The “Super Uncles” of Samoa

Male homosexuality doesn’t make complete sense from an evolutionary point of view. It appears that the trait is heritable, but since homosexual men are much less likely to produce offspring than heterosexual men, shouldn’t the genes for this trait have been extinguished long ago? What value could this sexual orientation have, that it has persisted for eons even without any discernible reproductive advantage?

One possible explanation is what evolutionary psychologists call the “kin selection hypothesis.” What that means is that homosexuality may convey an indirect benefit by enhancing the survival prospects of close relatives. Specifically, the theory holds that homosexual men might enhance their own prospects by being “helpers in the nest.” By acting altruistically toward nieces and nephews, homosexual men—bachelor uncles in effect—would perpetuate the family genes, including their own.

Two evolutionary psychologists have been testing this idea for the past several years on the Pacific island of Samoa. Paul Vasey and Doug VanderLaan of Lethbridge University, Canada, chose Samoa because male homosexuals there—called fa’afafine—are widely recognized and accepted as a distinct gender category, neither man nor woman. The fa’afafine tend to be effeminate, and to be exclusively homosexual. This clear demarcation makes it easier to identify a sample for study.

The researchers have shown in past research that the fa’afafine behave much more altruistically toward their nieces and nephews than do either Samoan women or heterosexual men. They babysit a lot, tutor the kids in art and music, and help out financially—paying for medical care and education and so forth. That’s interesting in itself, but it’s unclear just why they behave this way. What’s going on cognitively that supports such avuncular acts. In their most recent study, the scientists set out to unravel the psychology of the fa’afafine, to see if their altruism is targeted specifically at kin rather than kids in general.

They recruited a large sample of fa’afafine, and comparable samples of women and heterosexual men. They gave them all a series of questionnaires, measuring their willingness to help their nieces and nephews in various ways—caretaking, gifts, teaching—and also their willingness to do these things for other, unrelated kids. The findings, reported on-line this week in the journal Psychological Science, lend strong support to the kin selection idea. Compared to Samoan women and heterosexual men, the fa’afafine showed a much weaker link between their avuncular behavior and their altruism toward kids generally. This cognitive disconnect, the scientists argue, allows the fa’afafine to allocate their resources more efficiently and precisely to their kin—and thus enhance their own evolutionary prospects.

But these aren’t your garden variety uncles. From an evolutionary perspective, you can’t make up for not having any offspring just by giving a toy to your nephew, or tossing a football with your niece once in a while. Indeed, to compensate for being childless, each fa’afafine would have to somehow support the survival of two additional nieces or nephews who would otherwise not have existed. In short, the fa’afafine must be “super uncles” to earn their evolutionary keep.

Do these findings have any meaning outside of Samoa? Yes and no. Samoan culture is very different from most Western cultures. Samoan culture is very localized, and centered on tight-knit extended families, whereas Western societies tend to be highly individualistic and homophobic. Families are also much more geographically dispersed in Western cultures, diminishing the role that bachelor uncles can play in the extended family, even if they choose to. But in this sense, the researchers say, Samoa’s communitarian culture may be more—not less—representative of the environment in which male homosexuality evolved eons ago. In that sense, it’s not the bachelor uncle who is poorly adapted to the world, but rather the modern Western world that has evolved into an unwelcoming place.

For more insights into human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind. Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.