is homosexuality really like menopause?

As someone interested in genetics and social behavior, here was a passages that caught my attention in the Posner decision:

Although it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative, homosexuality may, like menopause, by reducing procreation by some members of society free them to provide child-caring assistance to their procreative relatives, thus increasing the survival and hence procreative prospects of these relatives. This is called the “kin selection hypothesis” or the “helper in the nest” theory.

The passage includes a citation to this “responsible popular treatment” of the topic.  That article is better, in that it articulates a number of different explanations for how homosexuality being “inborn” (as Posner puts it) is not incompatible with evolutionary theory.  What’s interesting is that Posner’s decision singles out for attention the weakest argument of the lot.

What’s weak about it?

 Because homosexuality is not at all like menopause in a way that is extremely important for talking about evolution.  Namely: every woman who lives long enough goes through menopause, at least in the key sense of eventually becoming infertile.  It’s a feature of the species.  In contrast, only a small percentage of people are gay.  It’s unusual, not universal.  

You can come up with some kind of equilibrium argument for why the benefits of gay uncles–note: the theory is just about gay men–imply a low-but-nonzero population frequency.  (It’s a bit like how people have offered adaptationist explanations for left-handedness.)  For homosexuality, the math of that is sufficiently daunting that the authors of the cited article don’t even try, but instead fall back to the conclusion that this may have enhanced fitness in combination with other things.  In other words even if you do believe in this argument, you need to pick a second explanation as well to make it work.  

In any event, for other reasons including those mentioned in the article, being gay does not have to have served some higher adaptationist purpose in order to be “inborn.”  But also, and ultimately more importantly, the right of gay people to marry shouldn’t be in any way be contingent on sexual orientation being understood to be either “inborn” or “immutable.”   

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

11 thoughts on “is homosexuality really like menopause?”

  1. Interestingly, people use the same mode of argument to get choices for the poor, as they do to get rights for gays. Both in-kind poor benefits like food stamps and public housing, and the limited sexual freedoms of homosexuals, are based on the idea that these are inborn “needs.”

    The argument is a total contradiction: “these people have no choice when it comes to X, so we should give them freedom of choice regarding X.”

    Progressivism in these ways remains paternalistic, and infantilizes protected classes of people. The point is that gays and the poor are human beings, and if we assist them, it should be because we respect their DESIRES as grown ups capable of making their own choices, not because “those pitiful people have inborn needs.”

    “Need” is an arbitrary and politically dangerous distinction.

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  2. ” But also, and ultimately more importantly, the right of gay people to marry shouldn’t be in any way be contingent on sexual orientation being understood to be either “inborn” or “immutable.” ”
    Yes yes yes. Maybe the discursive turn towards “types of people” rather than “types of actions” hinging on “not a choice” that invoked the civil rights frame will turn out to have been functional. But the defense of rights does not require innateness or lack of choice–we defend the freedom of religion (and non-religion) even though it is not biological. And, belief that something is innate (e.g. Jewishness or race) has never been a reliable protection of a minority group’s civil rights.

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  3. While it is true that all women go through menopause, men do not.
    So 50% of the population is capable of making babies but nature (or whatever else you want to call it) removes 50%, not an insignificant percentage to be helpers.

    I guess the better comparison would be gay men to straight men. Helpful gay uncle is there to help when straight men fly the coop and keep on irresponsibly re-producing.

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  4. @grahamalam1: “these people have no choice when it comes to X, so we should give them freedom of choice regarding X.” Is that the argument? I thought it was more like, “these people have no choice when it comes to X, so we should not punish them (or deprive them of rights) because they are X.”

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    1. Yeah, I think you’re capturing the intuition there, with the “so we should not punish them.” But the argument in the gender literature is that such an argument reinforces biological essentialism.

      Joan Scott makes the argument in Gender and the Politics of History that masculinity tropes have always been invoked to legitimate the state – e.g., calling young men to war by challenging their masculinity, or that “the welfare state demonstrated its protective paternalism in laws directed at women and children” (p. 47).

      Elsewhere in Making Sex, Gayle Rubin points out that “the belly’s hunger gives no clues as to the complexities of cuisine,” implying that basic biological need for sexual expression gives no clues as to the complexities and varieties of sexual expression — varieties which were increasingly hunted by the state in a response to the fact that increasing urban agglomeration made it easier for people with non-conforming sexual preferences to get together and codify their cultures.

      So I think arguments about basic biological needs, while well intentioned (and certainly having done a lot of good in inducing sympathy for and drawing attention to disadvantaged populations), work in the end to infantalize such populations and reify their subordinate status.

      You say that the argument was that we shouldn’t “deprive them of rights.” And that’s right. But there is a categorical difference between constructing a subset of the polity as equal before the law and deserving the rights to make voluntary choices with other consenting adults, and constructing them as protected classes of people, different from the rest.

      Constructing protected classes of people means that the protector decides under what circumstances they are free to act. This has brought increased freedom to the poor and to sexually non-conforming people, but LIMITED, and ultimately oppressive freedoms.

      The freedom to eat as long as you pass a piss test, and the freedom to have sex with whom you want, as long as you don’t get married. We see, here, how the justification to give people freedoms based on the idea that they are inherently unfree (by biological necessity), leads ultimately to unfreedom, even if it accomplishes social improvements in the interim.

      Sorry for the long post and excessive citation — I’m in prelim death spiral mode.

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  5. Rights movements (civil rights, gay rights, etc.) emphasize equality rather than construction as a protected class. They want their group not to be a special class, i.e., one that can be discriminated against, that can be denied access to schools,stores, voting, marriage, and so on. Protection arises because oppressed people need that protection in order to ensure that the special-class treatment does not continue. The laws are usually written to avoid the protected-class idea. They don’t say, “You can’t discriminate against gays.” They say “You can’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.”

    (I’m still trying to wrap my brain around “oppressive freedoms.” Should try to find my old copy of Marcuse?)

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  6. That’s a good point, the language in the civil rights act is more general than I was giving it credit for. But the state did the oppressing in the first place, building an ad hoc apparatus limiting sexual non-conformists, immigrants, and racial minorities over the 19th and 20th centuries until the 1960s. Paternalism justified that original oppression as well as its reform. So what do we get? More paternalism.

    Arguably, civil rights and the various addenda since could have been accomplished with original constitutional protections of freedoms of speech, association, and commercial exchange. Instead we now have laws whose (cultural if not expressly legal) justifications hinge on dubious arguments about the intrinsic needs.

    Maybe the problem here actually began with the naive individualism in my old trusty classical liberalism. Protection of natural rights of individuals in invites justifications based on modern conceptions of the natural – i.e. biological needs.

    I think my original point, that biological needs (e.g., sexual and nutritional appetite) cast minorities as less than fully adult people, and denies them respect for their all desires (that don’t impinge on others), regardless the origin of those desires.

    Please God keep Herb on the shelf.

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  7. “Oppressive freedom” did call to mind “repressive tolerance.” That aside, I’m also puzzled by the idea that demands for equality are based on biological needs. These demands are predominantly if not entirely demands to be treated like as an equal member of society. Marriage equality is not about sexual needs any more than the right to get a cheeseburger at Woolworths in North Carolina was about nutritional needs. The same goes for things the government provides or subsidizes — education, police protection, food, housing, etc. Public housing and tax reductions on mortgages, public schools and tax breaks and loans for college costs — these are based on the idea that they are good things we want more of, or even that they are things people need to be full members of the society. These are justified on the basis of social needs, not inborn or biological ones.

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    1. The classical argument for public education was partly made on the premise that people were born with different biological endowments. Rousseau in the second discourse admits full frontal that there is a natural (brutes of varying talents and all that) and a social component of inequality. We have made a grave mistake by mixing up the justification for social equality based on natural inequalities.

      “Food, clothing, and shelter” are the trifecta of “basic needs” and are all matters of humans as biological organisms interacting with the immediate physical dangers of environment.

      Marriage equality is not about sexual needs, but the gay rights movement was originally predicated on the biological determinism of sex. I am saying that we are now stuck fighting over marriage equality in part because we justified equality based on the fundamental, essential inequality of sexual exigencies of sexuality, rather than recognizing gender in the first place as a complex of social interactions.

      We should be cutting poor people checks instead of giving them in-kind benefits on the basis of “need,” because we respect to their rights to choose (to buy crack, donuts, or kale) — just like we should be granting universal social freedoms of association and contract (i.e., marriage and insurance contracts) to non-conforming genders based on respect for universal human desire and choice.

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