Emergent Wisdom

Thoughtful Observations from Business and LIfe

Understanding Homosexuality (1)

I'd been meaning to write an article on this for some time, if I hadn't so busy with other things, but it was triggered by a BBC magazine article, so here's a summary of my perspective.


There's a simple biological mechanism that ties several of these points raised together, and it's evident in other aspects of biological life as well as being a fractal pattern that is observed throughout the known universe at vastly different scales, and it's called self-organising systems. To give you an example, particles of dust that coalesce through gravity into planets, the components of a cell that make it behave as a cell, the individuals and companies that form the banking industry, and individuals that make up a population create a system of society and government. Essentially, a large number of particles in the same environment tend to organise themselves into complex dynamic patterns, the nature of which is not always obvious from the characteristics of the individual particles themselves.

You probably wonder where the heck I'm going with this. Bear with me.


Complex systems may have a variety of stable states where a considerable change of circumstances is required to trigger a change of state from one pattern to another. For example, if we look at systems of government, while the individuals within government may change, the system of government for many countries tends to be relatively stable, until something dramatic happens and a shift occurs to a different type of government. Rule by a succession of kings, for example, is often a relatively stable form of government because although the kings may change, the system stays the same. A key point about self-organising systems is that they may remain stable in the same state, even if all of the compenents within the system have changed, until the external conditions change or something dramatic happens within the system itself.


However, sometimes the system of government itself may be unstable and fluctuate from one system of government to another rapidly within the lifetimes of the people. This is because the parameters of the system lead to instability rather than stability. But even if you take the people in a stable system of government, such as North Korea: Is that necessarily the only sort of government that could have been formed? No, but because of a set of circumstances, that's what they ended up with. And it's very stable, and would probably take quite a significant change in external or internal circumstances to change the type of government it has. The nature of the political system means that it reinforces itself.

As another simplistic example, let's take your domestic tumble-drier. Let's assume for a moment that you have a simple, one-direction tumble-drier, not a reversing one. If you put a whole load of socks in there, what are the chances of them rolling up into an 'organised' (by that I mean 'stable') ball where the outside socks get dry but the inside ones don't? Not very high. In my experience, they tend to stay separate and all dry at the same rate. But as the items of washing get bigger, they have a greater tendency to get wrapped up in each other. For example, sometimes a bunch of long-sleeved work shirts will get caught up in an embrace with each other and the arms don't dry properly. If you put in a super-kingsize duvet cover, I guarantee that in any non-reversing domestic tumble drier, sooner or later it will roll up into a log and the inside won't dry.

So the stable states for a tumble drier are a) constantly varying organisation (eg, socks tumbling over each other, or a towel that easily bends into all shapes while drying), and b) consistently organised (eg, a duvet cover that has rolled up into a log, or long-sleeved garments that have got into a deadly embrace). The factors that determine what happens are 1) the approximate size of the individual items, 2) the number of items, 3) the diameter of the drum. These individually affect the probability of the contents of the drum going from a disorganised state to an organised state, and of going back again. If you take a small tumble drier and a large duvet cover for instance, the chances of it rolling into a log are very high, and although you can't predict exactly when it will happen, it has a high probability of happening and a low probability of reverting back to a disorganised state. If you put a single person's duvet cover into a launderette-sized tumble drier, it might never roll up into a log, but if it does, it may also be more likely to unroll again (even if it only goes in one direction). At an inbetween state, the system may be more sensitive to the size of duvet and diameter of drum, where a slight change in the size of either may result in a big difference between whether it is biased towards organised or disorganised.

So self-organising systems can sometimes fall into a variety of stable states. In complex systems there are not absolute probabilities that a system will go into one state or another, it's down to chance which state a system may end up in, but the parameters of the system can bias the likely outcome and the stability of the system being in one state or another. Another simple example of how the parameters of a complex system may simply bias the result is one of the 'executive toys' where there is a steel ball at the end of a pendulum that can swing in two horizontal axes, above a baseplate where you can stick several magnets. When you let the pendulum swing it will make all kinds of random movements influenced by the magnets and eventually come to rest hovering over one magnet or another. Where the magnets are placed in relation to each other determines the bias of the system to ending up at one or another, but it's almost impossible to predict on an individual swing where it will end up. Although theoretically deterministic, it's in effect probabilistic because it's highly sensitive to the exact position of the initial release and even factors like minor air currents could quickly have a cumulating effect. If you adjust the magnets a bit, you will alter the probability that the pendulum will end up hovering over one rather than another. Sometimes, quite small changes result in quite a significant change in the probabilities.

Self-organising systems appear to be widespread in nature. For example, in individual animals the markings on the coat are not all genetically predetermined where they will be but are apparently the result of self-organising systems. When animals are cloned for example, it has been discovered that the patterns in their coats are the same type of pattern, but not exactly the same. Identical twins have very similar fingerprints, but they're not exactly the same. The body as a whole can be regarded as being the sum of multiple levels of complex self-organising systems. It has been realised for quite some time that the genes in cDNA simply don't store remotely enough information to represent the wide variety of characteristics within human beings. Although genes seem to have been determined to be critical and even determistic factors in some problems such as haemophilia, in other aspects of human characteristics it is likely that genes are merely biasing factors, along with others such as hormones or other environmental factors, to a complex system where ultimately chance determines the eventual outcome.

Sexual orientation and gender identity may be two characteristics where genetic factors are simply biasing factors into the complex system that determines sexual orientation, along with some factor in the mother that relates to the number of boys she's already had. The complex system, then having made it's decision (in many cases) appears to be one that will tend to stay in that state as sexual orientation appears to be broadly stable as evidenced by it's resistance to being influenced by even extreme life-threatening social factors. The degree of absoluteness of sexual orientation probably depends on either chance or biasing factors already mentioned. This model of sexual orientation determined by bias-influenced self-organising biological complex system that falls into one of several stable states prior to birth allows for and at least partly explains why:

- Environmental factors after birth seem to have no significant influence on eventual sexual orientation (as evidenced by the male birth order effect that no-one knew about until a large scale study was performed)

- The male birth order effect is probablistic, not deterministic.

- Identical twins have a increased probability of having the same sexual orientation, but it's a long way from being guaranteed.

The non-identical sexual orientation of genetically identical twins essentially rules out there being a single 'gay gene'. or even a group of genes that very strongly determine the sexual orientation. But there may be one or more genes that statistically bias TO SOME EXTENT the outcome of an essentially random complex system that picks a stable state of its own choosing and then sticks with it through thick and thin. This would mean that it would be virtually impossible to prevent gay children being born, because if my model is correct, it would be impossible to eliminate the chance of it happening. It may be only possible to influence it very slightly. And that's before you even consider what the unintended consequence of that might be.

Seeing as the few studies there have been appear to show approximately consistent proportions of different sexual orientations throughout the world despite significant separation by over time and by geography, economic conditions and culture, this suggests there is something very stable in the human biological model that reliably produces a predictable proportion of the population who are at least predominantly gay.This does nothing to undermine the overriding point that Peter Tatchell has made in the past that it SHOULDN'T matter, and I entirely agree with that. However, it's still useful to have ammunition to fire at our enemies. So it's worth looking at what some people regard as a genetic conundrum in asking why gay people exist as, superficially, attraction to the same sex does not appear to enhance the chances of reproductive success. In other words, it reduces fecundity significantly to the point that, if there was no apparent benefit, it should have died out by now. Although I love being a dad, for logistical reasons I only have one son at age 45. Had I been entirely straight it's highly likely I would have had more by offspring by now. I can look around at both the gay and straight people I know and the difference in fecundity is obvious, so why hasn't homosexuality died out?

Other characteristics such as interests, abilities and style of behaviour are also probably the stable result of 'decisions' made by self-organising complex systems that may be influenced by similar factors. So that - for instance - there may well be heterosexual, 'straight-acting' haute-couteur designers, but I've certainly not met one and they're probably in a minority. But I have met a few - at least predominantly - straight guys that were rather camp. Different jobs absolutely definitely seem to attract different proportions of people across the spectrum of sexual orientation - computing seems to attract a very significant proportion of people that are bisexual, for instance, and a friend who should know told me that approximately 90% of staff with certain roles in TV production are gay. In my opinion, the proportion of gay people in the bus industry is lower than the proportion of gay people in the population. I would hazard a guess the same applies for riggers in the oil industry. I don't think it was purely chance that it wasn't BP or Shell that produced any of the "It gets better" videos, as far as I've seen. In my opinion anyone who denies there is no statistical bias towards certain types of career is being somewhat naive or in denial. So individually you can't predict exactly what type of job someone will have from their sexuality (eg, you can't say absolutely that their job will be from group X if they're straight and group Y if they're gay), but again there seems to be a significant statistical bias.

From a non-scientific analysis, it appears to me that gay people are statistically biased towards occupations that involve a greater degree of subtlety and nuance where the content is less-rigidly defined. For example, caring, creativity, communication, spiritual roles, and oganisation of ideas. To make some extreme and over-simplistic examples to make the point, how often are the police called to quell fights at gay pubs or clubs compared to 'straight' venues, when the fights are solely gay people fighting against themselves and not defending an attack by homophobic straight guys? Gay people may be more inclined to diplomacy than fighting and there are times when diplomacy prevents war, which can confer a big survival benefit. Gay people were often shamans and healers in less technologically advanced societies, and it seems
also, more likely to be priests, pastors and therapists in more technologically advanced ones.

Having a proportion of gay people in the population seems to broaden the spread of skills available, statistically speaking, that may prolong life in a different way compared to the statistical bias of straight people. It seems we may be MORE LIKELY to be the spices in the meal, the oil in the gearbox, the ointment and plasters in the first-aid kit next to the toolbox, as it were. Or in the case of the US army, the translators and situation-calmers in a troop of soldiers in a foreign land.

It seems therefore that the apparent 'Darwinian paradox' of the lower fecundity of gay people seems to be too narrowly focussed. I think it's important to remember that until relatively recently, and still in many parts of the world, within a few generations a given set of genes is likely to be widely distributed within the LOCAL community. Something that confers a survival benefit on the community as a whole, or on random members within the community, is likely to be a contribution to the survival benefit of a high proportion of the different genes from a few generations back. I acknowledge there appears to be a corresponding statistically-significant rise in fecundity of maternal relatives of gay men, that may offset the reduced fecundity of gay men themselves to some extent (as so few studies of lesbians appear to have been done).  But I suggest it may well be that the overall benefit to a set of genes of creating a self-organising system with a bias for producing about 6-7% of predominantly gay people is not necessarily because of inherently increased fecundity somewhere else within one or two generations of the same set of genes; It could be for the overall survival benefit to the community as a whole - and therefore ongoing generations of those genes - because of the skills that tend to correlate with sexual orientation that contribute to the overall well-being of society.

I suspect though that the argument I've made here is probably too subtle and nuanced for the simpletons who oppose our existence.

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