August 16, 2008

Why are there homosexuals?

Homosexuality should not exist. That is not a political or moral statement- but a statement derived from evolutionary theory. Evolution rewards reproduction. Most human traits contribute to reproductive success ultimately or are neutral to it. But homosexuality does not contribute to reproduction because a pair of men or a pair of women cannot have children independently of scientific aid. We know that homosexuality is an ancient part of human beings- we know that it goes on in the animal kingdom. We also know that it is partly genetic. Why therefore has this behaviour, which should have died out in a generation, survived all the way to the present day?

There was an interesting article in Psychology Today about just this issue. The author Robert Kunzig presents a kalaidescope of factors. The most interesting is what Kunzig suggests about two particular traits which happen before the birth of a male homosexual. The first is genetic. This is really interesting, what I was arguing above was based around the survival of a particular individual's genes- but of course that is a failure to understand evolution, what I should have been talking about was the survival of genes down the generation. Take that angle and suddenly the homosexuality question becomes easier. An Italian study reveals that the mothers and aunts of homosexual boys have more children than the base population, they have more sexual encounters and more partners. Essentially the same genetic factor that makes homosexuals in men, makes women more fecund and hence reproduce themselves more- sometimes they produce an evolutionary dead end- a homosexual boy- but to offset that they produce more children.

Another factor though is present in the research- which is equally interesting and that has to do with the womb. As a non-scientist I often think you get your clump of genetic material- and you get your baby at the other end and there is no change between the two. The only factors which decide a child's character are its genes and the way that its nurture in the world shapes the genetic impact. That misses a step. One of the interesting things about homosexuality is what happens in the womb. Kunzig suggests based on research that the number of elder biological brothers (whether they are present in childhood or not) influences whether he is homosexual by up to a third. It isn't the presence of brothers in childhood- non-biological brothers from a different womb don't matter but biologic brothers who are not around in childhood do- but that they come out of the same womb. The Biologists believe that this is because of the way that a woman's womb reacts to a male child- she produces antibodies and an immune response which affects the foetus's brain and feminises it. That immune response is stronger with every male child born. The argument is interesting- and implies another cost benefit association for the woman because women with more powerful immune systems end up with more homosexual sons- her health is offset against producing a son who will not reproduce.

These are not the answers- and it is important to realise that for the majority of human history, many homosexuals have reproduced. It is only very recently that homosexuals have been able to live as homosexuals instead of unhappily existing in a heterosexual relationship or living in the closet. The fact that my original model is wrong- that homosexuals do sometimes produce children is something else to throw into the mix. Basically it substantiates the idea that there is something advantageous for his parents in having a homosexual son- particularly as we have seen for his mother. These aren't the full answers- but they are interesting as they explain in part what to me has always been a problem- why does evolution produce an individual who does not wish to reproduce? The answer seems to lie in the fact that the rest of his family reproduce more, and that his mother is healthier and is reacting to his older brothers. This does not explain all homosexuality- but it explains some and further research will illuminate the topic even more.

August 13, 2008

Brandreth on Politics

Entertaining and great fun- I just found these Brandreth rules of politics- its well worth listening too- Brandreth was an MP and he tells stories about how people become MPs and how they fall down the ladder of politics as well. It involves people from all parties and his advice is 'schmooze em on the way up, you'll need them on the way down'- its funny and a real insight.

Savage Grace

'Each man kills the thing he loves' said Oscar Wilde, 'they fuck you up, your mum and dad' said Phillip Larkin, Savage Grace combines the two lessons into one very powerful point. It is a film about the impact of parents on children, sexuality on life and wealth on everything. It takes as its focus the family of Anthony Baekeland and narrates the story of his mother and father and Anthony himself. Often we are told the story through the voice of Anthony, but the central focus is on the family unit- closenit and terrifying in its intense relationships. When Larkin said that they fuck you up, he possibly didn't mean it as literally as we see it here. We see a father steal his son's girlfriend. A mother seduce her own son. A mother and her homosexual lover, Sam, have a threesome with her son. This is hardly the model of an all American family- indeed what might normally pass as sexual excess- dominating anal heterosexual sex- seems here to be the epitome of normality. But do not be convinced that the sex is the headline about this film- in reality the sex is mundane and boring: you get the sense of being at Caligula's court, as everything is permitted and available, it is all boring.

No the centre of this film is the way that these characters- Anthony, his mother Barbara and his father Brooks come together in a fatal fashion- culminating in a famous murder (at the time in 1972- yes this is a true story). The characters are irredeemably boring- I cannot convey how boring they are save by inviting you to read this article from one of the participants in the story, Sam Green (the supposed inhabitor of Barbara and Tony's bed). The article is filled with the kind of self obsessive name dropping that characterises the world of these characters- of all the paraphenalia of the dull shininess of celebrity. The article is amazing in the way that it deepens the unattractiveness of the character you are reading about- a vapid social butterfly- but that is indeed the nature of the characters in the film, they are all vapid social butterflies. People who love to tell you how they call Greta Garbo Mrs G, or to dine with princes. Without the ability or knowledge to do anything- Brooks Baekeland is an adventurer who seems to do nothing- Barbara is a painter who doesn't paint- and Tony merely picks up his guitar when he grows up in a lugubrious way. At one point, the younger Tony asks Barbara what his parents do- she says that they are lucky and can afford to do nothing- their vapidness is a consequence of their idleness and a standing advert for employment if ever I saw one (getting up at seven the next morning didn't seem so bad having seen this film).

Idleness and celebrity chatter apart what strikes you immediatly about this film is the vicious nastiness of the characters. We open with the two Baekelands gathering to go to a party- Brooks hates it, Barbara loves it- their exchanges are barbed. You might think that that is as barbed as it gets but oh no! At the party Brooks confesses to Barbara that for ten million he would go home with the first person he met in a club, promptly she gets into the first car she sees on the street and sleeps with the young man inside it. This viciousness is combined with the sense of a smothering environment- the young man isn't even safe in the bath from his mother's entrances! Young Tony is homosexual or has those tendencies- he does at one point date a girl, who his father promptly steals- but he is homosexual. For both his parents this proves an opportunity to unleash their viciousness- not here the viciousness of the barbed comment, but the viciousness of stupid incomprehension. Both of them try to cure the young boy- and as they do he slowly drifts into angry silence. An angry silence made only worse as his parents' marriage splits- and his mother begins losing her mental cohesion. A terrible crime follows.

The skill of this director does not rest in making a nice film or one that is easy to watch. In places this film is good because its boring- because it demonstrates that this life is incredibly boring- shorn of all the things which make life worth living, love, successful striving towards a genuine goal, interests, real friendship. One character says to another at one point that Brooks thinks everything is shit- how right she is, reduced to a world of silver and gold- even those things feel like shit and the director gets that across. Despite the sex, this is not an erotic film. Despite the wealth, this is not a film that makes you envy luxury. Despite the celebrity this is an antidote to X Factor. Julianne Moore does a great job as Barbara, Stephen Dillane is condescendingly and arrogantly perfect as Brooks- but a special mention must go to Eddie Redmayne playing Tony who does brilliantly at portraying him, he gets him from the irritating to the pathetic in a wonderful character arc. It would have been interesting to see more of Elena Anaya's Blanca (Brooks's and then Tony's girlfriend) because she seems one of the few 'normal' characters on view who actually cares about the family- understanding her might have led to understanding what attractions these despicable people had.

The end of this film is truly shocking. The director and his actors have done a good job- but I did not enjoy watching this. There were no glimmers of light- these lives were depressing, boring and horrible- and watching them unravel is the same. Dark films are at their best when they make you care about their characters- this was like watching the demons suffer in the last circles of hell.

August 11, 2008

The Quiet American: Don't believe the unreliable narrator

Graham Greene's novel about the French war in Vietnam is often seen as a great anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Colonialist tract aiming straight, and presciently, at the disaster of US policy in Indo-China twenty years after the book is set. Such an interpretation is an error. The novel is narrated by a British journalist dispatched by his paper to IndoChina. The journalist is a character by the name of Fowler. He spends most of his time with two other characters- and the novel is an intricate game- political and sexual- between these three characters. One is an American attache at the embassy- secretly the inspirer of political movements in Vietnam- Pyle. The third is the woman that both Pyle and Fowler, in their own ways, love- Phuong- a Vietnamese who depends totally on the two Western men for her livelihood and who appears throughout as passive rather than active.

The impression that Fowler wants to create is of two stereotypes. He is the old, cautious European- bred in cynicism and self contempt. He knows the follies of the world, understands no theories work and is tolerant of the East and its differences from the West. Pyle on the other hand is an ignorant American blunderer. Quick out of university, straight from his ivy league classes to real world politics, Pyle blunders around so fixed on his current books that he can't see what is front of his eyes. Pyle is a classic theorist in a world of human beings- where nothing fits into his boxes but his own aspirations. Pyle ruins Vietnam in Fowler's view because he fits it into his American anger with the suffering of the non-democratic masses. Fowler is dispassionate- he is not as he says 'engage'.

But that mask does slip and Greene lets us see that Fowler's world is not entirely accurate. For a start Fowler does not describe himself well- he is engage- he is involved deeply with Vietnam and his dispassionate stance conceals a real passion, fear and love for the people of the land. Furthermore his stance of dispassionate inquiry leads him to exagerrate the distinctions between Europe and the East. We see this most vividly in his treatment of Phuong. Whereas Pyle's ambition of taking her to America- an ambition by the way that is sketched out most by Fowler and not by Pyle- is unrealistic- Fowler's view that she should become his concubine with little security when he next falls in love (as he has a habit of doing) is more disrespectful. He uses his difference from her to create the illusion that it doesn't matter that he has made her a discardable mistress. He exaggerates the degree to which she is purely passive and he objectifies her as an embodiment of her nation- rather than as a person. Chinua Achebe's wonderful line that Conrad sought to make Africa the drama of a white man's soul is applicable to Fowler's attitude to the East.

As soon as we see that we should reevaluate Fowler, we also begin to reevaluate Pyle. There is truth in Fowler's view of Pyle- there is truth in Fowler's assertion that Pyle is a nice man with no empathy or understanding of the world he lives in. And yet Pyle is willing to offer that world a respect that Fowler will not offer it- precisely because Pyle beleives that the Vietnamese are Americans struggling to be free (even though they aren't) he accords them the respect of thinking them capable of freedom- a freedom that Fowler sees as Western. This contrast is a contrast between different forms of orientalism. The one which sees the East as just 'us' but waiting to be freed by 'us' and the other which sees it as so different that slavery is a natural condition. Both perspectives are possibly natural within the arena that Pyle and Fowler live in- an expatriate community of diplomats and journalists that have little contact with the outside world especially the indigenous world, save for its prostitutes and its politicians.

Greene's novel therefore far from being an exploration of the differences between Europe and America is really an exploration of the way that two common western attitudes to the East fail to understand the reality of a country like Indo China or Vietnam. Greene wants us to see that both Fowler and Pyle share an orientalism that makes the East part of a western argument about how different it is, just as they make Phuong an emblem in their strife with each other. Orientalism ties into sexism in a lethal combination that reminds one that whenever you read a book, it is vital not to trust the author.

August 10, 2008

Jumping Karra

One of my favourite bloggers on the internet is Ashok Karra- his website has just moved from blogger to here- I cannot recommend what he writes enough, its detailed, thoughtful and interesting- even when you disagree with it, you have to take it into account.

The Plot against Pepys

Between 1679 and 1681 the diarist Samuel Pepys, serving as a member of Charles II's naval administration, was threatened with execution for transmitting secret plans to France. The reasons for Pepys's narrow brush with death lie in the tangles of Charles II's court and its relationship to Parliament. A recent book by James and Ben Long has attempted to tell the story of Pepys's moment of danger. They tell the tale well- its a pretty simple one. Pepys was arrested and taken from the House of Commons down the Thames to the Tower after a Whig inspired prosecution: he survived the experience by discrediting his accuser a Colonel John Scott using information from Scott's disreputable past in the Netherlands and in New England. Pepys was saved because of his own abilities and contacts within the world of restoration Europe. The Longs manage as far as I can tell to tell a straightforward story well- but I think there are points which we can bring out of their narrative and which are more interesting than the bare bones of what they say.

Firstly they convey well the insecurity of 17th Century political life. They get what is central to the reign of Charles II, which is that his father Charles I mounted the scaffold and was executed in 1649. The ghost of that scaffold lay behind the King at every point through his long reign- it haunted his successors as well and to some extent attitudes to the civil war lay at the heart of politics right into the 18th Century and beyond. As part of that civil war, Pepys a servant of the crown would know, that other servants of the crown had met a grisly end- Strafford and Laud executed by Parliament. In the late seventies that danger constantly present became uniquely severe- a fantasist Titus Oates accused several prominent men in the English government of being Catholics and sympathisers with a Popish plot that aimed to place Charles's Catholic brother James, Duke of York on the throne. James had to leave England. As an associate of James Pepys was vulnerable and he knew about the trials of other prominent Catholics and allies of York which ended in slaughter and death. Politics was an insecure and dangerous game- where treason was always ready as a charge against opponents.

The Popish plot was stoked up by the second of the great forces that we see present in this set of occurances and that is that this late seventeenth century period was the first great age of party. The Tory party stood for anglicanism and the crown, the Whigs for the low church and Parliament. That is a gross simplification- but it will have to do for the moment. Its worth remembering that Tory originally meant Irish Catholic rebel and Whig meant Presbyterian rebel. The point I want to capture here though is less the ideologies of the parties- which are incredibly complicated to both understand and locate- but the violence of the passion between them. Between about 1679 and 1715 the parties held office successively and frequently made use of the London mob. Shaftesbury called it into action during the Popish plot, the Tories used it to great effect in the Sachravell case of the 1710s. The roots of this emotion were religious- religion more than politics fuelled the rage of the parties. When someone like Pepys was under attack, they were under attack as someone helping to fuel the rise of modern Babylon.

The third thing I think that is worth understanding from this story is that both Pepys and his accuser attest to the incredible mobility of seventeenth century society. Their careers are completely at odds with the impression that the past is an age in which people did not move. Scott was a bright man from America- who almost conned his way into becoming a senior figure in Massachussets and Long Island politics. After that he attempted various schemes on the margins of French and Dutch politics- always an opportunist, he comes out of the Long's account as a man with incredible charm and a man who believed his own lies. His career collapsed when early in the 1670s the Duke of York's agents managed to connect the dots. Pepys also managed to connect the dots- through his own network of geographically wide contacts. Pepys through the admiralty was connected to Netherlands, to France and to America. But furthermore Pepys too had risen from a fairly humble background. That is not to say that seventeenth century society was incredibly mobile- of course it wasn't- but there was mobility and to say that a society is not as mobile as today's is not to imply that it was completely static.

Those three points are not historical points of genius- but they are crucial to any understanding of this period. The Longs do manage to get to them but there isn't much more than that and their story- they could have got more out of their material- particularly about Scott who in my view is an even more interesting character in some ways than Pepys. But that apart, its worth recalling these points because without understanding the ferocity of party anger and its religious nature, the insecurity of politics and the curious mixture of a static and dynamic society that the seventeenth century was, it is very difficult to get to what the century was about and why people thought they thought and hence did what they did. In order to get deeper, you need to get deeper into the minds of those who lived through the period and the conditions in which they lived but these three insights carry the Longs and ourselves quite a long way.