How much teleology and reductive stereotyping can you cram into a TED talk?

This is awful, but with good intent. Man has a child who is gay; he’s accepting and positive, so good on him for that, but he immediately goes on a quest to figure out why this has happened to him, and assembles a hodge-podge of specious rationalizations for why gay people exist. I just wanted to yell “Stop!” and say that if you accept your child for who they are, you don’t need to find a scientific justification for their life. Especially not when all he’s got is a positive bias and a collection of weak correlation studies.

Good grief. Here are some bits that made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

If this were a genetic error, natural selection should have long ago culled this from the gene pool.

This is simply false. Lots of genetic errors persist and accumulate, and the existence of a trait is poor prima facie evidence that it is adaptive. You’re looking at a prime example of the Panglossian fallacy.

About 20% of women never have children in their life, and that percentage is growing. It’s not being culled. Reproduction is not destiny. People can choose to be childless, and for some things, the mindless reductive assignment of fitness values is irrelevant.

Homosexuality is genetically programmed altruism. Gays were designed by nature to help us be kind to one another

Got that, homosexual people? You have a purpose, to be nice to all of the straights so that they can have more kids. You were designed by nature to be kind, so every time you are assertive or rude or aggressive, you are betraying the universe. Stonewall was contrary to your role in society.

I get where he’s coming from. He likes his gay son, and characterizes him as having “magnetism and charming wit”, but he can’t seem to accept that that is the way his kid is, and instead characterizes this behavior as something intrinsic to gayness. There are, apparently, no asocial or surly gay people.

So he talks about gay genes (or “male loving genes” on the X chromosome) and handwaves to justify all kinds of genetic associations. He also latches on the buzzword du jour, epigenetics, and turns that into an argument about intent.

Epigenetics chooses from among these [genetic programs] to determine which version of you is actually the best fit to the environment

Yikes. Substitute “god” for “epigenetics” and the teleology is more apparent, but it’s the same thing. Now epigenetics is an entity making decisions for you, and it always knows best.

And then there’s this stream of nonsense…

Nature devised homosexuality as a prescription for birth control

How does that work? An all-knowing Nature looks ahead and sees that your population is growing too fast, so as an alternative to making your generation stop breeding, it sterilizes the next generation? This is bad evolutionary biology. The rationale is nonsensical, too: you see, Nature is worried that your family might get too large, so it flips epigenetic switches on some of your kids so that they won’t produce grandchildren.

This one will not be overburdening the clan with yet more mouths to feed in the next generation

Aaaargh. Well, gosh, if Nature has a plan for your clan, what’s with the fidgeting around and making gay mouths to overburden you right now? Why not just go straight to spontaneous abortion? Oh, it’s because gay people are nicer.

He’s not going to be killing his brother in a fight over who gets the girl

Why would you expect that heterosexual children would kill each other over mates? Why would you expect that homosexual children would be free of jealousy and conflict? I have two brothers, and I never felt the urge to kill them for their women (they’re still alive, I didn’t murder them, so you can ask them). I’ve known gay people who were real assholes; there are gay people who voted for Trump. They’re not paragons, they’re human beings, with all the attributes of complicated individuals.

But I have to save the worst for last. This guy who believes in the extreme power of natural selection to optimize human populations for survival doesn’t like the idea of a “struggle for existence”, which is OK, Darwin didn’t much care for that phrase or “survival of the fittest” either. But then he substitutes a different misleading phrase: a snuggle for existence.

Cue projectile vomiting. Oh, look, it’s rainbow-colored!


  1. rietpluim says

    Also note the implicit bias in “error”.
    He accepted his son as he is, but apparently still needs a reason to do so.

  2. Zeppelin says

    I suppose being put on a metaphorical pedestal would be an interesting change of pace from being presumed a paedophilic anal sex maniac, if nothing else. Maybe gay men can be the congenitally gentle, nurturing ones now that women are gaining the right to a self-determined personality. It’s a step.

  3. says

    It would be nice if he spent a few moments pondering what his “must-justify-kid’s-existence” is doing to his son. Can’t be pleasant, watching a parent so desperately digging about for any specious reason for his son being on the planet.

  4. handsomemrtoad says

    Isn’t there an argument to be made–I seem to recall reading it somewhere–that an inbred tribe of primitive evolving humans might be more likely to succeed, persist, and pass its genome on, if a small subset of its members were less likely to breed, and therefore freer to assume leadership roles? The commune-ome (common parts of the members’ genomes) might get a selection-benefit from causing a natural elite-subclass, free from the distractions of parenthood.

    I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s at least not obviously stupid, at least, it doesn’t seem so to me.

    Then again, anthropology, and the genetic basis of family-structure (if any), is not my field.

  5. Artor says

    Oy vey! I feel sorry for this guy’s kid. How “accepting” is he really, if this is how he reacts?

  6. cartomancer says

    Perhaps he should hang out with some bitter, misanthropic and unpleasant gay people in order to disabuse himself of the notion that we’re all sweetness and rainbows. I would offer my services, but being bitter, misanthropic and unpleasant I don’t want to.

    Mind you, I am an undeniably rubbish gay, so there might be something to this…

  7. cartomancer says

    Interestingly, the idea that the gayness might be a form of birth control goes back to at least Plato. In his Nomoi (Laws) one of the speakers tells the story of King Minos of Crete, who was apparently the first to promote gay sex as a way to stop the population of his kingdom getting out of hand. Plato’s theory is better than this guy’s though, because King Minos actually could come up with a plan for the future, where “nature” couldn’t.

  8. Mark Dowd says

    Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that homosexuality is genetically influenced.

    Let us further assume that it is completely maladaptive, with no evolutionary benefit and the obvious downside of reducing the chance of the homosexual human reproducing.

    What do these facts imply about how we should treat gay people?

    Answer: Absolutely fuck all.

    This is why I no longer give an answer to the “do you believe homosexuality is a choice?” question when people have asked me. In the context of a scientific discussion about the developmental psychology the only answer I can give is “I don’t know, but it would be incredibly interesting to know.”. More often, the context is about public policy, particularly discrimination. And in that context the answer I give is “It doesn’t matter”.

    I repeat: the “nature vs. nurture” dichotomy DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER when it comes to evaluating a harmless activity, and it’s irritating that the question implies it does. Even if it’s 100% choice, bigoted discrimination against gays would be just as petty and evil as discrimination against knitting.

    You’re son is gay. That’s fine. It’s not good or bad, it’s fine. You don’t need to justify your acceptance.

  9. says

    Is it inherent in people named James O’Keefe to make terrible videos full of bad arguments that are harmful to people? I suspect evolution has an answer to this…

  10. weylguy says

    This guy’s TED talk has inspired me to find out why my two adult sons turned out heterosexual. Perhaps there’s a built-in genetic factor that I haven’t considered, because my sons just aren’t as kind and caring as gays are. Is it too late to turn them around? I gotta know!

  11. inflection says

    Well, at least he’s trying. And I’m willing to be patient with a dude who’s clearly doing it to be kind and loving.

    Also, “snuggle for existence” is a nice turn of phrase. I think I’ll use it to talk about how eusociality helps humans survive.

  12. says

    To be fair while the guy is wrong the mainstream of LG rights activism is complete obsessed with a biological justification for homosexuality. It’s wrong from the likes of the HRC as well. More to the point, however, is that this sort of argument is dangerous. If it was conclusively, with Cartesian certainty, that gay people are 100% biologically determined to be gay the Christian right and the les deplorables will simply dig their heels in to insist that homosexuality is an illness. This sort of research, at this point, should not be done. It may get people killed. It certainly will get people tortured.

    I hate, hate, hate, how the “born this way” argument is deployed by everyone. It has fuck all to do with the moral/political questions at hand. It’s a brute fact that I and other queer people exist. My own autonomy and order liberty is all that I need to justify my choices about whom I form intimate relationships with.

    (some) Gay people’s obsession with the “born this way” argument is embarrassing. It reminds me of the HRC (and others) being annoyed that the Trump administration removed questions about being LGBT from the census. As if it is prudent to mark yourself as queer to this administration. The Left’s belief in the inherent good faith operation of people is going to get people killed.

  13. unclefrogy says

    another example of someone using rationalization to try to justify and integrate opposing ideas or beliefs they hold about reality without actually asking the hard questions needed to truly understand what the reality actually is.
    uncle frogy

  14. says

    Inflection @ 14:

    Well, at least he’s trying. And I’m willing to be patient with a dude who’s clearly doing it to be kind and loving.

    The whole problem is that he’s trying. He’s absolutely desperate to come up with any sort of justification for his child being on the planet, outside the regular one of “you had sex with, yadda yadda yadda, baby.” Anyone trying that damn hard has not accepted their child at all. He does not deserve credit for “trying”, and no, he’s not doing it to be kind and loving. How is it, in any way, kind and loving to treat his child like some sort of evolutionary freak, built for snuggles and love? For fuck’s sake, this is terribly damaging, and it not only removes agency from his son, but from all other people on the queer spectrum, who are as individual as everyone else, y’know, all those normal people.

    Excusing this sort of bullshit causes harm to us all. I certainly don’t want anyone condescendingly patting me on the head, mouthing off about how I was built for kindness to others. You’re likely to get your fucking face ripped off trying that with me. This shite also gives hetros yet another reason to think they are being all accepting, and in a scientific way, too! I’ll join PZ in the puking here. We don’t need more hetros acting all superior in their supposed acceptance.

  15. richardemmanuel says

    I bet he’d be amazed to learn, on his journey of discovery, that stupid people can breed. I wonder how long before he found an example.

  16. says

    The product of epigenetic phenomena is a kind of bias to feeling in my case. But then the underlying reality of that bais will be exposed to all the various developmental options during development for others who qualify for a TS diagnosis. You still get to think about the choices you make and choose better ones as you live. Factory settings are not so blunt and simple in how they manifest and present.

    That little collection of methyl group modifications, RNAs, and histone modifications creates a biological system and person that needs to respect no ancestral purpose or cause. We do what we want with it now. I’ll let people sort themselves and tell me and show me what their instincts are. “Who get’s the girl”? Why be as limited as the replication of our species? Boys and girls get to associate and bond with who they choose. Socially predatory routines should be identified and society should learn self-control of what currently leads to immoral social dominance postures meant to control the behavior of those with different anatomy.

    It’s great that he loves and accepts his son but this is not a healthy way mentally accommodate our biological diversity.

  17. mcfrank0 says

    No fair. You made me literally laugh out loud:

    “Cue projectile vomiting. Oh, look, it’s rainbow-colored!”

  18. oliversarmy says

    Homosexuality is genetically programmed altruism. Gays were designed by nature to help us be kind to one another

    Roy Cohn.

  19. mnb0 says

    “Nature devised homosexuality as a prescription for birth control.”
    Ah. That’s why my homosexual father had three kids (me and two sisters).

  20. says

    Gays were designed by nature to help us be kind to one another

    My gay BIL is literally one of the most selfish people I ever met who has no problem recruiting everybody for his projects without even wondering how to reimburse their costs, let alone thank them.
    I’m also 100% sure that this is completely independent of him being gay and due to the fact that he’s the spoilt rotten baby of the family.
    FFS, straight parents, your queer children aren’t your pet projects for demonstrating how great you are.

  21. snuffcurry says

    a snuggle for existence

    In addition to the preoccupation with “nice!” meaning sanitized and bloodless and primly stoic, this just reeks of a kind of benevolent gay panic, a discomfort with the notion of Gheys enjoying themselves and one another’s company in ways other than chastely kissing with closed mouths while turning the other cheek. (I’m assuming lesbians don’t exist for him because he doesn’t have a lesbian daughter, but if he did he’d resemble that Mallory Ortberg “As a Father of [lesbian] Daughters” dad). Dude needs to be introduced to “heavy tribbing for existence” and “power bottoming for existence,” pronto.

    As Caine at 18 says, the hyperbole in this performance is indicative of someone very uncomfortable with the existence of his son unless and until that existence can be transformed into a burden and curiosity that the dad hopes to use to make himself appear more interesting. This man relishes the idea of casting homosexuals as tools, long-suffering, selfless martyrs in his own personal war to convert homophobic souls to the cause. Willing to bet he thinks the ‘A’ in LGBTIAQ is for ‘ally.’ And, yes, the emphasis on “born this way” is, as it always is with well-meaning straight people, fucking creepy and prudish and fixated only one the sexual and physical components of orientation, convinced that homosex is aberrant, wildly different from hetsex*, and something nobody would ever willingly choose.

    Before mediocre straight people are given this kind of platform to ‘splain science-y gay things in future, they should be expected to do their homework and demonstrate a thoughtful and sophisticated familiarity with the science and the queer theory O’Keefe is badly butchering when not actively contradicting. TED talks like this are why the platform has grown so stale: dilettantes and inexperts riffing and bullshitting in the spirit of JAQing onto other people’s existences, unable or uninterested in providing the barest context to any portion of their argument that accidentally makes sense or is simply (unknown to them) common knowledge, treading very old ground in a very boring, shallow way, and offering up little that is novel or useful in the process beyond grand unified theories that, oddly enough, always end up proving their ‘gut’ feelings correct in ways that look hyper-rational and evidence-based but rarely are.

    *his casual bi-erasure as regards human reproduction speaks volumes

  22. chigau (違う) says

    is that typical of TED talks?
    ’cause I don’t think there is enough booze to get me through more than two

  23. DanDare says

    This concept of sexual preference makes me think of Star Trek Next Generation and Data’s emotion chip. As if emotions were just something that could be tacked on to intellect. It just isn’t that simple. Minds are complex and deeply integrated thingies.

  24. Florian Blaschke says

    Gay men can still reproduce, it just isn’t fun for them the way it is for the het dudes. And gay men are not universally femme (nice stereotype there, dude), and femmes are not universally kind.

    Anyway, if it was just about not reproducing and lacking distractions, aren’t asexuals (especially nonlibidoist or also sex-repulsed, perhaps even aromantic) the actual “master race” (ugh) then? But rather than kind, they are stereotyped as heartless freaks, frigid, broken or worse.

    I’ve recently been told that a consistent finding of sexological research is that most het-identified folks have bisexual tendencies that come to the fore in certain extreme situations (intoxication, long-term confinement to a homosocial environment), and those who remain “steadfast” are actually asexual. So Freund and Kinsey were actually right: People are “born bisexual (or pansexual)” and choose to be hetero!

    No wonder there is such a demand among het-identified men for pre-transition trans women, or people who pretend to be, in porn or RL sex: Because it allows you to watch, or have sex with, someone with a penis able to get erect and ejaculate, and stay free of guilt and shame for being interested in (what looks to the outside observer like) “gay sex”.

  25. Florian Blaschke says

    I meant of course Freud, not Freund. There’s an old hypothesis that even precedes Freud – it was most popular around 1900, but, as Hirschfeld pointed out then, had already been developed by Ulrichs in the 1860s – that a disposition or potential towards “hermaphroditism” is present in all humans to some degree initially, and only later it usually narrows and expresses in a differentiated way.

    What I like about this hypothesis is that it does not treat non-intersexuality, cisness and heterosexuality as the default – and shows how many scholars 100 years ago were even more open-minded in this respect than many contemporary scholars; of course, Ulrichs and Hirschfeld were themselves gay.

  26. Florian Blaschke says

    Ulrichs and Hirschfeld, in fact, insisted that the gender binary is a “fiction” – a social construct, we might say now – and that no single actually existing individual is 100% female or male. Considering how many gendered variables exist, it is difficult indeed to envision a human being who ticks all the “female” or respectively “male” boxes, without fail. Real people are vastly more complex than the binary stereotypes.