Thursday, May 15, 2008

What does science have to do with it? (Part 1)

[Originally written 5/04/08]

A week or so ago, discussion at Fr. Jake's produced the following question and response (among others). First, the question from Peter:
The issue ... is whether homosexuality is biologically or genetically determined or not. That's not a question to do with one's moral attitude towards those who have a homosexual orientation or who behave homosexually (not always the same people) but simply a question of scientific fact. . . . A large part of the TEC argument in their presentation to the 2005 AAC was that since homosexuality is a natural biological variation in humanity, it was a justice issue that a normal variation in humanity shouldn't be condemned. If however, the science shows this not to be the case, then what we have is in fact a deep-seated human behaviour, perhaps with genetic or biological predisposers but ultimately an environmentally produced phenomena, similar to other forms of human emotional response. This would then put it on the same category as things like kindness, anger, paedophilia, liking soft cheese, all human behaviours for which we recognise complicated patterns of formation. Without the clear scientific evidence of biological/genetic causation the justice argument falls apart
One response came from a scientist, IT:
...As a professional geneticist (although not one who studies homosexuality; my gig is cancer research), and a professor who teaches the subject, may I point out YET AGAIN that someone does not understand genetics.

Almost no complex traits can be traced to a single gene. Okay? NONE. Not even blue eyes/brown eyes, although they are pretty close. Certainly nothing as complex as behavior.

Even in fruitflies.

Nothing complex is solely nature or nurture, but both. You may have the genes to be 7 feet tall but if you aren 't eating a good diet you won't get there.

There are plenty of studies showing that human sexuality exists on a continuum, not a binary. It's extremely complex.

However, there are also plenty of studies showing a very strong genetic component to homosexuality; it may not be the single gene absolute concordance that the conservatives want (see preceding) but it is vastly, vastly higher than chance.

Go read Pubmed if you want the citations...The VAST majority of medical and psychiatric opinion is clear on the subject...
Jake reposted part of the question and response here as well as some resources on the "Nature and/or Nurture" debate. The discussion that followed was enlightening in many respects. However, it did not quite pin down what science has to do with the moral issues that raise these questions in the first place, although one person (Scott) commented:

The temptation presented to the Christian tradition by the scientific study of the genetics of human sexuality is either to use that study to "prove" that variations away from thorough heterosexuality are sinful, or that they are not. Such direct application of scientific analysis (in either direction) wholly ignores the theological richness of the questions of "relatedness" (love) and "separation" (sin).

I think most would agree that the scientific answers to the question of the nature and origins of human sexual orientation cannot resolve the moral issues. Yet people on both sides seem to think the science is relevant, even though at some point those who condemn homosexual behavior say they do not care how "good" or "natural" or biologically determined it may be because God has (supposedly) given the last word on the subject in the Bible.


Mystical Seeker said...

I have felt for a long time that all this debate over whether homosexuality is genetic or is a personal "choice" is really irrelevant as far as the morality of sexuality goes. In my view, it just doesn't matter--consensual expressions of sexuality between two human beings just isn't wrong, period, regardless of whether the composition of the genders involved resulted from a genetic predisposition or from a totally free choice.

I think that focusing on the idea that people have no choice in their sexuality misses the boat. Even if tomorrow we decided that all sexual orientation is purely a free choice, I'd say, "So what?" Since when is free choice a bad idea? People engage in free choice all the time. I choose what cereal to eat in the morning, I choose what TV shows to watch--so why shouldn't people be morally free to choose the gender of their romantic and sexual partners?

And where does bisexuality fit into this, anyway--since someone who is completely bisexual could quite obviously choose not to engage with a person of either sex and instead solely focus on members of the other sex and still probably find suitable partners. But then, sexual "choice" isn't just about genders, is it? It is also about the individuals we are attracted to. One may not be just attracted to "Woman" (hear me roar), but rather individual women.

I may not be able to control which gender I am attracted to, but neither do I necessarily have control over which individuals make me swoon when they walk in the room.

It is certainly interesting to investigate what causes human sexuality to function the way it does, but ultimately, I think it has nothing to do with the morality of homosexuality versus heterosexuality.

klady said...

I agree that ultimately science has nothing to with the morality of human sexuality. For one thing, I think most would agree that sexual orientation exists on a continuum. Second, in any event, as you say, it should not really matter what degree of choice one has in terms of deciding that what makes a partnership moral and good is the quality of the love and faithfulness that goes into making and maintaining it.

But... I think the science is still important for a couple reasons. First and foremost is the junk science bandied about by anti-gay folks and the way it is used to support anti-gay "therapy" which can be very harmful. Second, most people have some innate sense that choice is in important factor in deciding what is or is not sinful behavior. So many anti-gay folks seem to truly believe that gay sex in inherently and inevitably depraved, sick, disordered, the product of "unwholesome" lust, selfish desires for pure pleasure, adventure, eroticism, etc., etc. While I realize that even the most basic judgments as to what is psychologically normal, healthy, etc. involves some kind of political and social judgments, both within the medical profession and society at large, I think empirical science still has something valuable to say about it all. Of course reason has little to do with the controversy over same-sex relationships, but I think it's a mistake to just throw out science because it can't dictate morality and is often beside the religious points the anti-gay people are driven by. Knowing how and why people experience sexual orientation the way they do -- fighting the lies and misinformation -- has still got to be at least a piece of the whole puzzle, and even beyond the sexuality issue, there is the whole antipathy towards science among right-wing religious that is disturbing.

Anyway, I can't yet pull together my thoughts on this myself -- but there's something there I think about why I think the science must be included even if it is not the arbiter of morality or the tie-breaker or whatever when it comes to the Bible. People need to be more aware of what it really is or may be to be human -- in the old-fashioned humanistic sense -- and deal with it soberly.

At the same time, there is something about the contradictions in the anti-gay position that I think need to be addressed more directly. I started with the thoughts below, but will have to put off following up with them for awhile:

"Discussion of religion and same sex relationships often veers off on the question of what science can tell us about sexual orientation. It is a talking point for the anti-gay, who first claim that their opponents claim that sexual orientation is “hard-wired” and then proceed to assert that there is no such evidence for the proposition they claim is the basis of arguments for equal rights for gays and lesbians in both civil society and the church. Of course, that is not what their opponents claim, and once the discussion brings in the science of genetics and the complex factors that contribute to various human traits, it stops cold, in part because the anti-gay do not understand or care to discuss scientific knowledge and evidence on its own terms, and in part because everyone tacitly agrees that science cannot resolve the questions of morality.

All this is rather tedious and predictable, as most such “discussions” are. What is unfortunate is that science often gets left in the dust. Before anyone can get to those issues that science can address and why they may nevertheless be important, the discussion generally veers off onto the second major talking point of the religious anti-gay – that “of course” there are people who have strong tendencies towards homosexual relations, emotional and sexual, but no matter how much biology may influence such tendencies, acting upon them is clearly and indisputably immoral because the Bible tells us so. The “love the sinner, hate the sin” song gets sung, with all sorts of compassion expressed for those who struggle with homosexual tendencies, who are compared to alcoholics, drug addicts, and those who overeat, all due to strong biological desires and compulsions that make it very difficult to resist engaging in immoral and destructive behaviors.

Stepping back from all this, it is astonishing how quickly the ground shifts from vigorous assertions that there is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation is biological to those that not only state that any such evidence is irrelevant but actually embrace the notion of there being a strong, biological component to sexual orientation and behavior, one which makes it all the more imperative to “help” people fight their innate desires and once they come to understand how evil those desires really are."

Maybe this just restates the obvious. I don't know.