Debate on human sexuality will, by its nature evoke resistance and fear, to some extent legitimately. It is with this in mind, coupled with the often inane, ill-informed and sometimes downright ignorant statements uttered by Ugandan parliamentarians on the nightly news, that I have decided to jump–head-first–into the murky waters of the gay discourse in Uganda. First, I need to make one thing known here: I am NOT pro-gay, neither do I subscribe to the “hunt the gays” cohort of moralists. All am interested in is us having an open discourse on this matter; one that is short on dogma, pontification, and emotion but inundated with rational, evidence-based and sober arguments.
In his letter to the speaker of parliament late last year, the president provided an incisive and quite well-informed analysis to the homosexuality debate in Uganda. The last paragraph in his nine-page letter, in particular, caught my eye. It reads:
“My acid test for rejecting that position [that homosexuality is an alternative sexual orientation] is that nature is purposeful. One of the main purposes of man is to perpetuate human life. You can not perpetuate human life without copulation of opposite sexes.”
On this I beg to disagree with my president. For one reason: nature is not purposeful. In his 1986 book “The Blind Watchmaker,” Biologist Richard Dawkins posits that the only “watchmaker” in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. Nature has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. Claiming that nature is purposeful suggests the existence of “purpose” and by extension, a “designer” – one who has foresight, and a future purpose in his mind’s eye. This is a fallacy propagated by creationists and contradicts Darwinian evolution.
In the letter, the president wonders why a man would, leaving the attractions of the female body, be attracted to another man’s [anus].
This forms the crux of my argument.
Why, from an evolutionary point of view, should gay attractions exist at all?
Almost every class of animals has individuals who copulate with members of their own sex. Primatologist George Vassey observed homosexual mounting occurs rarely in Plattrrhine (New World/South American) monkeys but is more frequent and clearly expressed in Catrrhinic (Old World/African) primates, who are more recently evolved and more closely related to us. Cattrhine males will sometimes show preference for a male partner and will compete with other males for such a partner. Now, why would an orientation that appears so inimical to reproductive fitness persist in human or animal populations? Homosexuality needs to demonstrate a survival benefit to offset the reproductive cost that the orientation would be expected to exact. And, yes, like all disadvantageous traits that occur as a result of occasional and random mutations (which are usually selected against in nature), e.g the sickle cell trait (which confers resistance to malaria amongst its carriers in West African populations), the gay/lesbian trait does seem to convey certain advantages to its carrier and thus undergoes favourable selection.
Biologists Robert Trivers and James Weinrich postulate that gay people must have evolved character traits of an altruistic nature that prompt them to work harder for the protection and advancement of closely related family members rather than invest in having children of their own. This is known as “kin altruism” and it is evidenced in birds where up to 8% of bird species carry out co-operative breeding (where members of a species forfeit their individual reproductive fitness to aid the parentage of others’ offspring). It is the human equivalent of one individual laying their life on the line for a sibling, nephew or cousin. Now this might sound counter-intuitive but imagine you decided jump into the lake to save a drowning relative, at the risk of losing your own life: if it were a sibling that is saved (and, in he unfortunate case, you died), (s)he would carry 50% of your genes; 25% if it were your nephew and 12.5% if it were a cousin – assuming a randomly mating population, that is. So it would, in fact, make sense for one to risk their life (or choose not to produce offspring) if they had two siblings, four nephews or eight cousins since this would guarantee the success of their (the individual’s) genes albeit carried in another persons body.
Therefore, is Homosexuality genetic?
Yes and No. Well, okay, scientists are divided on this one. I’ll present the evidence nevertheless.
A University of Illinois at Chicago researcher David Featherstone and collegues discovered a gene in fruit flies. They called it the “gender blind” or GB gene. It was found a mutation on the GB gene turns flies bisexual. And according to Featherstone, GB transports the neurotransmitter glutamate to brain cells. Altering the levels of glutamate change the strength of synapses (nerve junctions) which play a role in human and animal behaviour. It was also found that all male flies with a mutation on the GB gene courted other males. Based on their previous work, the Featherstone team reason that GB mutants might show homosexual behaviour because the glutamic synapses were altered. To test this, scientists genetically altered synapse strength, independent of GB. They also gave the flies drugs to alter synapses strength. As expected, they were able o turn homosexuality on and off with drugs.
A study in 2005 found that smelling a chemical from testosterone, portions of the human brain active in sexual activity were turned on in gay men and straight women, but not in straight men. This, too, could suggest that gay people are predisposed to homosexuality contrary to what most parliamentarians (including members of the select NRM “team” of scientists), think.
Finally, I do think the homosexuality debate is more nuanced that some ideologues and self-righteous folks in this town are willing to concede. The best thing would be not to rush to legislate against/for gays but sit down and discuss this issue without all the holygrailing and pontification. Furthermore, Mr President, scientific/biological knowledge of human sexuality is not a panacea to the gay issue and thus biological science should be accompanied by social science research to unravel the ethical and psychological dichotomes of “learned” and predisposed homosexuality.