Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gay cooties

Gregory Cochran specializes in putting forward controversial hypotheses that relate to human genetics. He's recently released a paper (with John Hawks and others) that shows that human evolution is accelerating. That's very interesting but not especially as obviously controversial as his stuff on the genetics of Askenazi intelligence and the pathogenic origin theory of male homosexuality are where you want to look for stuff like that. The latter is my subject here. [edited for clarity]

The idea is that a genetic theory of homosexuality makes no sense at all, since a genetic mutation that was so counter-productive to reproduction would be rapidly eliminated by natural selection. There are a few alternative explanations, such as that this deliterious mutation is linked to some other beneficial function (which explains the genetic survival of disorders like sickle-cell anemia). But Cochran's preferred explanation is non-genetic -- instead he hypothesizes that some infectious agent affects brain development.

I don't really have much of a stake in the politics of homosexuality. Cochran's science seems solid if speculative (and identified as such); his ideology is hidden although he has some associations to the rather suspect crew of Steve Sailer's Human Biodiversity Group. I find issues where science and politics intersect rather fascinating from an epistemolgical point of view. Presumably there is an objective fact-of-the matter about things like the origins of homosexuality, global warming, race/intelligence connections, etc. But it is almost impossible to investigate these issues objectively. Everyone involved, including scientists, seems to be quite agenda-driven. My personal strategy is to try to not associate with either side and find a neutral middle ground, but that is often difficult and unrewarding.

The name is somewhat biasing. If homosexuality is caused by an external organism, it is not necessarily pathogenic, at least from an individual's point of view. It is pathogenic from the standpoint of natural selection, because it reduces the rate of reproduction, but people do many things that are good for them but bad for their genes. So our hypothetical gay infection could be considered a symbiote rather than a pathogen. It is quite certain that a large percentage of the infected would prefer not to be "cured", and a different percentage would leap at the chance. In actuality, it is unlikely that there would be a cure since the action of this hypothetical pathogen probably takes place during early development. So no individual cures, but possibly parents could decide to take some inoculation that would be designed to knock the pathogen out of comission before they get pregnant.

Obviously those with a stake in homosexuality as a lifestyle or subculture get incensed at this prospect, and I can't say they are wrong to do so. Megan McArdle makes an analogy to the case of deaf culture, which is not happy that deaf children can be given cochlear implants and cured, removing them from the deaf culture and community. And deafness is much more clearly a pathology than homosexuality.

But I wonder if wiping out the homosexual pathogen/symbiote would be a calamity for humanity as a whole, let alone the gay subculture. It is unquestionably the case that homosexuals, like Jews, have made contributions to the mainstream culture far out of proportion to their numbers. You may not care for Broadway shows or the Village People, but

... there's no part of the cultural landscape without a gay element. Even if gays constitute as much as fifteen percent of the population, the gay contribution to Western art, architecture, music, and literature far exceeds what it should be statistically. If you accept the right-wing claim that only one in a hundred people is gay, then the gay contribution is truly extraordinary. Think about it: A group comprising one percent of the population producing Erasmus, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Marlowe, Bacon, Hölderlin, Hans Christian Andersen, Tchaikovsky, Proust ... the list goes on and on to include three of the four major nineteenth-century American novelists, one (perhaps both) of the two great nineteenth-century American poets, and two of the three most noted mid-twentieth-century American dramatists.
Not to mention Alan Turing, John Maynard Keynes, etc...

So, let's suppose the pathogen theory turns out to be true, and that medical research comes up with some sort of vaccine or other technique that interferes with it. The result could be that we plunge our culture into a dark age. Certainly we'd eliminate a lot of valuable diversity. The net benefit to humanity seems very likely to be negative.


goatchowder said...

Mel Brooks summed this up quite well in a perfect (if politically-incorrect) punchline from his otherwise largely forgettable movie "To Be or Not to Be".

Brooks plays a Polish theatre owner during WWII. He's told that the invading Nazis are rounding up all the Jews, gays, and Gypsies.

Brooks, the theatre owner, is outraged and affronted by this, and decides he has no choice but to join an underground plot to assasinate Hitler, because, "Without Jews, fags, and Gypsies, there is no theatre!"

gcochran said...

"That's very interesting but not especially controversial."

We'll see.

mtraven said...

Heh, didn't mean to insult you by suggesting that you'd publish anything less than controversial...I have edited the original posting to better reflect what I was trying to say.

While I have your attention, any speculations on why, if homosexuality is caused by a brain-affecting infectious agent, homosexuals are so over-represented in a variety of areas of intellectual acheivement? Not reproducing certainly frees up some time and energy, but that doesn't seem to be the whole story.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the link!

TGGP said...

No Keynes and theater? Doesn't sound bad to me!

mtraven said...

You may not care for the theater but it's been historically an extremely important part of human culture, which was the point, We wouldn't have anything like our current civilization without theater and without the gay contribution to it and other areas.

TGGP said...

Yeah, I've been reading Human Accomplishment recently and Murray's appreciation for "culture" has been rubbing this subjectivist philistine the wrong way.

To play the Devil's Advocate though, couldn't one also say "it's been historically an extremely important part of human culture, which was the point, We wouldn't have anything like our current civilization without theater" replacing "theater" with "war"? Just because something is historically important doesn't mean I have to like it.

mtraven said...

Good example, war has in fact been an important part of a culture (a major driver of science and technology development for one thing). You don't have to like either of these two deeply-embedded human institutions, but you have to acknowledge their importance.

I suppose war is the straight male equivalent of the theater.

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