Edward O. Wilson is a preeminent biologist at Harvard University and quite frequently called the heir to Charles Darwin. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. The excerpt below from his 1978 book, “On Human Nature”, is taken from the last few pages of Chapter 6, entitled “Sex”. In it, Wilson argues that human sexuality does not merely serve a reproductive function, but rather is meant to facilitate bonding and stability within family and society. He asserts that because homosexuals have been unable to reproduce on a massive scale, they have thus stood the test of natural selection, and must serve a biological benefit to mankind. Additionally, he delves into the purpose of Gays and their importance as carriers of culture. Using biological and anthropological evidence, Wilson produces an overall stimulating read.
Human beings are connoisseurs of sexual pleasure. They indulge themselves by casual inspection of potential partners, by fantasy, poetry, and song, and in every delightful nuance of flirtation leading to foreplay and coition. This has little if anything to do with reproduction. It has everything to do with bonding. If insemination were the sole biological function of sex, it could be achieved far more economically in a few seconds of mounting and insertion. Indeed, the least social of mammals mate with scarcely more ceremony. The species that have evolved long-term bonds are also, by and large, the ones that rely on elaborate courtship rituals. It is consistent with this trend that most of the pleasures of human sex constitute primary reinforcers to facilitate bonding. Love and sex do indeed go together.
The biological significance of sex has been misinterpreted by the theoreticians of Judaism and Christianity. To this day the Roman Catholic Church asserts that the primary role of sexual behavior is the insemination of wives by husbands. In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which was reaffirmed by a mandate from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1976, Pope Paul VI prohibits the use of any form of birth control except abstinence at ovulation. Also condemned are all “genital acts” outside the framework of marriage. Masturbation is not a normal part of erotic development; it is an “intrinsically and seriously disordered act.”
The Church takes its authority from natural-law theory, which is based on the idea that immutable mandates are placed by God in human nature. This theory is in error. The laws it addresses are biological, were written by natural selection, require little if any enforcement by religious or secular authorities, and have been erroneously interpreted by theologians writing in ignorance of biology. All that we can surmise of humankind’s genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as means for procreation.
Nowhere has the sanctification of premature biological hypothesis inflicted more pain than in the treatment of homosexuals. The Church forbids homosexual behavior. It is “intrinsically disordered.” Various other cultures have agreed. At Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and other Nazi death camps, homosexuals wore pink triangles to distinguish them from Jews (yellow stars) and political prisoners (red triangles) ; later, when labor became scarce, surgeons tried to rehabilitate homosexuals by castrating them. The People’s Republic of China and some other revolutionary socialist countries, fearing the deeper political implications of deviance, suppress homosexual ity pro forma. In parts of the United States homophiles are still denied some of their civil liberties, while a majority of psychiatrists continue to treat homosexuality as a form of illness and express professional discouragement over its intractability.
That the moral sentinels of Western culture have condemned ho mosexuals is understandable. Judeo-Christian morality is based on the Old Testament, written by the prophets of an aggressive pastoral nation whose success was based on rapid and orderly population growth enhanced by repeated episodes of territorial conquest. The prescriptions of Leviticus are tailored to this specialized existence. They include the following: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination.” This biblical logic seems consistent with a simplistic view of natural law when population growth is at a premium, since the overriding purpose of sexual behavior under such circumstances will seem to be the procreation of children. Most Americans still follow the archaic prescription, even though their demographic goals are now entirely different from those of the early Israelites. Homosexuals must be fundamentally deviant, the reasoning goes, because their behavior does not produce children.
There have always been a great many sinners by this definition. A generation ago Alfred Kinsey found that as many as 2 percent of American women and 4 percent of men were exclusively homosex ual, while 1 3 percent of the men were predominantly homosexual for at least three years of their lives. Today the number of exclusive homosexuals is conservatively estimated to be five million, while gays themselves believe that the number of closet homosexuals could raise the number to twenty million. They form a consequential American subculture, employing an argot of hundreds of words and expressions. homosexual behavior of one form or another is also common in virtually all other cultures, and in some of the high civilizations it has been permitted or approved: in classical Athenian, Persian, and Islamic societies, for example, and in late republican and early imperial Rome, in the urban, Hellenistic cultures of the Middle East, in the Ottoman Empire, and in feudal and early modern Japan.
There is, I wish to suggest, a strong possibility that homosexuality is normal in a biological sense, that it is a distinctive beneficent behavior that evolved as an important element of early human social organization. Homosexuals may be the genetic carriers of some of mankind’s rare altruistic impulses.
The support for this radical hypothesis comes from certain facts considered in the new light of sociobiological theory. Homosexual behavior is common in other animals, from insects to mammals, but finds its fullest expression as an alternative to heterosexuality in the most intelligent primates, including rhesus macaques, baboons, and chimpanzees. In these animals the behavior is a manifestation of true bisexuality latent within the brain. Males are capable of adopting a full female posture and of being mounted by other males, while females occasionally mount other females.
Human beings are different in one important respect. There is a potential for bisexuality in the brain and it is sometimes expressed fully by persons who switch back and forth in their sexual preference. But in full homosexuality, as in full heterosexuality, both that choice and the symmetry of the animal pattern are lost. The preference is truly homophile: most completely homosexual men prefer masculine partners, while their female counterparts are attracted by feminine ones. As a rule, effeminate mannerisms in men are mostly unrelated to their choice of sexual partners. In modern societies, but not primitive ones, transvestites are only rarely homosexual, and the great majority of homosexual men do not differ significantly in dress and mannerisms from heterosexual men. A parallel statement can be made regarding homosexual women.
This special homophile property may hold the key to the biological significance of human homosexuality. Homosexuality is above all a form of bonding. It is consistent with the greater part of hetero sexual behavior as a device that cements relationships. The predis position to be a homophile could have a genetic basis, and the genes might have spread in the early hunter-gatherer societies because of the advantage they conveyed to those who carried them. This brings us to the nub of the difficulty, the problem most persons have in regarding homosexuality to be in any way “natural.”
How can genes predisposing their carriers toward homosexuality spread through the population if homosexuals have no children? One answer is that their close relatives could have had more children as a result of their presence. The homosexual members of primitive societies could have helped members of the same-sex, either while hunting and gathering or in more domestic occupations at the dwell ing sites. Freed from the special obligations of parental duties, they would have been in a position to operate with special efficiency in assisting close relatives. They might further have taken the roles of seers, shamans, artists, and keepers of tribal knowledge. If the relatives – sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and others – were benefitted by higher survival and reproduction rates, the genes these individuals shared with the homosexual specialists would have increased at the expense of alternative genes. Inevitably, some of these genes would have been those that predisposed individuals toward homosexuality. A minority of the population would consequently always have the potential for developing homophilic preferences. Thus it is possible for homosexual genes to proliferate through col lateral lines of descent, even if the homosexuals themselves do not have children. This conception can be called the “kin-selection hypothesis” of the origin of homosexuality.
The kin-selection hypothesis would be substantially supported if some amount of predisposition to homosexuality were shown to be inherited. And some evidence of such heritability does exist. Monozygotic twins, which originate from a single fertilized egg and hence are genetically identical, are more similar in the extent to which they express heterosexual or homosexual behavior than is the case for fraternal twins, which originate from separate fertilized eggs. The data, reviewed and analyzed by L. L. Heston and James Shields, suffer from the usual defects that render most twin analyses less than conclusive, but they are suggestive enough to justify further study. Some of the identical twins, according to Heston and Shields, “were not only concordant for homosexuality, but the members of each pair had developed modes of sexual behavior strikingly similar to each other. Furthermore, they did this while ignorant of their co twin’s homosexuality and, for [one pair], while widely separated geographically.” Like many other human traits more confidently known to be under genetic influence, the hereditary predisposition toward homosexuality need not be absolute. Its expression depends on the family environment and early sexual experience of the child. What is inherited by an individual is the greater probability of acquiring homophilia under the conditions permitting its development.
If the kin-selection hypothesis is correct, homosexual behavior is likely still to be associated with role specialization and the favoring of kin in hunter-gatherer and simple agricultural societies, in other words those contemporary cultures most similar to the ones in which human social behavior evolved genetically during prehistory. The connection appears to exist. In some of the .more primitive cultures that survived long enough to be studied by anthropologists, male homosexuals were berdaches, individuals who adopted women’s dress and manner and who even married other men. They often became shamans, powerful members of the group able · to influence its key decisions, or were specialized in some other way, in women’s work, matchmaking, peacemaking, or as advisors to the tribal leaders. The female counterparts of berdaches are also known but are less well documented. It is further true that in western industrial societies, homosexual men score higher than heterosexuals on intelligence tests and are upwardly mobile to an exceptional degree. They select white collar professions disproportionately and regardless of their initial socioeconomic status are prone to enter specialties in which they deal directly with other people. They are more successful on the average within their chosen professions. Finally, apart from the difficulties created by the disapproval of their sexual preferences, homosexuals are considered by others to be generally well adapted in social relationships.
All of this information amounts to little more than a set of clues. It is not decisive by the usual canons of science. A great deal of additional, careful research is needed. But the clues are enough to estab lish that the traditional Judeo-Christian view of homosexual behavior is inadequate and probably wrong. The assumptions of this religion-sanctioned hypothesis have lain hidden for centuries but can now be exposed and tested by objective standards. I believe it en tirely correct to say that the kin-selection hypothesis is more con sistent with the existing evidence.
The juxtaposition of biology and ethics in the case of homosexuality requires sensitivity and care. It would be inappropriate to consider homosexuals as a separate genetic caste, however beneficent their historic and contemporary roles might prove to be. It would be even more illogical, and unfortunate, to make past genetic adaptedness a necessary criterion for current acceptance. But it would be tragic to continue to discriminate against homosexuals on the basis of religious dogma supported by the unlikely assumption that they are biologically unnatural.
The central argument of this chapter has been that human sexuality can be much more precisely defined with the aid of the new advances in evolutionary theory. To omit this mode of reasoning is to leave us blind to an important part of our history, the ultimate meaning of our behavior, and the significance of the choices that lie before us.
Through the instruments of education and law, each society must make a series of choices concerning sexual discrimination, the standards of sexual behavior, and the reinforcement of the family. As government and technology become more complex and interdependent, the choices have to be correspondingly precise and sophisticated. One way or the other, intuitively or with the aid of science, evolutionary history will be entered in the calculations, because human nature is stubborn and cannot be forced without a cost.
There is a cost, which no one can yet measure, awaiting the society that moves either from juridical equality of opportunity between the sexes to a statistical equality of their performance in the professions, or back toward deliberate sexual discrimination. An other unknown cost awaits the society that decides to reorganize itself into smoothly functioning nuclear families, or to abolish families in favor of communal kibbutzim. There is still another cost – and some of our members are already paying it in personal suffering – for the society that insists on conformity to a particular range of heterosexual practices. We believe that cultures can be rationally designed. We can teach and reward and coerce. But in so doing we must also consider the price of each culture, measured in the time and energy required for training and enforcement and in the less tangible currency of human happiness that must be spent to circumvent our innate predispositions.
From Edward O. Wilson’s “On Human Nature”, pages 141-148, Harvard University Press (1978).