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Forget ‘the Gay Gene’ — Science has a New Explanation for Homosexuality

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Jimmy O'Keefe, son, kissing, girl, one year old, birthday party, homosexuality, babies, toddlers, cute

A picture of O’Keefe’s son Jimmy at his first birthday, ‘proof’ that he was gay since birth.

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.

gay, rainbow, people, genetics, population, 2 in 25, LGBT, lesbian, men, women, family

According to studies, O’Keefe says, approximately 2 in 25 Americans are gay or lesbian.

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.

  • clarknt67

    OK. This: “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”

    It’s concerning a man of science doesn’t understand the role recessive genes play in Darwin’s evolutionary model. It’s a common mistake. If the gay gene (if it exists) were shown to manifest directed into the next generation there would be some basis. But studies show weak if any correlation between gays having gay kids.

    Ergo, if the gay gene exists. It most likely is recessive and manifests a generation or two later, when a recessive sperm meets a recessive ova.

    Recessive genes come along for the ride and often skip a generation or two. So genetic traits that don’t directly impact an individual organize before the organism reproduces, well, they just don’t much chance to get weeded out. They get passed on into the collective gene pool.

    Humans carry millions of genetic traits that are neither harmful nor helpful to the survival of the species as a whole. They’re just there.

  • tresgamin

    You need to re-read the article. No mention was made of recessive genes as they have nothing to do with what the article is talking about.

    Even recessive genes would have died out at such low offspring rates.

    What this article describes are genes that are activated by hormones. Not the same as recessive genes at all.

  • Jens Grabarske

    There are cases of identical twins where one of the two is gay and the other straight.

  • catalanismo is hatred

    Trump and his deplorable white nationalists hate this interesting ideas

  • Wylie

    This would mean that there should be huge numbers of gays in Africa and Gaza where people survive only on hand outs.

  • Raymond Saint-Pierre

    And another addition along the epigenetic line of warrior bonding types is the guardian role of most early hominid social groupings.

  • Honeymaid

    That’s cute; I’m 1st born gay son in NO CONTACT with my family because they have no empathy or compassion so there goes that theory

  • Addison

    I’ve been saying this for years. You’re missing what he’s saying about HOW the gay gene comes into play. Decades ago, some scientist followed the children of German women who had been traumatized during WWII. He found that there seemed to be a higher incidence homosexuality, and the scientist proposed that stress on a pregnant woman would result in a “gay” adult. This makes sense: populations under stress need to diminish population growth. But how do you ensure that the associated genetics get passed – particularly if you are producing an organism that does not reproduce? EASY: you make sure the associated gene occurs in EVERY descendant on a regular basis – WITH THE STIPULATION BEING that the gene does not result in homosexuality ONLY if the stressful circumstances arise. So – we’re not talking about a recessive gene here.

  • Addison

    So – the truth is every fetus has the ability to turn out gay – it’s the circumstances and environment of the pregnant female that determine what the final outcome at birth is.

  • Leon Burke

    I’m sorry that your family are a bunch of jerks. My sympathy.

  • Tony Nada

    I think the intent of the article is that if they were smart enough to appreciate what you bring to the table i.e. compassion and empathy, the entire family would be better off. Their loss …

  • HenryJ

    It is merely an assumption (and perhaps a false one) that the genetic markers are turned on or off in a fetus due to stress (positive or negative stress). Truth is we yet don’t know why certain genetic markers get turned on or off in the womb. But, we do know through the study of epigenetic markers that most people who are gay are predisposed to be gay by the time they leave their mother’s womb. It could just be part of God’s exciting plan of creation for particular human beings.

  • Erich Pierce

    There might be, but because of the culture over in those places, those that are gay may be less likely to “come out” for fear of punishment.

  • Kelly Osborn

    Try rereading the article, or even watching the video. Clear out your presumptions and use a clear mind. If you still don’t get why your comment here is way off, then maybe catch up on epigenetic science a bit.

  • HenryJ

    Or maybe it is the will and wonderment of God that he divinely designs and creates a gay or lesbian child in the womb of the mother?

  • David Coyle

    In Arab countries, there is a huge homo-erotic (not gay) subculture where men have sex with other men because sex with women outside of marriage is unthinkable.

  • Jon Dumbelton

    Under this premise, one would expect to find homosexuals in both the highest population density & greatest resource scarcity areas: highest where too many compete for resources & lowest where fewer resources might require additional adults to care for fewer young. Neither case fits the observational data: nowhere in dense or in spare areas of Africa or India or China or Japan, or anywhere else that wasn’t a majority Christian first world democracy do we observe an increase in homosexuality (which still fails to be consistent with the genetic predictive models.) I’m a gay first born son & I appreciate my country for not persecuting me, but this genetic link idea fails both as predictive & as observable data.

  • ErnestSmyth

    Much of the stress in the United States, for example, may not be hunger or over-population related, rather may be work-related, particularly in capitalist countries where money is more important than family.

  • Elaine LaMacchia

    Eclectic BS.

  • Roy Edwards

    Can you read?

  • Roy Edwards

    Whats your problem, buttercup?

  • Jon Dumbelton

    Yes, that’s a source of stress as well, but my point remains that no other population on Earth exhibits large “outbreaks” of homosexuality in response to environmental stress as the original article predicts.

  • Ben Ben

    Andi staunchly catholic regions

  • Tara McInerney

    Actually the article doesn’t suggest outbreaks, but a genetic alteration as a result of continued resource scarcity. Epigenetics to DNA is like echoes to a cave. Not a hard and fast rule, not all will be affected, and they can “activate” a few generations later.

    In Tokyo, homosexuality and asexuality are in fact on the rise- and non-procreative sexual practices has famously lead to a decline in the Japanese population.

    Moreover, homosexuality in Japan and China in other areas is no more or less common than in the West, though the family sizes are much smaller which counteracts your claim.

  • mecchat

    ‘Catalanismo’, which I presume you mean to refer to the Catalonian desire for independence is NOT hatred.
    The hatred is Spanish refusal to let the great Catalonian people be free!

  • David Jones

    Exactly. This guy’s prenatal stressors within the family dynamic may be central to the outcome of his sexual orientation, among other things.

  • Joseph Mark

    “But, we do know through the study of epigenetic markers that most people who are gay are predisposed to be gay by the time they leave their mother’s womb.” but we don’t know that; there is no hard evidence for that. no gay gene has ever been found. the notion the gays are predisposed to be so is shaky at best.

  • Joseph Mark

    you are really attached to this idea.

  • Fiyero109

    Jon you’re not seeing the big picture….epigenetics can take a while to manifest. In a region where stressors are the norm, this won’t manifest…which is why Africa, India or China probably don’t see this

  • Kurt

    It’s an interesting concept. I don’t think there’s a single gene for homosexuality that gets flipped on or off. There’s probably one the initially makes the body male or female, and eventually one that triggers the brain to let give it a female or male dominant mind, and yet another one for sexual attraction. That would explain the diversity we have with people feeling in the wrong body, yet still being attracted to the opposite sex.

  • Day Sleeper

    Same here … first born and no contact with my family either for the same reasons listed in your comment Honeymaid

  • Rita Thomas

    I remember hearing many years ago, maybe 20, that there had been studies that had shown higher percentages of gays in populations where there had been measurable pre-natal stressers like war and famine.

  • Jeremy Michaels

    One exception to a rule doesn’t invalidate a theory. The world doesn’t revolve around you and your family.

  • Michel Belley

    La sexualité est bien davantage influencée par les sociétés que par les gênes (ou les modifications épigénétiques). L’histoire montre qu’il y a eu plusieurs sociétés, comme les anciens grecs et les musulmans du 17e siècle, qui pratiquaitent la pédérastie à grande échelle. Chez les guerriers azandés, on homme épouse un jeune garçon jusqu’à ce qu’il ait assez de possessions pour pouvoir divorcer et commencer à avoir un harem de femmes. Les grecs étaient pédérastes, mais se mariaient et avaient des enfants. L’ethnologie montre la diversité des pratiques sexuelles ainsi que leurs variation au cours de la vie. L’homosexualité exclusive semble être une invention moderne! Pour référence: Handman, M. É. (2008), L’anthropologue et le système sexe/genre, Connexions, 90 (2), p. 77-85.

  • interesting idea.
    Maybe not a switch even as much as a dial.

  • Griff Jim Griffith

    Your assessment misses an important point: In many countries like those on the African continent, or India or China or Japan, the stigma against homosexuality is so strong and so deeply embedded in the culture, that accurate empirical evidence (the percentage of the population that is homosexual) is difficult to determine since most gay people living in those societies are loath to admit, never mind talk about, their own orientation. So the predictive and observable data with regards to the percentages of homosexuals for the populations of each country are at best, under estimated.

  • Solonge

    I think the theory works fine, its human nature that doesn’t work just fine. How anyone turns their back on their own kids is beyond me. Love from parent to child should be a given, no matter what.

  • Solonge

    Hugely underestimated. If you look at the West where homosexuality is legal, there is still a large percentage of Gay people who choose not to come out, many marrying the opposite sex and trying to be straight for years. Much to do with upbringing of course, but if Gay people do this in accepting cultures, I am sure it is an enormous number that deny their nature in less accommodating cultures.

  • Solonge

    Of course…but would you come out if you knew you would then receive imprisonment or torture?

  • Harry Carter

    Not for nothing but why try to explain it? Why not try to explain that before the Old testament became the major religion of choice across the country, bisexuality was normal… Men for pleasure, women for procreation… Sheesh! Some people like sex with different and/or same sexed people… Get over it.

  • Cliff Choice

    Diseases are natural across recorded history too.

  • Stephen Floyd

    so are man made religions

  • Khan Wong

    In the societies you mention, is it a case of no increase in homosexuality, or no increase in people coming out? Not the same thing.

  • Dani

    Excuse me – I’m in total support of wherever anyone falls on the gender scale. I appreciate your passionate approach and I’m sorry about how you get treated. If queers are equal to everyone else – then they do bad things too. I know it’s something awful to think about it – and the numbers probably aren’t 50/50 but queers can commit all the same crimes as straights. Either we are equal or not – we can’t have it both ways. I also believe in a God – the God I believe in isn’t bigoted, hateful, or anti-queer. I can’t put myself in your place and I won’t try to – but please. Don’t tell me someone’s a good person just because their queer, or that someone’s bigoted just because they believe in a higher power. That’s exactly the kind of double standard society needs to get rid of.

  • wendell

    I have an uncle theory of my own. The uncle molests his nieces or nephews and the nieces become lesbian and the nephews become lovers of manly-kind.

  • Mark G

    Interesting. Editing note, though – his ideas present a “hypothesis,” not a “theory.”

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    Sorry to hear that.

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    Sorry to hear that too.

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    That was the case in ancient Greece and Rome as the culture was very male dominated and women were seen as inferior and their “purpose” was to produce babies/heirs and clean and cook. They had little role or input into “public” life, so men going with men was more of a cultural behaviour- male- male intimacy was seen as superior to male-female intimacy. Interesting thought- I wonder if there were quite a few men who preferred women for “pleasure” too but had to hide that fact as going with men was seen as superior?

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    I have heard that too- maybe having more gay men would be nature’s way of bringing more “compassionate” and caring men who might be less likely to be aggressive and want to go to war?

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    Kurt one for orientation/attraction is an interesting theory.

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    I appreciate a lot of your comments and some good points raised about the appalling treatment of gay people that have gone and do go on. However, I must disagree with the comment that gay fellas are doing wives a favour- cheating on a woman is unfair. If a man prefers men he should not get married to woman- this results in a lot of heartbreak and even a family break up. Unless she is one of those rare women who is in an open marriage and can have her own affairs as well and likes that. And us ladies can pleasure men very well too. 😉

  • John Charles Sanders

    So if I follow this logic then does the homophobic stress of homosexuality being illegal or held negatively in society create the epigenetic underpinnings and stressors 4 people and mothers that actually unfurl the production of homosexuality? The idea being that we create but we defend against so the harder we push against something the more of that thing we actually get?

  • catalanismo is hatred

    where are you from?

    I am from Catalona and I always will be Spanish, most of catalonians are very hapy to be Spanish

    you monster trumpzombie

  • Jordan Joel

    The idea of a homosexual identity is already a western perspective, so applying this to cultures with ancient histories outside of the west is limiting. I feel the “loath” that you referring to specifically in regard to China and Japan are post western colonial influences. In fact both China and Japan have rich recorded histories of same sex love, even if a “homosexual identity” was not part of it. In many written and documented stories from the east dating as far back as 500 BCE, same sex love was acknowledge and neither scored nor favored. In many cases same sex love was seen as an advantageous family disposition. So James O’Keefe’s study does in many ways link up with how same sex love has revealed itself through histories, and in different cultural roots. That being said, O’Keefe studies are young and much more work is of course needed to understand roles of various identities and behaviors on people, family, and civilization.

  • Winston Statehill

    A theory is: “the best **available** explanation”. It will remain the leading explanation until a better explanation replaces it. There are always exceptions to every rule. You are an exception. That you are an exception does not nullify the rule. You, yourself, report a family situation that is FILLED with stressors. O’Keefe’s theory says these are the very kinds of stress that produce us gay boys. So, you’re not really a stranger to the theory.

  • Cialus Surian

    Mother Nature, Gaia or w/e you want to call it requires balanace. 7 billion people in the world is completely unbalanced. How does nature compensate? More people are gay/lesbian. And for all the religious nutjobs that believe it’s against god’s will are just that, nut jobs. It is natural.

  • Kees

    The ‘I am the first born and my family turned their back on me’ doesnt invalidate the theory. For one thing there are always exceptions, secondly there might be factors we havent understood yet and third: people do not always take the right decisions now do they (as in shunning the gay son).

    Whether the theory fully explains everything… I do not think so. It seems to be slightly more valid for gay men then for gay women, but again… that might be due to the fact we dont know all the factors yet.

    Sure, there are families with say two daughters… who are both gay.. where is the advantage in that? Well maybe due to famine of the mother, her body decided it was better not to have any grandchildren.

    But it is the same as with smoking. Smoking kills you before your time, but everybody has this one uncle who smoked 2 packs a day, only ate bacon and eggs and lived to well in his 90-ies

  • Kees

    glad to see someone understanding the prenatal stressors and having an open mind to other factors that might be key in turning the gene on

  • Kees

    Well said

  • Kees

    It is that you mention it, but I got the impression that e.g. the Philippines has a lot more gays than my NW european home country

  • Kees

    Culture surely plays a role in the official “number” of homosexuals in a certain population. As someone once told me: “In Turkey we do not have homosexuals, we kill them all” yes, with that attitude I can imagine the offical number of homosexuals is low, but also in countries where it isnt seen as an ‘issue’ at all, the ‘official number’ might be very low as well, simply because nobody does any counting

  • Kees

    I think ‘outbreak’ is hard to quantify, but I have seen dogs in heat try to mount anything. From my leg to a car tire to another male dog

  • Kees

    There is no judgement in trying to explain something. We have scientists trying to explain the universe. Why? what is it bringing to us. On the other hand we have TV programs focussing on the clothes some celebrity was wearing.
    We discuss feminism, LGBT, world peace and life in the oceans, so why is suddenly discussing the possible origins of homosexuality something to ‘get over’

  • Kees

    very true and it might as well be a matter of a ‘straight gene’ that is not turned on. But if you see a ‘gene’ as an inheritable quality that in DNA terms might consist of a number of ‘allels’ on several ‘loci’ then yes, you are right on the money

  • Kees

    best answer yet 🙂

  • Kees

    Let me just state what I heard some English guy say after he had sex with a she-male in Bangkok: “I am not gay, I just like playing with a fat dick when I fuck someone in the ass”
    Kind of a flexible notion on what gay is I guess

  • Kees

    I am not religious at all, but I understand that at least in the christian notion, god has a ‘divine plan’ for everyone. So on religious grounds saying that it is against gods will is basically saying: “hey god, you screwed up your plan”
    Also… though I dont want toi turn it into a religious discussion… if it really was ‘against god’s will’ then I am sure he would be capable of handling it himself, rather than have some zaleous nut jobs do they judging for him

  • Nealbo

    Gays like the FoMoCo Edsel are much maligned. The Edsel was actually was quite an advanced car that got a lot of bad press. Likewise, gays for the most part are good people who also get bad press. However, many gays have contributed greatly to science, art, music, entertainment, fashion and much more. The computers we use every day rest on the foundations calculated by numerous gay (and straight) men in the 1930s and 40s. Gays and lesbians enormously contribute bettering this world. Other than who we choose to love, we’re pretty much like everyone else.

  • Christopher Carr

    I would be inclined to first thoroughly explore the phenomenon as an occasional consequence of an atypical womb environment — a change in the mother’s immune system from carrying multiple sons, or external stressors, or just chance — before resorting to some sort of adaptive, kin theoretical explanation. Not all traits are adaptive.

    But even if it’s more a developmental “glitch” than an adaptation, it’s certainly *natural*.

  • Marc Pleau

    its like the Red Hair gene….whether it gets expressed or not…depends on several factors. But like the Red hair gene, it can never go extinct, simply cause Red men or Gay men dont have offspring. that part of the article is just dumb.

  • yachty

    Totally stupid…..I had one older brother who was married 2x before his death at 51 and we were total opposites. He was Mr. Butch with no class at all and we came from a good family. I on the other hand had a perfect room, clothing was always perfect and when I received my Porsche for my 16th birthday it was always washed and kept like new.