February 3, 2006

Politically incorrect fashion III: Gayness

In this last installment, we investigate the gay impact in the fashion world. Why are gay designers the bane of those who want to discredit the notion that gay men tend to be more effeminate than straights? Just what makes a male gay anyways? Are gay men more artistically gifted on average than straight men? If so, is that due to whatever causes their homosexuality? And so on. Soon in this blog, we will tie together some of the threads in this series into an argument for creativity being just another "flavor" of g, not another general factor alongside it.

First, fashion is a gay field, not merely homosexual. And these are not just any gay men -- they evoke images of "girly" gay men, for example Carson Kressley from Queer Eye. Is this just because they conform to the role society expects them to play? Not at all. As we mentioned before, men have greater visuospatial (VS) skills than women, reflecting differences in exposure to testosterone in utero. But that's not all, as VS skills peak at a testosterone level somewhat below the male median (yet significantly above the female median). Therefore, if males are screened for high VS levels, they will be more feminine than average. The same goes for straights: back in high school, did the arty kid who was always drawing strike you as having testosterone levels like the jocks who beat him up? More masculine than feminine, for sure, but definitely feminized for a guy.

But hold on, just what makes a guy gay in the first place? Any discussion of patterns among gays must take this into account. While the answer is not known, available evidence suggests Paul Ewald & Gregory Cochran's hypothesis that it is caused by a microorganism ("gay germ"). The basic logic is simple: homosexuality causes a huge fitness cost (gays have ~80% fewer kids than straights), has been around for at least several hundred years, and shows up in ~3% of all men. If it were caused by genes, they would be rapidly selected out so that it only showed up on the order of 1 per 10,000 (the highest random mutation rate in humans) unless 1) homosexuality compelled gay men to raise at least twice as many nieces & nephews as a straight man raises children (thus ensuring that copies of their genes make it into the future), or 2) it protected single carriers from some nasty infection.

As for 1), there is no evidence empirical or anecdotal for this view; if anything, gay men appear less eager to raise a family than straight men. As for 2), the infection protected against would have to be on the same order of nastiness as falciparum malaria, yet it would have to strike large swaths of Europe & North America. There is currently no evidence that single carriers of the purported gay gene(s) are protected from this purported disease. That leaves environmental causes, and since homosexuality predates exposure to modern toxins like tobacco, a microorganism is the most likely source. Also, more often than not, when one identical twin is gay, the other is not. Another popular environmental biological hypothesis, relating to sex hormones in utero, may account for some but far from all cases of male homosexuality. See more detail from Cochran here and here (pdf), as well as this summary by Steve Sailer. There is no direct evidence of infection (largely because such research would never be funded), but there is plenty of indirect evidence, something lacking in alternative theories. One need not have to have isolated the precise gene that causes Sickle Cell to recognize the pattern of how it shows up in families, pointing to a genetic cause.

All that said, when I checked my list of 13 super-elite gay & probably gay male designers (i.e., gay but never came out, as opposed to of unknown sexuality), only 8 were born in winter (Dec-Feb) or spring (Mar-May), the seasons during which infection in infants is most likely. And because my Canon list is not perfect, even this meager result could be a fluke. This replicates a negative result for seasonality among gay male births run by a reader of Steve's website (here, Ctrl F "setback"). However, as Cochran noted in response, this only shows that the probable infection doesn't strike right after birth; because gayness shows up before puberty, that still leaves almost a decade to be exposed. So, seasonality of births is sufficient to suspect infection (as with schizophrenia), but not necessary.

Then might this microorganism have an effect elsewhere in the brain, partially boosting their creativity? Before answering this, we must sketch our concept of what creativity is, an outline which we will fully flesh out soon in this blog. Common definitions posit that creativity is the ability to devise novel uses for existing creations, or to solve an unsolved problem by thinking unconventionally. In our view, the conceivable solutions to a given problem form an unbounded, very rugged landscape, with valleys & peaks representing unsatisfactory & satisfactory solutions, respectively. Due to finite cognitive resources, attention to detail when observing the landscape is restricted by a "spotlight" defined by a center and radius (roughly, focus and scope, respectively), both hardwired by natural selection (via the Baldwin Effect) to make solving problems quick & good enough rather than baroque. A flexibility constant for the center (FC-C) describes how far the spotlight's center may stray from the instinctual cue -- a lower FC-C indicates low tolerance for deviation from instinct (mediated by a negative feedback loop), while a higher FC-C indicates high tolerance for novelty. A similar FC-R describes how tolerant the system is of deviation from the built-in setting for the radius.

The FC-C of creative individuals is high; they are thus weakly attracted to the "obvious" solution, thereby freeing them to focus on other regions. Their FC-R is also high, more weakly stuck to the "narrow scope" setting, thereby illuminating even more of the surrounding landscape. Able to survey more of the terrain, creative people are able to spot local maxima that are higher than the local maxima noted by ordinary people -- in particular, creative people locate local maxima that ordinary people would never roam near because the latter's spotlight cannot show them that beyond the vast valley they perceive in some direction, there is actually a higher peak. This ability to perceive what others cannot is what inspires awe: "How on Earth did a human being ever think that up?"

We illustrate this with the top two designs from episode 8 of Project Runway. The challenge was the strongest test of creativity so far: each designer had to explore Manhattan, snap photos of anything that inspired them, choose one, and design a garment around the idea. Totally open-ended. The winning design, by Daniel Vosovic, was "Japanese sleekness" (pic here), a narrow stretch tweed skirt suggesting a minimalist vase he'd seen, and a silk organza top evoking the orchid bud he saw in the vase (distinct from merely copying the bud into a floral pattern print). It looked more wearable on TV, but again the purpose was to showcase their creativity. The lost-by-a-hair design, by Andrae Gonzalo, was "Dirty gutter water" (pic here), which despite the name was not performance art. His inspirational photo was of gutter water that created beautiful colors when struck by the sunlight, and whose jagged concrete pebbles glistened like jewels. I'm not kidding -- it was a pretty picture. He designed an evening gown cut on the bias and used a toned down yet seductive color palette, with some asymmetrically placed metallic pieces to suggest the "jewels." Again, it looks more stunning on TV since you can see the full length of it, and as the judges remarked, it looked like it cost far more than the $100 budget.

In their comments, the judges noted that both were beautifully conceived & executed, the only difference being that the orchid design took inspiration from an unnoticed yet typically beautiful thing (orchids in a vase), whereas the dirty gutter water dress began with something repulsive and transformed it into something beautiful without being overly sentimental. Neither was too literal, nor an obvious approach -- in fact, the judges berated Kara and Zulema for finding obvious solutions. For comparison, if an average person and a superb composer were to create a piece inspired by a fish, the former might tape-record the sound of actual falling water and the sound of fish swimming through a stream, whereas only the latter would devise a figurative fish-swimming-through-water melody (as Schubert did in his Trout Quintet). While the tape recording of fish swimming may soothe us, only the Trout inspires a sense of awe.

It will shock no one to learn that both Daniel & Andrae are gay white men. Indeed, of the 8 males selected to be on the show, 7 are gay white men. All of the male judges / mentors have been gay & white. And to reiterate from the post on sex differences, gay men are ~22 to 36 times overrepresented in the elite Level 3 of the fashion world. So the question is: is this overrepresentation more than we would expect given only that they are white men? That is, does being gay boost their creativity? Unfortunately, we have no quantitative way of figuring out how much is due to straight men with high VS skills staying away from fashion for personality & temperment reasons (and thus flocking to architecture), and how much is due to putative differences in creativity. In 100 years or so, the data may be in, but as of now, we remain agnostic. We know they are no less creative than straights, reflecting the fact that creativity is likely another secondary "flavor" of g, and as far as we know homosexuality doesn't depress IQ. My experience suggests a slightly higher expected value for gay male IQ. As a thought experiment, imagine you are asked to guess the IQ of a randomly chosen Af-Am male. Your expected value would be ~85, the population median for Af-Am males. But what if you were updated that he was also gay? Would your expected value remain the same, indicating independence of homosexuality and IQ within a race? My answer is that it would increase somewhat (~5 points), but I'm not sure how much consenus there would be on this puzzle.

Let's suppose it does turn out that gay men have slightly higher IQ, or the same IQ but a higher sub-score on creativity. How would that fit in with the "gay germ" theory? Well, the very fact that gay men are no dumber than straights shows that the bug has highly localized effects, though in an interconnected brain these subtle changes may result in larger discrepancies with straights. One of Cochran's ideas is that the bug just changes the search image in the program for finding mates -- by all cog sci accounts, that "module" of our mind has plenty of sophisticated, hard-wired machinery, part of which has to be some search image, lest we waste time courting cats or rocks. The strong version: the gay germ resets the location of where the center of the spotlight focuses when solving the problem of who to court -- it is still narrow in radius, FC-C & FC-R are still low (gays can't budge themselves into hetereo territory), but the spotilght is focused on the "male" rather than "female" region of the terrain. By contrast, bisexuality would result from tweaking the dial for the radius to encompass multiple regions of the terrain simultaneously. (Though in men, bisexuality is likely rare among non-straights.) This shift in focus could be inherited in other problem landscapes -- gay men would be compelled to focus on areas straights are not. However, the shift in focus could only apply to a narrow subset of problems the person must solve. For example, if the shift were allowed to apply to food, gay men might spend most of their time trying to eat dirt & glass, ignoring healthy foodstuffs. The shift would only occur in the cluster of problems directly linked to the basic one of finding a mate -- creativity in art, etc. would be analyzed as conspicuous secondary sex characteristics, somewhat like Geoffrey Miller has proposed, and thus directly linked to mate acquisition.

If this sounds too fanciful, a weaker form says that gay men demonstrate compromised immune systems w.r.t. at least one microorganism that affects the brain, so perhaps they are more likely to be so infected by similar brain bugs, one of which tweaks the defaults for the center, radius, FC-C, FC-R, or any combination. That may sound odd, but before long on this blog, we will argue that "mad genius" is in part the result of an early infection. We already know from behavior genetics that somewhere around 50% of the variation in intelligence & personality is explained by differences in the "non-shared" or "unique" part of the environment, which includes things like exposure to the limitless bugs that inhabit our world and colonize our bodies. We also have solid evidence from rats that toxoplasma gondii, when it reaches their brains, either "switches off" or "dials down" their instinctual fear of the smell of cat urine, resulting in an otherwise normal rat but which doesn't run away when it smells its natural predator nearby. I'm not suggesting t. gondii is the "gay germ," mind you.

That said, my take is that whether or not they are more creative, gay men are certainly more industrious in following their calling. One common theme in recent intellectual history is that the world of fine arts -- particularly the visual arts -- has been going down the shitter since World War II. And not just accidentally & helplessly but by deliberately self-eviscerating. Take this representative quote from abstract expressionist Barnett Newman's 1948 The Sublime is Now: "The impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty." He was no Dadaist prankster. Still, his verbal formulation of the sublime replacing the beautiful -- despite being a sexy slogan -- resulted in some of the most sterile art ever conceived. Imagine going to the modern wing of your local Big Gallery (for me, the National Gallery) and seeing this, one of 12 nearly identical canvasses from Newman's Stations of the Cross, which occupy a large room all to themselves. See footnote [1] for my tangential rant on Newman. Though I won't elaborate on the point, much the same could be said of lots of Big Names in modern architecture w.r.t. their views on beauty.

Whether or not a new generation of artists decides to rescue beauty, for the many decades during which the art world has lain comatose, a group of designers both famous and anonymous have continued to emphasize beauty: fashion designers and interior designers, disproporionately gay men. Only time will tell what their role has been -- whether to mostly preserve & somewhat innovate with the classics, like Arab & Jewish scholars did with Greek classics until Renaissance scholars took them in entirely new directions, or whether these gay male designers will themselves prove to be the Renaissance figures. In any event, for right now they're far and away the only game in town if you're bored of burdensome, belaboring beauty-bashing.

To conclude on that note, what are we then to make of theories such as those of Rodney Stark and Charles Murray who posit that in order for creative people to realize their full potential, a necessary condition may be some kind of monotheistic religion that stresses that one's purpose in life is to use God's gifts (such as intelligence) in order to please him? Part of this argument stemmed from the observation that when individuals see less divine purpose in life, creative output per unit of population declines: the peak during the Renaissance sank steadily unto the nadir of the secular 20th C. Again, only time will reveal how religious these gay male designers were, but the elite members don't seem particularly devout -- not only due to antipathy toward homosexuality in the Catholic church (remember, these Big Names are largely French & Italian), but due to their larger emphasis on living la dolce vita, God or no God. So, while the strong form of the monotheistic argument seems false, a weaker version may be true, namely that for creativity to flourish, people must see a purpose in life, regardless of who or what is telling them what their purpose is.

[1] It is the most hilarious thing to watch visitors when they end up in Stations room -- they don't want to just walk right through lest they be condemned as philistines by the art snobs peering at them through hidden cameras, yet with no other canvasses within pacing distance, they have little choice but to plod through this gauntlet of reciprocal blank stares. This is not an unrepresentative work -- it is considered the peak of Newman's oeuvre and is intended to be a memorial to Holocaust victims. Typical of medicore artists, the actual work is pedestrian, and only the verbal (rather than visual) dexterity of the artist saves it from oblivion with clever titles and linguistic bullshitting when explaining it. Despite his pretensions to humility and meditation, Newman's ego was as limitless and featureless in its expanse as his yawning, barren canvasses. Thumbing his nose at aesthetics, he remarked that the study "is for artists what ornithology is for birds." Perhaps a more apt analogy from zoology would be that abstract expressionists of Newman's stripe are for the art world what the zippy, hanger-on pup is for the nonchalant, majestic bulldog in cartoons ("Heh heh heh heh heh, whadda we gonna do today boss? Heh heh heh heh?"). And if he's correct that "A painter is a choreographer of space" -- and I think he is -- then it would appear that someone has drugged his ballerinas with horse tranquilizers. Lest others think I'm being unfair to a nonconformist, Newman's approach is merely facile. To borrow an image from music, if we plotted melodic skill vs harmonic skill, some artists score high on one & low on the other, some score high on both, but Newman's data point would barely be distanced from the origin in any direction. His is no Zen monk's watercolor, bonsai tree, ikebana arrangement, or other form that truly emphasizes harmony.


  1. That is fascinating; especially the aspect in which high-VS is said to be optimized with somewhat feminized males. Possibly maximal VS is a gatherer ability. Hunters and scouts in strange terrain are sometimes most superior who can remember their way back. This may involve the imaginative rotation that is called central to VS ability. If I'm in such a situation, I would remember to keep looking back, so as to know what the place looks like from the opposite approach.
    In terms of gay pathogen parasite manipulation, very high fitness costs to hosts imply very high efficiency of horizontal transmission. One host would have to infect others, who were then pushed towards maximizing transmission.
    Wouldn't this generate epidemics, and variable prevalences locally? Why should it stabilize, at a level that would prevent a culturally or genetically less susceptible group from invading the area of another?
    Tolerance of homosexuality appears to be higher in groups which have been expanding their land occupation most rapidly long term. Populations associated with mining and seafaring, may have more tolerance of homosexuality, as if they could've better afforded
    the fitness cost.

  2. If a gay pathogen could exist most easily among a population with the highest percentage of explorers, who were gaining new ground; then perhaps cartographic art would be expected to be one of the more gay-influenced genres. Actually, though, this genre seems to be one of the most masculine and heterosexual of arts and their genres, along with architecture. Gay influence appears to be associated with the largest cities, which fits with transmission efficiency.

  3. I'm really enjoying this series.

    Any thoughts on the theory outlined in Jim McKnight's "Straight Science" that homosexuality might have evolved as a frequency-dependent balance polymorphism, with "homosexually enabled straight men" (charmers) enjoying a marginal fitness advantage so that exclusively gay men get a genetic free ride? If you're interested, a good summary of McKnight's thinking can be found on page 103 of the Routledge paperback.

  4. Chip, here is how I'd make the argument.

    Some aspects of gay male personality are different from straight men in ways that women like: gay men are emotionally expressive, like to dance, are concerned with their appearance, and if we believe some studies have larger penises than straight men. You can probably think of others.

    I think it isn't that gay men are a side effect of an adaptation to being better cads, but a side effect of an adaptation to being better cads. It might go a way to explain why people used to think that boys became homosexuals because dad left mom. Dad left mom because he and his big weiner were out womanizing.

    I'll put my probably dumb bet that 25% chance of being genetic, 75% of being very specific brain damage. I won't discount my just so story without studies showing that the straight brothers of gay men don't have more premarital sex partners and more affairs after marriage.

    The big flaw is that the traits women most like in short term relationships, height and athletic ability, seem lower in gay men.

    Is this pretty much what McKnight said?

  5. Well, I'm smart enough not to bet against Gregory Cochran. And your off-the-cuff summary isn't bad. But the big flaw you point out might not sink McKnight's theory, which is framed, if I recall correctly, so that the charm factor emerges as a kind of counter strategy to the optimal mate-type, i.e., the ones boasting superior height, athletic ability, etc. By exhibiting peripherally female-valued traits such as social status, charm, and verbal intelligence, the "homosexually enabled heterosexual" gains enough of a niche in the mate market to maintain a marginal dynasty in the genetic stakes. Once such traits reach an equilibrium, and homozygously gay men become more conspicuous in the population, the marginal advantage becomes devalued so that the classically favored pure heterosexual types regain favor, and the social-genetic mechanisms maintaining a fluctuating balance play out anew. I am in no position to evaluate the plausibility of this theory, but McKnight -- who is highly critical of Wilson's ideas about kin selection -- is emphatic that the genetic math adds up.

    Also, there is the whole business about Hamer's "overloving gene," which might favor higher rates of fecundity in women and be passed from mothers to sons where its homosexual expression is but a noisy genetic dead-end. Some evidence in support of this idea may be found in a recent study claiming to show that women with more maternally-linked homosexual relatives tend to have siginificantly more children than women in the maternal line of heterosexuals (see Camperio-Ciani A, Corna F, Capiluppi C. Evidence for maternally inherited factors favouring male homosexuality and promoting female fecundity. Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 271:2217-21).

    I don't mean -- and am not qualified -- to argue that either of these ideas is more likely to prevail than germ theory. Rather, I would suggest that they are more worthy of consideration than Wilson's nostrum about gay uncles, which was an interesting first shot, but empirically doomed. (My difference-splitting hunch, for what its worth, is that when and if the etiological mysteries are solved, it will turn out that different types of homosexuality yield to different causes.)

    On a related note, isn't it interesting that while PC orthodoxy on this subject reflexively favors the view that homosexuality is innate, very few intellectuals seem interested in exploring how such a genetically puzzling predisposition might have come to be? It's fun to contrast with the perennial "controversies" over sex differences, where the evidence is robust and the PC default position is reversed.

  6. Lindsey,

    For a good overview of the science, check out Michael Bailey's book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, the complete text of which is available free online at:


    Bailey is a fun writer, and he's good at pointing out the special interpretive problems that arise where the study of homosexuality is concerned. For example, while there is indeed research showing a relationship between adult homosexuality and childhood abuse, assigning a causal role to the incidence of abuse is trickier than you might think; the possibility has to be taken into account that homosexually pre-disposed children are more easily identified and targeted by adult abusers.

  7. But that's not all, as VS skills peak at a testosterone level somewhat below the male median (yet significantly above the female median).

    So would we expect juicing male athletes to lose some VS (hitting a baseball?) while juicing female athletes would get better?

  8. Also, are gay men better at math?

  9. John: There is an effect of urban birth, but the source the gay kid got it from probably was contacted by many other kids, yet only that one kid turned gay. Genetic susceptability; perhaps homosexuality requires a "coctail" of several microbes to be expressed; etc.

    Chip: The Italian study you quote did show somewhat elevated fecundity for the sisters of gay men, but not nearly enough to make up for their gay brothers' genetic dead-ends. About gay men being more charming -- they're only so around people they don't want to have sex with. With men they want, they're way too masculine (forward, objectifying, etc.) for women's tastes (visit a gay club and see). They're better dancers & flirts b/c once a person's search image is set as a male, another program says: "IF search image = male, and GOAL = partnering up, THEN execute programs 1, 2, 3..." The programs a person runs when trying to get a male are flirting, dancing, etc. b/c guys are visual and want someone who suggests easy interest. Being a good flirt & dancer doesn't turn women on if you're not also well-to-do and tall, which is why straight men & lesbians run different programs when trying to court females (emphasize status, etc.).

    Lindsey: See Cochran's PDF I linked in paragraph 4. It talks about how the bug probably affects the brain, & how homosexual sheep show a similar pattern. Identical twins (MZ) are exposed to pretty much the same hormones, so those could only account for a rarity of homosexual cases. Interestingly, MZ don't have to both show symptoms for a disease even if both are infected (Cochran mentions polio, where MZ show concordance only 36% of the time). There's a messy causal chain from contracting a bug up through showing symptoms; presumably there are many other factors involved.

    TC: Male athletes who juice likely do lose some VS skills, though to what extent that affects their stats I couldn't say. Female juicers likely gain VS skills up until they reach the "feminine male" level, but if they go further (like body-builders) they likely lose much of their gains. Don't know about math, but VS helps visualize difficult word problems, so perhaps.

  10. Do lesbians emphasize social status or income? I've heard otherwise, but I don't know. From what I've seen, they like status in the lesbian social scene.

    Anyway, think about how to spend your time agnostic. Gays or Spanish girls.

    I vote Spanish girls

  11. Agnostic,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I'm probably out of my depth, but if my understanding of the theoretical framework underlying the investigation of female fecundity is accurate, the idea is that we are really dealing with a specific and elevated type of female heterosexual orientation - a genetic predisposition toward "overloving men," as Hamer puts it - which is adaptive in its female lineage but occasionally and incidentally expressed as homosexuality when it is inherited in males. I'm not arguing in favor of such a mechanism, but if that's the working theory, wouldn't the problematic math with male dead ends be minimized? My sense is that it would be like a discretely sensitive genotype for mother-love that harmlessly, if infrequently, passes to boys who end up being more nurturing fathers.

    Also, it may be worth emphasizing that "homosexually enabled straight men," in McKnight's speculation, are not themselves gay, but carriers of the gay polygene who exhibit a suite of sexually-selected temperamental traits that are valuable within a niche of the market. Homosexuality arises at the edges, with counter-selective social forces keeping its prevalence in check.

    Again, I'm not disposed to dismiss Cochran's hypothesis; I just wish he took more care in addressing the theories that aren't centered on kin-selection. And I suppose I would find the germ noodlings more compelling if gayness was expressed as more of a specific or narrowly-fixated neurological quirk - like narcolepsy - without so much temperamentally distinctive baggage associated, but as my thoughts turn to schizophrenia I realize that's probably an irrational expectation.

  12. If you look at the big picture, considering old syndromes that are common and materially reduce fitness, damn few are side effects of a variant behavioral strategy - like none.
    No such thing has ever been found -so naturally, it's the default explanation for homosexuality.
    Go figure.

    Over time, if you had a gene variant that increased female fitness while decreasing male fitness, you would expect sex-limited expression to evolve. Admittedly this takes time. You'd also see a pattern of inheritance that does not actually exist.

    Whathisname, Levay, found that a little nucleus in the hypothalamus was smaller in gay men: a different nucleus in the hypothalamus is zapped in narcolepsy. It's a possible way of changing some behaviors and leaving almost everything else intact.

  13. (1) I believe that there are many genes which lead to a PREDISPOSITION to homosexuality. Having some of these genes confers benefits such as higher IQ and higher creativity, but having too many leads to homosexuality, which is why gays remain a small "evolutionary stable" percent of the population but don't disappear.

    (2) My theory is that sex hormones in general stunt the mathematcial and spacial development of the brain. Boys and girls do equally well in math until puberty which girls reach first.

    As you pointed out, the guys who do well in math and art are not the masculine guys but the nerdy ones who have less testosterone or are late in maturing.


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