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Posts Tagged ‘adaptation’

When gay people come out of the closet, they usually run into some variation of the “but that’s unnatural” argument.  This is the apparently sensible claim that it doesn’t make sense to be gay.  Isn’t sex for procreation?  Why would two males or two females become romantically involved if they can’t have a child together?

It seems like a reasonable argument.  You can point out that some sort of gay behavior occurs in every species in the animal kingdom – which is true – or that gay sex is simply fun – also true.  But that only begs the question.  Why?  Why are there so many gay animals, and people, in the world when reproducing your own kind is the basis for a species’ success?  Having fun doesn’t seem to explain this apparent contradiction.

The answer is that gay people help nature hedge its bets.  A successful species typically keeps extra cards up its sleeve because the rules of the game can change without warning.  Gay people represent some important extra cards.  They are a natural, genetic variation that helps guarantee the successful raising of young.

Many species show wide genetic variation.  Dogs, for example.  You can breed a chihuahua that weighs 2 pounds.  Or you can breed an Old English Mastiff that weighs 300 pounds.

Why should canine genetic material be so mutable?  Because being tiny – or being huge – might come in handy.  You never know.

The ultimate disaster for a species – extinction – happens when its members fail to adapt to an altered environment.  That’s why you want to have as much flexibility as possible to respond and survive when something unexpected occurs.

It could be a meteor striking the Earth.  Or a volcano erupting.  Or a pandemic disease wiping out three-quarters of the population.  The game can change – and a species has to change too – sometimes a lot – in challenging new circumstances.

Having gay members of your species could make the difference between survival and extinction.  Gays are unique – and vitally important -because they do something no other members of that species will do.

I don’t mean have gay sex.

I mean raise other people’s children.

Gay animals are perfectly happy to pair-bond and mate with members of their own sex,  so their sexual relations are non-procreative.  They do not have children with their partner.  That means they are available to raise another animal’s children.

Say a heterosexual zebra, or otter, or muskrat or human is killed and leaves behind a helpless child.  Heterosexual animals, who can have  children of their own, will probably refuse to raise this other animal’s child, or at best do so grudgingly.  They have their own children, who are a higher priority because they will pass on their genetic material.  But a gay member of the species will happily step in and raise that helpless child.

He has no reason not to.  He is not caught up in the battle to mate and reproduce.  His preoccupation is caring and nurturing within a relationship.

If a male animal loses a female partner and is left with children who need care, he might have trouble locating another female willing to raise these children.  But a gay male would happily accept the job.

If a female animal loses her male partner and is left with young to raise, another male might reject the task of raising those children.  But a gay female would, similarly, be happy to help out.

Gays play a role in increasing the success rates for child-rearing in all species.  In the event of a large-scale disaster, resulting in many adult deaths, gays could fill an especially vital role in helping to raise the young.  They would not compete for sexual partners.  But they would help out with the kids.

It could make the difference to a species’ survival.

That’s what’s happening right now, with humans.

Many heterosexual human couples have children they are unable or unwilling to raise.  These children are put up for adoption – but there are too many of them to be cared for solely by heterosexual volunteers, who usually prefer to raise their own children.

That’s why, throughout the world, gays are the unofficial backbone of the adoption system.  Without them, many children would suffer terribly, never finding wiling, dedicated adoptive parents.

It is an open secret that in most states, the adoption system would collapse without the participation of gays and lesbians.  In 2007 it was estimated that there are 270,000 children living with same-sex couples in the USA.  Of these, one-quarter, or 65,000, have been adopted.  Gays are a small minority, perhaps as few as 4% of the general population.  But there is no question that gay people do a lot of adopting and provide loving homes for hundreds of thousands of children who desperately need them.

Unfortunately, in a few states, right-wing religious zealots have persuaded politicians to ban gay adoption.  It is not clear whether this misguided attack on children and the rights of gay people is constitutional.  A court battle is raging in Florida.

Meanwhile, these laws prevent gay people from playing a role nearly as ancient as life itself.  That is a tragedy, which could result in a calamity.

It’s also unnatural.

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The People’s Therapist was working out at the gym on the elliptical trainer the other day when he realized he’d come to the end of an issue of The New York Review of Books – his customary cardiovascular/literary fare.  In desperation, I reached for whatever other reading material happened to be lying around, and discovered a deliciously tacky gossip mag.

Flipping open at random, I found myself confronted with a headline about Prince William, the future king of England.  Apparently, he’s got a new girlfriend – Kate Middleton – and the rumors are that she’s “just like his mother, Princess Diana.”

What caught my psychotherapeutically-inclined interest was how commonly this trope – marrying someone like your parent – emerges in popular culture.  It’s so unremarkable that we take it for granted.

But it raises an interesting question:  Why does it seem like people really do choose partners who are just like their parents?

The answer relates to how you adapt, as a child, to your early environment.

One of the patients I saw this week, for example, grew up with a father who was extremely narcissistic.

When I use this term, I don’t mean it in the sense of merely being egotistical, but in the Freudian sense of being unable – like Narcissus in the Greek myth – to see past his own reflection and realize that others have separate needs and concerns.

The whole world, for this woman’s father, was about him.  He sucked up all the attention and ignored everyone else’s needs.  His wife – my patient’s mother – fell into a caretaker role, appeasing and placating him.  When dad had one of his rages, mother and daughter ran around doing whatever it took to calm him down.  Their own needs were ignored.

My patient evolved behaviors to handle living in an environment with a narcissist – mostly running around doing everything for him and always letting him have his way.  When she grew up into an adult, she went out into the world expecting to find another narcissist for a partner.  That would feel familiar, and almost comfortable, since it was what she was used to – it matched the skills she’d adapted as a child.  She knew everything there was to know about handling a narcissist – dating anyone else would bring fresh challenges she wasn’t sure she could handle.

Sure enough, later in life, my patient found herself dating guys just like her dad – high-maintenance guys who demanded all her attention but never seemed to notice her needs.

It’s as though my client – and perhaps Prince William and everyone else – adapted to an environment the way an animal evolves.  If you live in a pond, you evolve web feet.  Once you have web feet, you expect to live in water, because you aren’t much good anywhere else.

But humans aren’t ducks, and the strategies you adopt to survive in your childhood environment don’t have to become permanent physical characteristics.

Children have little choice but to adapt to their environment.  They don’t control much of anything – they need to adapt to survive.

But adults can choose the environment in which they wish to live, and they can shed an old adaptation if it becomes self-sabotaging.

My client didn’t have web feet, and she didn’t have to live in a pond.  She could change, and choose a new environment that better suited her adult needs.

That meant she could stop dating men like her father, and ask herself who she really wanted in her life.  It also meant she could learn new adaptations to address this new sort of person.

For someone used to placating and pleasing a narcissistic tyrant, it was an adjustment to meet someone calm and relaxed and caring – someone who expected a balanced give and take in a relationship.  My patient had to remember not to do everything for her new boyfriend, and to enforce her own boundaries as well as respecting his.

It was all rather new, and a bit scary – like a duck acquiring new feet and learning to live on land.  But she caught on fast.

Prince William, for his part, might choose to marry someone like Princess Diana, or he might not.  His mother may well have been a lovely, giving person and the perfect model for a mate.

The key is that the prince be aware of his unconscious adaptations and ask himself what he, as an adult, truly desires in a partner. He’ll never find what he needs marching blindly into an old pattern simply because it feels familiar.

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