Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Burr on homosexuality's biological origins:

Chandler Burr is probably the best advocate for the notion that homosexuality is a biological, structural trait that is clearly not a choice.

The above link provides lots of interesting information. It gives another extremely useful analogy to homosexuality: left-handedness. The analogy however, shouldn't be overused, given that left-handedness in no way implies sexual behavior and homosexuality does. The analogy is most useful in demonstrating the unchosen and "built-in" (structural) aspect of homosexuality. In other words, saying something along the lines of (as the religious right commonly does) "every time a homosexual chooses to have sex, he is making voluntary, conscious choice, thus homosexuality is a chosen phenomenon" may be technically true but makes about as much sense as "every time a left-handed baseball player chooses to bat left-handed instead of right-handed, he is making a voluntary, conscious choice, thus left-handedness is a chosen phenomenon."

As the Burr article demonstrates, the parallels between the two orientations are striking. If homosexuality is a "behavioral" phenomenon, then so too is left-handedness. In terms of identical twins, left-handedness, like homosexuality has high concordance rates, and unlike with eye-color or hair-color, identical twins often have different types of handedness. In fact, as Burr notes:

But -- surprise -- with sexual orientation, both twins share the trait homosexuality more often than they do left-handedness -- yet no one would claim this is evidence that left-handedness is a "chosen alternative lifestyle" because left-handedness isn't seen as a moral issue -- any more.

We've often been told that "there is no gay gene" because a "smoking gun" gene has yet to be identified. But guess what, no "left-handed gene" has been identified either. And there is no more evidence of a "left-handed gene" than a gay gene.

Here's another thing most people don't understand: We don't need to discover the genes to know that you don't "choose" your sexual orientation any more than we need to find eye-color genes to know you don't "choose" your eye color. We're closing in on the genes that make us heterosexual or homosexual. Geneticists, using the clinician's research, have begun to look for the underlying biological determinants of heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality. In ten, twenty, or thirty years, we'll probably have figured it out. We've got the basics already. In early 2005 in the highly-respected biomedical journal Human Genetics, the team of Dr. Brian Mustanski of the University of Illinois at Chicago identified three chromosomal regions linked to sexual orientation in men: 7q36, 8p12, and 10q26....No one questions that blue eyes occur more frequently in Caucasians than in Asians, but we don't know this by finding the genes for eye color; we know it by clinical observation of the distribution of eye color in people all over the world. No one questions that about 7.8% of all human beings are left-handed, but we don't get that information from genes -- in fact, as of yet, we have no idea where the genes for handedness are -- we get it, again, from clinical observation. We don't need to find the genes for sexual orientation to know that people don't "choose" to be heterosexual any more than we need to find genes for handedness to know that people don't "choose" to be right-handed. Among scientists, this is as obvious as the sky being blue.

A couple of comments. I think that the "choice" matter of homosexuality can be overplayed by both sides. Homosexuality isn't the only other thing, like left-handedness, that can be reduced to "this isn't a choice but part of my make-up." See this article by Virginia Postrel.

For instance, if we discovered that pedophilia or the desire of men to sexually dominate women had similar biological or evolutionary groundings in human nature, that wouldn't make them any less wrong.

Ultimately, the same thing that justifies homosexuality is the same thing that justifies left-handedness. And that is this: Clearly there is nothing "wrong" with the underlying behavior. Rather, a southpaw can use his left-hand to do good things (like petting his dog with his left hand) or bad things (like beating his children with his left hand) or indifferent things (like playing guitar left-handed). Similarly, one can have moral, immoral, or morally neutral homosexual sex.

And given that there is nothing wrong with the underlying behavior, we might expect to see people who don't have the primary orientation participating in the behaviors nonetheless, if they so desire. Here is where the analogy may begin fall apart a little because just about everyone is ambidextrous to *some* extent (for instance, I -- a righty -- am typing this post with both hands), but it's doubtful that everyone is bisexual to *some* extent. I believe that a lot of folks probably do have pure homosexual or heterosexual orientations.

But, on the other hand, I don't believe that the 97% of society that self-identifies itself as "heterosexual" has a "pure" heterosexual orientation. Cross-cultural studies indicate that a shockingly high rate of any given society's heterosexual population has the ability to enjoy homosexual acts to *some* extent (Maybe 1/3?). But again, this shouldn't surprise. An equally high number of right-handed folks probably have the ability to "learn" how to function lefty (like the right-handed batter who switch hits) with *some* degree of skill. But we also understand that the underlying right-handed orientation doesn't change there. And we further understand "real" ambidextrous folks to be those who are equally skilled and comfortable, right-handed as left-handed, not those folks who are primarily right-handed but have the ability to function as lefties to *some* extent. And I've argued on this blog that bisexuals should likewise be understood in this way.

I think the "choice" issue is also relevant in this respect: Given that homosexuality, like left-handedness is unchosen, and given that there is nothing wrong with either the underlying left-handed or homosexual behaviors per se, society then therefore has a duty to accommodate homosexuals as we do southpaws.

Imagine a baseball game where the "rule" was everyone had to play right-handed. Let's say a few righties liked to switch-hit (I'm not much of a sports fan; they do this to confuse the pitcher?) and they'd have to give that up; not much of a sacrifice on their part, right? Similarly if society says, "heterosexual behavior only," then those heterosexuals who might like to engage in homosexual acts for release might have to make a small sacrifice. Pure heteros would be giving nothing up. But the "righty only" rule obviously dramatically and unfairly impacts the left-handed player. So too does a "hetero only" rule unfairly burden homosexuals.


Bill Ware said...

Thanks for another great post.

Jonathan said...

My pleasure!

John said...

Excellent post as usual, Jon.

I think though, that almost anyone who makes even a modest effort with an open mind will quickly come to the conclusion that homosexuality is not a choice. So what? I don't see it translating into an expansion of gay rights anytime soon.

Jason Kuznicki said...

Yes, another excellent post. I have only one comment, on this:

If homosexuality is a "behavioral" phenomenon, then so too is left-handedness.

But the perfect analogy would run--If homosexuality is a "behavioral" phenomenon, then so too is heterosexuality. Both stand equally in need of an explanation (and in the case of the latter, something more than "evolution made it that way").

CPT_Doom said...

Love the post Jon - and I have recently been thinking of another analogy. I, like my father, and his father and mother, am prematurely gray. I began going gray (actually I am losing my hair pigment, so it goes pure white) at the age of 14 - and was completely white at some point in my 20s. My father and his father were both totally gray by age 30, his mother was totally gray by age 18.

This is not a "normal" occurrance - most human beings go gray at a much later age. But just because my hair is not the norm does not make it "unnatural" - in fact anyone who saw me would automatically conclude that the hair color was a natural phenomenon.

Those against gay rights often like to use the relatively small number of gay people to argue against its "naturalness." They also like to use the argument that homosexuality is incompatible with typical reproduction in the human species to argue it cannot be natural.

Both left-handedness, and premature graying, and vitiligo (loss of skin pigment - which is more common in those of African descent) and a whole host of other "abnormal" physical phenomenon are also present only in small numbers of people, and they may interfere with the "normal" reproduction of humans (certainly both premature gray hair and vitiligo make one look older and less attractive - so you are less likely to attract a mate).

But because no one puts any "moral" value on these traits, no one ever considers them anything but biological.

Jonathan said...


Yes -- even if one could argue something to be a biological defect or "abnormality," (I'm surprised you didn't mentioned male pattern baldness in there) "biological abnormalities" have nothing to do with the morality or "legitimacy" of the condition, and absent further evidence or argument, things that are "built in," -- that we don't choose -- like homosexuality, or premature graying are "neutral" like race or handedness.

Anonymous said...

I have a question. if homosexuality is purely genetic, wouldnt the identical twin homosexuality rate (of separated twins) be even higher? if anything, the science thus far only makes a case (though not conclusively) that homosexuality is *partly* but not wholly influenced by nature.

Gays have equal protection. I don't consider marriage a "right". The state is in its right to promote marriage as a monogamous heterosexual institution because most monogamous heterosexual relationships involve procreation and that binds parents to their children which is important for everyone. a person can do all kinds of kinky crap in the privacy of their own home and not be bothered but I can't see how marriage is a civil right. Technically speaking, gay people can marry members of the opposite sex, they obviously just don't want to. Nothing stops them from protecting eachother and providing for eachother legally, the state is not obliged, morally or as a state interest to put their stamp of approval on these unions. the state doesnt sanction polygamy but that doesn't stop threesomes from cohabitating and behaving like married couples, the state, with good reason, simply chooses not to endorse that type of setup because it isnt in the best interest of children who, last I heard, come from one man and one woman. as far as whether or not homosexuality is genetic, there is no compelling evidence that it is entirely genetic and there is some evidence that it is partially genetic. Religious people are entitled to believe as they will, same as secular people are. I imagine that if religious people find homosexuality sinful, it might ease their views if it were discovered that a strong biological component were involved. Then again, while most homosexuals are probably strongly compelled by instincts, there are still some people who enjoy experimenting. Some people dont think there's anything wrong with it, others do.

Jonathan said...

-- I have a question. if homosexuality is purely genetic, wouldnt the identical twin homosexuality rate (of separated twins) be even higher? if anything, the science thus far only makes a case (though not conclusively) that homosexuality is *partly* but not wholly influenced by nature. --

It's not purely genetic; or at least it's not genetic like eye-color or hair color. But again, the same thing can be said of left-handedness. Identical twins have higher but not indentical concordance rates re: handedness. And there are many twins where one is left-handed the other right-handed. But we still don't then conclude that being left-handed is a "life-style" choice.

Marty said...

I'm late to this party, but must object to the left-handedness metaphor. There is nothing can the right hand can do that the left cannot, and vice versa. And yet there are things that ONLY a right AND a left hand can do -- something as critical (ok, much moreso) than "opposable thumbs" in primates.

A left-hander can be taught to use the right hand, and vice versa, even if it comes unnaturally. But in the current example of same-sex couples, this is no mere "left-handedness" -- it's more like "no right handedness!"

And in every case, a right handed person who loses his favored arm, becomes left-handed pretty darned quick. Still, there are things he just can't do -- not because he favors this arm or that -- but because he's missing a crucial opposite.

Two left arms won't do you much good, even if you're left handed.

Jonathan said...


Your comments illustrate that the left-handed analogy can be taken only so far.

It's true that the left-handed and right-handed condition are interchangeable; but given that heterosexuals can procreate but homosexuals can't, those two conditions aren't.

Homosexuality may perhaps best be understood as a minor disability; given that homosexual couples (at the present time) lack the ability to procreate.

We can search all we want but we will never be able to find the perfect "analogy" because analogies by nature compare "apples with oranges." Comparing "apples to apples" is comparing duplicates. All analogies have differences.

Again, let me offer an imperfect analogy: deafness. The deaf lack the ability to hear -- that's the disability part of it.

But they adapt to their circumstances by learning sign language which enables them to communicate -- not in the same way that they could with hearing -- but in a very effective and meaningful way nonetheless.

If the lack of procreation or the lack of attraction to the opposite sex is the "disability" then entering into meaningful and fulfilling homosexual relationships is the sign-language or the way to accommodate the disability.

The problem I have with your side is that you tell the homosexual person to not enter into homosexual relations or to essentially live a celibate life. A celibate life still lacks procreation or attraction to the opposite sex. Hence it still maintains the "disability" aspect of homosexuality.

That's like saying to a deaf person, while it's ashame that you can't hear, don't you dare try to communicate in any other way than the "normal" way, because using sign language is "unnatural," "abnormal," "sinful," "perverse," or whatever empty pejorative term you want to attach.

Marty said...

It's true that the left-handed and right-handed condition are interchangeable; but given that heterosexuals can procreate but homosexuals can't, those two conditions aren't.

But that's just not true -- there is NOTHING wrong with gay people that makes them unable to procreate! What makes a left-hander unable to lift a barrel isn't his left-handedness -- it's his LACK of a right arm! Same for gays -- they can, and do, procreate, but ONLY with the opposite sex. They aren't "broken" in any phsyical sense, like your deaf person most certainly is!

Would i tell a deaf person not to use sign language? No more than i would tell a left-hander not to use his right arm, after his left was amputated. But you cannot simultaneously argue that homosexuality is not a handicap, and them make comparisons to the truly handicapped to prove your point.

Mentally handicapped perhaps? There's certainly nothing physically broken down there -- as proven daily by gays and lesbians down at the fertility clinic, seeking sperm donors and surrogate wombs...