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On the Evolution and Cross-Cultural Variation in Male Homosexuality

by Dennis Werner

English translation of Sobre a evoluçã o cultural na homosexualidade masculina. IN Joana Maria Pedro e Miriam Grossi (orgs). Masculino, Feminino Plural, Florianópolis: ed Mulheres, pp. 99-129, 1998


Comparisons of different primate species suggest that male homosexuality evolved along with male cooperation which passed through distinct stages of 1) marking territories, 2) marking submissive males via mechanisms previously used for territorial markings, 3) marking alliances via mutual gestures of dominance and submission. Among humans, exclusive male homosexuals are at the extreme submissive end of a dominant/submissive personality continuum. Individuals at the two extremes of this continuum do not reproduce extreme dominants because they die in fights, and extreme submissives because they do not attempt reproduction. However, due to the selective advantage of individuals with genes for both dominance and submission, individuals at the extremes of the continuum continue to appear in accordance with Mendelian laws. Psychological research on the the characteristics of male homosexuals and on general attitudes toward homosexuals agrees with the predictions from this theory.

Cultural differences in the ways homosexuality is categorized or conceived may be explained by differences in the ways hierarchies are organized. Where age brings greater prestige, homosexuality takes the form of "master/ apprentice" relationships, as among ancient Greeks, Japanese Samurais, the African Azande and several New Guinea societies. Where hierarchies are based on impersonal criteria (like curriculum vitae), rather than personal connections, homosexual relations are generally discouraged, and those at the homosexual extreme of the continuum resort to sex with similar males (giving the North European "gay" system). Where social positions depend more on personal ties, male/male alliances continue to be important and "mediterranean systems" (such as the Brazilian bicha/bofe system) arise, in which ordinary heterosexually identified males typically maintain sexual relationships (active role) with homosexually identified males (assuming a passive role). In these systems ordinary adolescent males may also typically have homosexual relationships with each other.

Biology, Psychology and Anthropology

As background for an evolutionary argument a brief review of biological, psychological and anthropological findings about male homosexuality is in order.

Biological Studies

Biological studies have documented differences between male homosexuals and heterosexuals in their exposure to prenatal hormones (Levay 1994; Reinisch et al. 1991), brain structures (LeVay 1994), genetic markers (Hamer et al. 1993), and possibly other characteristics such as fingerprint patterns (see Downtown 1995 with regard to a University of Western Ontario study), possibly related to testosterone exposure (Jamison, et al. 1993). In addition, effeminate boys (who have a strong tendency to become adult homosexuals) are judged more attractive than other boys (Zucker, et al. 1993) which corresponds to Green's (1987) finding that parents of effeminate boys rated these as more "beautiful" babies than their other children.

Probably due to their recentness, few attempts have been made to replicate these studies of biological differences, so we must be cautious about accepting them. More often replicated have been family, twin and adoption studies suggesting genetic inheritance of homosexuality (Whitam et al. 1993; Bailey and Pillard 1991; Buhrich et al. 1991; Eckert et ali. 1986; Pillard and Weinrich 1986; Flores 1994). Anecdotal evidence suggests an inheritance argument may be applicable to some non-Western societies as well Wilbert (1972, p. 101) reported that the Warao Indians of Venezuela think that transvestites are more common in some of their families than in others.

Psychological Studies

By far the most complete and careful study of family relationships and homosexuality is Green's (1987) fifteen year comparison of effeminate and masculine boys beginning from the time the boys were four to twelve years old, and continuing into adulthood. The boys and parents were interviewed and observed regularly over this time period, and psychological tests were administered at various points. Of 30 feminine boys accompanied throughout this period and with sexual experiences, 24 were "more than incidentally homosexual" as adults. Of the 25 "masculine" controls, only one was more than incidentally homosexual as an adult. Many of the effeminate boys were subjected to behaviorist or other therapies during their childhood, all apparently without effect on their later homosexual behaviors or fantasies. In addition, although a good deal of attention has been given to the role of parents in the origin of homosexuality, neither Green nor others (Greenstein 1966; Siegelman 1974; Green 1987) have found much support for these arguments.

However, childhood gender non-conformity consistently predicts adult homosexual orientations, in North America and Europe, as well as other cultures (Phillips and Over 1992; Cardoso 1994; Green 1987; Whitam and Mathy 1986; Whitam and Zent 1984). While homosexuals are more likely to have been effeminate as boys, there are still many homosexual males who have reported more normal childhoods (Phillips and Over 1992). Weinrich and his colleagues (cited in LeVay 1994) showed that it is the homosexuals who prefer a more "passive" role (as "insertee") who are most likely to have been effeminate boys. These findings have led researchers like Green to propose causal models for homosexuality that begin with the influences of genes and pre-natal hormones. Characteristics of parents (like the desire for a girl or a boy) might affect acceptance or tolerance of feminine behavior in boys, which in turn might affect their adult femininity, but have less effect on their homosexuality.

Anthropological Studies

Many anthropologists feel somewhat frustrated with the biological and psychological work on male homosexuality because it seems to account so poorly for the cross-cultural variation in male-male sexual relations. This variation is so great that it seems impossible even to define homosexuality in a cross-culturally valid way. To find causes of homosexuality that are cross-culturally valid seems preposterous. For example, Dickemann (1993) cites the case of homosexuality in medieval Europe. She argues that during the period of Charlemagne parents simply decided that their last born son would adopt homosexuality, and apparently the parental decisions were followed. When we consider the even more "exotic" cultures of New Guinea (Herdt 1993; Kelly 1974), the arbitrariness of cultural definitions of homosexuality seems even clearer. In societies like the Sambia or Etoro, all boys are expected to have sexual relations with older males. Indeed, people believe that the boys' maturation would be impossible if they did not receive semen from the older males. Among the Etoro sexual relations between men and women are taboo most days of the year, although homosexual relations are constantly encouraged.

If there is no such thing as "homosexuality" in a cross-culturally valid sense, then what should we make of the biological findings? I think there are two possibilities. First, the biological findings may be peculiarly Western. That is, there may be no gene for "homosexuality," but rather genes for other characteristics that our particular culture associates with "homosexuality." For example, parents may define certain inborn facial features as "beautiful" in their babies. This may lead them to treat these babies as more delicate and "feminine" than other babies. It is the later "femininity" of these boys which then gets defined as "homosexual."

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