Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Sex and Evolution and Politics

And now for something completely different... Usually I write here in Vox Libertas about politics, about the Rule of Law, the Constitution, the behavior of our elected leaders and the dangers that I see in the growing trend to authoritarianism, oligarchy, the cult of personality and the centralization of power. Today, I am going to write about politics, too, but also about evolution and science, homosexuality, morality, philosophy and love. I do so inspired by Proposition 8, and reading an article about altruism and evolutionary psychology, and because a new yet dear friend asked me if I knew any other lesbians. And perhaps because it is a time of family and holidays, and the darkest days of the year.

In a discussion of marriage and the law a few weeks back, someone cited the notion that "marriage is between one man and one woman", and I asked,

"What about the others?"
"What others?"
"Those that are neither a man or a woman."
"What do you mean?"

What I meant was that if you look at the purely physical level, at our genes and our hormones, you find that the simple notion of "men" and "women" as a black and white concept doesn't quite hold up. Genetically, men are XY and women XX in terms of the 23rd chromosome pair. But that's not all of the possibilities. There are X0, and XXX, XXY, XYY and so on. These are quite rare and may add up to something like .3% of live births. There are also a number of hormonal and fetal development conditions, such as Androgen insensitivity syndrome, wherein people who are XX or XY end up with the "wrong" genitals. These folk, along with the extremely rare chromosome types are called "intersexed". I've seen estimates that between .6% and 1.3% of live births are "intersex" by somewhat varying definitions and counts.

And thus the question, "What about the rest, the interesexed?" What rights should they have? Most people don't ask or think about that question, after all, each of these conditions is quite rare, occurring in one in a thousand or ten thousand or twenty or more thousand births. But stop and think. If the number is, say .3% to pick a nice low number, in America that's still about a million citizens, a million people not matching the definitions, not even in the debate about traditional vs same-sex marriage. What about the others?

In chasing tweets over on twitter, I found myself on the web site of the journal, "entelechy", which is devoted to mind and culture, to evolutionaty psychology. One article there started out,

When it comes to altruism, the party line in evolutionary psychology goes something like this: True altruism doesn’t really exist — it’s not an evolveable quality of organisms given how natural selection works her magic (which is by selecting features of organisms that have the effects of replicating their own particular genes). The two predominant kinds of altruism discussed by evolutionists both clearly represent “gene selfishness” when examined closely. On one hand, kin selection, the helping of genetic relatives, is essentially the helping of one’s genes as they exist in the bodies of others. On the other hand, reciprocal altruism, the helping of a non-relative with an implicit understanding of being helped in return by that individual at some future point, has an obvious selfishness as well.

Two important recent theoretical developments within evolutionary psychology give pause to evolutionists who stick by this orthodoxy. First, David Sloan Wilson, NEEPS’ esteemed inaugural keynote speaker, makes the case that natural selection can, in fact, work at the level of groups of organisms to the extent that competition between groups is a salient feature of the species. Under such conditions, altruistic behaviors that reduce one’s fitness within the group but that provide benefits to the group can actually evolve under some conditions.

This brought me in mind of a discussion that I've had occessionally regarding the "unnaturalness" of homosexuality, as viewed from a "selfish gene" evolutionary standpoint. Homosexulaity, since it works against reproduction, must the arguemt goes, be an "unfit" strategy, from a selection of the fittest evoltionary perspective. It must then from a purely scientific viewpoint be an unnatural and unhealthy trait, or so the argument goes.

Yet, as the quote above points out, among humans, who are very social creatures, groups--tribes, villages, extended families--compete with each other, and when they do traits that may work against reproduction of the individal may still work to the advantage of the gnepool from which they arose. Specifically, childless aunties and uncles, surrogate parents to orphans, childless hunters and gatherers, may lead to the survival of the group. Homosexuality at the level of one in twenty may produce valuable group members, increasing the chance of survival of all members while only mildly reducing the number of individuals in the next generation.

If, in fact, one of the biological and evolutionary roles of homosexually individuals is to serve as surrogate parents to children whose parents are absent, dead or busy insuring the groups survival, should they not be permitted to serve that function, to fulfill those instincts in the modern world?

A couple of years ago, two very old and dear friends of mine got married, because being citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, they could for the first time in the 25 years that they have been together. The wedding, a church wedding, was extremely beautiful, not only for the love the brides felt for each other, the physical beauty of the surroundings, or the sense of justice fulfilled, but also beacuse of the large number of people who came "as family". Many people of many ages came to share the wedding of two women, whom they called "mom". My friends have always taken in strays, offered home and motherly advice, both warm and stern, to those who need it. More recently, I made some new friends of another lesbian couple, and soon met the young people they called their "godsons". And as I thought about it, it seemed to me that this is a pattern that we see a lot, extended volitional "families" centered around homosexual and especially lesbian couples.

As a philosopher and social psychologist by training, it has always bothered me when scientists interpret "natural selection" to mean "survival of the fittest" in a dog-eat-dog competitive world, resulting in notions like "True altruism doesn’t really exist". The problem with this is that it always seems like a theory that doesn't fit the observable facts. When we hear that infants don't smile--"it's just gas", and only humans understand speech, or animals don't lie or only humans have a sense of self, it leaves me wondering if the speaker was ever a parent or lived with a cat or dog. And inevitably, after the clever theory-based truism has been repeated into triviality, some clever wight goes off, conducts a study and shows that it just ain't so.

The first Neanderthal fossils included the skeleton of a lame, half blind old cripple. How did he survive to old age? What selfish gene preserved him long beyond the point of reproduction, when he was likely more a burden to his juniors than the other way around? The answer would seem to by love, charity and altruism. The answer would seem to be natural selection of the functional group, the evolutionary advantage of love.

A week or two back amid the brouhaha over Proposition 8 and Rick Warren, while some anti-same sex marriage advocate was worrying about how accommodating same-sex marriage would lead to embracing pedophilia, incest, polygamy and maybe even bestiality, a marriage equality advocate rebutted that what people don't get about same-sex marriage is that it is about love, not sex, or not just sex. I think that one of the reasons that people lose track of that is that they have a hard time really embracing the notion that there is more than one way to be OK, that in fact it is normal for human groups to comprise diverse individuals. Different is taken to be abnormal, and abnormal to be perverted from the norm.

But, the truth is there isn't just one (or two) way(s) to be human. There are men and and women and others. There are straight, homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered folk. Some of us marry and reproduce and some of us care for those whose parents can't or won't. And at the heart of being human is love, both erotic love and the charity of human kindness. We revere and care for the aged and infirm. Enlightened self interest, with a goodly emphasis on enlightened, makes us more successful and more human. Cut-throat dog-eat-dog competition is not the fundamental way of nature, even for dogs, who exhibit remarkable amounts of compassion, empathy and love themselves.

And so the Deist in me, lead by reason, science, and nature tells me that all men were created equal, even if they were not created alike, and that Nature's God, Nature's Law and Nature's Justice teach us that we should allow our brothers, sisters, and even the others among us who were created different to fulfill the need for love, the need to nurture, the need to join together in eternal bonds the right and the dignity so to do. With that I return to the roots of this blog, the Vox Libertas, the free voice of our Founders.

As ever, don't believe me. Research, learn and decide for yourself, but do not turn a deaf ear to what Reason and Faith, Hope and Charity teach us.

Vox Libertas.


Todd I. Stark said...

Natural selection was never a good excuse for indulging the naturalistic fallacy and discrimiinating on the basis of what is "unnatural." Variation plays a critical role in natural selection, and individualism and rebellion play critical roles in human life.

Also, it seems to me that evolutionary theory is in transition. Even though it was never a good rationale for racial or sexual discrimination, it is becoming even less so.

I suspect that the view of evolution as (purely) competition of genes for their own reproductive fitness is probably going to die with the current generation of biologists. It's an important concept but it doesn't suffice in aa number of critical ways.

We are seeing a groundswell of (a) serious multi-level, multi-dimensional approaches to evolution, (b) approaches that consider the organism an active shaper of its environment, and (c) approaches that acknowledge the creativity of evolution and the unpredictability of preadaptations (unexpected new uses made of previous adaptations).

This means that we can't continue to say that the consensus or "party line" is the pure gene selectionist model, just because most people understand evolution form Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is a brilliant guy, and I particularly like "The Ancestor's Tale," but I think he has fought a losing battle against evolutionary pluralism in the public eye for a long time (along with his tilting against the windmill of religion).

A number of theorists have also noted in recent years that nature has its fundamental synchronization (or "cooperation") mechanisms that play a major role in evolution along with competition.

If you look at this expanded framework of evolutionary change, you see "altruism" in a different way, no longer hamstrung by the need to explain it away in terms of exclusively gene-centered or selfish motives.

Cooperation and competition are both fundamental kinds of things in nature that play a role in evolution.

Jim Burrows said...

I agree entirely that evolutionary theory is becoming an even less reasonable rationale for discrimination, I'm not sure that it is yet falling off in that role in the popular mind.

It may just be me, but I seem to see more and more Dawkins extremists rather than less, both in terms of atheistic fundamentalism and the narrow evolutionary model. It often feels as though we are becoming more, not less polarized and simplistic, at least in the popular and political arenas.

I hope you are right that he is losing ground on evolutionary pluralism in the public eye (and perhaps even more so that his atheism will lose cachet). If I am right about pluralism, then science will continue to pull in that direction as the evidence leads us, but that doesn't insure social and political progress.

Thanks for the comment, and the recent Twitter add.

Todd I. Stark said...

It seems as if we mostly tend to listen to passionate extremists, and get bored easily with thoughtful moderates. So Dawkins makes his mark on our psyche particularly well.

Also, I have to admit that engaging the creationism/ID movement over the years has had a regrettable polarizing effect on me as well.

I've become more atheistic in my views over time as I've encountered more and more anti-evolution adn anti-science sentiment linked to seemingly religious motivations or rationale.

Still, I can't quite bring myself to blame "religion." These dynamics seem to be built into human minds and exploited particularly well by some characterisics of religions for both good and bad.