National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 74: In Nature, We Are Different for a Reason

The recent degeneration of American right wing political dialogue into an angry Neanderthal assault on women – highlighted by the Virginia legislature’s consideration of mandatory intrusive ultrasound procedures with abortions and Rush Limbaugh’s utterly contemptible slurs that should get him fired – illustrates that the root of its similarly bigoted anti-gay venom is a violent and raw male supremacist impulse.

Some 150 years ago it was this same impulse, having grudgingly given ground to an advance of egalitarian democratic ideals with the abolition of slavery but as yet far from willing to concede any modicum of equality to women, that devised the socio-psychological categories of heterosexual and homosexual.

The 1869 demarcation for the first time sought to cordon off a strict definition of an acceptable, male chauvinist-grounded social construct from all other “deviations” from that norm. It was a counterrevolutionary reaction to the influence of free-thinking women and same-sex eroticism that was fueling ongoing anti-despotic ferment.

Our society remains trapped in a male chauvinist paradigm. Boys are raised to be soldiers, either in real wars or in a colorless corporate world, and girls are raised to serve their men and nest. All are held, through relentless cultural and religious bombardment, in a matrix of debt slavery. With student loan debt, mortgages and the costs of raising a family, an illusion of freedom is really debt slavery defining the parameters of “normative” lives. Freedom is limited to choice of beers.

By disinterest in, or rejection of, this norm, driven in part by natural same-sex erotic attraction, we are “deviants,” who can be called many names. I prefer “gay” because it is not bound by the language of “sexology.”

In 1962 Gerald Heard, an early member of the Mattachine Society, called us “isophyls,” saying he hoped that “isophyls…can see that they are not a freak but a social psychophysical mutation without which our society can’t advance.” (James T. Sears, “Behind the Mask of the Mattachine,” 2006).

Heard’s concept is, in fact, central to my own argument: in nature, we are different for a reason.

In his exhaustive, 750-page “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity” (1999), author Bruce Bagemihl documents the massive evidence of same-sex behavior in wildlife. From it he coins the term, “biological exuberance,” contrasting the notion post-Darwinian concepts of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) evolution, random “chaos theory,” or “biodiversity studies.”

However, he was the first admit that the term doesn’t explain much, if anything, as animal non-reproductive behaviors remain “paradoxically, inexplicable, since they continue to elude conventional definitions of usefulness. Nothing, in the end, has really been explained.”

In “Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People” (2004, 2009), Joan Roughgarden presents similar material and argues that “the diversity of gender and sexuality make evolutionary sense.” She challenges the one of Darwin’s three claims that in species changes through natural selection, males and females obey universal templates – the males ardent and the females coy.”

She suggests a new theory called “social selection” that envisions “animals as exchanging help in return for access to reproductive opportunity,” that “animals evolve (social-inclusionary) traits that qualify them for inclusion in groups that control resources for reproduction and safe places to live and raise offspring.” These traits are “interpreted as a secondary sex characteristic,” and are attributed to what she calls a “genial gene” that counters the commonly-held “selfish gene.”

More light on the view expressed here is shed by Jonah Lehrer in “Kin and Kind: A Fight About the Genetics of Altruism” in the March 5, 2012 edition of The New Yorker magazine. He notes that Darwin “regarded the problem of altruism – the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost – as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection.”

Lehrer asks, “Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask?”

He cites the work of entomologist E. O. Wilson, who studied woodpeckers among other things, noting the concept of “group selection, an explanation that most evolutionary biologists now dismiss, because the advantages of generosity are much less tangible than the benefits of selfishness.”

But Wilson thinks it is the key to understanding altruism. Citing cases of “cooperating” microbes, plants and even female lions, “clumps of cooperators thrive and replicate, while selfish groups wither and die.” Wilson wrote in 2007, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”

He concludes that “what makes us human is that our history is shaped by both (altruistic and selfish) forces. We’re stuck in between.”

Altruism as a concept, in the context of normative, fundamentally selfish male dominated society, is akin to preponderant traits of non-normative types, and is indispensable for the success of society. That accounts for us.

To be continued.