Homosexuality, Essentialism, and The Ethics of Science

A couple weeks ago, a couple Science Bloggers, sparked by Jessica of Feministing, discussed the potential dangers of discovering the biological causes of homosexuality. Jessica expressed a common attitude in her post, writing:

And 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.

To which fellow Science Blogger Janet added:

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".

The worry expressed in these quotes is definitely legitimate. We don't have to think that far back to run into very real eugenics programs in the United States and elsewhere designed to rid society of undesirables, and we're increasingly faced with the possibility that genetic testing will allow us to produce customized zygotes. Yet, each time I see this objection to, or at least reservation about, scientific research into the biology of sexual orientation, I'm struck with the lack of discussion of how people actually represent homosexuality, and how their representations affect their attitudes toward homosexuality. Sure, the reservations themselves are born of the realization that many people have negative attitudes towards homosexuality, but which people? How do they represent homosexuality, and do their representations differ from the representations of people with positive attitudes towards homosexuality? Are these differences relevant to the reservation?

I'm struck by this because I think it's important in framing analysis (see stage 1 in that post) or any ethical discussion to understand how people represent relevant information, and how their representations affect their attitudes and behaviors. If you don't know this, then any attempt to make prescriptions about how to talk about things, what it's good to know and what it's not good to know, etc., in order to avoid unethical behavior or promote ethical behavior, is taking place in the dark.

With that in mind, I'm going to talk a bit about what we know of people's representations of sexual orientation, and how their representations affect their attitudes towards homosexuality. The best study to date on this topic was published in April in Personality and Social Psychology by Nick Haslam and Sheri Levy1, and it demonstrates nicely the relevance of representations to the very issues addressed in the posts above.

Before I get to that study, though, I want to remind you of a few things from my first post on essentialized social categories. There I wrote:

We are psychological essentialists about a particular [concept] if we believe that [concept] has an underlying nature that makes it what it is, even if we don't know what that nature is.

We believe, for example, that most (if not all) natural kinds have essences. Tigers are tigers because they all share some unseen property (e.g., their genetic makeup). There's plenty of evidence for our essentialism about natural kinds, but only recently have psychologists begun to explore other types of concepts, such as social concepts (gender, ethnicity, religion, political orientation, sexual orientation, etc.). To date, several studies have provided strong evidence that we do in fact believe that many social concepts have essences.

The last post was on gender, and described research indicating that we have strong essentialist beliefs about gender - so strong, in fact, that we may treat gender as a natural kind (mistaking it for biological sex, perhaps). In a study by Haslam et al.2, the way people represent gender was the best example of an essentialist dimension that they called "naturalness," which includes the belief that a category is discrete (you're either a member of the category or not), natural (as opposed to artificial or socially constructed), immutability (once you're a tiger, you're always a tiger), stability (the properties of the category remain the same over time), and necessity (there are certain properties that an individual must exhibit to be classified as a member of the category). The other essentialist dimension they found was called "entitativity," and included the beliefs that a category is uniform (members of the category are highly similar to each other), informative (knowing that an individual is a member of a category tells you a lot about that individual), inherence (similarities and differences among category members "correspond to an underlying reality"), and exclusivity (if you belong to the category, you can't be a member of contrasting categories). In the Haslam et al. study, the concept that scored the highest on the entitativity dimension was sexual orientation.

Expanding on the Haslam et al. study, Haslam and Levy attempted to explore in more depth the structure of people's representations of sexual orientation, and the implications of those attitudes. In their first study, they had participants (n = 309) indicate how much they agreed with the following statements (based on the essentialist dimensions from Haslam et al.; quoted directly from p. 473):

  1. Biological basis. "Male homosexuality is caused by biological factors such as genes and hormones."
  2. Immutability. "A homosexual man can become heterosexual." (reverse scored)
  3. Fixity. "Whether or not a man is homosexual or heterosexual is pretty much set early on in childhood."
  4. Discreteness. "Male homosexuality is a category with clear and sharp boundaries: men are either homosexual or they are not."
  5. Defining features. "Male homosexuals have a necessary or defining characteristic, without which they would not be homosexual."
  6. Historical invariance. "Male homosexuality has probably existed throughout human history."
  7. Universality. "Male homosexuality probably only exists in certain cultures."

Based on participants' ratings of these statements, they found three different types of essentialist beliefs about male homosexuality. The first included the belief that male homosexuality is biologically based, immutable, and "fixed early in life;" the second included the belief that male homosexuality was historically invariant and culturally universal; and the third involved the belief that male homosexuality is a discrete category and that it involves "defining characteristics" that make someone a member of the category.

In their second study, they replicated the results of the first, and extended them to lesbians, again finding the three different types of essentialist beliefs. In this study, they also gave people the 10-question Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gays scale. They found that individuals who believed that homosexuality (male or female) was biologically based, immutable, and fixed early in life were the most "pro-gay," while those who saw homosexuality as a discrete category with defining characteristics were the most "anti-gay." This was particularly true of males, and Haslam and Levy argue that males may try to distance themselves from homosexuality by making it a discrete category of which you are either a member or not (with no fuzzy area in the middle).

Finally, in a third study, they added 8 statements representing the various types of essentialist beliefs described above (the 8 new statements can be found below the fold), for a total of 15 statements, and in addition to the Attitudes Towards Lesbians and Gays scale, they added scales measuring social dominance orientation, right-wing authoritarianism, political conservatism, and religiosity. Once again, they found that pro-gay attitudes were associated with the belief that homosexuality is biologically-based, immutable, and fixed early in life, and that the belief that homosexuality is a discrete category with defining characteristics was associated with anti-gay attitudes, particularly in individuals who scored highly on the right-wing authoritarianism scale and the religiosity scale. In fact, when all of the factors (essentialist beliefs, conservatism, social dominance orientation, and religiosity) were considered, the belief that homosexuality is discrete, but not biologically based, was the strongest predictor of anti-gay attitudes, while the belief that homosexuality was immutable was the best predictor of pro-gay attitudes.

Why is this relevant to the reservations that Jessica and Janet expressed? Because they argue that learning about the biological basis of homosexuality may lead to more anti-gay behavior, when it turns out that people who already believe that homosexuality has a biological basis tend to be more pro-gay than people who don't believe that it has a biological basis! In other words, the way people's representations of homosexuality are associated with their attitudes towards homosexuality runs counter to Jessica and Janet's intuitions. Now, the Haslam and Levy data is correlational, and we therefore can't make any hard inferences about the causal direction. It may turn out that people who have more positive attitudes towards homosexuality are more likely to adopt the belief that homosexuality has a biological basis than people who have negative attitudes towards it. But it also might be the case that believing that homosexuality has a biological basis leads to more positive attitudes towards homosexuality. It's important, then, to explore the direction of the relationship between the beliefs and attitudes before we make any firm statements about the ethics of scientific research on homosexuality, because we might find that informing more people about the biological basis of homosexuality will lead to more positive attitudes towards it. And that would be a very good thing. If nothing else, this should serve as a lesson to ethicists: you have to know how the people you're talking about think before you decide what information it is good or bad for them to have.

1Haslam, N., & Levy, S.R. (2006). Essentialist Beliefs About Homosexuality: Structure and Implications for Prejudice. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(4), 471-485.

2Halam, N., Rothschild, L., & Ernst., D. (2000). Essentialist beliefs about social categories. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 113-127.

Essentialism Scale from Study 3 (quoted from p. 483):


  1. Sexual orientations are categories with clear and sharp boundaries: People are either homosexual or heterosexual.
  2. Homosexual people have a necessary or defining characteristic, without which they would not be homosexual.
  3. Heterosexual and homosexual people are not fundamentally different. (reversed)
  4. Bisexual people are fooling themselves and should make up their minds.
  5. Knowing that someone is homosexual or heterosexual tells you a lot about them.
  6. Sexual orientation is caused by biological factors.
  7. Whether a person is homosexual or heterosexual is pretty much set early on in childhood.
  8. People cannot change their sexual orientation. (reversed)
  9. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are innate, genetically based tendencies.
  10. Doctors and psychologists can help people change their sexual orientation. (reversed)
  11. Homosexuals probably only exist in certain cultures. (reversed)
  12. Homosexuals have probably existed throughout human history.
  13. In all cultures there are people who consider themselves homosexual.
  14. The proportion of the population that is homosexual is roughly the same all over the world.
  15. It is only in the last century that homosexuals have appeared in large numbers. (reversed)

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I think the larger lesson here is that people shouldn't stake their political beliefs too strogly to the wayward wagon of science, since it could show tomorrow that your premise was wrong. Unless, that is, one's beliefs are founded on principles rather than empirical claims. For instance, it's not true that preferential male homosexuality is "genetic" -- MZ twin concordance rate is only 20-25%. So, if that's a firm plank of your platform, then when it's yanked out from under you, what do you do? Or assume it's not even biological (though it is) -- should we change our views of equal treatment under the law? Religious denomination is not genetic either.

Some of the anti-gay views are flat-out wrong: not being biological, being able to change from one orientation to the other w/ a shrink's help or willpower, etc. But some of the pro-gay views are flat-out wrong too: being genetic (a too-narrow claim of it being biological), occuring in the same proportions in all cultures (not true among H-Gs; General Social Survey shows diff rates for diff ethnic groups even in the US), etc. Only scientific investigation can tell us which claims are right and wrong, and none of that investigation should be concerned with what pro-gay or anti-gay people think, since it's just as likely that the research will upset & enrage the pro-gays as anti-gays. Science happens.

If a person hasn't already grounded their pro-gay belief as something like, "Regardless of the causes, prevalence, mutability, and so forth, of homosexuality, homosexuals should be accorded the same rights under the law as heterosexuals" -- then they don't really understand what rights are about.

A conservative blogger recently posted on the "gay germ" theory of male homosexuality, which I believe as well (only one that makes sense), though I'm neither politically nor economically conservative. He took it as a good sign, since he was sure that this would lead to a vaccine or something -- but I find it just as likely that Big Pharma could develop the "gay germ" into a pill of some sort that not-so-desirable adolescent boys could take in order to find companionship during the stage in their lives when they're horny as hell but yet utterly invisible to females. If you're isolated from girls, either due to undesirability or geographically (British boarding schools), then you might as well make the best of it. You might shudder at the thought, but this is a "brain in a vat" scenario where you wouldn't notice or mind after you took it.

In that same thread, the originator of the "gay germ" theory, Greg Cochran, took other commenters to task for not being able to count, but his only response to me was: "Talk about desperate!" Well, yes, of course! But it just goes to show that having what I can only assume are some anti-gay views (i.e., that it's due to a microbe) is completely compatible with having pro-gay political views, as well as believing that male homosexuality might actually increase -- not be wiped out -- by discovering its biological causes.

The weirdest thing to me about the concern over understanding homosexuality is that it tends to depend on the belief that there is a simple biological mechanism for it rather than multiple possible causes and a complex set of causes, each of which also affects numerous other aspects of the person.

This is perhaps due to the way genetic therapy was pushed back in the 90's when thought of this first arose. But it still makes me shake my head.

It will be interesting to see how scientific studies on the etiology of homosexuality eventually plays out in the fundamentalist community. If it turns out to be a gene or a germ, this will will establish the biological basis of the orientation. What will be the political/medical decisions that fundamentalists feel that they have to make, especially any "eugenic" ones? If they choose to go with eugenics, this would be contrary to one of the principles that was a part of the fundamentalism in the early 20th century - a strong anti-eugenics platform (especially Bryan).

[Or, as in the case of evolution, will they reject the scientific findings and hold on to the Pentateuch]

By natural cynic (not verified) on 12 Jul 2006 #permalink

also, i am pretty sure more women than men would take the "gay" pill :) of course, they might simply go through a "gay" pill phase....

I have my own way out of any quandries that arise from discovering, as most educated people have, that homosexuality is mostly a behavior complex not subject of choice, therapy or any assignment of "fault". You outghta read the whole thing but the way I write, you can just pick off the italicized bold parts and stop there.

Not up for anything but summaries? OK the bottom line:
Science will probably find enough evidence to convince any educated person that homosexuality is "natural" and "not anyone's fault"...some day. Simple human empathy and an open minded attention to the reports others make from the heart can accept that homosexuality isn't a fault to begin with...today. I find that once you commit to objectivity, decency just comes about as a matter of course.

what is Stemwedel afraid of? Pick up your rationality by the handle, not the blade! [Its just knowledge fer crisake!]

and as for Janet, NO NO NO you aren't "pinning it on something abnormal" what kind of understanding of genetic and imprinting variations is that? You are pinning it "on something normal" if you find a genetic cause, however rare. and the homosexuality is NOT rare but you STILL don't need to find "why" why is for preachers, how is scientists. Quit getting those things confused people!

OK, I calmed down and read all the way to the bottom.

I see this post as important to advancing the perceptions among people who don't keep read up on research in gender and sexual orientatation and the constant probing to precisely locate the frontier between nature and nurture in our behaviors. But it is mostly of political rather than scientific utility for us to understand that misconceptions and mistakes are natural and that our untutored thought habits go with "essences". I think anyone who claims to follow the process and suspend the judgements about open questions in a scientific way should not have the timidity shown in the two quotes you started with. Mistakes that are natural are still mistakes and fear of providing ammo for republicans or fundamentalists is unbecoming a scientist.

Green, I go back and forth on whether knowledge that will certainly lead to widespread unethical behavior should be disseminated (I have a hard time not falling back to the "all knowledge is good" default position, which is really a pretty naive position when you think about it). But what I can say for certain is that studying essentialism in social categories is of interest scientifically, even without the practical/political applications. Understanding the structure of concepts is one of the central tasks of cognitive science.

"naive": Thats me all right. But I do not go back and forth much: dissemination of ideas is virtually impossible to control in this day and age...unless you can make it sound boring [which was Jessica Vallenti's original faux pas: she sensationalized a routine scientific paper] If senationalism and instant dissemination are here to stay, then we just have to keep learning and calmly explaining what we have learned...and calmly refuting from our facts the distortions others reach from their assumptions and fears.

"understanding the structure of concepts..": Yup...and I am glad there are people smart enough to do such useful investigating.

[but I do owe Dr Freeride and apology for over reacting to the quote before reading the whole post.]

.when it turns out that people who already believe that homosexuality has a biological basis tend to be more pro-gay than people who don't believe that it has a biological basis!

I have watched my views change over a period of time from abhorring homosexuality as a depravity to accepting it as a natural occurrence of sexual preference for some individuals. I attribute this change to an active effort of informing myself about this topic to get over my own prejudices. At this stage, I am inclined to believe that homosexuality, at some level, has a biological basis. But I keep wondering as do many biologists, if homosexuality is genetic, how does it propagate? Since the sexual act does not lead to procreation, how is the trait inherited? I recently watched the film Kinsey on Alfred Kinseys life and research. The Kinsey scale measures sexual orientation from 0 to 6 with 0 being completely heterosexual and 6 being completely homosexual and the rest lying in between. I have been wondering if the bisexuals are the carriers of this supposed gene that confers complete homosexual orientation over time? I think that just as the opposite sex is the natural choice for a typical heterosexual, so would be the case of choosing the same sex partner for a typical homosexual. In other words, just as a typical homosexual may feel repulsed by the idea of the same sex partner, I would think, a typical homosexual would also feel similarly, repulsed. I dont see why ones repulsion should be validated and the others not. Why is one individuals choice biologically (not evolutionarily) driven and not the others?

An interesting take on homosexuality comes from Joan Roughgarden (author of Evolutions Rainbow) who says gayness is a necessary side effect of getting along (Jonah Lehrer. Seed. 2006. Vol.2. No. 5, 52-57). With a list of over 450 vertebrate species displaying homosexual behavior, she argues In our culture, we assume that there is a straight-gay binary, and that you are either one or the other. But If you look at the vertebrates, that just isnt the case... that in 50 years, the gay-straight dichotomy will dissolve. Homosexuality in humans has existed historically in many cultures. Maybe not so much discussed, maybe not so much so apparently, yet it has been there. I think, because this form of sexual activity does not have the required effort and energy inputs in terms of associated parenthood, it promotes multiple and short term partnerships. At societal levels, this is a cause of concern since it disturbs the long-held family as the societal unit framework. I would think, divorces and single parenthoods should be as much a cause of concern as homosexuality in such a scenario. It is the implications of homosexuality gaining popularity as a viable sexual choice that holds the threat over the majority. I would think that if such be the case, proof of biological basis of homosexuality would be a welcome thought, since that would confirm that you are born a homosexual (just like you are born a heterosexual) and not made into one.

By blackandwhite (not verified) on 18 Jul 2006 #permalink