Shamanism, or how transgenderism has an evolutionary origin

Charles Robert Darwin, as painted by John Collier. (Ref: National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1024)

Charles Robert Darwin, as painted by John Collier. (Ref: National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1024)

Charles Robert Darwin is probably one of the science’s most eminent figures — his theory of evolution through natural selection being one of the three most validated scientific theories, the other two being Relativity and Quantum Mechanics — but unfortunately he is so often misquoted and misrepresented that sometimes laypersons forget what exactly is so important about his theories, and how they still apply to science this very day.

Darwin’s theories explain everything? And what does it have to do with transgenderism?

The short answer is no, it doesn’t. But in terms of biology, they explain pretty much the vast variety of plants and animals we encounter, how they have been ‘preserved’ so far (i.e. not gone extinct), and how certain traits have been acquired. Natural selection, by the way, was also recognised as not being able to explain all traits; Darwin also included a second mechanism, known as sexual selection, to explain a lot more, which natural selection could not explain. This is one of those things that get often ‘forgotten’ when quoting Darwin (or, worse, when hopelessly trying to debunk him). The other thing, of course, is that most arguments against Darwin’s theories brought up by people today have actually been answered by Darwin 150 years ago; not only did he foresee a lot of those arguments, but, with subsequent editions of his books, as well as separate peer-reviewed publications, Darwin actually answered quite a lot of questions — in fact, a lay person today is probably very unlikely to find a new question to ask that was left unanswered by Darwin. He was very thorough. The only thing that he got utterly wrong was how ‘hereditary traits’ were passed from parents to children; his mechanism was utterly complex although quite ingenious for the Victorian era; nevertheless, it was wrong. Fortunately, though, once we figured out how the DNA worked, we could validate Darwin’s theories once again; I’m pretty sure he would have loved to have lived another century to see that happening.

So what has Darwin to do with transgenderism? Actually, as some people point out, he was not exactly an open-minded thinker regarding social norms; in fact, he had some argumentation to reason why women were, in his time, ‘inferior’ to men, something that feminists really do not wish to hear. Actually, even though he talks about this ‘inferiority’, he proposes a method for making women ‘intellectually equal’ to men: education. He reasoned that with a few generations of educating women just like men, they would be able to become ‘intellectual equals’. As we so well know, this is exactly what happened — it was just that Darwin didn’t believe it would happen during his lifetime. And he was right: it didn’t. Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, in the Western world, women slowly were starting to get educations — and just two generations after Darwin’s theories were proposed, Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes, one in 1903 and 1911. The point here is that while Darwin himself might have been a male chauvinist typical of his time, the redeeming factor is that he actually made rather good predictions for the benefits of education and how it would affect society (even if he only described those predictions as hypothetical and did never believe in them). In other words, based on his theories, he also managed to predict certain social traits and not only physical/biological ones; this led several malicious authors to propose ‘social darwinism’ as a way to define which ‘human races’ were ‘superior’ to others — a concept that exists since Darwin’s time, and he was aware of the misrepresentation of his theories applied to social issues, and condemned them publicly. Even after 150 years of debunking, however, we still have people (mis)quoting Darwin to affirm their ‘superiority’ (moral, civilizational, or otherwise) over others.

No, what Darwin has given us — in spite of his own prejudice! — was a very efficient tool to figure out how certain traits survived and were not ‘weeded out’ by natural and sexual selection. The first time I read about the link between Darwin and an evolutionary theory of homosexuality I was fascinated by how clever the argument was, so I’m going to share it with you.

Unfortunately, I’m really, really terrible about remembering where I originally read things, and so cannot properly give credit to those who thought deep about things and wrote about it. Almost everything I’ll be writing on this article are not my ideas; I’m just spreading them around using my own words. Credit is due to those who have thought about the subject and that I’m neglecting to properly quote. Also, any errors in this article are most likely my own; a lot is being quoted by heart, and I might have forgotten some of the reasoning. But I hope that it does at least give you an idea, or some pointers, on where you can search to find more.

How homosexuality made the human species (among others) survive better

Consider the following logic conundrum: homosexuality does not lead to reproduction. So how could it have been passed genetically and not have been ‘weeded out’ by natural selection? After all, we should not forget that the only purpose of life — from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, of course — is to pass on our genes to the next generation. Homosexual couples, however, do not have offspring. So how could they have passed ‘their’ genes on?

One older explanation takes into account the gregarious nature of humans, and our (former) trait to form clans, or at least extended families, where a lot of relatives share common genetic material, although, of course, not in the same proportion as parents share with their immediate offspring. Except for relatively recent times, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and so forth would all live together. Uncles and aunts, who share at least some genetic material with their nephews, would, however, get married and abandon the core family. But if they were homosexual, there would be much less reason for them to leave the home, since they would have hidden the fact from the family, but never marry and go away. And what would have happened? Well, we all know stories about bachelor uncles and aunts helping to raise their nephews. My own mother, a few years before she herself got married, took care of her nephews, because their mother had died very early from cancer, and it was only ‘natural’ for her to help with the kids (who share some genetic material with her) until her brother-in-law married again. Of course, my mother was by all means not homosexual, but if she were, it would be quite reasonable to believe that she would continue to take care of her nephews. Globally speaking, therefore, large families having a few convenient homosexual aunts or uncles, are at an evolutionary advantage, since they will be able to take better care of the offspring — even if the parents die, or are unable to take care of them due to work or other difficulties. The ‘homosexual uncle’ is an asset for a family, compared to families which had no homosexuals in them, and therefore had a harder time to raise the children (since sisters and brothers would evolutionarily ‘compete’ by having each their own offspring). The spare uncle or aunt is always convenient. And, of course, even if he or she are homosexual, part of their genetic material lives on through the nephews; in other words, if the propensity for homosexuality is genetically inherited, then it’s likely that two brothers, one of which is homosexual and the other not, share some genetic material related to homosexuality; it’s just that something else triggered it on the homosexual brother but not on the other. It’s still likely, though, that such ‘homosexual genes’, in a dormant stage, are passed on to the next generation; and, eventually, they might manifest again.

This so-called ‘uncle theory of homosexuality’ is plausible, and there are a few studies validating it. At least it provides a logical explanation that fits into evolution to explain why homosexuality was never ‘weeded out’ by evolution: it must provide a genetic advantage for the species at large to possess ‘homosexual genes’, compared to the same population without those genes. In other words: using this theory, we are the children of generations and generations of families with homosexuals in it, who had a slight edge in survival compared to others, so we still transmit such genes to the next generations.

However, this theory cannot explain why homosexuality is so wide-spread in the animal kingdom (more than 1,500 species have been found that engage in same-sex behaviour), especially in those species which do not form complex societies — like, say, fruit flies. So a better theory, with more explanatory power, had to be found. And there is a good one: if the hereditary material that ‘produces’ homosexuality also makes females more fertile, then there is a genetic advantage for a species to possess ‘homosexual genes’ compared to those who don’t have them — because their females will be more fertile, therefore reproducing more and faster, and eventually pushing out those without ‘homosexual genes’ into extinction. Not surprisingly, this is pretty much what researchers have found on fruit flies, back in mid-2015. While it’s questionable if the same results apply to humans as well, it certainly seems to be rather plausible to assume that it will be the case as well.

In other words: certain ‘evolutionary paradoxes’ appear to exist with things like ‘altruism’ or ‘aggression’. Darwin was aware of another paradox, which was presented by ‘sexual ornamentation’ — i.e. physical traits that seem ‘too costly’ for natural selection not to have eliminated them, because they might have not given enough reproductive advantages to the species. Darwin’s answer, of course, was to introduce sexual selection as a second mechanism for explaining trait acquisition from generation to generation: when certain traits — bright colouring, or horns, or something similar which actually might seem to put the animal in danger — actually make the animals more willing to reproduce, find partners more easily, etc., then such traits will be preserved. Similar arguments have been made for ‘altruism’ among competing members of a species: the species, as a whole, survives better if their members engage in altruistic behaviour, even if, individually, the altruistic might not reproduce faster/better.

In the human species, things get a bit more complicated, because we’re not ‘just biology’ (one might argue that the same applies to most animals as well, but because we can only observe their behaviour and try to infer what they think, it’s harder to make certain propositions). For instance, because ‘altruism’ gives a human group an evolutionary advantage, we turned ‘altruism’ into an ethical value to be followed. One thing feeds the other: we learn that altruism is a good thing for our species, so we practice altruism; in turn, potential sexual partners, recognising the importance of altruism, will feel attracted to those who uphold such values; and their offspring, in turn, will inherit a propensity for altruism as well — and get educated by their parents to engage in it. As we can see, there is a mix of ‘heredity’ and ‘education’ in the human species, and sometimes it’s not easy to figure out which is which. What we can see is that certain social traits have given us an evolutionary advantage: for instance, all societies condemn murder (because that means pushing some genes out of the tribe/clan). It’s clear that the societies we have today are the ones that had an evolutionary advantage by claiming that ‘life is precious’ (and murder is not allowed); and we can conjecture that those societies where murder was allowed simply went extinct (they all killed each other and did not reproduce!). The question here is if the social prohibition of murder is encoded into our genetics — or if it’s merely a cultural artifact? In the latter case, should we also apply Darwin’s laws to the preservation of certain cultural traits that gave us a survival advantage?

Maybe. And here is where we come back to transgenderism, and to a surprising revelation about human societies, which might not have been obvious to many of you — unless, of course, you have been following my posts, articles, comments, forum replies, and so forth 🙂 I just decided to expand on the subject and write a full article about the concept. Again, it’s not my idea, although I wish I could remember where I first read about this intriguing theory.

Back to prehistoric ages…

Let’s turn back the clock a few dozens of thousands of years — to the time when homo sapiens had discovered fire, long, long before they had written language, not to mention agriculture. Our species was basically hunter/gatherer — males would attempt to hunt animals without being killed in turn, while females remained near the hiding place, picking edible roots, berries and some fruits to complement the diet, and keeping an eye on the children.

Inside the same tribe, or clan, altruistic behaviour — as well as the murder prohibition! — was the norm. People helped each other in order to survive as a group. Physical prowess was a desirable trait in the hunters, so the alpha male — normally the best hunter (not necessarily the strongest, but also sometimes the cleverest — or we would have ‘weeded out’ intelligence out of our species as well) — would become the chief. His prerogative, of course, was to take the most fertile and best gatherer among the women (the alpha female). Their descendants — basically, that’s us — would inherit the skills for hunting (either by strength or guile) from the father, and the skills in gathering (which later became ‘reading’ — more on that later) and family-raising from the mother.

Things, in general, went well for our prehistoric forefathers. Except when the weather was not good — and the animals they hunted would move — they could survive and even thrive in relative peace. So the human species reproduced itself, and started to spread. But sometimes there were clashes: when two tribes wanted access to the same hunting grounds, or even the same refuge. Then there was fighting. Eventually, it was just a skirmish, a few heads would get cracked, and that would be it; the losers would but it could become more serious than that, all hunters killed, all women taken away as prizes (thus ensuring the diversity of our gene pool).

Because we humans are story-tellers, it’s highly likely that such a tale of rape and destruction might have been told over and over again — repeated to the children, so that they learned about their enemies. And here we start to see a mentality change — ‘we’, the members of the clan, are ‘friends’ (meaning that we exhibit altruistic behaviour towards each other); ‘they’, the ones who fought us, are ‘enemies’ (meaning that we display aggressivity towards them).

But how would we distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’ in the tales? It’s very likely that we would have exaggerated some points — comparing them to beasts or demons, or of possessing supernatural powers. When ‘our’ clan killed members of the other clan, we would bring back some tokens — souvenirs, if you wish! — of our feats: perhaps the skull of an enemy, a weapon he had left behind, something like that. And slowly, each clan would have their own set of tales, repeated from generation to generation, but also their own tokens, and rites, and symbols that would clearly separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. For instance, ‘we’ would never dye our clothes red, because red was a stupid colour; we would dye them ochre, which is a much sensible colour. Only stupid people wear red. And when we see stupid people, we kill them!

It’s at this time that a new character appears in our tribe or clan — we can call him or her shaman, medicine man/woman, wise woman, wizard, witch… you pick your name. Basically it’s someone who is not a hunter nor a gatherer and who had the most important task in the whole tribe: to preserve the tales, or, if you wish, to be the guardian of the culture. This might sound bizarre until you think about it for a while. Remember, we still hadn’t invented writing. We would remember our feats of the past by telling stories to each other. But each member of our tribe has a specific task to do: hunters would be out hunting, or tweaking their weapons; women would be either taking care of the small children or picking berries or eventually doing other ‘house chores’, whatever they might have been in those days.

The shaman, however, had no such chores to perform. He or she didn’t hunt. Neither did they raise children. While they might have aided others — namely, by telling them how ‘our tribe’ dyes their clothes, or how we put those extra marks on the spears to identify ‘our’ tribe, and so forth — they would, in essence, perform magic and mystic rituals, tell stories (possibly educating the children), listen to new stories, giving advice, solving conflicts inside the tribe — by invoking how similar conflicts were solved in the past — possibly attempt some healing (magical or otherwise), and, well, in short, act as the tribe’s portable Wikipedia, if you wish. All that was a ‘cultural identity’ for that tribe would be the province of the shaman; and he or she would jealously preserve the ‘secret knowledge’ from other members of the tribe, except, of course, for their apprentices — ‘special’ members of the tribe, picked for their ‘special’ characteristics, and who would get instructed by the shaman in order to preserve the cultural values of the tribe for the forthcoming generations.

The intriguing aspect of the shaman is that he or she didn’t really have a ‘gender role’ — they were neither hunters, nor gatherers/children raisers. In fact, for all purposes, they were outside the gender binary. If you wish, they were transgender, and that’s the ironic bit: although they did not have a binary gender role, they would be fulcral for the tribe to ‘know’ what the gender roles are, how each gender ought to behave, how the society was organised, and so forth. The irony is that, although feminists usually blame the gender roles to the ‘male patriarchy’, it’s much more reasonable to admit that the gender roles were, in a way, ‘invented’ by the ‘transgender’ shamans. Such irony! 🙂

The evolutionary advantage of the shaman

I’m pretty sure that prehistoric homo sapiens did not have PhD’s in anthropology, sociology, and psychology, so one might wonder if the shaman were truly ‘transgender’, in the sense that we define it. And the answer is ‘probably not’. Instead, they would see the shaman as being ‘outside the gender roles‘, which is something entirely different. Early prehistoric language, for instance, very likely did not refer to the shaman as being a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. They might know that the shaman was technically either male or female (after all, he or she might have a surviving mother, who remembers having given birth to the shaman). But since it was the shaman who told everybody how to behave — and how to address each other! — it’s very, very likely that the shaman would have been addressed in a special, formal way — again, outside the binary gender roles.

How can I be so sure? Of course, since we’re talking about prehistoric times, by definition, we have no writing from that period; but hunter-gathering societies still persist in our times, even though they are very scarce. Notably, many Native American tribes have this concept of ‘two-spirited’ individuals — neither male, neither female, but both at the same time — who would perform the duties of a shaman or medicine man (and some still do, of course): essentially making sure that the lore of the tribe is preserved. And, for that, the shaman/medicine man cannot perform either the role of a ‘male’ or a ‘female’. They have to be outside the binary gender spectrum. They have to be ‘neutral’ regarding both genders — neither doing the work of any, neither ‘usurping’ the role of any of the genders.

Do you think this is so surprising? Not at all. What we call ‘institutionalised religion’ is a development of the ‘shaman’ concept, but at a much larger scale. Consider Buddhist monks, for instance: men and women dress the same way and shave their heads; and they ‘step outside’ society, neither acting the role of males or of females, but, instead, searching for enlightenment by following the rules of their own community — which has a completely different set of ‘rules’ (of lore, of culture…) than the community where they live. Not surprisingly, the monasteries were sources of knowledge and education; they keep books. And this is also what happened with Christianity in Europe. Note how Catholic priests are supposed to be unmarried: they are priests, not ‘family men’, and, as such, they also ‘step outside’ gender roles, dress differently from the rest of society, are celibate and don’t reproduce — well, most of the time at least 😉

But you see my point. No, it’s not a coincidence that ‘religions’ have been at the core of the cultural identity of a society (especially when such societies grew and grew, far beyond the ability of a single shaman to ‘control’ in terms of ethical values), and, for the most part, they adopt a role outside the gender binary. Technically, even though they are (probably) referred at as ‘men’ (say, in the Catholic church), they are addressed as ‘priests’, and, being celibate, do not participate in the ‘go forth and multiply thyself’ rule allegedly given by a god to its worshippers. They are, once again, ‘outside’ society — but strongly ‘influence’ society, because they establish society’s ethical rules and rules of behaviour.

Now, we would have to ask ourselves: why would a tribe with a shaman have a better evolutionary advantage than one without a shaman? Because all human societies, existing or now defunct, always had someone playing the role of shaman, we must conclude that this must be a very successful evolutionary strategy; or else, we would have societies with and without shamans, coexisting peacefully side-by-side. But this is not the case: all current human societies have some form of religion; atheism, even though it’s predominant in the West, is a comparatively recent development.

While we can borrow a lot of examples from other species to explain why our species behaves the way it does, often this is not so easy, because, unlike other species, ours is a story-telling species. That means that we can pass information inside a generation — education! — instead of having to patiently wait for uncountable generations of natural selection. This is a major advantage that we humans have (although I might argue that a lot of vertebrates also have it to a degree; we are just incredibly more sophisticated), but it also complicates purely evolutionary explanations. Thus, while it’s easy to argue why humans developed the ability to tell stories — those who learned how to speak could convey much more information inside a generation, and that is a formidable evolutionary advantage — it’s a bit more harder to argue that certain ‘memes‘ are subject to natural selection as well. In other words: do certain ‘memes’ convey an evolutionary advantage, while others don’t? This seem to be consistent with what some proponents of the ‘meme model’ are saying, like Dawkins. Not being able to certify this by myself, I would have to take their word for granted. After all, it seems obvious that a society that developed the meme ‘thy shall not murder thy neighbour’ has far better chances to reproduce and survive than a society which has no such rule (and, as said, where everybody eventually will kill each other, and the society will disappear). This would account for all societies having that rule: those who have developed it and passed it along future generations — that is, us — were the survivors of the evolutionary struggle.

And because all societies have developed the equivalent of the shaman, I seriously suspect that the ‘shaman meme’ is the same thing. For some reason, having a shaman conveys a significant evolutionary advantage to a tribe or clan; all those tribes and clans who did not have a shaman have died out. We’re the descendants — albeit much more sophisticated ones! — of those who had shamans.

Why? To be honest, your guess is as good as mine. At first it seems an evolutionary paradox: here is a person in the tribe that does not contribute to hunting, nor to gathering, nor to raising children (except, perhaps, for raising apprentices — more on that in a bit). They eat the food that the tribe altruistically gives them, as well as clothes, and possibly a place of refuge (a corner in the cave, a tent, a small hut — often passed from shaman to shaman, something we can see in the European witch tradition, for example). What do they get in return?

Well, my guess would be ‘order’ and a ‘sense of belonging’. Because the shaman would act as arbiter (after all, he or she was the only one who would know ‘the lore’…), that would give the tribe a sense of justice. The magic the shaman does, to avoid rain to fall out of season, or of beasts to appear at the designated places for being hunted… these are a form of controlling the universe on behalf of the tribe. Even though we know that magic doesn’t exist, prehistoric humans would most certainly accept a magical explanation of the incomprehensible universe. That explanation — another narrative — would give them a sense that the universe can be put in ‘order’ as well. Apparently, therefore, a society with rules as opposed to complete and utter anarchy seems to have an evolutionary advantage. That makes sense, especially when we take into account the altruistic behaviour necessary for such tribes to survive. By embodying such behaviour in a cultural set of values — weaving stories and tales to ‘explain’ their importance — the shaman was at the hub of, well, what makes humans human: the ability to tell stories, stories about themselves, to organise themselves and the environment around them, to figure out rules and laws and to adopt them for our own ways of life. This, in turn, gives us this sensation that the whole is bigger than its parts: we’re not just ‘a bunch of hunters and their wives gathering berries’. No, we are a tribe. We stand together to defend our values, our culture, our ethical stance, our behaviour towards our people and towards others.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s still the kind of speech that patriots (and, unfortunately, some nationalist extremists…) still have. Trickled down to us from the dawn of the human species, we still uphold similar concepts and ideas — similar memes. There is still a ‘sense of sharing’ a culture… ‘we humans’ include obviously those prehistoric humans who barely managed to survive. We still relate to them. And what could possibly be more proof than the reverence with which we look at prehistoric paintings in caves? Even though such paintings have been drawn thousands of generations ago, we still identify with them. They are still a part of our culture. Granted, a tiny, itsy-bitsy part of it. But if aliens one day come to visit us Earthlings, we would point to those drawings, explain the magical/narrative purpose they had, and say: ‘we are the descendants of these people’.

Now, again, I’m just guessing, but I think that this ‘sense of belonging’ that makes us wish to set rules to order things — a sense of controlling our chaotic environment — is at the core of what gave us an advantage in natural selection. Less organised, more chaotic tribes were ‘wiped out’ because they had less order, less rules, less ‘sense of belonging’ — perhaps to the point that they would sooner abandon their own tribe and run away than stay and fight for another day, because they did not see the point in doing otherwise. By contrast, those with a shaman dictating the ‘rules of culture’ would feel much strongly the duty they had towards their fellow tribespeople. They might have fought much harder — or much more cleverly — because they felt that they had something to lose, namely, the end of their culture.

Oral traditions are very, very strong. To these days, aborigines in Australia still recite to each other ‘oral maps’ — an accurate description on how to get from point A to point B. The only problem is that these descriptions refer to landmarks that existed ten thousand years ago. But we still have the magic narrative — the oral map — that has been passed from generation to generation: that’s how strong it is. And, again, those who had remembered their ‘oral maps’ would have had an advantage in locating food or shelter — because they knew where these things were, instead of randomly searching for them.

So… to conclude… when humans started to create order out of chaos, they got better chances at surviving. But that was the purpose of the shaman. Naturally enough, this strategy worked: we are the descendants of those tribes who had their shamans, and to this very day, we are still proud of our community, our culture, our nation. These are memes that we have successfully passed — shaman delivering them to shaman — for tens of thousands of generations, because those who had such memes did survive better than those who relied upon chaos and randomness.

Where do transgender people fit into this model?

A role for all

One of the things I always admired about Japanese culture is that it has found niches in it for all kinds of people. For instance, if you’re overweight and cannot do anything about it because it’s a chronic condition of your metabolism, then don’t worry: you can become a Sumo wrestler, which requires people to be grossly overweight. They are very much respected and revered (or were, before those scandals about ‘fixing’ matches broke out…) in Japanese society. And the same pretty much happens to all kinds of ‘weird’ people — there will always be some place for them in society, which is not humiliating, and allow you to lead a successful life, in spite of your ‘weirdness’.

I know that, in reality, things are not so rosy, not even in Japanese society. But I think that this principle still applies to give the vast variety of human beings a place in society. The concept of ‘equal opportunities’ was not really ‘invented’ in the 20th century. In fact, several religions proclaim the ‘equalness’ of all humans — even if in practice things are also not perfect, the concept is still there.

Let’s get back to our happy tribe in prehistoric times. Hunters are patiently sharpening their spears, while women take care of the babies, cook some stew, do some chores, mend some clothes. The shaman is happily chanting or dancing or doing something mystical so that tomorrow the sun rises again and the hunters find their prey. But the shaman is also on the watch for apprentices.

We have all heard the legends and stories about how witches would go out and find young girls that would become the next witches. They would all say that they had a ‘magic power’ which would tell them which girls were good for becoming apprentices. But in reality, religions still work that way, even in civilized nations. Just think of a few centuries back: the elder son would succeed the father — say, as a knight, a leader of armies, an estate manager — while the younger son… would become a priest. In Tibet, monks cross the country looking for the ‘next’ reincarnation of a famous teacher. And look what religions say: priests are somehow ‘chosen’, not selected; they have ‘innate characteristics’, or ‘vocation’, as they say among the Catholics. There is a magic narrative that explains why some people become shamans, witches, or priests. But where did this start from?

I would imagine a very simple explanation: those who were, for some reason — physical, social… — ‘unfit’ to play a fundamental part in society’s main roles would naturally be picked by the ‘religious’ leaders. In other words: they would look out for those that ‘didn’t fit’. I would guess that in prehistoric times, the shaman would look out for transgender kids, like him (or her). The shaman very likely remembers what happened to him (let’s assume it’s a ‘he’): his father wanted him to be the best hunter of the tribe, as befits the son of the chief. But he disliked spears. He hated killing animals. What he really wanted was to stay with his mother at home, listening to her tales, or perhaps to the tales of the shaman; and he was rather good at picking berries, too, as well as at mending clothes. When he was very young, his mother just smiled, and found it funny. But as he grew older, his father started to hit him. ‘That’s not the way a man behaves’, he would yell between blows. Well, then he didn’t want to be a ‘man’.

Fortunately, the former shaman found him, and asked his father to be allowed to train him as an apprentice. Because this was such an honour, his father grudgingly conceded. And on that day, he was separated from his family. The good news is that nobody would ever force him to raise a spear and kill an animal again. The bad news was that he would miss staying with the women and doing what the women did; but that was all right: he learned a lot of interesting things with the old shaman.

Now it was his time. He did the round of the tribe, as usual, looking for the signs: a young boy who isn’t playing with sticks, who isn’t running after other boys, who just wants to stay near his mother and sister and help them. This year, he was not lucky. But he could wait. Sooner or later, there would be another boy just like he used to be. There always were.

See how easily a narrative is spun 🙂 What I’m saying is simply that, at some point, transgender people would be ‘recruited’ by other transgender people to be part of the religious corps. In essence, being transgender — not fitting the gender role that was assigned at birth — was a privilege, an honour, because they would have the highest honour in the tribe: becoming the shaman, or the religious leader, or whoever was in charge of preserving the culture, the lore of the tribe.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, in India, the hijra are still part of a religious community, formed of all-hijra members (and a guru), and they routinely look out for other transgender boys to ‘recruit’ for their religious community. This is not the only example, of course, there are still some contemporary societies where transgender people are associated with religious communities, and have been so since the dawn of time. These are, in my opinion, the far echoes of a time when transgender people would be the religious organisation which kept the lore of the tribe(s) and their culture. It is rather strange to think of it in this way — the ‘transphobia’ of olden times was a sense of awe, of respect, of fully understanding that such people were different but special in their difference, because they would be performing an essential duty for the community — preserving its lore, its culture, its beliefs. Note how the meme of celibacy goes hand-in-hand with so many religious groups: again, an echo of transgender or intersex people who, not fitting into traditional roles, would not have been able to reproduce. Even though it’s obvious that most of the priests of modern religions are not celibate, and most definitely not transgender, some still ’emulate’ those strange traits of the ‘transgender priesthood’. Yes, Catholic priests still wear… frocks. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, the current conjecture is that the strong correlation between transgender people (as in: ‘not fitting in any gender role established by society’) and shamanism from prehistoric times was a very successful combination which gave such tribes or communities a distinct advantage over others. I’ve already argued the role of the shaman and its importance to give that ‘sense of belonging’ to the tribe. We just need to remember that the shaman was neither ‘male’ nor ‘female’, in the sense that he had neither gender role, and thus, from our perspective, he or she would have been ‘transgender’ (not fitting in the binary gender role). It little matters if actual MtF shamans did or not ‘dress as women’. We can see that the hijra do, indeed, dress as women — and that many other societies scattered across the globe, where transgender people play a religious role, will have MtF transgender individuals truly adopting the clothes and habits and essentially the social role of women in such societies (and the reverse, of course, would also be true). In other words: it makes little difference if those transgender shamans did present themselves as males, females, or as something entirely different, clearly presenting themselves as something which could not be confused either with a male or a female; very likely, each tribe had its own rules, its own codes, since today we can see that there is a spectrum of possibilities, in those communities which still have the ‘religious transgender’ as a role in their society.


Is all the above true and correct? 🙂 That’s a question worth asking. Clearly, because I have been totally unable to figure out who came up with the above theories, which I shamelessly copied (but at least I’m honest and humble enough to say that they are not my ideas), this article is not a scientific article. I’m only pointing you in a direction worth exploring, if you wish to see the ties between shamanism and transgenderity, but also an evolutionary explanation of why transgender people were ‘preserved’ by natural selection. As you can see, it involves a little more effort than explaining homosexuality — because, at the level of those 1,500 studied species, we can identify very well who is heterosexual and who isn’t, and sequence their genes, and test (validating or rejecting) our hypothesis. But we can’t ask fruit flies if they are transgender or not. Even on higher primates, where we can easily recognise homosexual behaviour as part of dominance games — or merely for fun! — it’s hard to figure out if gorillas and chimps are ‘transgender’ in the sense that we humans see it. A few authors have published anecdotal evidence of animals who have switched gender roles, e.g. males of a certain species who raised the offspring, when this was clearly a female role; so there is some evidence that transgenderity is much more widespread among the animal kingdom than we thought. However, it’s early to say how exactly transgenderity helped those species to have an advantage in natural selection; maybe someone has already published a paper on this very subject, but, if there is, I haven’t read it.

With the human species, however, we thread on firmer ground. Because we still have some hunter-gatherer societies around — and detailed anthropological studies from some which have disappeared in the 19th or 20th centuries — we can have a rough idea on how the ‘institution’ of shamanism emerged, what purpose it served, and, most importantly, why it conveyed a reproductive advantage in natural selection. We can also conjecture that the role of the shaman is distinct from either of the two gender roles; it’s not merely a ‘job’ or a ‘life choice’, but a completely distinct social role by itself, clearly neither male nor female. The ties between transgenderity — in the sense of ‘not fitting in one of the traditional gender roles’ — and religion are firmly established by many existing communities where this is the case, and which allegedly have been so for uncountable generations. While we might not have archaeological evidence showing that all shamans were transgender (simply because in prehistoric times there was no writing… so we cannot know how shamans thought!), the hypothesis that they were is consistent with existing, surviving hunter/gatherer societies where this is clearly the case (even if they don’t call the shaman ‘transgender’, nor the shaman labels himself or herself as ‘transgender’ but merely as ‘shaman’). The Two Spirit case that is still present in many Native American tribes is particularly interesting, because it’s still a living tradition which exemplifies this conjecture very well.

Civilization — the discovery of agriculture and the move to permanent structures that we call ‘cities’ — might have changed the whole institution of shamanism, but it was not abolished, merely transmuted into what we call ‘institutional religion’. We still have signs that religious people do not ‘fit’ in the traditional gender roles, but are outside them. Those religions based on the Bible which forbid their priests to marry and raise a family, but who instead make a vow of chastity and dress differently from the established attire for the gender assigned to them at birth still show those echoes — and the same, of course, also happens in the East, and not only on Buddhist monasteries where women and men are dressed in exactly the same way and subject to exactly the same duties — there are plenty of examples like that. I would argue that all of them point to a much earlier age when it was quite clear that everything related to the lore that binds a culture together was preserved by those who did not have one of the social gender roles, but rather were outside the ‘gender system’. They were transgender — and seemingly that was a good strategy for a tribe to survive, to reproduce, and get an advantage in natural selection over the other tribes competing for the same habitat.

Of course, it remains to be explained what exactly the ‘transgender genes’ are for the theory to be complete. While we get more and more studies showing variations between certain brain areas in males, females, and transgender people, as far as I know, we still don’t have a genetic/hereditary explanation for those variations. But that might be forthcoming. Needless to say, because it’s much harder to study transgenderity in simple organisms (like fruit flies), it might be much, much harder to develop a complete theory — one that includes a genetic explanation as well as a logical one — that accounts for everything. In particular, suppose that we can establish that there are ‘transgender genes’ which are carried from generation to generation. We ought to be able, through some testing, to determine how ‘old’ these genes are, and we also have some DNA from humans tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago — do they have the same genes? Very likely the answer will be ‘yes’, but this still remains to be proven.

In any case, I think that this is a reasonably good explanation which fulfills one of the more important tenets — being consistent with evolutionary theories, and providing possible mechanisms — that can be validated or falsified in the future — to prove that this theory is valid. Now it’s up to the researchers in the field to think if this is an area worth pursuing or not.

Until that happens, this just remains an interesting conjecture which answers a lot of questions 🙂