Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sexuality, biology, and the nature of human beings.

It's only too easy to respond to an argument like Dinesh D'Souza's post "Is Homosexuality Genetic? Ask the Ancient Greeks." D'Souza, a conservative author/commentator and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, has written a blog post asserting that, because many older, married men in ancient Greece were engaged in the practice of pederasty (sexual and mentoring relationships with young men), and that that was a cultural practice, sexual preference is a choice and does not have a biological basis. Asks D'Souza,

"If these practices are genetic, why aren't homosexuality and pederasty prevalent in Greece and Rome today? Has the gene pool changed that much?"

Even ignoring the fact that D'Souza both completely discounts studies of the biological basis of sexuality AND refers only to genetics (when there is more to biology than genetics, particularly in the study of sexuality), his argument seems poor to anyone but conservative ideologues (see also this excellent response, "We're all Gay--The Only Question is How Much?" by Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks radio show). I contributed this comment (which can be seen on #44 on the comments):

The problem with an absolutist view is that it lacks any appreciation of the depth of an issue, any nuance. In the case of Dinesh D'Souza, he believes sexuality must be a choice because there is a precedent in which the expression of sexuality has been culturally influenced. A few problems with that:

1)The most important, he overlooks decades of important work in the area since the studies of Alfred Kinsey which suggest that it is not a dichotomy between "gay" and "straight", but that most people fall somewhere in between and, while having preference for one sex, have a latent attraction, to whatever degree, to the other (the expression of which can be culturally influenced, as in ancient Greece or feudal Japan). There is a small percentage of people on the exclusively gay side of the spectrum, just as there was in ancient Greece alongside the mostly heterosexual/slightly bisexual pederasts.

2)By characterizing the scientific studies of sexuality as more controversial and inconclusive than they actually are, D'Souza is showing that his ideology is preventing him from seeing what is there.

3)Even if latent homosexuality could be changed (i.e., "cured"), why should it be? Who is Dinesh D'Souza or anyone to want to change an intimate and personal part of a person's identity (particularly when it does no harm and adds diversity to a society)? What is easier and better, to "cure" homosexuality or to "cure" homophobia?

Now, this actually gets into a much deeper debate, which is "how much power do human beings have to decide themselves and their own behavior?" Some hold to a strict genetic/biological determinism, some hold to a general social/environmental determinism, and many more hold to a combination of the two. Some, however, while believing that both are true, also believe in an important third factor, self-determinism. That is, there is such a thing as mental causal efficacy. I happen to hold such a view, and have spent quite a lot of time researching and pondering on it (particularly how it is quite consistent with modern [quantum] physics, how it is consistent with and even necessitated by the nature of our conscious experience, and how it is necessary for any real ethics and meaning). There are some, however, who take this to way wrong conclusions. One such person is Harvard psychologist and religious conservative Jeffrey Satinover, who has written books on quantum neuroscience, the Bible Code, and how gays can and should change their abberant behavior (which he believes is supported by quantum neuroscience).

Although I share with Satinover the view that our minds actually do something and aren't just unexplainable by-standers or by-products, and that we humans are capable of self-directed neuroplasticity (and I have some experience with such myself, overcoming anxiety disorder through intense mental effort rather than medication), his idea that sexual orientation can or should be changed in such a way (or any way) comes, like D'Souza's, from his conservative ideology--not from either science or from geniune spirituality. There are certain things about us that are just that--things about us. We shouldn't any sooner want to or try to change them than we should or could our skin color or personal history or most deeply personal traits. Who we love in certain (romantic) ways is one of those. And, as I wrote in a previous post, just because our minds have power doesn't mean they have unlimited power--just as we can change our course when behind the wheel but we can't change everything about the vehicle we are driving, nor can we change the road as easily (regarding the road, my friend Jim pointed out this insightful example: the Dalai Lama arguably has more control over his own mind than most people. However, with all the mental power he has, he hasn't been able to drive the Chinese government out of Tibet).

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has written on this subject in great detail, and what he has written is quite relevant (it can be found about a fourth of the way down the page, here). In Wilber's analysis, those views that have tended to focus exclusively on external factors/realities, like the historical materialism of Marxists and Utilitarians, believe that everything happens to people, discounting or ignoring internal, conscious factors. The typical conservative, meanwhile, focuses only on internal, subjective factors, ignoring or discounting external factors that affect people and which they have little or no control over. It is only an Integral approach, Wilber says, uniting the truths of both realities, that will allow us to move forward. I think so too.


Blogger Heresiarch said...

If you have a philosophical/futuristic interest in neuroplasticity, you might find a few ideas to chew on at

3:51 PM  

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