North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Gay genes and the SSM debate

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From Dissect the Left I found my way to this news release from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) about a forthcoming study on genetics and gay male behavior. Says spokesperson Brian Mustanski:

“There is no one ‘gay’ gene,” said Mustanski, a psychologist in the UIC department of psychiatry and lead author of the study. “Sexual orientation is a complex trait, so it’s not surprising that we found several DNA regions involved in its expression.”

“Our best guess is that multiple genes, potentially interacting with environmental influences, explain differences in sexual orientation.”

So far, so good. Nothing said here is controversial. It is common knowledge in genetics that the manner in which a gene expresses itself is not absolute. It may act one way with one particular bunch of genes that it finds itself with, and it may act differently with another bunch. The common lingo of genes “causing” this or that papers over this important nuance.

Another important thing to notice is that when we talk about genes doing this or that, we usually mean that it influences form when paired with such and such other genes. It adds height, or it colours hair and so on. This is not controversial. There is also debate about how the external environment affects gene expression. There is less consensus here, as this is a hard area to test (too many variables).

What is very controversial indeed is the idea that genes can influence or even determine behavior. There are a rash of books available on a subject called evolutionary psychology (EP). A while back, I read a lot of them. I’ve since become more skeptical about this idea as I have come to think that it can’t be easily separated from simple determinism without something approaching a religious mystery. EP seems to take Darwinism to the materialist breaking point.

Darwinism still allows room for us to be free, and not determined. We can allow a divine spark to set evolution off on its way and that same spark can account for our ability to have free action in a world that can appear to have mechanical regularity. But EP seems to snuff out our freedom by saying that even the deepest recesses of our minds are not really real. The “I” is a evolutionary adaption, and a successful one.

I have come to think that this is a deeply troubled view. I’ve used the Argument from Reason many times on this blog, and it seems to me to be a very successful challenge to material determinism. Any author who takes up material determinism seems to cut his feet out from under himself. By his own argument, he doesn’t really exist as anything other than an evolutionary mirage. His words and ideas hardly fare any better.

To be taken seriously, one must have some degree of freedom. There must be a degree of risk in one’s actions. When Windows crashes we are angry but we don’t hold Windows accountable. It isn’t free and it can’t be wrong. Bill Gates and the rest of the MS crew, however…

Now, finally, the politics.

How unconstrained do we have to be before we are free? It is a common argument from more left leaning circles that the poor are not free because they have to do X and Y just to survive, and that takes up all of their time. Thus, the argument goes, if we give them X and Y, we will advance the cause of freedom. The trouble is that X and Y are not free and forcing others to supply them creates a new constraint, one that is not natural, but is, instead, political. This is a great danger as that political constraint can be exploited by various groups seeking power in various ways.

The gay lobby has largely taken up this left liberal way of reasoning and sought to exploit politically imposed constraint in a zero sum effort to advance their cause. They use the gay gene theory to prove that their behavior is caused. They are unfree in a way comparable to the poor in the above example. Therefore, the argument goes, they must be given X in order be free. It’s a shaky argument on behalf of the poor and it fares no better here.

As we’ve seen, the gay gene theory is unproven and there is unlikely to be a gay gene in the manner in which the rhetoric would seem to need it. What we are looking at is a gene or genes, acting together in some environment (internal and/or external) that either influence behavior or determine it.

1) Genetic Determinism. There is something very awkward about arguing from constraint to imposed freedom, especially when we are talking about something much less resistible than an economic system – such as the wiring in our bodies. After all, if one group is subject to these constraints, so are the others, albeit they manifest differently. It stands to reason that if there is a gene that “causes” something as complex as gay behavior, there will be genes for other behaviors. A gene that “causes” altruism and another that “causes” petty crime, and so on. If these behaviors are indeed caused, can they be taken seriously? If there is a gene for violent or otherwise undesirable behavior, can we just get rid of people carrying those genes? Jail them, kill them? The people holding those genes would not be able to affect their behavior so asking them to would be foolish. If we did that jail them or kill them, would we, in turn, simply be protecting our genes? That couldn’t be wrong, could it? In what sense could anything be wrong in that universe? Including Eugenics? Aborting gay or other so called “undesirables”?

Politically, the case for respect from determinism has worked now, when public understanding of genetic effects is low. I’m not sure that’s the best long term strategy, however. Policy based on unproven science alone (and all science is one experiment from away from being called into question) is a dicey thing. When the hypothesis that favoured you falls out of favour the tables can turn mightily. Furthermore, logically, far from aiding the cause of freedom, this argument from determinism seems to eliminate freedom altogether. How can one genetically unfree group grant freedom to another?

2) Genetic Influence. If arguing genetic determinism destroys the freedom it seeks to win, arguing genetic influence on behavior is better and more realistic but still short of winning the case for SSM. Critics could just say that they can control it if they want to.

My point here is twofold. I don’t think that gays are “caused” in the way that we usually speak about it – and as a result, we have to take them seriously. They are constrained -as are we all. We take our thoughts and ideals seriously despite the constraint and the same favour needs to be extended to gays. Claiming gay causation does not advance the case, it weakens it, making it prone to scientific revisionism. A more prudent case for gay respect would be based on a well argued case for the metaphysics of justice, which apply to gays as much as anyone. It would need to avoid trying to ride on the coattails of race based civil rights battles. Race is genetically determined, but race does not tell us the details about the behavior of an individual. In fact, the genetic argument for racial equality is the inverse of the genetic argument for gay equality. The first claims that behavior is not determined, and the second that it is.

Gay genes and determinism are a bit of a red herring in the marriage debates because the question is at least as much about the nature of marriage as it is about the participants. Is it about 1) getting what I want? Is it 2) about an environment of submission and giving? Liberals generally chose option one, conservatives option two. While I favour the conservative answer, one could make a case based on getting what I want. It has logical coherence and is not subject to a revision by science.

Perhaps the solution is instituions that are couple centered and child centered, leaving the question of gay and straight out of it. This avoids the discrimination charge that some heap on the idea of a different sort of institution for gays and it keeps marriage focused on the creation of healthy new citizens in a way that the current situation does not.


Written by Curt

February 15, 2005 at 6:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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