All in the Genes
By Richard E. Cytowic
Sunday, September 1 1996
Simon LeVay's review of what "causes" homosexuality will be widely regarded as authoritative because it is thorough and fair. He not only lays out the sometimes conflicting evidence but also takes pains to assess the science as good or sloppy and to judge the assumptions behind theories. And it is wonderful to encounter a scientist who writes beautifully and, often, clearly.
The ineluctable conclusion that homosexuals are created differently from straights is a theme of both LeVay's Queer Science and Chandler Burr's A Separate Creation. Even the common double usage of "gays and lesbians" implies that these two sorts of homosexuals are different kinds of creatures rather than being male and female versions of the same thing.
Scholarship shows that homosexuality is far less about sexual acts than commonly supposed and far more a collection of characteristics that include cognitive talents, brain structures, and fingerprint patterns that are atypical for the "average" person of a given gender. In other words, homosexuality is a package of gender-atypical characteristics (gender meaning biologically male or female). Of course, simple observation shows that many individual gays do have gender characteristics congruent with what is typical for their sex. This is so because diversity in the molecular pathways of sexual development yields variations in everybody's sexuality (and brains) leaving no one "pure male" or "pure female."
Gay people have their own history, culture and identity because what are seen as external differences from straight people are accompanied by internal differences at the physical level of genes, hormones, and brain organization. Both books look at gay sheep, sea gulls, cows and even fruit flies to show how genes not only shape behavior but also can determine physical anatomy. Both authors find that gays constitute a distinct group within society.
Consider one of LeVay's arguments. Quickly grasping their differences, gays come to conceptualize straight people as a distinct category who operate by different mental rules from themselves, and generally leave it at that. By contrast, those straights who freak out when they imagine themselves in same-sex behavior have insufficiently distanced themselves conceptually from gay people. Science could improve straight-gay relations by clarifying the status of gays as an objective category of humans.
How gay people should be treated is a moral question, not a scientific one. But the more people are willing to drop ideology and look at the facts, both authors contend, it should become self-evident that gay people do live in a manner appropriate to their nature. It will no longer be possible to pretend that someone's homosexuality can be -- for others' convenience -- walled off from the rest of their psyche or excised by an act of medicine, law or religion. Biology reinforces what gay people have always understood: Being gay is an integral aspect of self. It isn't something that you do but something that you are.
To call Burr's A Separate Creation "popular science" merely notes that it collapses some details of research into broad outlines. Where Burr states in a phrase, "Female sea gulls are known for forming long-term lesbian couples," LeVay devotes space to the nuances of this observation.
Burr's strength lies in disclosing the political meaning of sexual-orientation research and in showing how it isn't always what we think it is. For example, most critics (whether pro- or anti-gay) who don't like the results of sexual-orientation research cloak their ideology by couching their objections in scientific terms. They routinely accuse the researchers, some of whom are gay, of bias, yet the critics can be as ideologically biased as anyone.
Kinsey was the first to observe systematically that homosexuality is immutable, though its fixed nature has been noted in many cultures over the centuries. For scientists, the issue of choice vs. born-that-way is settled: Homosexuality appears in all societies with a percentage that is similar and stable over generations, and its emergence is neither hindered nor facilitated by social norms (either permissive or regressive). "To present a simple dichotomy may recruit political activists to the debate," Burr writes, "but it doesn't advance understanding of human nature."
Burr excels at revealing the media's absurd questions and abysmal grasp of science. In reporting Dean Hammer's work on the "gay gene," one interviewer after another wondered why Hammer wouldn't leap at the chance to address "choice," while Hammer could never fathom why they kept asking about it. By definition, when a gene is involved, a trait cannot be chosen.
The interests of politics, science and journalism are at odds. Though "choice" is a dead scientific issue, Burr notes that a public confused about what a gene even is takes it as a "symbol of certainty, of a reality that is too politically terrifying to too many people, a reality they cannot accept without help. And this is what `genetic' means politically."
A political irony awaits. Conservatism by definition prizes the individual, takes as given that individuals differ in native ability, and believes that personal effort can overcome the worst environment. Although conservatives typically detest the existence of gays and whereas research does negate the worst right-wing stereotypes in the short run, science ultimately supports the conservative view of reality in demonstrating that people do differ in basic, immutable and meaningful ways.
Ironically, sexual-orientation research refutes not conservatism but liberalism. The corpus of human biology research reveals that nature controls important aspects of personality, behavior and intellect -- a view odious to the liberal mind, which believes that every crucial force affecting human outcomes is external and changeable by social pressure.
Truth has a funny way of upsetting political concepts.
Richard E. Cytowic is a Washington neurologist and author of "The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology" and "The Man Who Tasted Shapes."
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
Back to top