Imperial College London

Donation fuels research to explore evolutionary explanations for homosexuality

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A macaque sits on a branch in a tree

A donation from the Evolution Education Trust will seed fund scientists undertaking research into a remote colony of monkeys in Puerto Rico.

The study hopes to improve understanding of homosexuality and combat stigma in societies around the world by providing scientific evidence of the important role that homosexual and bisexual behaviour play in reproduction and evolution in both the animal kingdom and human society.

Taking an unbiased view towards the study of animal sexual behaviour will ultimately improve our understanding of the natural world. Professor Vincent Savolainen

Vincent Savolainen, Professor of Organismic Biology and world-renowned evolutionary biologist, is leading the study. “There has been a disproportionate focus in the scientific community on opposite-sex sexual behaviour in animals, which has not only obscured the quantity of research conducted into homosexual behaviour, but the way in which this behaviour has been understood,” he said.

“Changing attitudes to homosexuality in culture, as well as the philanthropic support from The Evolution Education Trust, are making it possible for us to address this underexplored research agenda and creating opportunities to gain a more nuanced understanding of animal sexual and social behaviours.

“Taking an unbiased view towards the study of animal sexual behaviour will ultimately improve our understanding of the natural world.”

Using evolution-based reasoning to solve pressing problems in society and our environment is core to the Evolution Education Trust, and that’s why we’ve seed funded this fantastic research programme. Dr Jonathan Milner Chair of the Evolution Education Trust

Dr. Jonathan Milner, Chair of the Evolution Education Trust, a charitable grant-making trust dedicated to the education of the public on the scientific principles of evolution and its application, said: “When Professor Vincent Savolainen described his planned research into evolutionary factors behind same-sex relationships, he immediately grabbed my attention. By exploring the ways in which same-sex relationships are both fairly common and advantageous within primate communities, this work could dismantle the discriminatory argument that homosexuality is a ‘Darwinian Paradox’: a behaviour that defies nature and evolution. Using evolution-based reasoning to solve pressing problems in society and our environment is core to the Evolution Education Trust, and that’s why we’ve seed funded this fantastic research programme.”

The Evolution Education Trust’s gift will fund field work taking place on the island of Cayo Santiago, off the coast of Puerto Rico, which is home to an isolated population of macaques that demonstrate primarily homosexual and bisexual behaviour. The monkeys are free ranging across a 38-acre island.

The donation will enable two PhD researchers to closely observe the behaviour and social hierarchy of the group, undertake genomic sequencing to find connections between homosexual behaviour and genetic markers, and use the behavioural and genetic data collected to test novel theoretical models of homosexuality.

Scientists hypothesise that there is unlikely to be a single gene that causes homo- and bisexuality, positing that a combination of different factors could influence the evolution of homosexuality. By making use of various theoretical models in this study, researchers will be able to test many theories and see how these could be applied to other populations and animals.

This donation will play an important part in accelerating a research area that has historically been underexplored and underfunded. While homo- and bisexual behaviour has been observed in over 1,000 species, the evolutionary drivers behind this behaviour are poorly understood compared to other areas of research into evolution.

Professor Savolainen and his research team hope that uncovering the genetic factors which underpin sexual orientation in both humans and animals could radically alter public perceptions of homosexuality and filter down into positive changes in education, policy and society.

Professor Savolainen thanked the Evolution Education Trust for their support for the project: 

“This is a radical but important area of study which has been stymied due to a lack of attention and funding. Thanks to the vision and generosity of the Evolution Education Trust we are now catching up on hundreds of years of missing data and research,” he said.

“Given the prevalence of homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom, dedicated research of this kind has the potential to inform significant breakthroughs in the way that we understand animal social and sexual behaviour. We hope that this study will not just offer new insight into animal sexual behaviour but could also revolutionise our understanding of human sexuality and help to combat stigma in societies across the world.”

If you are interested in exploring philanthropy in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, please contact Natalie Sauter, Development Manager.

Main image credit: Arjun MJ via Unsplash

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Joely Langston

Joely Langston
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Email: j.langston@imperial.ac.uk

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Nature, Philanthropy, Research, Evolution, Animal-research
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