February 2019 Item of the Month
A 1970s ethological approach to sexuality
This month we celebrate LGBT History month, with its 2019 theme of Peace, Activism and Reconciliation. It’s specifically in relation to activism that Don Smith’s pamphlet has been chosen for our item of the month.
Smith was a member of the University of London’s Students of Human Ethology Society. As part of this society Smith, who identifies himself as gay, in 1978 wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Why are there “Gays” at all? Why hasn’t evolution eliminated “gayness” millions of years ago?’ He sets out in the pamphlet to use human ethology, the study of human behaviour and social organization from a biological perspective, to propose that “gays and gayness is as much an integral part of the natural order of nature as the sun and the moon and the birds and bees and the winds and rain and trees and the flowers”. Smith views this as an important part of defending the civil and human rights of the gay community, which, Smith argues, at the time were “frail”, “fragile” and “flimsy”, and at risk of anti-gay lobbyists’ arguments centring around gay people being “unnatural freaks”.1
Found with this pamphlet is a letter Smith wrote to Mrs Mary Midgley in 1980. Midgley was a lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University, where her interest in ethology led to the publication of her first book Beast and Man in 1979. Smith mentions that he had sent to her his pamphlet after reading her piece about ‘Selfish Genes’ in the New Scientist. This highlights two things: one, that Smith’s ideas fitted into a larger argument made by Midgley and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, around a gene-centred view of evolution. Secondly, that Smith was aware of Midgley’s and Dawkins’s debates. Midgley famously once asserted that she had "not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to 'break a butterfly upon a wheel'”2,a reference to torture which she later felt necessary to apologise for.3 However, despite the points highlighted here, there is no evidence from her archive that she either read or responded to Smith’s letter or pamphlet.
The content of his letter further reveals that he not only wrote and published the pamphlet but that the society he belonged to had also sent out around 500 copies to different scientists across the universities of Britain. There is also a list of those he had contacted locally, including Professors K. Burton, S. W. Glover and J. Shaw, all from Newcastle University. Here we can see Smith vigorously campaigning to bring about political and social change, incidentally one of the most popular definitions of activism.
Contrary to the proactive image of Smith’s activism that forms in our minds when viewing his letters, his own comments, found in his pamphlet, leave us with the bitter taste of his disillusionment. He notes his participation in the Gay Liberation Front, which he criticises for a lack of unity. He states that “the novelty of the trendy slogans wore off” and that “the marches and banners seemed to be tedious repetition of previous marches and previous banners”. He goes on to describe the dialogue between gay and anti-gay fronts as “but a slanging match between five year olds”, an interesting observation around thirty years later for those of us who use Twitter. It’s through his discovery of ethology that he seems to have found a new purpose, which he vividly describes as an urge to get modern scientists “by the balls and twist and twist hard and twist long”. This is typical of Smith’s style which could be described as combative.
It was during this past week when sitting in the office surrounded by notes, books and pencils, trying to plan LGBTQ+ activities across our heritage collections (which you can look forward to experiencing later this year) that a colleague described the author of this short piece as an activist. I am still not entirely convinced by this label, but it did bring a new significance to Smith’s final rallying cry to “unfurl your new banners and chant your new slogans”. Whilst I may not follow his instructions for “marching on the modern biologist”, one element of his work has a particular resonance. His aim to use human ethology to view sexuality in the wider context of human behaviour reflects the belief central to our projects yet to come; as so beautifully put by Susan Ferentinos, “presenting LGBT history is not simply an exercise in inclusivity. Rather, a focus on outsiders has the potential to reveal a great deal about societies as a whole.”4