Sat, Dec 06, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Same-sex love turning out to be mysterious

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Recently I wrote a column arguing that there is growing evidence that homosexuality has a biological basis, and that this is one more reason not to discriminate against people on the basis of whom they love.

The result was a torrent of fire and brimstone from readers who are aghast at gay marriage, and who accuse me of blasphemy for defending vile behavior that they say God is on record as denouncing. Never mind that the Bible also advises that people who work on the Sabbath should be stoned to death (Numbers 15:35) and condones the beating of slaves "since the slave is the owner's property" (Exodus 21:21). Somehow it's only the anti-gay bits that seem engraved in stone.

Yet surprisingly few readers raised the most obvious question: if homosexuality is partly genetic, why are there so many gays?

After all, gays are presumably less likely to engage in heterosexual pairings -- the behavior that passes down genes. So if there are genes linked to homosexuality (which is still not proved, but seems increasingly likely), then how have they been passed down to our day?

Scientists have offered a range of theories. One is that gays might not have been fecund baby-producers, but that they guarded their nephews and nieces from saber-toothed tigers and thus helped ensure the survival of closely related genes.

Another theory is that gays have unusually strong sex drives, and that while most of this energy has been wasted on nonreproductive flings, enough goes toward male-female pairings that the genes are passed on. Both theories have largely been discounted.

One clue to a more subtle theory is that other primates, including close relatives like the bonobos, often engage in homosexual behavior, apparently as a way of forming alliances. Bonobos curry favor by performing oral sex on others of the same gender, even though they also seize every opportunity to mate with those of the opposite sex.

It may be that for bonobos -- and perhaps for our cave-dwelling ancestors -- an inclination to engage in homosexual sex conferred Darwinian advantages by helping to gain favor and protection from group leaders. But the pattern fits bonobos better than it does human males: bonobos appear primarily heterosexual or bisexual, while some human males (more than females, some scholars say) seem hard-wired to be exclusively gay.

So some journal articles speculate that several genes may be loosely linked to homosexuality. When all come together, perhaps in conjunction with other factors, like unusual androgen levels in the womb (which also appear to play a role), the person may be gay and less likely to pass on those genes.

But more commonly, so the theory goes, only one or two of these gene variants are present, and then they produce not gays but straights who are relatively sensitive, conciliatory and empathetic -- qualities that help them find a mate. Thus these variants would be genetically advantageous and would proliferate.

The arguments get far more complex, of course, but I hope that religious conservatives will ponder this question: If homosexuality is utterly contrary to God's law, why is it so embedded in human biology and in the rest of the animal kingdom? (Serious journal articles have described supposedly lesbian seagulls.)

Critics used to say that adopted children of gay couples would end up gay. But there's growing evidence that children raised by homosexuals are no more likely to end up gay than those raised by heterosexuals.

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