Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Adaptive homophobia: politically incorrect?

Speaking of political correctness, Bering in Mind discussed a scientific question he considers politically incorrect: Is homophobia a product of natural selection?

Unfortunately, the discussion that follows is a tiny bit of science followed by fantastic leaps to conclusions.  The tiny bit of science is an old Gallup poll showing that homophobic reactions increase when the homosexual person is in proximity to children.  The fantastic leap (made by Gallup, not Bering) is that this is because homophobia evolved to reduce the likelihood that one's offspring would turn gay from contact with gay people.

Bering has already been criticized by biologist Jeremy Yoder:
Lots of people, including some evolutionary biologists, speculate about the adaptive value of all sorts of traits—but in the absence of solid evidence for heritability or fitness benefits, such speculation tends to get derided as "adaptive storytelling."
What this amounts to is arguing that homophobia is an adaptation favored by natural selection because homophobia is a thing that exists.
And here's another biologist, Jon Wilkins:
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.
According to Jon Wilkins, it's fairly common for evolutionary psychologists to claim that they're just being attacked for political incorrectness:
[Evolutionary psychology] 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.
Obviously, the biologists can say it better than me, so follow those links for more.  However, I would like to comment on Bering's posturing as politically incorrect.
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 seemed rather strange to me for several reasons.  For one thing, science doesn't require that people be unemotional, just that they use a method which cannot be affected by such biases.  For another, science isn't about what makes "sense", since what makes sense to people can be about as biased as their emotional reactions.

As for whether this is politically incorrect, I'm not upset at all by the idea that homophobia could be adaptive.  I'm pretty sure that would have no relevance to whether it's morally acceptable.  What's possibly more upsetting is the suggestion that homosexuals are more likely to be pedophiles, and their victims more likely to become homosexual.  Gallup offers some evidence for this claim, but Yoder showed that it doesn't really hold up.  Yoder also commented that the hypothesis originated in the 1980s when it aligned with prevailing attitudes.  Politically incorrect, or just incorrect?

[Aside: This isn't the first time I've seen Bering posture a bad idea as politically incorrect.  He wrote an article on asexuality which was generally positive, but ended with the "unsavory" suggestion that studies should subject asexuals to erotic stimuli.  Actually I don't think that's all that unsavory if it's necessary for study, but I do think that it's an unfruitful direction for research.]

Question: Does emotion play any role in our rejection of Gallup's claim that homophobia is adaptive, or is it just a matter of looking at the evidence?

I think emotion does play a proper role in science: motivation.  Gallup's claim is personally relevant to me and other gay people, so of course we would take a closer look at the evidence!  If the evidence is found wanting, we have motivation to loudly call it out.  But the method for examining the evidence is itself neutral.  In fact, I've criticized evolutionary psychology even when it's made conclusions I liked.

(via Pharyngula)


maddox said...

As someone who did study evolutionary psychology, and was seriously considering it as a career, I feel (feel!) that some of the time it's being stifled by unwarranted "hypotheses" that are no more than, as one of your quotes brilliantly puts it, was more like "adaptive storytelling" than actual research. Moreover, the statistics on some of these things are a matter of one or two people saying this over that, or a faulty survey being cross-validated with another faulty survey. I know, because I did this for a while....

The field itself is still of great interest to me, and I find it fascinating how we can certainly explain most behaviours through of evolution, and even more fascinating how some of these behaviours are contradictory to the current theories. But instead of rethinking our current theories, we try to fit the contradictions into the existing ones.

Thanks for posting this, although it's always disheartening to read news like this. I used to read Bering's column until it got on my nerves. (I slightly remember reading the asexuality piece, and not being happy about it, and from what you said this sounds about right...)

miller said...

Addendum: Bering responds to critics with an interview with Gallup. I think he's digging himself deeper into a hole. Yoder replies back.