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  • Fintan Steele

Yet We Persist: LGBTQ+ and Evolution

One of the more insidious “scientific” arguments made against non-heterosexual attraction and gender identity relies on a narrow and largely abandoned interpretation of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. The argument goes, in short, if sexual activity and identity is purely about pushing one’s genes into the next generation, then any behavior or experience that doesn’t obviously work towards that goal is by definition “unnatural” or even “wrong,” and is headed for extinction.

“Fundamentalist” 19th-century Darwinism focused exclusively on reproductive success as the key to understanding traits selected by evolution. This argument can be persuasive to people who don’t really think about it much. But if they did, they would quickly realize that strict Darwinism would also require that non-reproducing traits, sexual or otherwise, should rapidly disappear from the population under the pressure of natural selection.

Yet we LGBTQ+ folks are still here, even though we are not (for the most part) actively reproducing. And not only are we still here, but we are here in numbers greater than previously known, thanks to several generations of brave people speaking up and speaking out. Indeed, our persistence in the human population is the best argument against a fundamentalist interpretation of Darwin.

The scientific understanding of what drives evolution has changed a lot since the 1800s. Most respectable evolutionary biologists today are not Darwin fundamentalists. Instead, they are now fascinated with the continued existence of many less-common human traits, including variable gender attraction and identity, and how the continued existence of those traits in the population contribute to the evolutionary success of the human species. Although there are interesting hypotheses emerging, there is no real consensus yet.

 But there is consensus that there are many (perhaps even thousands) genetic contributions to the spectrum of attraction and identity. Some of these genes are related to secondary sexual characteristics, some to neural connectivity, some to senses like vision and smell, some to just basic biology “housekeeping.” But even the most complex models to date cannot yet fully account for all of this variety and how it leads to different attractions and identities.

It is important to understand that these same genes and their variations are expressed and interact in every human being regardless of her/his/their identity or attraction (like all other genetic traits, frankly). Again, just the fact of the continued existence of a large number of LGBTQ+ individuals through successive generations argues that we provide some evolutionary advantages to our species. But there is no real consensus yet on what those advantages are, though there are a lot of proposals, many of which have vague notions of providing undefined “support” to reproducing individuals. A lot more work needs to be done to understand not just the genetics but also the effects of those genetic contributions on social structure and behavior (including but not limited to sex and gender stuff).

In the meantime, the most important shift we need to keep in mind now is that variations in gender attraction and identity are no longer considered “abnormal,” at least by the scientific community. Far from being biological aberrations, we are instead key to understanding biological reality. This is remarkable progress, for sure, in a relatively short time. But the usual resistance from the usual suspects to scientific advance and its implications for social acceptance is particularly stubborn in this case. Sadly, some of this resistance comes from within the LGBTQ+ community, from individuals who fear that this knowledge will somehow be used against us. But we should be embracing these new understandings and using them (and our science allies) to help fight back against those who would prefer we go extinct.



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