Adventures in Ethics and Science

Jessica at Feministing notices the BBC reporting on a study that conditions in utero may play a causal role in men’s sexual orientation. But, as the title of this post suggests, I do not care what the biological bases for sexual orientation might be, nor indeed whether there are biological bases for sexual orientation. Jessica makes a comment that starts to capture my own non-interest here:

… naturally the larger question with all these why-are-you-gay studies is why do we have to know? I’m terrified that once someone targets a “reason” they’re just going to try and find a way to do away with it.

Pinning homosexuality on something (abnormal) from genetics or development comes dangerously close to making it a disease for which medical science might be able to provide a “cure”. Sure, not everyone would seek this kind of “practical application” for such research. There are those who look to research on the biological bases of sexual orientation to support the assertion that orientation is more than a mere preference — that homosexuality is part of the normal range of variation among humans, and therefore ought not to be attacked as “sinful”.

My problem with both of these attitudes is that they assume that biology provides good reasons for treating people certain ways — either as “defective” people who ought to be treated, or as “natural” variants worthy of our respect. Not only does it fetishize the “natural” (whatever that might be — and if you’re reading this on your computer screen, we can probably make the case that you have embraced at least certain facets of the “unnatural”), but it also overlooks some of the truly crappy ways of treating each other humans have justified on the basis of “biological facts”.

I don’t think it’s the biologists who are at fault here; non-scientists are good at finding support for acting in ways they already felt like acting, and if they don’t get that support from science there are plenty of other sources of justification available.

It’s a lot harder to just say, regardless of our differences, I will treat other human beings as worthy of respect. Waiting around for science to give you a reason to treat other human beings as worthy of respect is just dumb.


  1. #1 ck
    June 27, 2006

    I’ve been having related discussions here and here (polyamory/ephebophilia and abortion, respectively). I agree with your last statement about treating others as worthy of respect–but what about when it comes down to deciding what is “normative” and what the government (or society) ought to endorse/encourage/stifle?

    Aren’t decisions about abortion linked to the status of the fetus as a living entity as well as the free will of the mother? Decisions about polygamy about the biological basis of attraction as well as the possibility of oppressive misogynous institutions? Decisions about ephebophila connected to the biological nature of children as well as societal expections about their roles?

    I’m really interested in your take as a philosopher and scientist…

  2. #2 BB
    June 27, 2006

    Wow, very well articulated. I agree wholeheartedly. Lately, my advisor has been nearly obsessed with research that attributes homosexuality to an in utero, and especially, an endocrine or endocrine disruptive effect (we study endocrine disruption in our lab). He is convinced (biased?) that there is a very strong endocrine component to homosexuality (which there very well may be), but that’s not the strange thing. I can’t tell if he thinks this because he belives it to be a developmentally “normal” occurence or an “abnormal” developmental “defect” due to an “abnormal” in utero endocrine profile. Actually, I fear it is the latter, which is why I’m concerned. Regardless, it’s very frustrating. My labmates and I just look at each other and roll our eyeballs when he gets on his ridiculous kicks, then we promptly provide him with literature to the contrary, and/or engage him in heated debate over the issue. It’s obvious the research that is out there is not conclusive and is somewhat dubious. But, as you say, why should we care either way? High frequency of a trait doesn’t make it “normal”. It just makes it more frequent. :)

  3. #3 Mark Paris
    June 27, 2006

    In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to defend people who differ from us in some ways, whether that be in color, sexual orientation or religion (or lack thereof). In this world, and especially in this country, we have to deal with moralizing and religiosity that would condemn certain among us as persons who have made an unnatural choice that is so abominal that they should be discriminated against. For these people, or at least some of the more rational among them, it could help to show that the behavior is not just someone’s choice (Hmm, will I eat ice cream or cake? Will I be a homosexual or a heterosexual?) but part of a normal spectrum of behavior, much of which is controlled by biology. Those who say it is mere choice are like the doctors who used to say of the male babies born with ambiguous external sexual charactacteristics that you could simply remove the male sexual organs, make an external female sexual organ, dress them and treat them as girls, and, by god, they will grow up girls.

  4. #4 Brian
    June 27, 2006

    Well if homosexuality *is* part of the natural variation (and I’m almost positive it is, given its prevalence in other species), what’s wrong with wanting to change your sexual orientation? Of course, this assumes that the drug to change orientations works and is not like the Christian re-education camps we have now for homosexuals. A hypothetical might be that there is a very close friend of yours (the gender of both of you is irrelevant) who is attracted to you and whom you like very much. However, for whatever reason, you’re not sexually attracted to them, in which case the ability to change might be good.

  5. #5 ThePolynomial
    June 27, 2006

    Yeah, but…don’t you just want to know? Aside from the social implications (sure, there should be none), why wouldn’t you be interested in what makes one person different from another? Especially when it’s related to sex, which somehow makes everything more interesting. Or are you interested and just making the point?

  6. #6 Winawer
    June 27, 2006

    but it also overlooks some of the truly crappy ways of treating each other humans have justified on the basis of “biological facts”.

    I understand your desire to make this argument, but crappy ways of treating other humans have been justified for a multitude of reasons, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with biology. Sociological bases for homosexuality could be “cured” by changes to our society (“Save the nuclear family!”). Psychological factors could be cured by psychotherapy (I smell Freud). I’m sure someone would even invent some cause that required the application of vast quantities of organic produce and magnet therapy.

    Would your position not be a little more consistent if you titled your post “Why I have no interest in any possible bases for homosexuality”? After all, it seems that what you’re arguing against is how the identification of any (even vaguely) deterministic cause for homosexuality is a potential rallying point to try to get rid of that force. I hardly agree that this would be a good argument for stopping basic research, but in any case…

    Yet perhaps I’ve misunderstood your position; if so, I’d love to be set straight (if you have the time).


  7. #7 ctw
    June 27, 2006

    to elaborate on mark paris’s point, there are good practical reasons to address the origins of homosexuality if you want gays to be treated fairly, whether respectfully or not. eg, the essence of J scalia’s dissent in lawrence v texas (specifically the rebuttal to J o’connor’s concurring opinion) is that if a democratic society wants to legally punish any freely chosen activity that is not expressly constitutionally protected, it can. he’s not explicit, but it seems pretty clear that he considers homosexuality to be a “lifestyle” choice, and that consequently sodomy can be made a crime.

    on the other hand, if homosexuality is predetermined, a case might be made for equal protection of homosexuals as a “suspect class”. this is implicit in J o’connor’s concurring opinion, which J scalia dismisses with something bordering on contempt.

    the ultimate goal, as you emphasize, is for gays to have social acceptance, but in the meantime shouldn’t approaches be pursued that at least offer them legal protection?


  8. #8 Eric Wallace
    June 27, 2006

    You’re right that biology shouldn’t color our treatment of other human beings, of course. But even though you say it’s not the “fault” of biologists (what, exactly are they not at fault for?), it sure seems like you’re issuing a kind of indictment against those who do this kind of research, or maybe those who report on it as something interesting.

    To echo ThePolynomial, can’t it be interesting just because it’s interesting?

    We’re only going to see this kind of issue grow as we learn more about development, and more about how the brain works. I don’t think we can shy away from inquiry just because someone out there might want to “fix” something that they perceive as a problem.

  9. #9 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 27, 2006

    Winawer, you’re right that I am similarly uninterested in “nurture” explanations here. And, to be honest, it’s not even that I think there might not be an interesting story to tell about how people become who the are (through the interaction of biology and culture and who knows what else). Rather, my issue is that all of these studies get bandied about either to support or to pathologize homosexuality, and all of this scientific knowledge tells us precisely nothing about which differences between human beings ought to make any kind of difference the rights afforded to people, the responsibilities they have, and the types of regard we ought to show them.

    So, what should we do? I wouldn’t call for banning these lines of research, although I might ask scientists pursuing them to think about what is motivating them to pursue these questions (as well as what “payoff” from such research they’re promising their funders). The problem generally seems to be that the public are leaning on science to help answer questions that science isn’t even trying to answer. If the scientists could keep reminding the public what the scientific facts can’t establish, that might be a help. But it might be harder to get the public to understand this than, say, to cure cancer.

  10. #10 ck
    June 27, 2006

    But in seeking a cure for cancer, aren’t you contradicting your statement: My problem with both of these attitudes is that they assume that biology provides good reasons for treating people certain ways — either as “defective” people who ought to be treated, or as “natural” variants worthy of our respect.

    I’m not trying to be snarky, just asking–it seems like there is some way that we view biology as normative and some ways that it is not. Cancer is not normative, even though it is statistically more frequent than homosexuality. Perhaps a better example is schizophrenia, or depression, or anemia (biological deviations which do not immediately threaten life). NPR had a program on autism yesterday, asking the question of whether that is a condition to fix, or a way of being human to celebrate. How do we distinguish between cancer-autism-homosexuality?

    Or am I reading you to say that there is absolutely no link whatsoever between biological facts and the way we ought to treat people?

    (And in the interest of disclosure, I’m a lesbian, so I am not for equating homosexuality with cancer!)

  11. #11 Left_Wing_Fox
    June 27, 2006

    ctw, we still offer protection for other chosen behaviours as well. Virtually all anti-discrimination laws, even those that do mnot exclude homosexuality, include religeous belief as worthy of protection against discrimination. Last I checked, religeon was a lifestyle choice, not a genetic predispsition.

    I tend to agree. Nature versus nurture should be irrelevant to this discussion of rights.

  12. #12 Winawer
    June 27, 2006

    … all of this scientific knowledge tells us precisely nothing about which differences between human beings ought to make any kind of difference the rights afforded to people, the responsibilities they have, and the types of regard we ought to show them.


    So, what should we do? I wouldn’t call for banning these lines of research, although I might ask scientists pursuing them to think about what is motivating them to pursue these questions (as well as what “payoff” from such research they’re promising their funders).

    This hits home a little, because my lab does research that is tangentially related to some of the in utero homosexuality research. (My advisor does work on digit ratio in humans and non-human animals, and some of the resesarch in this area touches on questions of homosexuality even though we’re focusing more on questions of in utero masculinization vs. feminization).

    I’m reminded of your response to the “Ask a Scienceblogger” question on accountability to the public, as well as the posts linked from there about basic research. And I would have to argue that you can’t cherry-pick without a *really* good reason to do so; just because you may not endorse a particular line of research is not a good reason to question its existence if you support basic research in general. (When I say “good reason”, I’m thinking of things along the lines of unjustifiable and imminent danger to public health, etc). If you’re going to ask scientists to justify the “payoffs” for this type of research, you would have to do it for all forms of research.

    As for what’s motivating us? Well, again, as someone close to this line of work I would have to say that for most of us it’s the same motivation as any research pursuit – truth, the joy of discovery, the paycheck (ha!), whatever gets you through the day. I doubt that political or personal motivations are that prevalent (though I’m willing to be proven wrong) as opposed to simple tunnel vision. It may seem like some researchers are unnecessarily focused on biological explanations, but this has to be viewed in the light of the reductionist program. It would be an overwhelming – or, really, impossible – task to start a study purporting to explain all possible factors to homosexuality at once, so we take it one step at a time from multiple directions. It just so happens that biology is hot right now, but psychoanalytic explanations for the homosexuality “disease” were common fifty years ago.

    The problem generally seems to be that the public are leaning on science to help answer questions that science isn’t even trying to answer. If the scientists could keep reminding the public what the scientific facts can’t establish, that might be a help. But it might be harder to get the public to understand this than, say, to cure cancer.

    The public’s record of understanding the scientific facts isn’t sparkling to begin with, and the politically charged nature of the issue doesn’t help. (You don’t get this kind of argument too often about the potentially damaging research on the “biological basis for acid reflux”). But I wonder how accountable scientists can really be for the things that they discover. I agree that we should make all possible efforts to educate the public, but how much can we reasonably place on scientists’ shoulders?

    Personally, I’ve always had a pet peeve in this area with regards to the *media*’s depicition of science – after all, that’s where the general public gets most of their exposure to this kind of research, and the media typically manages to get half of what they present wrong while grossly oversimplying the other half.

    Anyways, thanks for responding, I’ve enjoyed the read. Cheers!

  13. #13 razib
    June 27, 2006

    Last I checked, religeon was a lifestyle choice, not a genetic predispsition.

    the heritability toward religiosity is about .5 in modern america it seems.

  14. #14 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 27, 2006

    I actually chose curing cancer in my earlier comment because, I take it, it’s an example of a fairly challenging scientific problem (with lots of interesting moving parts), and it’s a problem whose solution could be of immediate use to people. It seems uncontroversial that cancer is a bad thing for humans to have — in a lot of cases, anyway, if left untreated it can be incompatible with continuing to live and to pursue one’s interests.

    But philosophically, maybe it’s not so clear-cut. There may well be an upside to cancer — to our very mortality — from the point of view of our ability to lead meaningful lives.

    Still, I’m inclined to say that it’s less problematic to pathologize cancer than homosexuality, partly because there seems to be no reason homosexuality need be incompatible with living a meaningful life. The difficulties seem to arise from features of the environment — and ones that seem eminently changeable. (We’re not talking about replacing the air with chlorine gas, just getting rid of bigotry.)

    So, is there a better way for me to be consistent here?

  15. #15 ck
    June 27, 2006

    Janet, I was hoping you’d give me some guidance on consistency! Of course, I scored as JP Sartre (what?!) on my ethical quiz, too…

    What seems uncontroversial in the real world quickly gets tricky inside of a philosopher’s head.

    So your last comment has reminded me of the folks who have BIID–who want to amptutate their limbs in order to fit with their perception of themselves. On one hand, it seems uncontroversially a bad idea. On the other, the proponents of operating on these people argue that they cannot change the way they feel, that they can lead normal lives, and that it is really ableism that causes the problem.

    If we use “living a meaningful life” as a marker of a successful ethic, then what do we do with the above instance?

    I’m not trying to get off-topic here, just bring up some out of the-ordinary illustrations to bring into relief why it is that we view cancer as a bad thing, BIID as a bad thing, and homosexuality as a good thing. And determine where our justifications are really coming from (and where they should come from). Anyone?

  16. #16 ctw
    June 27, 2006

    “Virtually all anti-discrimination laws … include religeous belief as worthy of protection against discrimination. Last I checked, religeon was a lifestyle choice …”

    read carefully – I explicitly excluded constitutionally protected “choices”; religion is protected by the 1st A, not anti-discrimination laws, which must conform thereto.

    and I infer that at least dennett (“Breaking the Spell”) disagrees with you that religion is known to be a “choice” in any meaningful sense; otherwise, why propose a research program to find out as he does?

    “the heritability toward religiosity is about .5 in modern america it seems.”

    way too low, I’d say.

  17. #17 razib
    June 27, 2006


    this isn’t the heritability of religiosity in methodists raising methodists (think about 70% of americans stay with the religous identity they were raised with). this is the proportion of say, church attendence attributable to genotypic differeces (i.e., monozygotic twins show twice as much concordance as fraternal twins). in twins-reared-apart research the correlation between denomination is non-existent, but the correlation between non-religious, lapsed, active, etc. is moderate (so, about 1/2 of the variation ends up to be due to genetic variation).

  18. #18 ctw
    June 27, 2006

    “features of the environment — and ones that seem eminently changeable.”

    again, I see it as a time scale issue. yes, they’re changeable (cf race circa 1960 vs today), but until those changes occur, if you don’t want gay rights decided by referendum, arming constitutional lawyers with material to be used in arguments for constitutional protection seems a good thing. the fear that someone might misuse the truth seems a flimsy excuse for not pursuing it. in any event, someone so inclined probably isn’t going to be too averse to creating their own “truth” in the absence of the real thing.

  19. #19 ctw
    June 28, 2006

    razib -

    sorry, I assumed (wrongly, it seems) that your post was a humorous snark and responded in kind. knowing nothing at all about genetics, I naturally defer to your assessment, which I find interesting. thanks.


  20. #20 razib
    June 28, 2006

    lack of a sense of humor is heritable :)

  21. #21 Paul S
    July 1, 2006

    There is always a danger that someone will attempt to treat the biological basis of homosexuality as a “disease” requiring a “cure.” In fact there has been some talk of that already among conservatives who are clueful enough about science to recognize the evidence, but not thoughtful enough to discard their homophobia. That said, it seems that the ethical problem in any such proposal lies in the misuse of research, not in the research itself.

    Obviously, research like this is embraced in gay rights circles because it counters the homophobic claims that hoosexuality is “unnatural,” and that it is purely a human choice: the product of our inherent sinfulness. There are fundamental flaws in both of these claims, and so there is some justice in the argument that it is wrong to buy into them even to the extent of showing them to be factually wrong. The fact that they are wrong is, in some ways, secondary to the fact that arguments of this sort are simply illegitimate.

    Yet, legitimate or not, these arguments are powerfully persuasive at many levels of society. It might not be useful to argue that choice is irrelevant to our treatment of gays and lesbians, to a person who is convinced that homosexuality has deep moral implications.

    In contrast the argument from biology is effective at undercutting that fundamental belief. We can see this from the progress in gay rights over the last 10 years or so. Much of that progress is founded on the growing public awareness (however incomplete and imperfect) that there is at least some evidence of a biological component to homosexuality.

    The biological counterpoint to homophobia is effective even in religious arguments. It forces people to examine their assumptions: how could God declare a biological condition to be “immoral?” It might or might not be “healthy” (whatever that means), but in any case a moral argument is difficult to sustain when the idea of moral agency is weakened. As a result such research is very nearly disposative of the most serious moral arguments against homosexuality.

    So this leaves us with an ethical question. On the one hand, it is arguably inappropriate to legitimize moral and natural law arguments for discrimination against gays – even to the point of debating these issues. Yet on the other hand it is difficult to make true progress in the public arena without engaging these arguments, the argument from biology is one of the most effective rhetorical tools for doing this.

  22. #22 Russell Johnston
    July 8, 2006

    I have sometimes said (and as a disabled person experienced) that if a person needs a cogent reason in order to be nice, they aren’t going to be nice after you give them a reason, either – or not for long.

    If that’s your point, I understand it – but if the facts can confound those who aren’t willing to play nice, I’m for that, too.

    As well, we shouldn’t close the door on scientific enquiry (not that you’ve advocated that, I think). We don’t know. The precautionary principle of morality therefore says we should be nice (although, again, if you actually need a reason such as the precautionary principle of morality you probably aren’t nice anyway.)

  23. #23 greensmile
    July 13, 2006

    Dr. Freeride:
    First, I owe you an apology for not digging all the way to the end of the chain of links. I took the quote as the whole of your post. My bad.

    But, read my posts too. You will see we are having the most violent agreement. Especially where you say how we treat gays should not depend on what science eventually understands about that collection of behavior paterns.

    I think where I am differing from most commenters on Pandagon and on the SEED blogs is this: the use of the word “natural” as it applies to behavior. Natural is not the same as “typical” or “normal” and it is the idea of being “normal” that carries the heavy load of socially constructed stigma. I use “natural” as the opposite of “unnatural”, ie natural means NOT behaviors learned or otherwise imposed contrary to the inclinations of the organism. Humans make that distinction hard to elucidate because they are so darned reprogramable. If 8 or so percent of human males turn out to have genetic variations or effects of fetal exposure to cortisol and other hormones which can be shown by instrumentation to leave them functioning with unconscious arousal responses to other males that IS natural, just not typical. [and clearly, not well understood either]

    The sense of alarm in Jessica Valenti’s post was overdone but that is her style and not her science…yet it has been carried forward by the quotes in all the chain of posts that quoted and expanded on it with comments. Bogaert’s work is some of the most uncontroversial sexual orientation research published and ought not be senationalized.

  24. #24 greensmile
    July 14, 2006

    Had I read your reply to Winawer before getting all bothered, I would never have posted what I did. That scientists, apart [we should hope and strive] from their investigations, are only people and ought to consider what motivations determined their choice of research, is much the same concern as I meant when I cautioned in my post against confusing the wish to explain something with the need to explain it away. That science is not popularly understood [1]to be only tangentially interested in answers to ethical questions and [2]to expect no finality or absoluteness in its results is a concern we seem to view in quite similar ways.

    But I might have made a different post. I fancy that mere curiosity brings me to my readings in this area since I am not a scientist, a writer or gay. I just don’t think nature makes “mistakes” with 7 or 8 percent [or whatever it is] of the male population. Comparison to a disease, say diabetes, is way off the mark. I would contend that evolution may have had long enough to deal with the consequences of our apeish wiring that pressure valves triggered by, say, over population, may start to confer a survival advantage in the context of long established social grouping habits where those habits themselves have instinctive or outright genetic basis. In other words, some of the things we could learn have greater than “precisely zero” to tell us about the effectiveness and wisdom of our current set of “moral” dictates on social grouping habits. Its a long way from my assertion that “fitness is an ensemble measure for any species that lives in ensembles” to demonstration of elevated group fitness from the presence of gay males in socially relevant groups and longer still to a demonstration that group fitness features are somehow heritable. A long way is not an impossible trail for science. Such findings would not be morally neutral unless you can say “what are the optimum social rules and arrangements by which humans can live” is not a morally charged question. Negative results are certainly possible…and that is not a morally empty case either.

    And for all that, I entirely agree that no findings would justify law or custom that condoned the repression of the choices gay people make. I see the answers that science could find as having an important upside of predicting healthier ways to get along which we should not sacrifice because of the downside of being ammo for those who already think they know how we should get along. Bigotry won’t increase, it will just have something new on its cue cards.

  25. #25 SEAS
    July 22, 2006

    As a non-scientist lawyer who represents scientists, and an Episcopalian who has welcomed our church’s acceptance of gays, regardless of why people are gay, I think the scientists here may be missing the forest for the trees. The reason it is important for people to realize why a person might be gay is the same reason that people should appreciate why the earth revolves around the sun. When Galileo made his heretical pronouncement, what the church thought to be a fundamental tenet of its dogma either had to be discarded or clung to as a matter of “faith,” because it implicated how people viewed their place in the world. As it turns out, it makes no difference now to religious persons whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa. Similarly, if people realize that people are who they are (gay, or otherwise) for reasons unrelated to choice or will or the workings of some evil force, then we who apply the law as a surrogate for society’s moral standard and are religious as a way to try to understand our place in the universe will be able to focus on what is really moral and what our role as stewards of the natural world should actually be. While it is always frightening to see how scientific knowledge can be manipulated for political purposes (if we know what causes homosexuality, won’t we need to set about to cure it?) that concern should not constrain our quest to understand how the world works. Just because some people might have called for changing dark skinned people into caucasians if we had known how to when most people were convinced blacks were inferior cannot be a reason to decline to learn about how skin pigmentation works. (See Charles description of Lawrence v Texas, above with which I agree.)

  26. #26 jono
    January 12, 2007

    hi Janet.

    interesting crossover field you are involved in. i have a question about your ‘non-interest’.

    there is a standard conservative dismissal of the term ‘sexual orientation’, which is to refer to it as ‘sexual preference’. the reason for this change in terminology is to emphasize the element of choice in homosexuality.

    a biological explanation for homosexuality is of interest to many because it implies that homosexuality is not a choice.

    i agree with you that biological explanations say nothing about health or pathology. further, i doubt such explanations can only be deployed by liberals. there is an element of misdirected biologism in most racism, & i imagine similar perversions of science can be used by critics of gay lib.

    i am quite sure there are biological roots to homosexuality; that homosexuality is a part of nature, not culture. i am also sure that pedophilia is a natural phenomena.

    my question is, should either of these orientations be subject to moral injunctions? isn’t the phenomenon of sexual attraction an ethically neutral fact; the experience of an emotion?

    without overt expression there is nothing to judge.

    there is a tendency for americans in particular to pathologize, demonize and criminalize pedophilia, but other cultures find nothing surprising in an adult’s sexual attraction to children.

    what is appropriately subject to ethical scrutiny is an individuals voluntary action in the world. if a homosexual or heterosexual drugs and rapes another adult, that is presumably wrong. if a pedophile devotes his life to school teaching & never acts with other than the respect for his charges, that is presumably honorable.

    i think the role of biology in sexology is in enabling insight and depathologizing natural diversity. the scientific study of sexuality can (and should) direct questions of morality to those aspects of sexuality that individuals have control over. i think biologists should take seriously the responsibility to help explain human sexuality, and assist those with problematic or minority sexualities to live in peace and happiness.

    what do you think?