Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bering is still wrong

Following the discussion of whether homophobia is an evolutionary adaptation, Bering responded to his critics with an interview with Gallup, the author of the original study.

There is a lot of incidental wrongness in Bering's response.  Like when Gallup says that men have a monopoly on paraphilias and kinky sex... Really, Gallup, you think so?  Yoder points out even more errors.  But I will have to ignore most of these so I can stick to the main point.

I agree with Bering on a few points.  First, Gallup's theory in no way implies that Gallup is or is not a homophobe.  In fact, that was never the issue.  Second, I agree that minor-attracted people get short shrift in this whole discussion.  If it were true that gay men were more likely to be attracted to minors, then those people deserve to be helped, not ignored.  However, my agreement with Bering on these points only serves to underscore the fact that political incorrectness was never the problem.

The problem is that Gallup's evidence fails to even partially exclude alternative hypotheses.  In other words, it fails to behave as evidence.

Here are some alternative "plausible" hypotheses which are also completely consistent with Gallup's data:
  1. Null hypothesis: Culture causes many to believe that gay men will harm their children or turn them gay.
  2. Partially null hypothesis 1: Homophobia is adaptive.  However, people's specific fear of homosexual contact with children is culturally learned.
  3. Partially null hypothesis 2: Fearing for one's children is adaptive.  Culturally learned homophobia interacts with these fears.
  4. Spandrel hypothesis: There is a genetic basis for wanting to protect children for homosexuals.  The same gene also causes some other trait which happens to be adaptive, and that's why the gene prevailed.
  5. Alternative just-so story: Homophobia, especially to protect children, is adaptive, but not for the reason Gallup supposes.  Gay men can still have opposite-sex partners and reproduce, but this is less likely if as children they have contact with gay adults.
What new evidence do Bering and Gallup bring to exclude these hypotheses?  None.  None at all.

In response to concerns about "adaptive storytelling", Gallup responds:
We’ve shown that a person's voice is also related to fitness. Just as people with more attractive faces are more symmetrical, the same is true for people with more attractive voices. The sound of a person’s voice conveys information about their gender, age, body configuration, hormonal status, when they lost their virginity, how many sex partners they’ve had, their propensity for infidelity, whether they are on birth control pills, and whether they are in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle.
Wow, that is... completely irrelevant!  Even if they have enough evidence to show that a person's voice is related to fitness (and PZ suggests that they don't), what does that have to do with the fact that they don't have enough evidence for the adaptiveness of homophobia?

Another new piece of evidence is a replication of the study in Taiwan.  Not only does this fail to prove cultural universality, but cultural universality would fail to prove a genetic basis, which would fail to prove adaptiveness, which would fail to prove the particular just-so story that Gallup thought up.

And the next piece of evidence... oh, that's it.

I have not been sufficiently convinced that this hypothesis even merits further research.  Not all questions are good research questions; in fact, very few of them are.


    maddox said...

    Some of your hypotheses remind me of other methods of evolution for a certain trait. A trait does not have to be adaptive per se for it to evolve - it can piggyback off of other traits that happen to be located near that gene, or for some reason certain behaviours were strongly correlated during evolutionary times, and now they are not, but both survived because at least one was adaptive.

    Also, it seems kinda pointless to discuss the evolutionary adaptiveness of homophobia when we don't yet know the evolutionary adaptiveness of homosexuality. I feel those two are intricately related.

    miller said...

    What I understand of the spandrel hypothesis is that the correlated traits can seem unrelated (eg dog hair color seems to correlate with personality), or they can naturally follow from one another (eg homophobia could follow from xenophobia). We don't know.

    I'm inclined to think that homophobia and homosexuality have unrelated origins. My favorite hypothesis for homosexuality is that it's a gene that causes attraction to men (or women), and that this gene benefits women more than it hurts men. But I freely admit that I have no evidence to support this idle speculation.

    maddox said...

    If I were to guess (although I'm a bit rusty) I'd say I agree with you. Homophobia probably evolved as a secondary effect to other strongly prominent adaptations, such as preferring the "ingroup" and alienating the "outgroup" and others who are "different," and that homophobia has less to do with the homo- part and more to do with the other-phobia part.

    If I could go to grad school I would be studying something along these lines... alas, there seems to be no good program that explores this from the evolutionary psychology side (that I know of, at least).