Sunday, February 01, 2009


Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending have written a book called “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.” As one reviewer said, it’s all very interesting and probably mostly wrong. Sort of like the cover, which shows the usual (and discredited) walking continuum from ape to Adonis, this time in the form of florescent skeletons.

Cochran suggests that evolution didn’t stop when modern man emigrated out of Africa 55,000 years ago and was accelerated with the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. The changes in diet, disease, and dispersal probably triggered far more mutations, the favorite example being lactose which allows the digestion of milk. In fact, there have been two mutations that allowed for milk digestion in two different places and times. I’m fine with these ideas.

It never occurred to me to question that evolution has continued all along and will continue through and past homo sapiens, partly because of all the jokes about how television would cause us to evolve into bodies with a big single eye, a fat one-butt sitter, and wheels instead of feet. Many are hoping we will evolve improvements in the brain, maybe something like “mirror cells” which increase empathy and therefore compassion. Because of thinking about Diabetes II, I’ve also had some notion that diseases and malfunctions required or caused mutations when humans began to live in close proximity to domestic animals and to eat cultivated grains. Cochran puts major emphasis on infections producing mutations, which is logical enough. He is returning to an older era of medical assumptions and he claims that cardiac problems, diabetes and other problems are probably not lifestyle issues but rather infections. His model here is helicobacter pilori, a stomach bug that causes most ulcers, though for a long time it was not found and not thought to exist.

Like the fellows at where Cochran also posts, he is very interested in who is smarter, whether IQ is hereditary (IQ is easy to discredit -- it simply asks for the “norm” in a white Euro community, so naturally those are the people who do well.), and what mutations would be helpful. He likes the idea of economics grouping people who then develop mutations that adapt them for special vocations. (If you’re rich and privileged, it’s because you evolved into it? That doesn’t fit the realities as I know them. Are the Kennedys more evolved than the rest of us? The Royal Windsors?) He’s attached to the idea of Ashkenazi Jews doing “brainy” work and becoming, as a result, selected to be smarter -- smarter ones being more likely to survive.

Having thus proved that he’s not afraid of dangerously political subjects, he suggests that homosexuality is a mutation produced by disease. I don’t quite follow his reasoning. First of all, he defines disease as anything that interferes with reproductive success, so why hasn’t homosexuality died out? Some arguments I’ve seen emphasize that to enhance evolutionary survival it is not the individual but the group with the genes that has to survive. Men without children of their own give the family an “uncle” advantage, that is, more males capable of work and battle. That’s something like the “granny” advantage which is an argument for how menopause evolved: so that the older women could contribute labor without the interference of pregnancy.

Cochran doesn’t seem to think in terms of the group, though in this case it would support his inherited mutation theory. But then, we live in a time obsessed with individualism. Our families are so scrambled and dispersed, they hardly count as people who know each other when they see each other. He doesn’t consider families that are assembled from various genetic sources, whether high tech egg/sperm implants or “Saturday Night Specials.” But he doesn’t seem to want to draw a bright line between heredity and upbringing, as though anyone could.

Also, he doesn’t consider pre-natal environment, though it is shown that the mother’s hormone state during gestation has a powerful influence on the unborn child. Of course, he is not at all looking at psychological or cultural influences. Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that homosexuality is a category that includes genetic gays, plus fuzzily-gendered people, plus psychological gays, plus secretly het people who have their own reasons for seeming homosexual, plus atypical men (short, artistic, gentle) who are pressed into the category because of the stereotypes of others, plus people whom circumstances have “taught” male-on-male sexual behavior (prison, war, predator victims). If there is no objective test that reveals who is which, how can they be sorted? Presumably not all would be relevant to this theory.

Cochran is unclear in other ways. Is he saying there was a one-time disease that caused a genetic mutation in the brain that resulted in inheriting men desiring men? (He doesn’t address female same-sex desire. He wants to talk about testosterone, but I’ve not seen anything that said testosterone is the source of the desire for sex with males, or how could it be that I (female) desire males? I’m aware of studies that suggest testoterone is a thermostat controlling how MUCH desire there is.) Or is he saying that the disease organism itself is passed down somehow?

Or does he think homosexuality is not inheritable -- a one-gay-guy mutation? He says twin studies show that if one is gay, the other is not statistically inclined to be gay. No relevant brain change -- either mutation or disease -- has ever been isolated or identified. He is quick to provide examples like narcolepsy, which also cannot be “found” in the brain. He does seem to believe that gayness must be a brain disease rather than some hormone imbalance or maladjustment of the autoimmune system or maybe caused by something in our environment, like food processing. (My fav villain at the moment.) And he says homosexuality does not “interfere” with being brilliant and productive. (He does not identify his own desire valence, but doesn’t seem married.)

He points out that 6% of sheep demonstrate same-sex mounting, but says that the sheep must have caught the disease because humans screw them. commenters began supplying examples of relatives who “did” chickens, goats, etc. plus examples of famous dog acts. (There are also famous horse acts.) Cochran turned droll and claimed someone had a romantic relationship with an oryx in a certain hotel. By this time they were playing at what the English call “silly buggers.” Nervous joking to show superiority and make it clear that they personally would have nothing to do with such acts.

I’ve blogged about b*st**l*ty from my animal control days when we dealt with actual cases, but have yet to see the Humane Society of the United States take up this issue in their rush to be at the center of all animal controversies. There are logic problems: are these sheep shaggers who infected the ovines with their gay mutators looking for male partners who just happen to be sheep? Aren’t they actually screwing ewes? Gender doesn’t matter so long as the species is different?

Cochran is not a doctor nor a sociologist. He is a physicist specializing in high tech lenses (wouldn’t that be more of a very high level engineer?) and an “adjunct” anthropologist, which I take to be something like a “volunteer” self-taught anthropologist. His audience, as nearly as I can tell (which is not very clearly), are highly educated men, quite conservative, making good money, seemingly rigorous thinkers but not scientists and often single. They are also riveted by sex (while not ever admitting attraction to men and rarely to women who are not the Playboy ideal: young, blonde, buxom) and by religion (but usually the Abramic patriarchal kinds). I would suggest the subjects of sex and religion are entwined, both involving privilege and status. They resist immigration, not on the basis of skin color, but on the grounds of, well, all the things dark skin are supposed to stand for. You know.

Addressing the gay community in this way is both fertile ground and risky behavior, because there is no way to keep it from re-valorizing the issues associated with AIDS, even though HIV is has been proven over and over again to be simply a HUMAN virus and to be transmitted by bodily fluids in general, including spit, tears and milk. It begins to seem like shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.


gcochran said...

Since you once said something nice about me (on a different issue), I will respond a bit. I'm married, going on 22 year, 5 kids.

We have found the exact change that results in narcolepsy: a particular kind of nerve cell, in a certain small region of the hypothalamus, has been destroyed. We don't yet know what causes that destruction, at least for most cases of narcolepsy.

General comment: you have to look at these things quantitatively.

Try to remember - I looked at Iraqi WMD quantitatively, while no one in the world of politics or punditry did. And I said they had no nuclear program.

And I was right. Which is not to say that someone attempting a to develop a quantitative theory (one that respects the numbers) is bound to succeed - but it's sure hard to succeed any other way.

Frank Wilson said...

Regarding the Iraqi WMDs - and I say this as someone who worked for some years in the field of arms control and disarmament - the quantification of them was irrelevant. The significant find of the Kay report was that Saddam could reactivate his WMD program within a matter of weeks, about the same number of weeks it would take to prepare for war in the first place. This is something that should have terrified us all - and still should. Stockpiling weapons - and let us not forget that Saddam had used WMDs in the past - is not in itself an advantage, since they degrade over time. To be able to have brand new ones to hand for use in a short time is actually better. And if Saddam could do it, you can be sure that other countries can as well. What Kay discovered - and that Charles Duelfer confirmed - is that the world, with respect to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, is actually less safe than we had thought. The media's attention to the single issue of stockpiles missed this point entirely.

Art Durkee said...

Another quantitative argument about qualitative matters. Not only irrelevant but a category error.

When people stop looking at "causes" maybe that's when real acceptance will begin. As long you look for a "disease" cause for everything, you prove yourself a materialist, a logical positivist, and one who seeks simplistic answers to complicated questions. Probably many of these things are complicated interactions of nature AND nurture. This constant search for a purely natural origin is as worngheaded as a search for purely nurture origins. it's as rational as astrology, when applied this way, as determinative or causative.

There is also a difference, to anyone who has actually read any studies (esp. cross-cultural studies) about gender and sexuality, between orientation and activity.

Re-read Kinsey: virtually all males have had homosexual experiences, in places such as boarding school or prison where girls were not available, or early in age when they were experimenting. The number of males who grow up to be gay is still about the same as it was 50 or 100 years ago. Kinsey's point was that same-sex sex doesn't make you gay; and he was right. The opposite is also true. I've had sex with women, but I'm still gay.

You might as well label women as diseased because they're not men.