Homophobia is No Mystery

A few years ago Jayman wrote a blog post titled “A Gay Germ? Is Homophobia a Clue?“, referring to Greg Cochran’s gay germ theory. Recently, he tweeted about it, among other people, I responded:

Evidently Jayman didn’t like my explanation:

While I think Jayman is usually spot on, in this case I think he’s suffering from a case of WEIRD(Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) bias. It is part of our modern ideology that you leave people alone. If they want to do dumb stuff, you let them. It’s none of your God dang business. But the default human instinct is to meddle in people’s affairs when they do things which are, as homosexuality is, unhealthy and disgusting. Even in America, a relatively libertarian place, we seek to stop the heroin addict from using heroin. If Homophobia is a mystery, so, too, is heroin-o-phobia.

I can think of four reasons why our urge is to meddle has evolved:

1. Simple prosociality. Even the libertarian will try to non-violently convince the heroin addict to quit. We evolved to care about others for a simple reason: those who were selfish jerks faced social rejection. And a great way to show you really do care about others is to meddle in people’s affairs “for their own good.”

2. The clannish and tribal groups of the past relied on other members of the group. If John and Danny die because they were engaging in unhealthy behavior then your tribe just lost two adult male fighters, which could mean the difference between victory and defeat in a tribal fight. The serfs of Europe inhabited a very different world, and perhaps this explains their descendants’ relatively libertarian viewpoint.

3. If your son or brother does have homosexual feelings, you don’t want him to act on it. It is disgusting, and it hurts your reproductive fitness. He’ll be much more likely to act it out if there are open homosexuals around your town.

4. Meddling acts to cement group identity. The kosher laws fostered Jewish identity, ect. This isn’t relevant to homophobia, which appears to be a human universal.

In his blog post Jayman cited Jesse Bering on studies of homophobia:

In his first of four studies, Gallup administered a survey to 167 self-identified straight undergraduate students—males and females—a survey designed to gauge the student’s “degree of discomfort” in interacting with homosexuals who held different jobs. Importantly, these occupations varied along one dimension: the extent to which the job entailed interaction with children. Included were nine sample occupations—three that afforded a high degree of contact with kids (teacher, school bus driver, medical doctor) and six that provided moderate to low contact (lawyer, construction worker, bank teller, pilot, mechanic, sales clerk). As predicted, the degree of discomfort was significantly correlated with the likelihood that persons in these categories would come into contact with children.

Jayman thinks this is evidence for the pathogen theory, people don’t want their kids to get infected. But homosexuality wasn’t all that common in pre-modern societies. There are exceptions, of course, but homophobia is found everywhere we look. Without a large number of identifiable homosexuals around, I don’t know if the selective pressure was there to give people an aversion to homosexuals being around their children. I think the real reason for the aversion to homosexuals being around children is simpler: children are impressionable, parents know this, and so parents rationally want to minimize (perceived) harmful influences. It is the same reason some parents oppose letting their kids play violent video games. It doesn’t prove that video games make children violent.

Jayman again cited Bering, who wrote that:

(…)if it’s all social learning, it’s curious, is it not, that children all over the globe must be explicitly taught not to be homophobic, not the other way around; antigay attitudes in sixth-grade boys seem as naturally emerging as language acquisition in infants. Exceptions are rare; so rare, in fact, that they make national headlines.

In addition to WEIRD bias, there is another bias that we suffer from, it’s so universal we don’t even think about it: adulthood bias. Most of us are “adults” and so when children behave in a way that is alien to us, we think “what is wrong with them?” But children are naturally more openly mean and exclusivist than adults. They bully each other in a way that most adults never would. This is the Occam’s Razor explanation for childhood homophobia.

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