Elizabeth Wilson reviews Jim McKnight’s: Straight Science? Homosexuality, Evolution and Adaption
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Biological explanations of psychological, behavioural or cognitive tendencies have typically been highly controversial. In recent decades, the social sciences have spawned a number of such contentious theses: think of Arthur Jensen’s genetic theories of IQ; Hans Eysenck’s genetic theories of personality; Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiological theories of sexual relations; Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s theories of race and IQ. All these authors position themselves, quite self-consciously, in the role of intellectual maverick. By bringing biological data to bear on questions that others have been too timid or intimidated to ask, these authors have sought to refigure scientific, cultural and economic politics.
Jim McKnight’s recent book on evolution and homosexuality positions itself, quite self-consciously, within this intellectual milieu. While unlikely to achieve the same degree of notoriety as the work of Jensen et al, this book nonetheless enters into much the same scientific and political territory. McKnight surveys a large body of work in evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and genetics (particularly Dean Hamer’s claim to have located markers for a ‘gay gene’) in order to present an evolutionary explanation of male homosexuality. This explanation is offered not only as a response to the dominance of ‘social constructionist’ accounts of homosexuality, but also in response to the dominance of social constructionism in psychology more generally. By the time one reaches the end of this book, then, it is unclear whether it is an account of homosexuality per se that interests McKnight, or whether homosexuality is simply a convenient object through which social constructionism may be rebuked. Whatever the motivation, this book’s rhetorical force cannot be restricted to the mathematical modelling of evolutionary problems. The force and direction of the arguments throughout the book also draw heavily on the politics of social construction vs biological determinism.
Straight Science? opens and closes with chapters that address the social, cultural or political implications of evolutionary accounts of homosexuality. I will return to these chapters later. The middle of the book is occupied with laying out an extensive review of the literature on evolutionary or sociobiological accounts of homosexuality. It is in these middle chapters that McKnight presents his own hypothesis about the evolutionary nature of homosexuality. While this hypothesis occupies comparatively little space (much of the book is survey and assessment of the field), it is McKnight’s central contribution to the literature, and so it is worth documenting here.
Homosexuality presents a paradox to evolutionary theory. If we grant that there could be such a thing as a gay gene (or at least some kind of genetic basis to sexual orientation), then how are we to explain the persistence of a gay gene in the human population over time? That is, if male homosexuality typically does not lead to offspring, how do those gay genes survive from one generation to the next? This is not a new issue in evolutionary theory. Edward O. Wilson deals with it in his 1975 text Sociobiology, and as far back as the 1950s evolutionary theorists have been offering explanations for the genetic persistence of homosexuality. Moreover, there are a number of other genetic attributes that present the same paradox of persisting despite their seeming mal-adaptivity (e.g., in developing countries sickle cell anaemia usually kills its carriers before they are able to reproduce, yet its frequency in these populations remains high).
McKnight surveys a number of different explanations for why any putative gene for homosexuality may persist in the population over time (e.g., a link between a gene for homosexuality and a gene for altruism), and then offers his own hypothesis. He suggests that sexual orientation is heterozygotically controlled: the ‘gay gene’ is not only to be found in gay men, but also in straight men (genetic closeting, if you like). So there are three kinds of genetic sexual orientation to be found in men: homozygotic gay men, homozygotic straight men (who have no homosexual genetic loading), and heterozygotic straight men (who carry homosexual genetic material, but who are not themselves gay). The evolutionary paradox is solved by examining how “at an individual level some advantage is conferred to straight men … by their one, or possibly many, homosexual alleles, which allow the survival of an otherwise deleterious gene” (p. 65).
It is these ‘homosexually-enabled straight men’ that are at the centre of McKnight’s explanation. Homosexuality survives, not because gay men, per se, are adaptive, but because the gay gene makes straight men more successfully heterosexual. McKnight hypothesises that this homosexual genetic loading endows some straight men with two crucial characteristics – enhanced sexual drive and charm. Such sexually enhanced and charming straight men become highly successful heterosexuals i.e., they produce more offspring than their un-enhanced straight brothers. Thus the genes for homosexuality (now simply the genes for libido and seductiveness) are passed on to the next generation. We have the occasional gay man (3% of the population according to McKnight) merely as an effect of too much of this libidinal and charming genetic loading in one individual. In McKnight’s terms, exclusively homosexual outcomes are a by-product of an enhanced heterosexuality.
The hypothesis concerning enhanced sexual drive in gay men is drawn from research by Masters and Johnson, and Kinsey, and from McKnight’s own (as yet unpublished) research on male homosexuality. Leaving aside the obvious response that McKnight is simply trading in stereotypical presumptions about male homosexuality (or, to put it more technically, the criticism that all this research fails to sample the gay male population in a representative fashion), by his own terms McKnight fails to make an argument about what is specifically genetic or natural about this allegedly enhanced sex drive in gay men. McKnight’s argument falls into non-sequitur at this point: if homosexuality in men is genetic, and if homosexual men are promiscuous, it does not necessarily follow that promiscuity is genetic. McKnight’s claim that promiscuity is evidence of an enhanced sexual drive, and that this enhanced sexual drive is genetically gifted to certain straight men, cannot be sustained on the data he presents here.
The other characteristic gifted to straight men by this homosexual genetic loading is charm. “Homosexual charm is legendary” (p. 107) McKnight reminds us, while citing research which suggests that gay men are more creative, communicative and socially adept than “the average male” (p. 106). Although presumptions of gay male promiscuity seem predictable enough, McKnight’s hypothesis concerning the natural charm of gay men appears as an unexpected novelty. It soon becomes clear why McKnight focuses on charm — it is charm that lures straight women into the evolutionary selection of homosexuality:
It is likely that women have an evolved preference for certain types of men and have developed a keen ability to distinguish between offers. Men traditionally offer health, intellect, virility and resources and use aggression and charm to push their case. Homosexually-enabled straight men with access to both masculine and feminine traits will be able to offer sensitivity, creativity and better communication skills in addition to the traditional male offerings. Given that women have a range of possible mates with equivalent prospects, the homosexually-enabled straight man with a greater measure of feminine appeal will succeed at the margin. At the same time, women’s discriminant ability will be finely attuned to hints of unmanliness and too large a dose of homosexuality will rapidly disqualify a potential suitor, given that one of the most consistent findings of sexuality research is a strong disapproval of effeminate men. (p. 105-106)
McKnight’s hypothesis concerning the sexually-enhanced, charming nature of homosexuality rests on the conflation of two presumptions that are not only clumsy but also contradictory: gay men are hyper-masculine; gay men are effeminate. McKnight’s conflation of gender with sexuality (a conflation that has been examined at length in the queer studies literature in the last decade) suggests an extensive confusion about what the object of study here really is. Moreover, these central hypotheses sanction a proliferation of heterosexist claims throughout the text: straight men are naturally driven to polygamy; straight women appear to be at the mercy of patriarchy but actually they control men through their enigmatic reproductive powers; effeminate men are sexually and socially pathological; lesbianism is an asexual social activity.
McKnight’s understanding of the nature of homosexuality rests on political and empirical presumptions that are disrespectful (“It might be instructive to count the number of times sociobiological enquiry is linked by analogy to Nazi experimentation… This is a non-sequitur” p. 180), patronising (“We do not know what the overall prognosis is for homosexuality but we will argue here that it is more likely to be part of the solution than the problem” p. 68), affronting (“It may be that a historical analysis of patriarchy’s oppression of Western women is epiphenomenal when judged against a long prehistory of ‘wimmin’s business'” p. 183), and deliberately reactionary (“human sexuality is inherently, quite naturally, sexist” p. 181). Evolutionary theory has the capacity to produce exactly these kinds of claims, but it also has the potential to produce hypotheses that are more acute, more subtle, and more expansive that those offered by McKnight.
All of which returns me to some comment on the opening and closing chapters in this book. The opening chapter offers a justification for the book’s empirical direction, and it attempts a definition and typology of homosexuality. In the final chapter McKnight responds to seven common criticisms of sociobiological research (humans are not animals; scientific explanations of homosexuality are homophobic; scientific explanations of homosexuality are trivial; scientific explanations of homosexuality are reductionist; scientific explanations of homosexuality are deterministic; sociobiology is morally bankrupt; sociobiology is sexist). These chapters present the political and intellectual context in which this book was written. McKnight claims that the central motivation for the book is to address social constructivist accounts of homosexuality: “My main concern is with social constructivists who blindly ignore the mounting evidence for a biology of homosexuality” (p. 101).
But this book never honestly engages with the question of social constructionism. McKnight has read so little of the so-called social constructionist work in the humanities and social sciences, which addresses the nature, origins and character of homosexuality, that his criticisms rarely meet their mark. The term social constructionist, like its sibling term ‘postmodernist’, is a semantically empty one. Which social constructionists? Is there only one kind of social constructionism? In truth, the field of social or cultural comment on homosexuality is more diverse and more sophisticated than McKnight would have us believe. What seems surprising in a book that aims to take on the dominance of social constructionism is that there is not one reference to the work of Michel Foucault, or to the expansive and diverse amount of research on sexuality that he incited. Importantly, the ‘biology of homosexuality’ has not been a neglected topic in these intellectual circles. The debates over essentialism and constructionism have been extensively explored and rehearsed in this literature for at least 10 years (see for example, Edward Stein’s Forms of Desire or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Axiomatic” and “How to bring your kids up gay”). Moreover, Vernon Rosario’s recent introduction to Science and Homosexualities makes it clear that these debates are not straight-forwardly anti-biological.
What then is the purpose of these first and last chapters? If it is not their objective to present a sustained analysis of social constructionism, then I presume it is their purpose to incite controversy. Moreover, by never coming to grips with the complexity of what might be called social constructionism, and by reducing this mode of analysis to a homogeneous and simplistic doctrine that is antagonistic to biology, McKnight’s book re-produces the very division he claims to be rallying against. In the end, we are left with a book that has no further ambition than expanding and inflaming the political and intellectual divisions that already exist between the sciences and the humanities.
Elizabeth Wilson is a research fellow in Women’s Studies at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Neural geographies: Feminism and the microstructure of cognition(Routledge, 1998).
Jim McKnight’s Straight Science? Homosexuality, Evolution and Adaptation was published by Routledge, London in 1997.