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Christian K.

Owusu Intro to Masters Assignment 22nd September, 2011

The Samoan Faafafine: An Evolutionary Perspective


In the middle of the South Pacific, there exists a group of islands known as the Samoan Archipelago. The archipelago is divided into two distinct political entities: American Samoa (a territory of the United States) and Independent (formerly Western) Samoa. Despite the fact that American and Independent Samoa have different national identities, and have been separate for almost a century, the cultures are still strikingly similar. One peculiar cultural phenomenon is the ubiquity of the Samoan third gender also known as faafafine. On the Samoan islands, homosexual men are referred to as faafafines. Faafafine is a Samoan word which means in the way or the manner of a woman. Studies on faafafines in Samoa have tested different hypotheses trying to explain the high incidence of male androphilia on these tiny islands. From a Darwinian point of view, persistence of male androphilia is puzzling as male homosexual behaviour is considered to be negative for individual fitness (Kirkpatrick et al., 2000). Since natural selection generally only maintains traits associated with reproductive success, one would expect genes for gynephilia to have replaced those for androphilia, especially as twin and other familial studies have pointed to a large genetic or heritable component to human sexual orientation (Bailey & Pillard, 1991, Vasey et al., 2007). Since male androphilia seemingly confers no direct fitness benefits, theories to explain its persistence have assumed it must be maintained by indirect selection. (Kirkpatrick et al., 2000). In his review on the evolution of sexual behaviour in humans, Kirkpatrick discusses three hypotheses which have been proposed to explain male androphilia: the kin selection hypothesis, where a homosexual is able to increase the reproductive success of close kin, thereby offsetting his lack of offspring; the parental manipulation hypothesis, where offspring are influenced by parents to become homosexual and help the offspring of relatives at the cost of their own reproductive interests and the balanced polymorphism hypothesis which states that androphilia is maintained in populations becomes it occurs together with another trait which is under positive selection (Kirkpatrick et al., 2000). Kirkpatrick also posits a fourth hypothesis in which he argues that selection retains homosexuality due to the non-reproductive advantages conferred by this trait. In other words, if homosexuality is positively associated with behaviours such as the maintenance of same-sex alliances (which helps in cooperative resource acquisition and defence), then the trait would serve as a survival strategy rather than a reproductive one, and would be under positive selection (Kirkpatrick et al., 2000). Most research in Samoa has focused on detecting evidence of kin-selection in families with one or more faafafines. Non-western cultures are generally considered to have more suitable social contexts in which to test predictions of the kin selection hypothesis than western ones (Vasey et al., 2007) . Vasey et al. argue that the social environments present in western cultures (geographical and emotional distance from family members) may be different from the ones in which male homosexuality evolved and thus, may prevent (or mask) the behavioural expression of genes controlling the trait (Vasey et al., 2007). As the less westernised of the two Samoas, Independent Samoa appears to be the preferred choice when conducting studies on Samoan male androphilia. In addition, given the relative small size of the nation, families are both geographically and emotionally connected, especially compared with westernised locations (Vasey et al., 2007). In a study to test the hypothesis of kin selection, Vasey et al. modified a kin selection questionnaire which collected information on overall generosity, general neediness and avuncular tendencies, amongst others. The questionnaire was presented to two groups of participants (faafafines and self-identified heterosexual men) in the form of an interview (Vasey et al., 2007). The study failed to detect any difference in altruistic tendencies between faafafines and gynephilic men. However, Samoan androphilic men reported significantly greater avuncular tendencies than their straight counterparts, a contrast to similar studies in western cultures (Vasey et al., 2007). Despite their results being consistent with predictions of the kin selection hypothesis, Vasey et al. advised caution in

interpreting their data as the results did not provide strong evidence supporting the hypothesis, given the small sample size of the participants. Another possible confounding factor was the fact that while none of the androphilic participants had any offspring, 58% of the gynephilic participants had at least one child. This raised the possibility that the greater avuncular tendencies noted in the faafafine group stemmed, not from kin selection, but a tendency of all males without direct parental responsibilities to invest more in kin (Vasey et al., 2007). The Vasey and VanderLaan therefore conducted a follow up study using a larger independent sample. In this second study, faafafines were compared to both gynephilic men with no children and gynephilic men with at least one child. Again, the faafafine group was noted to exhibit significantly greater avuncular tendencies than either gynephilic without children or gynephilic men with at least one child (Vasey & VanderLaan, 2008). Despite these findings being consistent with the predictions of the kin selection hypothesis, it is difficult to conclusively determine if male androphilia is indeed an adaptation for kin selection. What can be concluded, however, is that more research is certainly needed in order to disentangle the mystery of the origin and persistence of male androphilia.

References
Bailey, J.M. & Pillard, R.C. 1991. A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 48: 1089. Kirkpatrick, R.C., Blackwood, E., Dickemann, J.M., Jones, D., Muscarella, F., Vasey, P.L. & Williams, W.L. 2000. The evolution of human homosexual behavior. Curr. Anthropol. 41: 385-413. Vasey, P.L., Pocock, D.S. & VanderLaan, D.P. 2007. Kin selection and male androphilia in samoan fa'afafine. Evolution and Human Behavior 28: 159-167. Vasey, P.L. & VanderLaan, D.P. 2008. Avuncular tendencies and the evolution of male androphilia in samoan faafafine. Arch. Sex. Behav. 1-10.