The notion of a Gay Germ—homosexuality transmitted as some sort of infection—probably horrifies many mainstream intellectuals unfamiliar with the details of modern evolutionary biology. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that my recent column discussing that subject quickly provoked a striking example of Internet censorship. But the circumstances were different than people might naively expect.
Most of the responses to my analysis were quite reasonable and respectful. Anthropologist Peter Frost published a column questioning some of my arguments, which generated an extended comment thread. George Mason University’s Genetic Literacy Project also provided a brief summary and link.
However, a target of my critique had been Dr. Gregory Cochran, a leading Gay Germ advocate, who had recently ridiculed the intelligence of my old professor E.O. Wilson for remarks supporting the contrary Gay Gene hypothesis. I merely pointed out that to the extent powerful selective pressures would have weeded out any hypothetical Gay Gene, exactly those same selective pressures would have tended to remove susceptibility to a Gay Germ as well, so that to a considerable extent the two theories suffered from similar theoretical weaknesses and were not so obviously distinct.
Now Cochran is a notoriously arrogant and irascible researcher, and he reacted to my views by launching a blistering attack on his own blogsite, sharply questioning my intellect and knowledge. Moreover, when I showed up to explicate my analysis as a commenter, he quickly banned me, possibly because I was defending my position a bit too well, and perhaps thereby “confusing” his coterie of worshipful fanboys. My impression is that publishing a lengthy blog attack against someone and then banning the victim when he politely attempts to provide his own side of the argument is considered “bad form” on the Internet, but there are obviously individuals for whom these usual rules do not apply.
My dispute with Cochran had hinged on a very simple point, namely whether or not the hypothetical Gay Germ in question induced the orientation for some deliberate reason or whether the effect was merely a more or less random byproduct of the pathogen’s bodily activity. Cochran has provided no suggestion of the former possibility, which seems equally implausible to me, so his theory hinges on the notion that gayness is simply an unintentional aspect of the infection. However, such a hypothesis seems to suffer from severe theoretical weaknesses.
Host/parasite systems are always undergoing the fiercest sort of evolutionary struggle, with both sides facing powerful selective pressures to gain the upper hand. Indeed, many evolutionists in recent years have concluded that one of the most fundamental and important of all plant and animal traits—namely sexual rather than asexual reproduction—probably evolved primarily as an anti-parasitic defense mechanism.
But now consider the hypothetical Gay Germ. If the induced orientation serves no useful purpose for the bug, maintenance of that particular extended phenotype would not be supported by any selective pressure, while the genes of the host would be under enormous contrary pressure to eliminate the trait by producing modifier genes or other neutralizing responses. As a result, the evolutionary arms-race would be entirely one-sided, and we would expect the gayness-inducing aspect of the Gay Germ to quickly disappear, whether through changes to host or to parasite. The human body is already filled to the brim with germs, and since the hypothetical germ produces no other apparent symptoms, the host DNA certainly wouldn’t care about one more free rider hanging around once it stopped trying to fatally compromise host reproduction. A mutually-acceptable evolutionary truce would have been declared.
While it is possible to hypothetically posit that the induced orientation provides no benefit to the germ but is nonetheless inextricably linked to the pathogen’s life-cycle, this seems quite unlikely. As I pointed out in a couple of my comments on Cochran’s blog, the harmful effects of virtually all other diseases are directly due to the needful activity of the germs in question. Sometimes these involve digesting the body-organs of the host, sometimes clogging up the circulatory system by multiplying and spreading, or sometimes even manipulating the host’s behavior in order to more effectively spread to other hosts. Since the alleged Gay Germ seems utterly asymptomatic, I find it doubtful that a germ would induce gayness and attack the host’s reproductive system merely out of pure maliciousness toward the host’s DNA.
Cochran countered by citing as a counter-example the “sterility belt” of Central Africa, in which Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, sterilizes up to 30% of all adult women. He argued the germ gained nothing from inducing this trait while the infected host population suffered massive harm.
In response, I pointed out that the likely benefit to this particular STD activity was quite obvious. Such sterilized African women would probably be divorced by their husbands and cast into dire poverty, thereby often being forced into a life of formal or informal prostitution as a consequence. Since prostitutes might have hundreds of times as many sexual partners each year as married women, the gains to the transmission-vector of such a sterility-inducing STD would be absolutely enormous, providing exactly the sort of powerful selective pressure able to balance that operating on the host population. Thus, such a “Divorce Germ” makes perfect evolutionary sense in the way a Gay Germ seemingly does not.
Now Cochran has devoted the last decade almost exclusively to these sorts of evolutionary biology issues, and for him to have apparently spent all those years believing that a 30% germ-induced host sterility rate—with absolutely enormous selective impact—served no useful purpose for the responsible pathogen is tantamount to revealing that he has Creationist-leanings. Hence he immediately banned me from his blogsite for making such “lawyerly” arguments, and later declared that the corpus of my published articles had anyway proven that I was simply a “loon.”
There is an ironic subtext to this minor blogosphere contretemps. In his own political views, Cochran is an extreme right-winger, and he and his friends are always denouncing our mainstream media for its climate of total censorship and bias against views that contradict the reigning Blank Slate theory of human nature. Such criticism is perfectly valid. But I find it a bit amusing that the moment anyone politely points out the holes in Cochran’s own pet scientific theories, his guillotine comes down and the heretic is expelled to the Outer Darkness.
Early in the twentieth century, the Trotskyites endlessly bewailed how their Stalinist foes had gained the upper hand and brutally purged them. Yet I’ve always suspected that if the Trotskyites had been the ones who ended up on top, they would have treated their defeated opponents in exactly the same manner.
On a related matter, a reader of my previous column happens to be an old friend of Robert Trivers, one of the world’s foremost evolutionary theorists, and forwarded him my remarks, soliciting his opinion on the Gay Gene/Gay Germ question. Trivers explained that the evolutionary problem of homosexuality had been an important focus of his thinking and research for thirty years and that no one had yet proposed a satisfactory model; he sketched out the various hypotheses and their obvious weaknesses. Given my cursory knowledge of the field and his great eminence, I found it reassuring that my views were quite compatible with his. However, he didn’t seem to think that anyone had ever seriously proposed a Gay Germ theory, so perhaps my original discussion gave far too much attention to that particular bit of occasional blogosphere speculation.
His theoretical brilliance aside, Trivers has also occasionally attracted attention for his politics. Although evolutionary biology is frequently perceived as a stronghold of reactionary sentiment, perhaps due to years of public vilification and dishonest smears by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and other critics of their ilk, the actual facts seem otherwise, with leading figures such as Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson being strong liberals. And Trivers himself turns this stereotype completely on its head, being a figure of the Radical Left. For example, he was one of the tiny handful of whites who joined the Black Panther Party during its heyday, and apparently still holds those same views, having personally dedicated his most recent book to the memory of Panther leader Huey Newton.
My personal inclination is to focus on the scientific validity of a theory rather than the ideological leanings of the particular figure providing the analysis.
On another matter, I’m pleased that my article How Social Darwinism Made Modern China continues to generate steady traffic six weeks after publication, with total readership time now heading toward 20,000 hours.
Finally, the front page of his morning’s New York Times announced that NYC’s Cooper Union had officially ended its 150-year-old tradition of providing a top-quality education without charging tuition. I had previously provided my own opinion on that proposal earlier in the year.