Parsimony

TGGP‘s recent post regarding Will Wilkinson’s opinions of some of Gordon Gallup’s hypotheses regarding homosexuality and its stigmas – particularly, why being gay is so commonly viewed as bad across cultures, or why ‘homophobia’ exists – attracted my notice, and inspired some ire.

I posted a snarky remark about how awful some of the evolutionary psychological ‘explanations’ are. But it did make me think a little about what worthwhile explanations might exist.

Simple explanations – which require that we make fewer leaps beyond what we know and into what we might be mistaken about – are better, all else being equal. Are there any explanations for why people could be made uncomfortable by gays?

One aspect of human cognition which seems to be universal is that children go through a phase, soon after they recognize that there are two human genders, in which they are very concerned that they act ‘appropriately’. Whatever ‘appropriately’ is in their culture. But little boys obsessively ensure that they dress, play, and eat the way little boys are supposed to, and likewise with little girls. Being told that they behave like a member of the other group is an insult. Until after puberty, in fact, most children not only have little interest in doing things like or with the other gender, they actively desire not to do so. Girls/boys have ‘cooties’, and so forth. This facilitates learning more about the roles, in sort of the same way that young children want to imitate their parents’ actions. There’s a natural tendency to acquire adaptive knowledge, and in the ancestral environment kids who wanted to learn the things that they’d eventually end up doing to live would have obvious benefits over those who didn’t. (Evolution didn’t anticipate schooling, much less attending school well into adulthood.)

Although sexual orientation isn’t necessarily associated with the personality traits caught up in gender roles, it may be statistically linked with them, and people certainly believe they’re linked.

So: if we learn that a given person is of non-standard sexuality, isn’t it possible that we expect them to cross over the attitudinal and behavioral standards for their gender roles as well, and this violation of expectation makes us uncomfortable? I’ve noticed that people resent those who break a rule if they are themselves expending resources to ensure that they keep it – and the harder the rule is to keep, the more we are angered/annoyed/frightened by those who don’t keep it.

Why can’t homophobia simply be attributed to discomfort at violations of expectations to which most people force themselves to conform?

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4 Responses to “Parsimony”

  1. I’m not quick to accept the evo-psych explanation presented, but I doubt that it’s as simple as policing norm violations. There are plenty of norm violations that don’t often induce an immediate, strong sense of revulsion. Furthermore, not all gender norm violations are created equal. Based on personal experience (no rigorous study here), while those with anti-homosexual attitudes (a group that does not include myself) may feel uncomfortable around those with a “gay” lisp or effeminate mannerisms, it’s the thought of anal sex or male-male kissing that draws their disgust.

    That is to say, I think that particular types of norm violations are more likely to draw feelings of disgust than others. I have a hard time believing that there is selection for a specific type of attitude toward homosexuals (and really, we’re talking about homosexual males, here), but it’s certainly conceivable, and dare I say likely, that the general pattern of brain development in heterosexual males (more than others, those I’m not necessarily excluding other groups) endows a propensity to have negative attitudes toward homosexual male behavior. I would still have a hard time with the notion that there was specific selection for that, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if such a tendency was incidental as a result of other selected brain functions.

    • I’m not quick to accept the evo-psych explanation presented, but I doubt that it’s as simple as policing norm violations. I

      I don’t disagree – few things about humans are truly simple. And I’m certainly not suggesting that nothing else contributes to common societal reactions generally or specifically. But shouldn’t we rule out simple, elegant explanations before examining complex and poorly-defined ones?

      There are plenty of norm violations that don’t often induce an immediate, strong sense of revulsion.

      True, but I expect those sexually-related to be more vehement than others. Particularly when (as studies suggest) most people are repressing their inherent sexual reactions to various degrees.

      it’s the thought of anal sex or male-male kissing that draws their disgust.

      With the former, no further explanation is really needed. And mouth-to-mouth kissing is probably so widely accepted now because its ‘kinky’ aspect is viscerally stimulating. I’ve read that it was an uncommon practice throughout most of the world throughout most of history – poor hygiene would make it unwise. The majority of kissing, historically speaking, is supposedly mouth-to-various body parts like hands and feet.

      that the general pattern of brain development in heterosexual males (more than others, those I’m not necessarily excluding other groups) endows a propensity to have negative attitudes toward homosexual male behavior.

      Yes. I suspect that there are hardwired tendencies to reject ‘feminine’ behavior patterns, whether they are socially determined or more inherent. It’s the female design that’s the default in our species, after all, and males represent a change away.

      I merely postulate that anti-gay-male bias is a side effect of a tendency to eschew female-like behaviors that may have developed to induce a shift to masculinity.

  2. I recall some tv program saying that “sissy” characters were acceptable in movies/tv long before open acknowledgment of homosexuality was.

    One would assume that gender-atypical preference would be more fitness-reducing than traits correlated with it.

    • I find that very plausible. Given how restrictive some of the old-style roles are, though, behaviors and traits that lie outside them are far, far more common than strongly nonstandard orientation.

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