The New York Times has finally gone to the rats. Far be it for me, a guy who pretends to be an escapee from a lab maze, to complain, except an [article] they published — another in a seemingly endless series about genes and behavior — is a little more absurd than most. Somehow they go from a finding about genetic factors in animal domestication to suggested causes of “human domestication”. I think that used to be called… society. Presto! Ten thousand years of history, philosophy, politics and literature are reduced to the suggested impact of “a single gene that affects the timing of neural crest cell development”. Spare us.
In a [recent post] I wailed about those who try to reduce complex human characteristics and behaviors to simple genetic factors. Since I wrote, the New York State Court of Appeals [denied rights] to homosexual couples — their decision turning largely on a notion of essential qualities lacking in gay people (namely, ability to procreate and parent), and last week a [particularly bizarre] resurrection of the debate over whether people are born gay lit up the blogs. From hypothesized “God genes”, that give rise to religious experience, to genes that make us engineers or gamblers, the search is on for the keys to our nature. But it is the obsessive debate over genetic determinants of sexual identity, specifically homosexual attitudes and behavior, that is perhaps the most persistent example of the desire to reduce people to a fundamental biological essence. Not since the Nazi obsession with eugenics and its relation to the “Jewish problem” have we seen such obsessive attention to what determines the characteristics of a class of people. The difference is that, this time, it’s the Left that embraces the idea of essential difference — with the attendant risks — and it’s the Right that argues for a more inclusive anti-essentialism.
By inclusive I don’t mean an approving or even charitable acceptance, far from it. Rather, a resistance to cede moral agency to the chromosome. Gays are not a different species; they’re just fallen members of the group we all belong to. Conservatives oppose homosexuality because they believe it is not intrinsic, that young people can be coerced into the lifestyle and thus lose the opportunity for fulfilling lives as heterosexuals. It is chosen behavior and, perforce, immoral. The other side sees homosexuality as fundamental for some, there from birth. Moral agency is no more the issue than it would be over any other intrinsic quality, like eye color. What neither side can imagine is that it’s probably neither intrinsic nor coercive. Not innate. Not chosen.
Popular Science Fiction
The history of the science itself is a rather short story. Back in the early 90’s two gay scientists, Simon LaVey, a specialist in the neuroscience of vision and Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, strayed from their professional fields of expertise (already a worrisome sign) to engage in research that sought biological correlates of “homosexuality”. With such an obvious agenda and ill-defined purview it is not surprising that they found something. What was surprising was the eagerness with which the public embraced their tentative and suspect findings. As John Horgan, a science writer who has examined the track record of these researchers has [reported], their findings were never replicated and, at least among scientists, have largely faded from consideration. Not surprising given how wrong-headed most if not all of these studies are. Even when the personal and political agenda of the scientists involved is not so glaring, they all fail the most basic requirement of science — careful definition of that which they attempt to explain. Unlike a discrete behavioral syndrome like Tourette’s, which is invariant across cultures and historical epochs, “homosexuality” is highly variable in its expression and meaning across and within cultures and even within individuals at different times in their life. In the February 2006 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Cornell psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams publishes cross-cultural and cross-lifespan data [article copyrighted, can be purchased here] showing that the incidence of “homosexuality” varies from 1% to a whopping 21% depending upon a person’s gender and how and when in their life it is defined. The attempt to discover biological substrates of such variable and diverse phenomena is futile. They’re looking in the wrong place.
Understanding human sexual orientation requires placing individuals within a cultural and interpersonal context that gives their sexual identity meaning — a psychological and sociological project. Something like psychologist Daryl Bem’s “exotic becomes erotic” [theory], which aims to explain both gay and straight orientation, is more fruitful in understanding the complex interplay between male and female gender identity and homosexual and heterosexual orientation within a given culture. Bem’s theory, which posits sexual preference as an emergent property of gender (non-)conformity, sees an individual’s self-perceived gender atypicality as the engine that drives homosexual orientation. What might cause the perceived difference between oneself and the other little boys or girls? Could be anything from traits like level of aggression and novelty avoidance to, perhaps, those arcane differences that the biological reductionists are so curious about. But, significantly, in Bem’s theory none of these factors is determinative. It’s possible that those with perceived difference might not turn out gay. It’s more open-ended, more accommodating to the indeterminate complexity of actual human experience. However, that is not to say that orientation is plastic forever — over time, as behavior and self-image coalesce into a sexual orientation, it becomes less and less likely that change is possible. Here’s a (too) simple analogy: with sufficient motivation someone could learn to walk on their hands and attempt to do so for the rest of their life — but it would not be easy and would never feel “natural”. And, of course, to entreat someone to do such a thing would be cruel. That may be news to the conservative scolds.
The Risks of Genetic Fundamentalism
Even if Bem’s theory is superseded by something better, I think the truth will end up looking very much like it. And very much unlike what currently passes for understanding of human sexual orientation. Does it matter to the culture war combatants? Unlikely. Though the science is bogus, gays and their supporters still embrace it as a given. On the other side, conservatives happily reject the biologically determinant project but also turn a blind eye to the fact that people almost never successfully change the path they are on. Richard Lewontin, a biologist and [critic of reductionism], would say that each side tries to ground their larger political vision in a vision of nature, seen through their own biases. Conservatives, raised in a culture of culpability and redemption, will reject anything that seems to threaten moral agency about matters — sexual behavior and gender identity — so central to human life.
For liberals, the appeal of the biological theory lies in its “face validity” — a theory that says you’re gay or straight from birth feels right when we remember our early childhood personalities and experiences. It also acts as a defense to the charges of unnaturalness from conservatives and, I suspect, not a little internalized homophobia — Don’t blame me for what I am, I was made this way — by Nature! But we know from psychology, like Gilbert’s [work on happiness], that memory is a notoriously unreliable gauge of our past experience and attitudes. And the “I can’t help it” defense is politically regressive because it implicitly accepts that homosexuality is something that one would change if one could. While there are certainly practical downsides to homosexual orientation as it currently exists these are not caused by homosexuality per se, but rather by social intolerance and the concomitant lack of sufficiently robust social structures supporting happy healthy homosexual lifestyles. And that is rooted in fear and loathing of what is perceived as unnaturally different and threatening.
This is the great risk of embracing a biological fundamentalism when it comes to sexual orientation, intelligence or any number of other complex human characteristics — it can backfire badly by fostering rigidity in the definition of what it means to be human and can promote in-group/out-group stereotyping and ghettoization. We’ve seen in Nazi Germany the dire consequences of ghettoization — also in our own country’s struggle with racial segregation and again in the 1980’s with AIDS. The feverish spread of that disease through the gay ghettos was as much a sociological phenomenon as a biological one. What was the radical AIDS political movement of the 1980’s and 90’s but an extraordinary attempt to remind the larger society of the humanity of those in a ghettoized subculture?
We are more than our genes. More even than our brains. Remember that the next time you read an article in a Big Important Newspaper about some nasty old rats.