'nature' says absolutely nothing about whether they are right or wrong.

In the same way, whether homosexuality is or is not common among humans and other animals is a question that is entirely different from whether we humans should find it acceptable or not. Scientific questions should not be confused with ethical or political judgments about homosexuality. Such confusions lead to both confused science and confused ethics.

Many of Joan Roughgarden's statements show these confusions -- in particular, the confusion between an evolutionary explanation and a moral judgment. She accuses scientists of treating homosexuality as an 'evolutionary dead-end' and 'maladaptive', implying that these are not simply scientific hypotheses but also moral condemnations: "When scientific theory says something's wrong with so many people, perhaps the theory is wrong, not the people." But let us be clear about what 'maladaptive' really means here. It means that the behavior didn't increase the reproduction of the individuals behaving in that way. It doesn't mean 'bad' or 'wrong', unless you believe that reproduction in and of itself is always a good thing (in which case you might say that a rapist who gets his victim pregnant is 'good', while rich people who leave their wealth to charities rather than their own children are 'bad' or 'defective'). [by the way, 'adaptive' behavior in nature is not necessarily 'good for the species' -- remember those cub-killing lions?]

Now, Roughgarden's central idea, that homosexuality might have evolved through adaptive advantages it conferred, is a coherent and testable hypothesis. As she rightly observes, homosexual behavior is probably too common for it to be explained as just random anomalies due to genetic mutations or other unusual circumstances (I prefer to avoid the morally charged word 'defect'). However, this idea is far from new. Other scientists have proposed various versions of the idea (e.g. that homosexuals help their relatives to reproduce). There are also other ideas, such as that homosexuality might be a by-product of genes that have multiple effects (and it might be the other effects that cause the genes to be spread). These and other ideas are still being debated among scientists. The point I would like to emphasize is that we should not prematurely dismiss any scientific hypothesis just because it doesn't seem to fit in with our moral or political positions, nor should we rush to embrace a theory that fits in. Roughgarden's hypothesis, like all hypotheses, should stand or fall by the evidence brought to bear on it.

Just as importantly, I believe it is usually a mistake to base our moral and political positions on specific hypotheses about 'nature'. No doubt many gay people would draw comfort from findings that 'we are not alone', that there are 'Animals Like Us'. But so what if science were to show that humans are unique in some respects? So what if there were evidence that some (or even most) queer individuals develop their sexual orientation as a result of 'anomalous' genetic or environmental causes? Would such findings undermine the argument for gay rights? Not at all. Whether homosexuality is or is not common among animals, whether it did or did not confer reproductive advantages on our ancestors, are interesting scientific questions -- but for me, they have nothing to do with the moral principle that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, deserve equal rights in society.

Julian Lim

Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UCSB

(address replies to robotjazz at g mail dotcom)