Metaphysics, Science, and Homosexuality
I have been getting an exceptional quantity of mail — paper mail, not e-mail — about a piece I wrote for National Review last December. The piece, titled "Our Crisis of Foundations," was a loose rumination on current metaphysical confusions in the Western world.
Not many of my correspondents were interested in metaphysics. What mainly caught their eyes, and what they wanted to take issue with, were the following two sentences:
It is now taken for granted, for example, that homosexuality is a biological attribute of the human organism. "I was born this way!" the modern homosexual tells us, and science confirms that in most cases, if not exactly all, this is true.
This was just by way of illustrating a larger point:
Yet just a few decades ago, well within the memory of middle-aged people, homosexuality was thought of not as a thing people were, but as something they did … Here, in a largish area of life and jurisprudence, the self has yielded to the organism, morality to biology.
National Review readers, the ones who wrote to me, disagreed rather strongly with what I said in those first two sentences — or actually, more often, with what they mistakenly supposed I said. They protested, sometimes quite angrily, at my implication that homosexuality is inborn. No, they said, it is chosen, and science has proved this to be so.
I had some exchanges with the editors over at the magazine (who had themselves received and read some portion of the letters) about whether I could produce a crisp reply to the generality of these readers, a representative letter from one of whom would then be printed in the "Letters" pages of NR, with my riposte underneath. After some struggles, I found I could not condense a satisfactory response to the small word-count required, and we dropped the idea.
I hate to leave things like this hanging, though, and have no time to write letters in reply to all those who took the trouble to write to me. By the magic of the Internet, however, I can answer them fully and carefully here on NRO, and I am going to give over this column to the task.
In the first place, the main point I was making was not about homosexuality, but about current attitudes, and the metaphysics that underlies them. Whether homosexuals are indeed "born that way" is one question; whether it is "taken for granted" in modern society that they are, is a separate and independent question. Either thing could be true without the other being true. That the second is true seems to me too obvious to be worth arguing. Even the Roman Catholic Church, while condemning homosexual acts as sinful, concedes that the predilection to such acts may be inborn, in which case homosexuals "are called to chastity." (Article 2359 of the current Catechism.)
Leaving that aside, what are the causes of homosexuality — the predilection, not the acts (which I assume to be caused by free will prompted by the predilection)? I can list a baker's dozen of theories that I have heard or seen written up at one time or another. In very approximate order of scientific respectability, as best I can judge it, the theories are:
- Satan. Homosexuality may be a manifestation of Satan's work. While the least scientific of current theories, this one is probably the most widely believed, taking the world at large. Most devout Muslims, for example, believe it, and so do many Christians.
- Social Constructionism. There is no such thing as homosexuality. There are only heterosexual and homosexual acts, which different cultures regard differently. The notion of "homosexuality" as a personality attribute is a 19th-century invention.
- Brain damage. Some insult to the tissues of the brain, perhaps at birth or in infancy, causes homosexuality.
- Choice. People choose to prefer their own sex over the other.
- Freudian. The Freudian belief is that having a weak father and/or dominant mother can form the child's personality in the direction of homosexuality.
- Social stress. Rats kept in overpopulated environments, even when sufficient food and access to females are available, will become aggressively homosexual after the stress in the environment rises above a certain level.
- Imprinting. The individual's early sexual history can "imprint" certain tendencies on animals and humans. Many homosexuals report having been same-sexually molested in childhood or youth.
- Socialization theories. The high levels of homosexual bonding in some ancient and primitive societies suggests that the common mores of a culture have some power to socialize large numbers of people into homosexuality.
- Genetics, direct. Homosexuality is the expression of some gene, or some combination of genes.
- Womb environment — too much of a good thing. The presence of certain hormone imbalances during critical periods of gestation can have the effect of hyper-masculinizing the brain of a male infant. Paradoxically — there are plausible biological arguments — this might lead to the infant becoming homosexual.
- Infection. Homosexuality may be caused by an infectious agent — a germ or a virus. This is the Cochran/Ewald theory, which made a cover story for the February 1999 Atlantic Monthly.
- Genetics, indirect. Homosexuality may be an undesirable (from the evolutionary point of view) side effect of some genetic defense against a disease — analogous to the sickle-cell anemia mutation, a by-product of genetic defenses against malaria, negative to the organism but nothing like as negative, net-net, as susceptibility to malaria.
- Womb environment — too much of the wrong thing. Similar; but here the effect of the rogue hormones is to feminize the brain of a male infant. (I assume that there are theories corresponding to 10 and 13 for female infants, though I have never seen them documented.)
Note that theories number 9, 10, 12, 13, and conditionally (depending on the age at injury or infection) 3 and 11, could all be taken as saying that homosexuality is "inborn," while only two of these six theories have anything to do with genetics. The confusion between "genetic" and "inborn" is epidemic among the general public, however, to the despair of science writers. To readers suffering from that confusion — an actual majority of those who wrote to me suffer from it — I recommend the purchase of a good dictionary.
Which of these theories is true? In the current state of our understanding, I don't believe that anyone can say for sure. From what I have seen of the scientific literature, I should say that numbers 12 and 13 currently hold the strongest positions, with much, though I think declining, interest and research in 9 and 10, modest but growing interest in 11, and some lingering residual attachment to 6, 7, and 8. The other theories are not taken seriously as major determinants of sexual orientation by anyone doing genuine science, so far as I know. If anyone has information to the contrary, I should be interested to look at it — though I should only be interested in research written up in a respectable peer-reviewed journal of the human sciences.
My own favorite is the infection theory, number 11. I favor it because it seems to me to be the most parsimonious — always a good reason for favoring a scientific theory. Until an actual agent of infection can be identified, however, the infection theory must remain speculative and the evidence circumstantial.
The theories involving genetics all suffer from mathematical problems. Homosexuality imposes such a huge "negative Darwinian load" on the affected organism that it is hard to see how genes inclining to homosexuality could persist for long in any population. Various ingenious theories have been cooked up in attempts to finesse the issue — the mellifluously named "kind gay uncle" hypothesis, for example — but nobody has been able to make the evolutionary math work. Which is baffling, because there are persistent nagging hints, in identical-twin studies for instance, that homosexuality does have some genetic component. Science is full of conundrums like this, to the delight of unscientific cranks, who leap on them as evidence of supernatural intervention. History shows that these puzzles always get resolved sooner or later in a natural way, however, sending the "God of the Gaps" traipsing off to find a new place where he can hang his starry cloak for a while.
The "socialization" theories, while not scientifically contemptible, do not hold up well under rigorous examination. It is indeed true that large numbers of men and women, deprived of the companionship of the opposite sex by confinement or social custom, will form erotic bonds with their own sex. As soon as the constraints are removed, however, the great majority revert to heterosexuality. Graduates of English boys' boarding schools marry and raise families; the convict who spent his sentence bullying weaker inmates into giving him sexual gratification will, upon his release, immediately seek out old girlfriends. Lab studies — measuring sexual arousal caused by various kinds of images, for instance — confirm that the great majority of people everywhere are, in their inner lives, heterosexual, however they may express themselves under the constraints of their immediate environment.
The "choice" theory, which most of my correspondents seem to cleave to, has as its main supporting evidence the fact that some people have been "converted" from a homosexual lifestyle to a heterosexual one, usually by counseling, often by religious conversion. I don't myself find this very impressive. The numbers involved are small, and these conversions seem to fall into the category of fringe phenomena you are bound to get when investigating something as complex and variable as the human personality. The prospect of all the world's homosexuals, or even any percentage of them with more than one digit to the left of the decimal point, being converted to heterosexuality en masse is not, I think, one for which we should hold our breath.
My own inclination, therefore, is to believe that most homosexuality is inborn, or acquired early in life, possibly by infection, or by biochemical imbalances in the womb, perhaps helped along by some genetic predisposition. As I have said, the human personality is a thing of fantastic complexity and mystery, and I am sure there are cases of socialization, "imprinting," and conversion (in both directions), too. These are, however, fringe phenomena, occurring in small numbers. Most homosexuality is, I believe, inborn, or acquired very early in life.
Probably a lot of people have always believed this on the plain evidence of their senses — on the commonplace observation, for example, that effeminate little boys are much more likely to end up homosexual than are their more masculine coevals. One of the first remarks I can ever recall hearing on the subject of homosexuality was said by a female relative of my parents' generation circa 1960: "Poor things! They can't help it." That was not the attitude of the Western world's political, jurisprudential, opinionating and academic elites at that time, however. Now, it is; and that was the change I was writing about.
The issue is confused by the fact that homosexualists, who obviously have the biggest axe to grind here, are the most vocal proponents of the can't-help-it school of thought. "We are born this way," they say. "Therefore it is mean of you to discriminate against us!" Whether the second proposition follows from the first, I shall come to in a moment. That they are indeed born that way, though, I find highly probable. Since I am not a homosexualist, nor even a homosexual (the first of those words names a type of ideologue; the second, a type of personality), and in fact believe that homosexual behavior is a social negative, and ought to be discouraged, it's a bit odd to find myself in the same theoretical company as the homosexualists.
I am, in fact, though I say this with all appropriate modesty, something of a hate figure to the more fanatical kind of homosexualists, as you can easily see by googling my name. One well-known homosexualist has for several years been running an energetic campaign to get me fired from National Review. That I am in broad agreement with these folk about the inborn nature of their abnormality therefore puts me in company with people who hate me, and whom I myself generally dislike. There is not much point in being embarrassed about this. That's science for you. Science is "cold," and doesn't care what we think or wish for. (This is a point about science that many people simply cannot grasp. The opposite of science is not religion; the opposite of science is wishful thinking.) Some things are true even though homosexualists say they are true.
As to what the consequences for our attitudes and public policies should be, supposing I am right about the causes of homosexuality, I offer the following.
I don't think that the fact of a predilection being inborn should necessarily lead us to a morally neutral view of the acts it prompts. If you could prove to me that pyromania is inborn, I should not feel any better disposed towards arson. On the other hand, I should have a somewhat more sympathetic attitude towards arsonists than I had before. In that spirit, I favor a tolerant attitude towards homosexuals. I certainly do not believe, as around forty percent of Americans say they do, that homosexual acts ought to be illegal.
I can't even agree with the Roman Catholic church that homosexuals are "called to chastity." While I have nothing against chastity per se — I think it can be an honorable choice for a person to make in some circumstances, and would even go so far as to say that I believe the current very low status of chastity in popular culture is regrettable — it seems to me arrogant and unkind to tell people that they are "called to chastity" if they do not hear the call themselves.
Homosexual behavior is a social negative, suggesting as it does that normal heterosexual pairing, the bedrock institution of all societies, is merely one of a number of possible, and equally moral, "lifestyles," and thereby devaluing that pairing — perhaps, on the evidence from Scandinavia presented by our own Stanley Kurtz on this site, fatally. Male homosexuality is also the source of unpleasant public health problems (and was so even before the rise of AIDS). And for those like myself who believe (see above) that "conversion" in both directions is possible, however occasionally, the old charge against homosexuals that they corrupt youth still has some force.
Further, homosexuality is offensive to believers in all three of the major Western religions, who form a large majority of the American population. I think that while minority rights ought to be respected, civic majorities ought not be asked to endure gross offense for the sake of abstract metaphysical or juridical theories, unless dire and dramatic injustices like chattel slavery are in play. Majorities have rights too; and while I want to see minority rights respected, I don't think that every minor inconvenience consequent on being a member of a minority should be raised to the level of an intolerable injustice requiring drastic legislative or judicial remedy. We all have to put up with some inconveniences arising from our particular natures and the prevailing codes in our society.
Tolerance is not approval; and while I do not agree with the Roman Catholics that homosexuals are "called to chastity," I do think that they are called to restraint, discretion, reticence, and a decent respect for the opinions of the majority. As a conservative, I certainly do not think that they ought to be allowed to transform long-established institutions like marriage on bogus grounds of "fairness." Nor do I think they should be allowed to advertise their preference to high-school students, as they do in some parts of this country. Nor should they be strutting about boasting of "pride" in their dismal condition. (How can you feel pride in something you believe you can't help?) There is no fairness in majority sensibilites being outraged to appease tiny activist minorities, where no suffering stronger than hurt feelings is involved.
So far as those sentences in my National Review article to which so much objection has been made, though: Yes, I believe it is now taken for granted that homosexuality is a biological attribute of the human organism, either inherited or acquired in the course of early development; and yes, so far as I can judge, science does confirm that in most cases, if not exactly all, this is true.