News Stories

Another Kind of Love

On Valentine's Day, we like to examine what's new. There are all kinds of couples, but male homosexuality doesn't make complete sense from an evolutionary point of view, because since gay men are much less likely to produce offspring than heterosexual men, shouldn't the genes for this trait have been extinguished long ago? What value could this sexual orientation have, that it has persisted for eons even without any discernible reproductive advantage? There must be a REASON for it.

One possible explanation is the "kin selection hypothesis," which means is that homosexuality may convey an indirect benefit by enhancing the survival prospects of close relatives. The theory is that homosexual men might enhance their own genetic prospects by being "helpers in the nest." By acting altruistically toward nieces and nephews, homosexual men would perpetuate the family genes, including some of their own.

Evolutionary psychologists Paul Vasey and Doug VanderLaan tested this idea for the past several years on the Pacific island of Samoa. They chose Samoa because males who prefer men as sexual partners are widely recognized and accepted there as a distinct gender category, called fa'afafine, neither man nor woman. The fa'afafine tend to be effeminate, and exclusively attracted to adult men as sexual partners. Since they are out of the closet, this makes it easier to identify a sample for study.

Past research has shown that the fa'afafine are much more altruistically inclined toward their nieces and nephews than either Samoan women or heterosexual men. They are willing to babysit a lot, tutor their nieces and nephews in art and music, and help out financially, paying for things like medical care and education. In a new study, the scientists set out to unravel the psychology of the fa'afafine, to see if their altruism is targeted specifically at kin rather than kids in general.

They recruited a large sample of fa'afafine, and comparable samples of women and heterosexual men. They gave them all a series of questionnaires, measuring their willingness to help their nieces and nephews in various ways, and also their willingness to do these things for other, unrelated kids. The findings lend strong support to the kin selection idea: To compensate for being childless, each fa'afafine would have to somehow support the survival of two additional nieces or nephews who would otherwise not have existed, meaning that their genes get passed along even if they themselves do not sire children, because biologists now know that gayness is not a "choice," it is genetic.

Do these findings have any meaning outside of Samoa? Samoa's culture may be more (not less) representative of the environment in which male same-sex sexuality evolved eons ago. In that sense, it's not the "bachelor uncle" who is poorly adapted to the heterosexual world, but rather the modern Western world that has evolved into an unwelcoming place.

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Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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