Gay Gene Or Gay Germ?
VDARE.COM is not a full-service
webzine and we don`t take a position on gay marriage,
gay bishops or gay (or glum) anything. (We do miss
Pim Fortuyn, though.) But we are interested in the
science of human differences. And it`s worth looking
seriously at one of the greatest mysteries in that
science: What causes male homosexuality?
(I`m focusing solely on male
homosexuality because lesbianism differs in many
significant ways. See my 1994 article "Why
Lesbians Aren`t Gay" for a list of three dozen
traits on which gays and lesbians tend to differ.)
Homosexuals are somewhere between
one percent and six percent of the male population in
the U.S.—the demographic data isn`t very reliable. Their
existence is an embarrassing anomaly for
Darwinism. From the standpoint of Darwinian
fitness—i.e., the propagation of descendents—male
homosexuality represents a huge loss in reproductive
capacity. Genetic mathematics suggests it should go
At various times and places—for
example, ancient Greece, some
New Guinea tribes, elite English
public schools, and the more violent American
prisons—widespread homosexual behavior has been an
accepted part of the culture. In almost all these cases,
older and/or more masculine males use younger and/or
less masculine males as female substitutes. They turn to
women almost as soon as they become available.
But that`s not at all what`s
happening on Castro St. and Christopher St. Instead, we
see males with lifelong homosexual orientations and,
typically, with as strong an urge to give pleasure to as
take it from another man —especially if he is highly
For at least a decade, many male
homosexuals (but, interestingly, few lesbians) have been
arguing that their sexual orientation has biological
roots. However, they`ve been reluctant for both
political and personal reasons to mention the best
evidence: most of them were effeminate little boys.
J. Michael Bailey, the chairman of the psychology
department at Northwestern University, is probably the
leading researcher into sexual orientation in America.
He notes that many gay men are loath to admit they were
effeminate boys partly because, as can be seen in the
many "Men Seeking Men" personal ads that specify "no
sissies," gays find effeminate men much less sexually
attractive than masculine men.
Still, the evidence is clear. In
highly-readable new book
The Man Who Would Be Queen, Professor Bailey
summarizes 30 studies that asked gay and straight men to
rate their agreement with statements like "As a child
I often felt that I had more in common with girls than
boys." He found that the average adult gay
man was a more feminine boy than 90 percent of straight
Likewise, Richard Green of UCLA
followed into adulthood a group of effeminate boys and a
control group of masculine boys. He found massive
differences in the likelihood they would become
This suggests that male
homosexuality is not just a sexual preference, or even a
sexual orientation, but part of a larger personality
structure in place long before puberty.
Accordingly, some scientists have
searched for the "gay gene."
Dean Hamer, a gay geneticist at the National
Institutes of Health, received rapturous publicity a
decade ago when he claimed to have found it.
I was skeptical for two reasons. I
studied carefully the data reported in Hamer`s book
The Science of Desire—which does have many good
things in it. I noted that his crucial key sample group
vs. control group difference was indeed statistically
significant at the minimum required five percent level.
That meant it would happen by chance no more than five
percent of the time. But it wasn`t significant at the
4.5 percent level. That meant it could still be a fluke.
Further, Hamer was never able to
answer adequately the big question: How could a gene for
hereditary homosexuality avoid going extinct—much less
spread to millions of people?
The improbability of a gay gene
surviving natural selection may seem like a strange
concept when we constantly read about geneticists
discovering "the gene for" various deadly diseases. Yet,
as Matt Ridley put it in his book
Genome: "GENES ARE NOT THERE TO CAUSE DISEASES."
Genes are there to give you capabilities to survive and
Diseases that are unambiguously
hereditary, such as Huntington`s chorea, tend to be low
in incidence and/or to impact older people, who are well
past their reproductive primes.
When the popular press trumpets the
"gene for" a major disease, they often mean a gene
related to the defense mechanisms against the disease.
One version of the gene offers more protection against
the disease and another version less protection,
although it may offer more resistance to some other
disease. Your genome is full of tradeoffs.
To take an old example, found by
Linus Pauling in the 1940s: Sickle cell anemia results
when a child inherits two copies of the sickle cell gene
that, when only one is inherited, helps prevent another
disease—falciparum malaria, which kills a
million people a year in Africa. This is a
"self-destructive defense" that would likely have been
replaced by a less dangerous defensive mutation if the
threat of falciparum malaria had been around longer. But
this tropical disease`s reign as one of the deadliest of
all killers is probably more recent than the last ice
age, which ended only 12,000 years ago.
So, if you don`t have the right
version of this “sickle cell gene,” you are more likely
to die of falciparum malaria. But that doesn`t mean
having the wrong version directly causes malaria. It`s
still more sensible to say that malaria is caused by the
bite of infected mosquitoes.
(Sickle cell anemia, by the way, is
an undeniably race-related disease, even though the
"Race Does Not Exist " crowd tries to pretend
otherwise. Thus Sharon Begley recently
wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
"Sickle-cell anemia, for instance, is more common in
parts of sub-Sahara Africa than it is globally, but
focusing prevention efforts on blacks would miss
millions of southern Italians, eastern Mediterraneans,
Middle Easterners and southern Indians who also carry
the defective gene." Sure, carriers of a single copy
of the sickle cell are sometimes found among Caucasians
around the Mediterranean, but carrying one copy of the
gene doesn`t give you
sickle cell anemia. It takes two. And the chance of
inheriting two copies falls off sharply – to be
technical, by the square root – as the incidence in your
local racial group falls off. Fortunately, among
African-Americans sickle cell anemia appears to be in
decline among African-Americans – because they no longer
need the malaria protection that the “sickle cell gene”
Trying to come up with a Darwinian
justification for the spread of a gay gene, Dean Hamer
adapted a hypothesis put forward thirty years ago by the
brilliant manic-depressive sociobiologist Robert Trivers
and popularized by his deeply sane colleague
Edward O. Wilson. He suggested that the gay gene
might lend "inclusive fitness.” Gay uncles might have so
many more nephews and nieces than straight uncles that
the effect of the gay gene would be positive across the
whole extended family.
But simple genetic arithmetic shows
this is exceedingly improbable. Male homosexuality
causes a very large loss in "Darwinian fitness”—the
reduction in number of descendents. Currently, male
homosexuals have about 80 percent fewer children than
male heterosexuals. To be cautious, let`s say that on
average in the past they had only 50 percent fewer
children. For “inclusive fitness” to work, that would
mean that, in a stable population where the average
person has two surviving children, the typical gay man
would need to have at least twice as many nephews/nieces
as the typical straight.
I`m sorry, but somebody would have
noticed if this was true. Gays tend to have good pattern
recognition skills, but they`ve never noticed such a
pattern. Northwestern`s Bailey looked for evidence among
his sample of gays. He couldn`t find any.
study in Canada looking for Hamer`s gay gene was
unable to reproduce his findings. Subsequently, the
whole quest for a gay gene has faded.
There are a number of other
theories, for example:
- the portfolio diversity
theory of University of New Orleans economist
Edward M. Miller. This argues that evolution works to
produce a range of personalities to fill different
niches, from hyperaggressive (warriors, many of whom
get killed but some of whom may make out like
history`s greatest progenitor,
Genghis Khan) to kinder, gentler (family men) to
occasional overshoots (homosexual men.) Miller also
theorizes that the fact that the more older brothers a
male has, the more likely he is to be homosexual,
which has been documented by Ray Blanchard of
the gender identity program at the
University of Toronto`s Centre for Addiction and
Mental Health, tends to minimize fratricidal
This is thought-provoking. But I
think that portfolio diversity may provide a better
explanation of lesbianism than of gayness. First, it`s
likely that traditional societies were effective at
persuading more masculine women to have almost as many
babies as more feminine women. For instance,
Eleanor Roosevelt had six children. So "overshoot"
among women would be less of a Darwinian problem.
Second, because the theory holds that traits are
distributed in a bell curve, there should be more people
at the bisexual half-way house than at the
exclusively-homosexual extreme. And this does appear to
be true among women – but not among men, according to
Bailey and other researchers.
- Blanchard himself has advanced a
fetal antigen exposure
theory. This argues that later sons may be
affected in the womb by the reaction of the mother`s
body to bearing previous males. It might account for
1/7th of all male homosexuals.
- Perhaps the simplest alternative
to the “gay gene” theory: the “gay germ” theory
proposed by my friend Gregory M. Cochran. A defense
industry physicist during the 1980s, at the successful
end of the Cold War, Cochran has transformed himself
into the most radically insightful evolutionary
theorist of recent years. He`s now an adjunct
professor with the University of Utah`s strong
department of anthropology.
cover story of the February, 1999 Atlantic
Monthly profiled Cochran and his research partner
Paul Ewald, a prominent Amherst evolutionary biologist
and author of
Plague Time: The New Germ Theory of Disease.
argued that, for two centuries, the fraction of
diseases that we know to be caused by germs has
constantly increased. For example, peptic ulcers were
shown in 1983 to be caused by germs—and easily cured by
antibiotics. Cochran and Ewald predicted that future
research will discover germs play a major role in many
big, bad diseases – such as cancer, heart disease, and
The New Germ Theory actually
originated in 1992 when Cochran got to wondering about
the causes of male homosexuality. "The only thing
we`ve seen worse in magnitude of genetic load [i.e.
homosexuality`s negative effect on Darwinian fitness]
was sickle cell anemia," Cochran told me on Friday.
Male homosexuality could be a
similar “self-destructive” genetic defense against a
major infectious disease, just as the “sickle cell gene”
defends against malaria at the price of increasing
susceptibility to sickle cell anemia. But nobody knows
what that illness could be. It would have to be major –
and, presumably, relatively modern, like falciparum
malaria, which is puzzling.
Or, as Cochran suggests, an
infectious disease itself could cause homosexuality.
It`s probably not a venereal germ, but maybe an
intestinal or respiratory germ. If it spreads like the
flu, and if it needs to strike at a particular stage of
development before or shortly after birth, then more
male homosexuals might be born in one season than
another, just as more
schizophrenics are born in late winter and in early
spring, especially in cities with cold winters. This
should be easily testable.
It`s radically unfashionable to
call homosexuality a disease. But you can`t think
rigorously about the gay gene theory without drawing
straightforward analogies to genetic diseases. Both
reduce the number of descendents, which is the number
that counts in evolution.
Many have reacted with horror to
Cochran`s theory because it implies that homosexuality
might be preventable with the right antibiotic or
vaccine. Parents might decide that, since they are
putting themselves through all the trouble of raising a
child, they ought to increase the likelihood of
Whether that decision would be good
or bad is a very personal matter—exactly the sort of
dispute that VDARE.COM heroically
race—this fear of what the public might possibly
decide in the future must not be allowed to retard
The truth, it is reliably reported,
will set us free.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and