When James O’Keefe’s 18-year-old son Jimmy came out as gay, James felt like he had failed him and regretted that Jimmy wouldn’t have kids of his own. Though he now realizes that Jimmy might one day have kids, as a medical doctor O’Keefe still wondered about the genetic and evolutionary factors that made his son gay.
“Viewed in the light of evolution,” O’Keefe said in a recent TED Talk (video below), “homosexuality seems to be a real self-defeating non-productive strategy. Gays have 80 percent fewer kids than heterosexuals. This is a trait that ought to go extinct in a few generations, yet down through recorded history in every culture and many animal species as well, homosexuality has been a small but distinct subgroup. If this were a genetic error, natural selection should have long ago culled this from the gene pool.”
So what gives?
Most people use the “guncle theory” to explain the evolutionary benefit of homosexuality, the idea that, lacking kids of their own, gay uncles (guncles) contribute to their family’s overall well-being by helping care for their siblings’ offspring. O’Keefe more or less agrees with this, but takes it two steps further.
He points to two studies that suggest that if a mother gives birth to a high number of male offspring or experiences severe prenatal stress, the likelihood of her giving birth to a gay son increases. The underlying reason has something to do with an emerging science known as epigenetics.
Epigenetics basically states that similar genes can express themselves in different ways based on external circumstances. For example, epigenetic studies of ants have shown that if the colony is hungry, the queen will give birth to more worker ants, but if the colony is under attack, she’ll give birth to more warrior ants. In both cases, ants’ genetic makeup are exactly the same, the only difference is how they get expressed. Warrior ants will be bigger and more aggressive whereas worker ants will be smaller and better at finding food.
Thus, O’Keefe says, “If the [human] family is flush with plenty of kids and/or it’s a stressful place in time, nature occasionally flips these epigenetic switches to turn on the gay genes. This alters brain development that changes sexual orientation.”
“You probably have gay genes in your DNA,” he told the audience, “but unless they were activated in your mother’s womb, they remained coiled up and silent.”
To him, homosexuality is nature’s way of ensuring that the family won’t have an unmanageable number of mouths to feed or a son who might fight with his brothers over female mates, two problems that can reduce a family’s overall health and cohesion. Put another way, gay kids help reduce resource competition among family members.
O’Keefe goes even further by saying that gay members positively contribute to a family’s emotional health as well. As proof, he points to other studies that show lower levels of hostility and higher levels of emotional intelligence, compassion, and cooperation in gay men. He says that these ‘specialized talents and usual qualities of personality’ help increase a family’s ability to relate to one another.
“An ability to love our family and bond with our group determines in many cases whether we survive or perish,” O’Keefe says. “So it’s survival of the fittest family, not the fittest individual.”
And yet, O’Keefe ended his talk by pointing out the many countries around the world that punish homosexuality with death or imprisonment.
“In India,” O’Keefe says, “the law states 14 years to life because homosexuality is ‘against the order of nature’… except that it’s not. Nature prescribes homosexuality at specific times and places. It endows these people with special traits to help the people around them flourish. What is against the order of nature is the ongoing persecution of the sexual minority. These are not confused or defective people that need to be cured or punished or ostracized. They need to be accepted for who they are and embraced. They make us better.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In his TED Talk, O’Keefe mentions that scientific research has predominantly focused on gay men, but he assumes that some of these findings also apply to lesbian women. He doesn’t mention bisexuals (as research has largely ignored them too), but it’s possible that parts of his theory could apply to them too.