University of Lethbridge student studies gay men's evolutionary role

An Alberta scientist's research is finding that in terms of evolution, gay men play a necessary role in family life.

Research so far suggests their participation in child care helped boost survival rates

Human sexual behaviour researcher Francisco Gomez Jimenez is studying the role gay men play in evolution. (University of Lethbridge)

An Alberta scientist's research is finding that in terms of evolution, gay men play a necessary role in family life.

Evidence that men have been attracted to men dates back thousands of years, illustrated in archeological artifacts, such as pottery and cave wall drawings. Scientists have also determined the attraction can be tracked genetically.

But if humans' evolutionary purpose — like any animal — is to reproduce and propagate the species, the question becomes, how do you explain male homosexuality?

"Homosexual males barely reproduce at all. They don't have kids themselves," University of Lethbridge human sexual behaviour researcher Francisco Gomez Jimenez told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

Instead, Gomez Jimenez's findings show that gay men historically "enhance the survival of their family relatives."

"They're really good to have around in the family, sort of like an extra set of hands," he said.

"If we consider an ancestral environment, for example... when having kids was very risky, especially multiple kids, having an extra pair of hands definitely would have come in handy."

'Extremely valuable members in society'

The master's student, who is expected to begin his PhD later this summer, has won a competitive grant from the National Geographic Society to continue his research. He already has travelled around the world to study cultures that to this day highly value same-sex attracted men's roles in developing families and communities.

"People seem to have integrated them in," Gomez Jimenez said. "The outcome is that they become extremely valuable members in society, especially within the families, so I think there's a lot to learn from that."

One of his hypotheses is that the lack of reproduction is offset by how much a gay man can enhance the survival — and reproduction — of his close relatives, like nieces and nephews.

Research done by Gomez Jimenez's supervisor, Paul Vasey, has looked at Samoa, an island country in Polynesia, where the culture recognizes a third gender called fa'afafine. The fa'afafine are assigned a male gender at birth, are attracted to men and exhibit both female and male traits.

Vasey's research has shown they tend to take on uncle-like behaviour, investing time and mentorship in their siblings' children. The Istmo Zapotec culture in southern Mexico has men who take on similar cultural roles, too.

Gomez Jimenez has also won a grant to study how genes associated with male homosexuality, when present in women, increase reproduction. He'll be looking at the Istmo Zapotec culture for this, where the community has a high reproduction rate.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener