Category Archives: homosexuality

What Hillary Clinton’s AIDS Comments Reveal About Her Worldview

On Friday, while attending Nancy Reagan’s funeral, Hillary Clinton gave an interview to MSNBC in which she made the following statement:

It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’

This was a very strange and dumb thing to say, even for someone who seems to make as many unforced errors as Clinton does. As social media and news outlets quickly reminded her, the truth of the matter was much closer to the opposite of what she said. The Reagan administration, including Nancy, was legendarily silent on the issue.

The Clinton campaign’s initial apology seemed almost as bad:

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“Misspoke” seemed like a bizarre and dismissive characterization of a full-paragraph of revisionist hagiography that was clearly part of her prepared remarks for the interview, and this terse apology did not do much to stem the criticism.

However, on Saturday, Clinton posted a much longer apology that explicitly denied the credit she had given to the Reagans. And, importantly, she explicitly gave credit to the many, many activists who did start our national conversation about AIDS in spite of the depraved indifference of the Reagan administration.

To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.

The AIDS crisis in America began as a quiet, deadly epidemic. Because of discrimination and disregard, it remained that way for far too long. When many in positions of power turned a blind eye, it was groups like ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and others that came forward to shatter the silence — because as they reminded us again and again, Silence = Death. They organized and marched, held die-ins on the steps of city halls and vigils in the streets.

One can quibble, of course. While walking back her praise of the Reagans, it ignores the gut-churning cruelty that characterized much of the administration’s response. And there’s the fact that much of the rest of her statement is basically about how she, Hillary Clinton, is the actual hero of the story. But, it was a political funeral in the middle of an election, so those omissions and that spin are not surprising. And, as far as apologies from politicians go, this was was really pretty good.

So, my anger has subsided somewhat, but I have continued to be puzzled as to why she possibly made this statement in the first place. The theory that makes the most sense to me, as bizarre as it is, is that this was actually Hillary Clinton’s perception of the events of the 1980s.

Garance Franke-Ruta (storified here) makes this argument:

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(And a bunch more interesting points. Well worth reading, and clicking through the links.)

There was also this article, published in the Advocate on March 6, shortly after Nancy Reagan’s death, and several days before Clinton’s comments. The article presents the Reagans’ relationship with AIDS in the most generous possible light, with several passages of this flavor:

Nancy Reagan is sometimes credited with pushing her husband to do something about AIDS, and he eventually supported some funding for research. The death of their friend, actor Rock Hudson, is often referred to as a pivotal moment.

So there is a very specific perspective from which Clinton’s original statement can be seen as, well, sort of true. It’s sort of a Great Man Theory perspective. Sure, there were lots of things happening, people saying things, protesting, and so on, but the important part of the history is what happened within the walls of power. If by “national conversation” you mean “conversation among the nation’s elite”, and if by “the public conscience” you mean “the public consciousness”, and by “the public consciousness” you mean “the consciousness of the political establishment”, maybe Nancy Reagan was a key driving force.

I suspect that this fundamentally oligarchical worldview is behind a lot of Clinton’s political missteps. When she brags about being praised by Henry Kissinger, she seems genuinely surprised that there are people who don’t find that to be a compelling reason to vote for her. And it helps to explain her response to the protests that led Donald Trump to cancel his rally in Chicago on Friday:

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Her message seems to criticize the protesters as much as Trump’s rhetoric — a profoundly authoritarian stance that seems natural if you assume that politics should be a conversation among a very limited set of elites, and that all the little people just need to be more polite and deferential.

Fundamentally, to me, Hillary Clinton acts less like someone running for President, and more like someone applying for a job as Head Animal Control Officer. She has mustered the support of the town council, and she has a letter of recommendation from the Chief of Police. But she can’t for the life of her understand why all the dogs in the pound keep interrupting her, acting as if they should have a say in the decision.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect that she would be a relatively benevolent dog catcher. Compare Donald Trump, who is campaigning on a promise that he will euthanize all the dogs and turn them into a plentiful supply of cat food.

Her second apology for her bizarre statements about Nancy Reagan was a huge improvement. It was as if, when sufficient pressure was placed on her, the hundreds of millions of people who are not part of the political, financial, and media elite came momentarily into focus for her. It was disappointing, however, that her ability to acknowledge the courage and importance of regular Americans did not even persist to the end of the statement.

Free Tips for ex-Westboro Baptists Apologizing

So, nobody asked me for this advice, but if I only gave out advice when people asked for it, I would probably burst from all the advice building up inside me.

Today, Anderson Cooper apparently interviewed Libby Phelps Alvarez, granddaughter of Westboro Baptist founder Fred Phelps (via Gawker — I did not watch this). She was raised in the church, but fled / escaped / defected in 2009, and has recently started speaking publicly about her experience. Let me just say that she deserves a lot of respect for that. I mean, she had to reject her whole upbringing and family, which must be hard, even if your family is full of Phelpses.

Here’s the thing that pissed me off though. Her interview included the following statement of regret:

I do regret if I hurt people, because that was never my intention.

This is such the standard, cliche pseudo-apology that it is easy at first glance to overlook what an offensive pile of garbage this is. First of all, “if”? Really? Again, this is super common in these circumstances, but if you’ve spent most of your live holding up “God Hates Fags” signs at the funerals of soldiers and children, you know damn well that you hurt people.

Even worse, though, is the second bit. When some politician or celebrity pseudo-apologizes, saying it was never their intention to hurt anyone, it is often at least plausible that they were being careless, and not intentionally hurtful.

In this case though, hurting people is precisely the intention of every public appearance the Westboro Baptist Church makes. Now, maybe you could make the case that you thought you were practicing tough love, hurting people in a way that would lead them back to the path of righteousness, or some such nonsense. This would be bullshit, of course, but it would at least be plausible according to some sort of twisted logic.

The fact is, you did intend to hurt people. I believe that you wish now that you had not hurt people in the past, and that’s great. I believe that you were a kid, did not know better, and are not fully responsible for your actions, at least up to a point. I believe that you think of yourself as a good person, and I am eager to believe that you have become one. But when I see this sort of pseudo-apology, it makes me a little bit skeptical.

Maybe try something like this: “I know that I hurt a lot of people, and I am sorry. I understand now how hurtful my words and actions were in a way that I did not understand then.”

I feel bad about this. I mean, given where she started from, she has progressed further in the past few years than most people do in their lifetimes. But if you’re going to make amends publicly, a good way to start is by being honest.

Epigenetics and Homosexuality

So, last week featured a lot of news about a paper that came out in the Quarterly Review of Biology titled “Homsexuality as a Consequence of Epigenetically Canalized Sexual Development.” The authors were Bill Rice (UCSB), Urban Friberg (Uppsala U), and Sergey Gavrilets (U Tennessee). The paper got quite a bit of press. Unfortunately, most of that press was of pretty poor quality, badly misrepresenting the actual contents of the paper. (PDF available here.)

I’m going to walk through the paper’s argument, but if you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the tl;dr:

This paper presents a model. It is a theory paper. Any journalist who writes that the paper “shows” that homosexuality is caused by epigenetic inheritance from the opposite sex parent either 1) is invoking a very non-standard usage of the word “shows,” or 2) was too lazy to read the actual paper, and based their report on the press release put out by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.

That’s not to say that this is a bad paper. In fact, it’s a very good paper. The authors integrate a lot of different information to come up with a plausible biological mechanism for epigenetic modifications to exert influence on sexual preference. They demonstrate that such a mechanism could be favored by natural selection under what seem to be biologically realistic conditions. Most importantly, they formulate their model into with clear predictions that can be empirically tested.

But those empirical tests have not been carried out yet. And, in biology, when we say that a paper shows that X causes Y, we generally mean that we have found an empirical correlation between X and Y, and that we have a mechanistic model that is well enough supported that we can infer causation from that correlation. This paper does not even show a correlation. It shows that it would probably be worth someone’s time to look for a particular correlation.

As a friend wrote to me in an e-mail,

I found it a much more interesting read than I thought I would from the press it’s getting, which now rivals the bullshit surrounding the ENCODE project for the most bullshitty bullshit spin of biology for the popular press. A long-winded-but-moderately-well-grounded-in-real-biology mathematical model does not proof make.


Okay, now the long version.

The Problem of Homosexuality

The first thing to remember is that when an evolutionary biologist talks about the “problem of homosexuality,” this does not imply that homosexuality is problematic. All it is saying is that a straightforward, naive application of evolutionary thinking would lead one to predict that homosexuality would not exist, or would be vanishingly rare. The fact that it does exist, and at appreciable frequency, poses a problem for the theory.

In fact, this is a good thing to keep in mind in general. The primary goal of evolutionary biology is to understand how things in the world came to be the way they are. If there is a disconnect between theory and the world, it is ALWAYS the theory that is wrong. (Actually, this is equally true for any science / social science.)

Simply put, heterosexual sex leads to children in a way that homosexual sex does not. So, all else being equal, people who are more attracted to the opposite sex will have more offspring than will people who are less attracted to the opposite sex.

[For rhetorical simplicity, I will refer specifically to “homosexuality” here, although the arguments described in the paper and in this post are intended to apply to the full spectrum of sexual orientation, and assume more of a Kinsey-scale type of continuum.]

The fact that a substantial fraction of people seem not at all to be attracted to the opposite sex suggests that all else is not equal.

Evolutionary explanations for homosexuality are basically efforts to discover what that “all else” is, and why it is not equal.

There are two broad classes of possible explanation.

One possibility is that there is no biological variation in the population for a predisposition towards homosexuality. Then, there would be nothing for selection to act on. Maybe the potential for sexual human brain simply has an inherent and uniform disposition. Variation in sexual preference would then be the result of environmental (including cultural) factors and/or random developmental variation.

This first class of explanation seems unlikely because there is, in fact, a substantial heritability to sexual orientation. For example, considering identical twins who were raised separately, if one twin is gay, there is a 20% chance that the other will be as well.

Evidence suggests that sexual orientation has a substantial heritable component. Image: Comic Blasphemy.

This points us towards the second class of explanation, which assumes that there is some sort of heritable genetic variation that influences sexual orientation. Given the presumably substantial reduction in reproductive output associated with a same-sex preference, these explanations typically aim to identify some direct or indirect benefit somehow associated with homosexuality that compensates for the reduced reproductive output.

One popular variant is the idea that homosexuals somehow increase the reproductive output of their siblings (e.g., by helping to raise their children). Or that homosexuality represents a deleterious side effect of selection for something else that is beneficial, like how getting one copy of the sickle-cell hemoglobin allele protects you from malaria, but getting two copies gives you sickle cell anemia.

It was some variant of this sort of idea that drove much of the research searching for “the gay gene” over the past couple of decades.  The things is, though, those searches have failed to come up with any reproducible candidate genes. This suggests that there must be something more complicated going on.

The Testosterone Epigenetic Canalization Theory

Sex-specific development depends on fetal exposure to androgens, like Testosterone and related compounds. This is simply illustrated by Figure 1A of the paper:

Figure 1A from the paper: a simplified picture of the “classical” view of sex differentiation. T represents testosterone, and E represent Estrogen.

SRY is the critical genetic element on the Y chromosome that triggers the fetus to go down the male developmental pathway, rather than the default female developmental pathway. They note that in the classical model of sex differentiation, androgen levels differ substantially between male and female fetuses.

The problem with the classical view, they rightly argue, is that androgen levels are not sufficient in and of themselves to account for sex differentiation. In fact, there is some overlap between the androgen levels between XX and XY fetuses. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, the XX fetuses with the highest androgen levels develop normal female genitalia, while the XY fetuses with the lowest androgen levels develop normal male genitalia. Thus, there must be at least one more part of the puzzle.

The key, they argue, is that tissues in XX and XY fetuses also show differential response to androgens. So, XX fetuses become female because they have lower androgen levels and they respond only weakly to those androgens. XY fetuses become male because they have higher androgen levels and they respond more strongly to those androgens.

This is illustrated in their Figure 1B:

Sex-specific development is thus canalized by some sort of mechanism that they refer to generically as “epi-marks.” That is, they imagine that there must be some epigenetic differences between XX and XY fetuses that encode differential sensitivity to Testosterone.

All of this seems well reasoned, and is supported by the review of a number of studies. It is worth noting, however, that we don’t, at the moment, know exactly which sex-specific epigenetic modifications these would be. One could come up with a reasonable list of candidate genes, and look for differential marks (such as DNA methylation or various histone modifications) in the vicinity of those genes. However, this forms part of the not-yet-done empirical work required to test this hypothesis, or, in the journalistic vernacular, “show” that this happens.

Leaky Epigenetics and Sex-Discordant Traits

Assuming for the moment that there exist various epigenetic marks that 1) differ between and XX and XY fetuses and 2) modulate androgen sensitivity. These marks would need to be established at some point early on in development, perhaps concurrent with the massive, genome-wide epigenetic reprogramming that occurs shortly after fertilization.

The theory formulated in the paper relies on two additional suppositions, both of which can be tested empirically (but, to reiterate, have not yet been).

The first supposition is that there are many of these canalizing epigenetic marks, and that they vary with respect to which sex-typical traits they canalize. So, some epigenetic marks would canalize gonad development. Other marks would canalize sexual orientation. (Others, they note, might canalize other traits, like gender identity, but this is not a critical part of the argument.)

The model presented in this paper suggests that various traits that are associated with sex differences may be controlled by distinct genetic elements, and that sex-typical expression of those traits may rely on epigenetic modifications of those genes. Image:

The second supposition is that the epigenetic reprogramming of these marks that normally happens every generation is somewhat leaky.

There are two large-scale rounds of epigenetic reprogramming that happen every generation. One occurs during gametogenesis (the production of eggs or sperm). The second happens shortly after fertilization. What we would expect is that any sex-specifc epigenetic marks would be removed during one of these phases (although it could happen at other times).

For example, a gene in a male might have male-typical epigenetic marks. But what happens if that male has a daughter? Well, normally, those marks would be removed during one of the reprogramming phases, and then female-typical epigenetic marks would be established at the site early in his daughter’s development.

The idea here is that sometimes this reprogramming does not happen. So, maybe the daughter inherits an allele with male-typical epigenetic marks. If the gene influences sexual orientation by modulating androgen sensitivity, then maybe the daughter develops the (male-typical) sexual preference for females. Similarly, a mother might pass on female-typical epigenetic marks to her son, and these might lead to his developing a (female-typical) sexual preference for males.

So, basically, in this model, homosexuality is a side effect of the epigenetic canalization of sex differences. Homosexuality itself is assumed to impose a fitness cost, but this cost is outweighed by the benefit of locking in sexual preference in those cases where reprogramming is successful (or unnecessary).

Sociological Concerns

Okay, if you ever took a gender-studies class, or anything like that, this study may be raising a red flag for you. After all, the model here is basically that some men are super manly, and sometimes their manliness leaks over into their daughters. This masculinizes them, which makes them lesbians. Likewise, gay men are gay because they were feminized by their mothers.

That might sound a bit fishy, like it is invoking stereotype-based reasoning, but I don’t think that would be a fair criticism. Nor do I think it raises any substantial concerns about the paper in terms of its methodology or its interpretation. (Of course, I could be wrong. If you have specific concerns, I would love to hear about them in the comments.) The whole idea behind the paper is to treat chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, and sexual orientation as separate traits that are empirically highly (but not perfectly) correlated. The aim is to understand the magnitude and nature of that empirical correlation.

The other issue that this raises is the possibility of determining the sexual orientation of your children, either by selecting gametes based on their epigenetics, or by reprogramming the epigenetic state of gametes or early embryos. This technology does not exist at the moment, but it is not unreasonable to imagine that it might exist within a generation. If this model is correct in its strongest form (in that the proposed mechanism fully accounts for variation in sexual preference), you could effectively choose the sexual orientation of each of your children.

Image: Brainless Tales.

This, of course, is not a criticism of the paper. The biology is what it is. It does raise certain ethical questions that we will have to grapple with at some point. (Programming of sexual orientation will be the subject of the next installment of the Genetical Book Review.)

Plausibility/Testability Check

The question one wants to ask of a paper like this is whether it is 1) biologically plausible, and 2) empirically testable. Basically, my read is yes and yes. The case for the existence of mechanisms of epigenetic canalization of sex differentiation seems quite strong. We know that some epigenetic marks seem to propagate across generations, evading the broad epigenetic reprogramming. We don’t understand this escape very well at the moment, but the assumptions here are certainly consistent with the current state of our knowledge. And, assuming some rate of escape, the model seems to work for plausible-sounding parameter values.

Testing is actually pretty straightforward (conceptually, if not technically). Ideally, empirical studies would look for sex-specific epigenetic modifications, and for variation in these modifications that correlate with variation in sexual preference. The authors note that one test that could be done in the short term would be to do comparative epigenetic profiling of the sperm of men with and without homosexual daughters.

As Opposed to What?

The conclusions reached by models in evolution are most strongly shaped by the set of alternatives that are considered in the model. That is, a model might find that a particular trait will be selectively favored, but this always needs to be interpreted in the context of that set of alternatives. Most importantly, one needs to ask if there are likely to be other evolutionarily accessible traits that have been excluded from the model, but would have changed the conclusions of the model if they had been included.

The big question here is the inherent leakiness of epigenetic reprogramming. A back-of-the-envelope calculation in the paper suggests that for this model to fully explain the occurrence of homosexuality (with a single gene controlling sexual preference), the rate of leakage would have to be quite high.

An apparent implication of the model is that there would then be strong selection to reduce the rate at which these epigenetic marks are passed from one generation to the next. In order for the model to work in its present form, there would need to be something preventing natural selection from finding this solution.

Possibilities for this something include some sort of mechanistic constraint (it’s just hard to build something that reprograms more efficiently than what we have) or some sort of time constraint (evolution has not had enough time to fix this). The authors seem to favor this second possibility, as they argue that the basis of sexual orientation in humans may be quite different from that in our closest relatives.

On the other hand this explanation could form a part of the explanation for homosexuality with much lower leakage rates.

What Happened with the Press?

So, how do we go from what was a really good paper to a slew of really bad articles? Well, I suspect that the culprit was this paragraph from the press release from NIMBios:

The study solves the evolutionary riddle of homosexuality, finding that “sexually antagonistic” epi-marks, which normally protect parents from natural variation in sex hormone levels during fetal development, sometimes carryover across generations and cause homosexuality in opposite-sex offspring. The mathematical modeling demonstrates that genes coding for these epi-marks can easily spread in the population because they always increase the fitness of the parent but only rarely escape erasure and reduce fitness in offspring.

If you know that this is a pure theory paper, this is maybe not misleading. Maybe. But phrases like “solves the evolutionary riddle of homosexuality” and “finding that . . . epi-marks . . . cause homosexuality in opposite-sex offspring,” when interpreted in the standard way that I think an English speaker would interpret them, pretty strongly imply things about the paper that are just not true.

Rice, W., Friberg, U., & Gavrilets, S. (2012). Homosexuality as a Consequence of Epigenetically Canalized Sexual Development The Quarterly Review of Biology, 87 (4), 343-368 DOI: 10.1086/668167

Update: Also see this excellent post on the subject by Jeremy Yoder over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

Why Romney’s bullying is a big deal

So, for the past couple of days I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not the latest Romney scandal is a big deal. On the surface, the answer may seem obvious. I mean, the story of the time when a young Mitt Romney had a gang of his friends hold down a boy while he forcibly cut his hair has dominated the news cycle for a couple of days, competing successfully with Barack Obama’s declaration of his personal belief that same-sex marriage should be allowed.

What I am wondering is whether or not the story is going to remain in the public consciousness for more than a few days, and whether it will actually substantially alter the public perception of Romney and influence the outcome of the election in the fall. The fact is that every day there is some scandal or crisis that dominates the news cycle, sending pundits scurrying to their typewriters (metaphorically) to write about how the the news of the day is a game changer, and how the outcome of the campaign hinges on how they respond over the next few hours. Most of these crises fade away to be replaced by the next crisis, and don’t seem to have any lasting impact on the election dynamics.

There is a part of my that thinks that the haircut scandal may be different.

The difference, I think, is the tangibility and violence of the act.

Most of the short-lived crises that crop up in election cycles do not really have gut-level impact. Maybe one candidate served on a corporate board with someone who was accused of insider trading. That is a situation that is so disconnected from the lives of most people that, while they might understand it intellectually, it is unlikely to resonate emotionally. Or maybe another candidate had an affair in the past. Affairs are much more universal, but that universality also mitigates our outrage. Everyone has friends who have, or have had, marital difficulties, and most of us understand that relationships are difficult and complicated, and that those situation are rarely simple.

Perhaps more important is the fact that we have have a very strong cultural narrative of infidelity followed by redemption. It is not hard to come up with examples of movies, television shows, and novels where there is infidelity in a marriage, but the cheater learns the error of their ways, makes amends, and winds up with a stronger marriage as a result.

Contrast these two situations with the Romney haircut scandal. It seems to be a clear case where Romney was a bully. Bullying is a cultural universal. It is something that everyone can picture from their own personal experience. Furthermore, pretty much everyone thinks of themselves as having been on the receiving end of bullying (even many of the people who were also the bullies at some point). So, while there may be a few people who identify and sympathize with Romney, everyone can identify and sympathize with John Lauber, the boy whose hair was forcibly cut by Romney.

Adding to the emotional resonance is the extreme violence of the incident. I actually have a bit of a hard time picturing the scene. Not because it is so very foreign, but because it makes me queasy to think about it. Here’s the description from the Washington Post:

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors. 

It’s a scene of extreme violence. A group of boys tackling another boy and pinning him to the ground. The pinned boy screaming for help and starting to cry while his hair is forcibly cut with a pair of scissors. I’ll posit that if picturing the scene doesn’t make you feel sick, either you’re a psychopath, or you’re not really picturing it.

The other thing about this that spell trouble for Romney is the cultural resonance of the scene. In contrast with the infidelity-and-redemption trope, try to picture the haircutting scene in a movie. This is exactly the sort of scene you can imagine being used as short-hand near the beginning of a movie to quickly establish characters. Now, think about what the scene would actually be telling us about those characters.

It is not hard to imagine one of the cronies, one of the gang of kids holding John Lauber down, being sympathetic. He might be a character who is not really bad, but was weak, and got caught up in the moment. Maybe by the end of the film this character redeems himself by standing up to the group of bullies who were his former friends.

But what about the kid who was holding the scissors? I have a hard time picturing that kid as a redeemable character. He’s the kid who is rotten to the core, the one against whom other characters’ redemptions are measured. That is the image of Mitt Romney that has just been presented to us.

That’s not to say that, in real life, a kid who callously engages in acts of cruelty can’t learn empathy and set his bullying days behind him. But I don’t think that’s the narrative of least resistance. That means, I think, that it is incumbent on Romney to demonstrate that he has totally changed between then and now.

The problem is that Romney has done absolutely nothing to suggest that he did learn anything from the experience, or that he has acquired more empathy than he seems to have had as a teenager. So far, his responses have been the usual political denial-of-recollection and non-apology:

I don’t recall the incident myself, but I’ve seen the reports and I’m not going to argue with that. There’s no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.

Contrast this with the people who were interviewed for the original Washington Post piece, who are still haunted by the cruelty that they witnessed and facilitated. So far, they seem to fit pretty well into the narrative of the henchman-bullies who did some cruel and callous things, but who learned from the experience became better people as a result. One of them went so far as to seek out John Lauber and apologize to him (years later, but presumably prior to Lauber’s death in 2004).

There seem to be three possible interpretations of Romney’s response, none of which paint a flattering picture of the presumptive Republican nominee:

One possibility is that Romney is being honest, that he doesn’t remember the incident. That he, in fact, probably never gave it is second thought, and doesn’t really fully understand, even now, why people think it is such a big deal. This would speak to a troubling, pathological lack of empathy on Romney’s part. Unfortunately for Romney, this picture resonates with his image as a child of privilege who feels no moral obligation to other people.

A second possibility is that Romney recalls the incident, and maybe even feels bad about it, but that he is trying to manage the political impact of the story by minimizing it. That would speak a little better to Romney’s capacity for empathy (and long-term memory), but still paints a picture of someone whose sense of entitlement (and political ambition) far outweighs any sense of morality.

A third possibility is that Romney genuinely feels bad, but is unwilling to say so because he feels that he need to pander to the anti-homosexual contingent in his base. That would make Romney a bit less of a monster personally, but fits neatly with his image as a candidate who has no core values, and who is willing to say or do anything in the name of getting elected.

Maybe I’m wrong, and next week this will be forgotten as we’re all talking about the lost thirteenth tribe of Kardashians. But to me, this story is so visceral, and so resonant with everything else we know about Mitt Romney, that it just might stick around.

Update: The original title of this post was “Why is Romney’s bullying is a big deal?” Which is, um, derp, is not very grammaticish.

Best headline of year changed by Seattle Times

So, there is an article up at the Seattle Times with the following title: “All 6 Wash. congressional Dems favor repeal of gay-marriage ban.”  The article was written after Norm Dicks, a democrat representing Washington’s sixth congressional district, joined other Washington Democrats in saying that he would support the repeal of DOMA.

This is great news, and just the most recent in a long list of Democrats who have come out in support of marriage equality in the wake of Obama’s announcement yesterday declaring his personal support.

The only sad part of the story is that the seems to have abandoned their original headline, which was “With Dicks in, all 6 WA congressional Democrats favor repeal of gay-marriage ban.”

via +K. O. Myers.

Out in the Navy (RIP DADT)

So, a lot of times it may seem like our great nation is on a long slide towards becoming a fascist surveillance state / plutocracy, what with our increasingly nihilistic congress and its complete lack of financial or moral integrity.

But sometimes, that whole bending towards justice thing seems to be working.

As of midnight last night, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the US Military’s institutionalized discrimination against homosexuality, has been lifted.

Here’s a little something to help you celebrate:

Embedding was disabled for the original 1978 Village People video 🙁 but you can still watch it here 🙂

Minnesota Republican John Kriesel gives moving speech on gay marriage

So, every now and then, something happens in state politics that reaffirms my faith in democracy. It happens when someone governs like a human being who actually loves America and Americans. When they take a stand based on their beliefs, rather than polling numbers and lobbyist dollars.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this at the national level.

In this case, the reaffirmation comes from Minnesota, where state representative John Kriesel gave a moving speech about why he was voting against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

The punchline? Kriesel is a Republican — one of only two to vote against the amendment.

I don’t know what political repercussions Kriesel will suffer as a result. But that’s what is so beautiful about this speech. It seems that Kriesel doesn’t care, and is actually voting for what he thinks is right. If we could figure out a way to fill all of our elected positions with people willing to do that, we would live in a very different and much better America.

Now, it’s not all silver lining. The measure passed the Minnesota House 70-62. And, just to make sure we all understand the profound spitefulness of this amendment, there is already a law banning gay marriage in Minnesota.

via Boing Boing

Re: Homophobia and Evolutionary Psychology

So, a couple of days ago, Jesse Bering published an interesting post on his Scientific American blog, where he attempts to revive interest in a research topic that was hotly debated in the mid 1990s, but has since fallen dormant. He describes a debate between two evolutionary psychologists – Gordon Gallup and John Archer – over the evolutionary origins of negative attitudes towards homosexuality.

Bering does an excellent job describing the debate, so I will just provide the briefest synopsis here. Gallup argues that, all else being equal, natural selection would favor negative attitudes towards homosexuality. The argument is basically that people who encourage heterosexual behavior in their children will have more grandchildren. The counter-argument championed by Archer is basically, no, it’s all cultural: homosexuals are identified as “other” and are demonized in the media.

Silly girl is so unfamiliar with cultural norms, she does not even recognize that she should be vilifying anyone who looks different from her.

Bering’s stated purpose is to stir up some debate, and hopefully to prompt some new research. He takes the position – the correct one in my view – that we should not refrain from asking such questions out of fears driven by political correctness. However, the thing that caught my attention, and prompted my to write my own response, was his opening paragraph:

Consider this a warning: the theory I’m about to describe is likely to boil untold liters of blood and prompt mountains of angry fists to clench in revolt. It’s the best—the kindest—of you out there likely to get the most upset, too. I’d like to think of myself as being in that category, at least, and these are the types of visceral, illogical reactions I admittedly experienced in my initial reading of this theory. But that’s just the non-scientist in me flaring up, which, on occasion, it embarrassingly does. Otherwise, I must say upfront, the theory makes a considerable deal of sense to me.

This, in a sense, encapsulates exactly what is wrong with so much evolutionary psychology. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Bering, who writes conscientiously and consistently well about a host of tricky topics. In fact, what I am doing here is a bit unfair to him, but I want to make a lot of hay out of that last statement: “the theory makes a considerable deal of sense to me.”

Back in the late 1970s, evolutionary biology was rent by a conflict over sociobiology. The debate was perhaps at its hottest and most divisive at Harvard, where the author of the book Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, and two of its strongest critics, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, were all on the faculty. The debate focused particularly on the use of adaptationist reasoning to describe the origins of human behaviors, but it had methodological implications that reverberated throughout evolutionary biology.

Like sociobiology before it, evolutionary psychology has been accused of using the veneer of objective science to promote a socially conservative agenda, reinforcing social norms. Image via imageshack.

I won’t go more into the history here, but if you’re interested in a highly entertaining historical account, which delves particularly into many of the biggest personalities involved, I highly recommend this article, published originally in the sadly now defunct Lingua Franca.

As with many such schisms, the field eventually healed, primarily through retirement and replacement. Nowadays, most practicing evolutionary biologists take a more synthetic view, one that integrates the ambitions of the sociobiology program with the demands of a more rigorous scientific foundation demanded by the critics.

Basically, the lessons of the whole sociobiology episode boil down to this: plausibility is NOT scientific proof.

In fact, it is trivially easy to come up with a plausible-sounding evolutionary argument to describe the origin of almost any trait. More importantly, it is often just as easy to come up with an equally plausible-sounding argument to describe the origin of a hypothetical scenario involving the exact opposite trait.

If you have students, you can try this little experiment, which provides a nice learning exercise for the students as well:

Divide your class into two groups. Give one group a card that describes a pattern of behavior of the form: “In species X, the females do Y, and the males do Z.” Tell them that their job is to work together to come up with an evolutionary argument for why the females do Y and the males do Z. A group of a few modestly engaged undergraduates will have little trouble constructing such an argument. The argument will likely seem plausible on its face, and the students will probably emerge from the exercise convinced of its correctness.

Give the other group the same exercise, but with the modification that their card says that the females do Z and the males do Y. You will likely find that this group also has little trouble coming up with a plausible explanation, and that they will also be convinced of its correctness. For extra fun (for you, anyway), have the two groups come back together to debate the evolutionary question, but don’t tell them at first that they were given opposite patterns to explain.

If you can create a set of journals in which you can publish evolutionary claims with no requirement that any of those claims be scientifically tested, eventually, you can generate a whole parallel literature that is self-citing, a group of researchers that are self-refereeing, and review panels that are self-funding. Congratulations! You’ve just invented an academic perpetual motion machine!

The problem with much of the early work in sociobiology was that it was based on assertions of plausible-sounding mechanisms, where not enough thought was put into consideration of alternative scenarios. One of the dangers is that the plausible-sounding mechanisms that most readily come to mind are often those that resonate with the cultural norms in which we are all immersed. This is part of the reason why molecular evolution has focused so much over the past few decades on statistical tests to look for evidence of natural selection.

While most evolutionary biologists have taken on board the cautionary tales that emerged from the sociobiology debate, most evolutionary psychologists are not evolutionary biologists. When evolutionary psychology started to become a field in the early 1990s, it basically recapitulated many of the errors of early sociobiology. It deflected criticism by claiming that politically correct academics didn’t want them to ask these questions, painting itself as a field of martyrs who were bravely trying to do science, when the actual criticism was that the science was bad.

Evolutionary biology is one of those areas, like linguistics or sociology or film, where many people have some basic understanding or exposure, and so they tend to assume that they have an expertise on the topic, and that there is nothing more to understand beyond what they know.

Evolutionary psychology is to evolutionary biology as physics is to everything.

I would not want to criticize Gallup’s methods, nor his results, insomuch as they relate to psychology. However, the leap to the evolutionary argument is complete nonsense. That is not to say that he is not right. He might be. It simply means that the studies that are the focus of the debate do not contain the information required to construct and test an evolutionary argument as a scientific question.

Gallup’s premise is that an impulse to discourage homosexuality in one’s children would be evolutionarily favored. Fine. The argument is supported by surveys about parents’ levels of discomfort with homosexuality in different scenarios, specifically that they are less comfortable having their children exposed to homosexuality at age 8 than at age 21, and that they are more comfortable with a homosexual brain surgeon than with a homosexual pediatrician. Again, Bering does a nice job of describing the studies and the arguments against them, and I won’t reproduce those here.

I will just note (as Bering does) that this interpretation hinges on the assumption that exposure to homosexuals at an early age increases the likelihood of growing up to be homosexual. Gallup has some evidence to suggest that this might be the case, although we could easily put forward, for example, the “exotic becomes erotic” theory, which might be interpreted as suggesting that early exposure to homosexuality would decrease the erotic appeal of homosexuality in later life.

Basically, the structure of Gallup’s argument is that his studies show that A * B > 0. He wants to conclude that A > 0. Therefore, he asserts that B is probably greater than zero.

The problem is that the claim that A > 0 sounds plausible. Having straight kids gives you more grandkids. Makes sense, right? Therefore, we don’t demand a real test to figure out what B is.

Let me throw out a few alternative evolutionary stories:

          1) Parents should want their own children to be straight, but they should support a culture that is broadly supportive of homosexuality, thereby reducing the number of children that other people’s children have. That would reduce the competition faced by their own grandchildren, giving them more great-grandchildren.

          2) Parents should favor sex-specific homosexuality in the general culture, facultatively based on the sex ratio among their own children. Parents with lots of sons should favor male homosexuality in the broader community, but should disfavor female homosexuality, in order to maximize the number of mates available to each of their sons.

          3) Parents should favor having their older children be homosexual during the early part of their lives, so that they stick around and help to raise the younger children, but once the younger children are old enough to fend for themselves, they should want all of their children to be straight.

Do any or all of these sound plausible to you? Maybe they do, or maybe they don’t. However, my point is that it does not matter. Whether some or all or none of these sound plausible to us depends a lot on the cultural milieu we inhabit, and almost nothing to do with the actual evolutionary origins of human sexual orientation.

It would be straightforward to construct mathematical models to support any of these verbal arguments. The key to turning this into science is to construct those models and see what other implications they have, and to look for evidence that supports or contradicts those other implications. The key is to measure what B is. The key is to uncover the genetic and neural mechanisms that underlie sexual orientation, and to subject those mechanisms to a rigorous statistical and molecular analysis. The key is to consider as broad a set of hypotheses as possible, and to be creative in identifying tests and observations capable of differentiating among those hypotheses.

I’m with Jesse Bering in hoping that there will be more research on this topic in the future. But I would add the caveat that if the research is done by psychologists in isolation, it will ultimately go nowhere, even if they are evolutionary psychologists. What is needed is a broad, transdisciplinary collaboration involving psychologists, for certain, but also evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and who knows what else.

Gallup GG Jr, & Suarez SD (1983). Homosexuality as a by-product of selection for optimal heterosexual strategies. Perspectives in biology and medicine, 26 (2), 315-22 PMID: 6844119