Monday, March 15, 2010

What is homophobia good for? (Or: how to use science to advance moral debates)

In an earlier posting asking what homosexuality is good for, I sketched the idea that both homosexuality and homophobia might in different ways be adaptions. A recent publication about where Europe’s Y-chromosomes come from supports the ideas behind this thinking, especially with regard to homophobia, and this, in turn, affects how we should respond to the place of homophobia in the so-called ‘judeo-christian ethic’. Which brings back the topic of the earlier posting (about one attempt to reform attitudes to homosexuality by barraging the homophobes with scientific facts). There, I argued, that scientific fact rarely impacts on moral opinion. However, when science feeds our understanding of the history of ideas, when it shows us how and why our ‘morals’ originated, then it is a very powerful tool indeed. In the current case, science unmasks the charade that promotes judeo-christian homophobia to the status of a moral principle, revealing it as the remnant of pressures far distant, indeed antithetical, to the demands with which our modern world confronts us.

To begin with, here, again, is the scientific idea: homosexuality is a biological adaption and homophobia, a cultural one and each of them is associated with dominant strategies of resource management. That is: under some circumstances, a group with some homosexuality will be ‘fitter’ (i.e., will more successfully dominate resources) than a homophobic group that coerces reproduction from all its members; and, under other circumstances, a homophobic group will be ‘fitter’ than one in which some members support their siblings’ offspring rather than raising offspring of their own. In more detail, when resources are finite and, so, cannot support an indefinitely expanding population, having a proportion of (male) homosexual offspring induces collaboration, rather than conflict, over resources when the offspring in turn raise the next generation. Conversely, when resources can also be increased indefinitely (for instance, by bringing new land into cultivation, or by breeding larger herds and seeking new grazing land), then the genes of the parents are better served when all offspring independently raise their own next generation.

If this is correct, then it leads to some very specific expectations about how different genes will fare in expansionary farming/herding communities as opposed to others. Since males are freer to raise large families than are women, the scenario of resource abundance suggests moving from hunter-gather or small-scale farming to agriculture or nomadic herding will favour men and, hence, male genetic lines: a man in possession of large cultivated areas or large herds will be able to support several wives and their offspring and each male descendent will be able to do likewise, provided the expansion rate of the resources permits (i.e., provided there is enough new land or new technology to permit greater farm/herd yields). Precisely this claim is supported by a recent article about European paternal lineages and their relation to the spread of agriculture across Europe.

The article (A predominantly Neolithic origin for European paternal lineages, examines the distribution, across Europe, of different genetic lines of Y-chromosomes (inherited from the father) and compares these with lines of mitochondrial DNA (inherited from the mother). It argues that the ‘microsatellite diversity [‘of the commonest European Y-chromosomal lineage’] is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic’ (after the last major ice age). The significance of this result is as ‘a prime example of how technological and cultural change is linked with the expansion of a Y-chromosomal lineage’. Moreover, ‘the contrast of this pattern with that shown by maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests a unique role for males in the transition’. More specifically, the authors, Balaresque et al., argue that ‘the disparity between mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA] and Y-chromosomal patterns could arise from an increased and transmitted reproductive success for male farmers compared to indigenous hunter-gatherers, without a corresponding difference between females from the two groups’, resulting in ‘the expansion of incoming Y lineage’. References in article point to the same pattern in other parts of globe: the Han expansion in China, the Bantu expansion in Africa, and the introduction of agriculture to India. Moreover, if the Bantu expansion involved herding rather than farming (as, e.g., work on patriarchy and herding would lead on to suspect), then the results apply equally to farming and herding. This is as one would expect if my hunches about homophobia are correct (though data about levels of homophobia in the Neolithic is unfortunately lacking—contemporary anthropological data is the obvious proxy, but I haven’t done a search for any relevant studies).

Such evidence permits one to make sense of why judaism and its descendent faiths, christianity and islam, think of homophobia as a moral virtue. The ancient Israelites were (a) a settler nation, concerned (b) with routing indigenous inhabitants, and whose economic mainstays were both (c) agriculture and (d) herding. All four factors are concerned with expansion of population and its resource base. The societal organisation we therefore expect is one that favours the male genetic line, and this is precisely what we see, with homophobia on the hand and polygamy on the other. Now, the ancient Israelites, needless to say, were not versed in the game-theoretic concepts at play in the foregoing reasoning about strategies for resource dominance. Instead, like all pre-scientific societies faced with forces beyond their comprehension and control, they commanded obedience to social norms by imputing them to their gods: religion, once again, filling the vacuum that only later could be rightly filled by reason.

What light does this understanding of the origin of homophobia have on attempts to invoke our ‘judeo-christian heritage’ in order to deny equality of rights to homosexuals? The answer is: it deals it a mortal blow. Scientific discoveries alone rarely impact on moral misunderstanding, because what’s natural doesn’t determine what’s right (early posting). However, what we are dealing with here isn’t only science: it’s how science impacts on our understanding of the history of the ideas we take for granted. And the history of ideas is a wholly different affair: once we show that what we take to be a universal, self-evident truth is merely a dreg of history, a residue of ancient habits, the encrustation of an atrophied misapprehension of how the world works, the purported truth, like a leash released, simply ceases to hold us back. It becomes only one more foolish idea contracted, like a bad habit, in childhood, and exposed and erased in adulthood.

Tying this back to the current discussion, if judaic homophobia and its kin are just the result of a prescientific mind attempting to grapple with the game-theoretic realities that lay beyond its grasp, then the judaic ‘moral code’ and its later variations are only as applicable nowadays as the circumstances that engendered them. So, let’s note (a) that we are no longer a society of colonial conqueror-settlers, (b) that we have by and large moved beyond dispossession of indigenous peoples, and that, although we continue (c) to farm and (d) to herd, we have since undergone the industrial revolution and the information technology revolution and are increasingly aware that future farming and herding cannot be a process of relentless domination of new lands. In other words: homophobia, it’s just a phase we were going through. But now that humanity has passed beyond its adolescent growth spurt, now that we’re in our societies’ adulthood and thinking about making a sustainable, responsible living, it’s time to recognise that homophobia is something we simply have to grow out of.

All of which points to a can of words which is only now being slowly opened and which has yet to make its proper mark on public debate and society at large, namely, understanding religion from the point of view of natural science and unravelling religious doctrines from the perspective of the history of ideas. There is a charade that we engage when we debate homosexual equality with advocates of ‘judeo-christian ethics’. It is that both sides are articulating ethical systems, that is, that both sides have a set of abstract principles (about the value of society and of the individual and how these are connected). In reality, this is precisely what ‘judeo-christian ethics’ lacks: what the science shows us is that homophobia is just a resource management heuristic arrived at by a society that did not have the intellectual resources to distinguish truly ethical behaviour from mere socially expedient norms and which muddied the issue further by burying this confusion in the morass of divinity, from which we still struggle to extricate ourselves. The sooner we appreciate the human origins of divine law and the more rapidly we come discern the fingerprints of humanity in the purported penmanship of deities, the sooner we can unburden ourselves of ancient half-truths masquerading as eternal immutables and the more rapidly our actions, and not just our species, will deserve the name of ‘humanity’.

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