Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoughtful and lucid on language and thought: Guy Deutscher ‘Through the Language Glass’

“Ever heard of es-tchay-den-frood?” asked the husband. “No, what is it?” un-answered the wife. “‘Relishing someone else’s misfortune’,” quoted back the husband. “It’s in this article that says how the language you speak affects how you think.” “Yeah, I’d have thought that,” thoughtfully responded the wife. I almost choked on my breakfast.

I doubt this blog has much of a readership, and I hardly expect to be influencing the august editors of International Herald Tribune (yet), but the timing was pretty vexing nonetheless: first Behavioural and Brain Sciences (article, response), then the Wall Street Journal (article, response), now this. The myth-peddling assault on sensible research into language rolls on unabated. So, I quickly left the breakfast room, retrieved our complimentary paper, and checked the article out. Sure enough, the title promised a parade of the usual errors: “Same planet, different worlds: Languages shaping reality”. And on the front page. The heart sinks, the brain revs.

The article (link), by Guy Deutscher (webpage), turns out to be a pleasant surprise, however (the title, perhaps, an editor’s addition): a deft and elegant style, facts simply not simplistically communicated, and, most importantly, avoidance of the array of errors that usual besmirch discussion of the link between language and thought. Deutscher identifies straightaway that the connection is one of tracks, not traps. That is, speaking Hopi doesn’t leave you trapped in a mindset that forever prevents you from learning to use the English word ‘time’. Rather, as speakers of English, or other languages, we get into the habit of thinking along certain tracks: we pay attention to some aspects of situations and fail to attend to others, because competent use of our day-to-day language has set us up with certain habits of expression and, hence, foci of attention, and, hence, patterns of thought. For the rest of the article, Deutscher illustrates this with two examples:
  • Speakers of, say, Spanish and German are inclined to describe bridges (amongst other things) in different ways, e.g., ‘strong’ versus ‘slender’. The choices they make may, plausibly, reflect differences in grammatical gender: for Spaniards, bridges are masculine, for Germans, feminine, and strength is a masculine property, slenderness a female one.
  • Speakers of Guugu Yimithirr—a language of northern Queensland, that eschews terms like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’ for ‘to the north’, ‘to the south’, etc.—use and can recall details of cardinal directions in a way that the average city-bound English speaker can’t.
In both cases, it isn’t that Spanish speakers have thoughts about bridges unthinkable to Germans, or Guugu Yimithirr speakers have thoughts involving locations unthinkable to English speakers. Rather, it’s that there are certain thoughts that are more likely to occur to Spaniards than Germans, or Guugu Yimithirr than English speakers, in virtue of their respective languages.

My liking of the article notwithstanding, I’m unsure of what Deutscher thinks that these two examples are meant to show us. To me, they seem to show that society affects how people act, and, as action includes using language in an socially appropriate fashion, it affects how they speak and how they get ready to speak, that is, how they think. So, I don’t think either example shows us much about how language, alone, influences thought. Rather, they show how society influences thought—a conclusion that is surely unsurprising.

To make this clearer, consider first Spanish versus German. I question whether any association that speakers have between bridges and manliness/womanliness arises spontaneously, simply from using their native tongue, rather than from being put through an education system that tells them to think of nouns in terms of masculinity/femininity. The dichotomy between the genders is a socially central and salient one. Plausibly, it works its way, via grammatical terminology inculcated in the educational system, through to speakers’ conceptions of these objects. To be sure that it is language (a linguistic fact), rather than how society teaches people to think about their language (a social fact), that is at work in the ‘bridge effect’, we would want to look at Spanish and German speakers who are so far removed from formal education that they do not know anything about traditional grammatical gender terminology (such speakers might be found in rural parts of Latin America and, just possibly, amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch, or like communities). If they describe bridges in sex-biased terms, then we might have something to explain. If not, then we should conclude that how society tells people to think about their languages affects how people think about their languages down even to the level of the common noun—an interesting conclusion, but hardly compelling evidence of language influencing thought independent of ambient social facts.

And an incident from my time doing fieldwork makes me question Deutscher’s second example. When I’ve asked for directions from one place to the next, those directions have most often been in the form of cardinal directions: “Head south for two miles, then turn west, then ...”. I found this somewhat irritating at first (“Why can’t they just left-and-right me?”, I used to wonder). However, once the directions cease to involve roads but cross fields and follow rivers, it becomes pretty obvious. If you have to “turn left at the next road”, then it doesn’t matter whether than road is at 30 degrees to your current road, or at 60, or 113: following the road takes care of that. Try telling someone without a compass to turn left by 113 degrees and you soon appreciate that “head south for two miles, then turn west, then ...” is the superior system, once you’ve learned to use it. The crucial fact, however, is that I wasn’t off in the extremities of Australia, but smack in the middle of rural Oklahoma, and the people giving me directions were, more often than not, monolingual English speakers, sometimes just as white as me.

Obviously, Guugu Yimithirr culture and language have evolved in a world of without a grid of tarmacked roads leading you at just the right angle to get you where you want to go to. And, as a child, you don’t just learn the grammar of a language, or its lexicon, you learn what to talk about in day-to-day life and how to talk about it too. For objective reasons, cardinal directions play a prominent role in Guugu Yimithirr culture and, as a cultural fact, when you speak Guugu Yimithirr, you adorn your description of an event, it seems, with facts about these directions. In a similar vein, I remember the first time I read Warlpiri story, from a different part of Australia. It basically said that there was a group of people who headed in this direction, then that direction, then off in another, and ended, I think, with them being back where they started: no comment on why they left, what they found, what they did, or what it was like to get back again. (“Yep, that sounds about right,” said Ken Hale and Norvin Richards, who have, respectively, superabundant and abundant experience documenting Australian languages.) If Guugu Yimithirr culture is anything like the Warlpiris’ in this respect, then directions matter to the extent that recounting them is enough to create a story of interest.

As with Spanish and German, it seems to me that what makes Guugu Yimithirr different from English is not a linguistic fact (a case of language guiding thought), but a set of social facts that appear linguistic because they are bound up with language use:
  • It is a social fact that the world you live in and the life you lead there are better served by cardinal directions than by lefts and rights.
  • Whether your language has ‘left’ and ‘right’ is a linguistic fact, but how much your community expects you to mention directions when retelling events is a social fact. (Guugu Yimithirr could, one imagines, adopt ‘left’ and ‘right’ from English but use these only for humans, maintain a social preference for locating objects and events in terms of norths and souths.)
  • And whether sequences of directions alone suffice to make a story worth telling is certainly a social fact.
Deutscher wonders, with admirable tentativeness, “how geographic languages [like Guugu Yimithirr] affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation—whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life”. However, these questions strike me as premature: we still don’t have good reason for thinking that it is language, rather than social facts about language use, that are at play here.

It is an open, and probably prickly, question as to how one should tease apart purely linguistic influence on thought from social influence, mediated by patterns of language use, on thought. My suspicion, in part confirmed by Deutscher’s article, is that what is advertised as the former is in reality more often the latter. What the cases Deutscher considers probably show therefore is that society and socialisation influence how and what people think about (no surprise there) and that this influence infiltrates down to the level of quite subtle facts about language. In principle, the latter finding is not so surprising, but the precise details doubtless will be intriguing. I suspect that we are still far from knowing whether language itself, abstracted away from the society that speaks it, can influence thought and I doubt that the experiments devised to test the hypothesis are in principle capable of speaking to the issue. However, given how well Deutscher’s article frames the question and presents key research, I think his forthcoming book (link) will be an excellent way to confirm or disconfirm such suspicions.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Does thought influence language? Well, at times, ...

The extent to which language influences thought is an old and ongoing debate in cognitive science. I wish that the debate would show equal concern for letting thought influence language. In a recent article (Wall Street Journal), Lera Boroditsky (cool website) outlines some recent research in her field: it is imaginative and fascinating and there’s no doubt in my mind it makes substantial and significant contributions. However, I was struck by Boroditsky’s attempt to situate her work against the purported failure of Chomsky’s approach to language. Tying one’s work to one of the central figures of cognitive science adds caché, especially if one is overturning what that figure has said. But what the article presents reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what language is and which aspects of it generative linguistics attempts to study.

Boroditsky writes: “Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages essentially, that languages don’t really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking. // The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny.” This not only misrepresents universal grammar and its investigation but also misconceives which aspects of language Chomsky et al’s versus Boroditsky’s et al’s research relates to.

Chomsky’s proposal is that languages do not significantly differ from each other in terms of narrow syntax, that is, in terms of syntactic algorithms and the set of primitives over which those algorithms operate. The kinds of universals that arise with this approach are statements like:
  • All branching is maximally binary.
  • Extraction is only possible from phase edges.
  • Minimality of attraction is relativized to particular features.
What Boroditsky has in mind (I’m willing to bet) are universals of the form:
  • Any language with head-internal relative clauses permits null subjects.
  • Any language that is verb-initial has construct states.
  • All languages have pronouns.
The difference between these two types of universals is massive: one concerns the deep infrastructure of language, the other, the superficial description of its output. (This misunderstanding also afflicts a much discussed paper by Evans and Levinson, BBS, and I wonder whether it represents a prevalent misapprehension.) However, to anyone who understands what generative linguistics is concerned with, it is wholly obvious that the entire research program of universal grammar could be successfully completed without there being a single universal of the latter (superficial) variety. Universals of output simply aren’t the universals that universal grammar is concerned with and unless Boroditsky knows something surprising about binary branching, long-distance extraction, and relativised minimality, her claim that no universals have “withstood scrutiny” “after decades of research” is simply untrue.

That said, although universal grammar does not require superficial universals, it should be emphasised that universals derived from the nature of the primitives over which syntax operates (rather than from the syntactic algorithms themselves) remain in good health “after decades of research”: feature systems with a dual still differentiate singular from plural, and those with a trial still differentiate singular, plural and dual; feature systems with a three-way person contrast still conflate first inclusive with first exclusive, not with second person; and there is still no choric-hearer or choric-speaker feature system. So, universal grammar doesn’t need superficial universals, but it has them anyway.

Yet, even if Boroditsky’s motivational critique of Chomsky is wrong, that hardly means her work is without motivation. The domains of study of the two approaches are substantially without overlap. Consider some of Boroditsky’s examples.
  • English, Hebrew and Pormpuraaw speakers may arrange pictures differently to reflect chronological sequence, but this tell us nothing about how narrow syntax works, because representation of chronological sequence has nothing to do with binary branching, extraction, etc. The irrelevance of this data is underlined by Boroditsky’s own observation that the Hebrew versus English orderings reflect the directions in which the two languages are written: writing systems are means of representing the output of universal grammar, parametrized to a given language, after it has passed through the morphological, phonological and phonetic systems; they are very distant from the study of universal grammar itself.

  • Lexical facts—such as whether Russian speakers, who lack a cover term for sky blue and navy blue, are more attuned to different shades of these colours than are English speakers to whom they are both blue—are also irrelevant to how syntax may construct long-distance dependencies or whether syntactic branching is binary. Much variation in the lexicon fails to impact on syntax: elks are nothing like elephants, but one struggles to find syntactic ramifications of this fact.

  • English and Japanese both have constructions that identify and ignore agency, but their different rates of usage represents a sociological fact about language usage, not anything to do with differences in the narrow syntax. If your society generally expects you to impute agency when speaking whatever language it uses, then, it turns out that you are more attuned to agency. This is not overly surprising: when my lifestyle includes a lot of violin playing, my intolerance for others’ off-key playing increases. Speaking English is part of my lifestyle, so why should the set of distinctions that being a member of an English-speaking society routinely makes me make not be just like having perfect pitch? The propensity of English speakers to identify causes reflects a sociolinguistic fact, not something that universal grammar is concerned with.

It is irritating that such errors of logic and such misrepresentations of generative linguistics should have been made in so public a forum as the Wall Street Journal. What’s more worrying to me, however, is the persistent gap in understanding by other cognitive scientists as to what universal grammar is about, what evidence could falsify it, and how other research enterprises may pertain to language and yet be orthogonal to it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Unequal Equals: Homosexuals, ‘Christian Exceptionality’, and the Law

If x = y, then y = x. It’s a law of logic. It’s universal. And yet an exception has been unearthed by no lesser personages than Lord Carey of Clifton, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, and Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre. It transpires that, if I am a christian and you are a homosexual, then my right to manifest my faith entails my right to deny you of your rights (to access information and services, for instance), and any attempt to deny me of my right to deny you of your rights constitutes a denial of my rights. In other words, my rights are not equal to your rights unless I am allowed to make your rights unequal to my rights. Or, more blatantly, if I am equal to you, then you are unequal to me. If x = y, then yx.

Laid bare, such “‘reasoning’” (to borrow the archbishop’s punctuation) doesn’t deserve a second thought. However, Carey made his case before the Court of Appeal (submission) and Williams made hers on BBC Radio 4’s Today program (15 April 2010, 8:39–8:45). Melanie Phillips, columnist with the Daily Telegraph, has warmed to the issue as well (column), as have others. So, how has such ‘reasoning’ managed to masquerade reasoning?

Carey, Williams, Phillips and others have most recently been goaded into action by the perceived injustice suffered by a psychosexual counsellor. Gary McFarlane was dismissed for refusing to counsel homosexuals, even though his employers’ equal opportunities policy stated that “It is not appropriate for the therapist to impose a particular set of standards, values or ideals upon clients” and that “The therapist must ... avoid discrimination, for example on grounds of religion, race, gender, age, beliefs, sexual orientation, disability” (emplaw). Given that McFarlane wanted to deny services on the basis of sexual orientation, the breach of the policy is clear. So, again, how has such ‘reasoning’ managed to masquerade reasoning?

The crucial fact is that McFarlane is a christian and he believes that his religion does not merely classify homosexuality as sin but also requires him not to provide homosexuals with his professional services. By preventing him from denying his services in this way, his employers were, it was argued, denying him of the right to manifest religion, a right guaranteed under the European Convention on Human rights (Article 9.1). The decision went against him (for sound reasons, emplaw) but is now itself under appeal. And this is where Carey and Williams come in. Carey wishes a specially constituted court to hear the case, one attuned to christian values, one whose members do not have a record of findings against christian values. Both further criticise judges for elaborating a new doctrine according to which “homosexual rights trump christian rights” (Williams) and thus entering the legislative domain that belongs only to Parliament. Both see the beginnings of a society in which christians are barred, because of their beliefs, from participation in “normal things of life” (Williams), it being “of course, but a short step from the dismissal of a sincere Christian from employment to a ‘religious bar’ to any employment by Christians” (Carey). Both are wrong.

Their case was quietly and comfortably demolished by Williams’ cointerviewee on the Today program, barrister Dinah Rose (link). To manifest one’s religion is a qualified right: the manifestation is permitted only if it does not impinge on others’ rights (Article 9.2). McFarlane’s treatment of homosexuals is not a legally sanctioned manifestation of his religion as it denies them access to information and services. So, the judges have merely upheld the law, not created it, nor did they “set aside the human Rights Convention” (Phillips). Christians are not subject to a ‘religious bar’: there is a difference between beliefs and behaviour, and beliefs about what is sin do not oblige discrimination. And if courts may be specially constituted in ways pleasing to christians, should we not also have courts specially constituted in ways pleasing to homosexuals? Or maybe we should just stick with ‘all equal before the law’.

So, what is sought here is not christian equality, but ‘christian exceptionality’, the entrenching of inequality in favour of christians. I’ll leave to a later posting why the assertion that we are a traditionally christian nation following a judeo-christian ethic is both wrong and irrelevant as a defence of christian exceptionality. Here, I wish to remain on the topic of how unacceptable the demands of christian exceptionality are. To do so, it is helpful to consider jews instead of homosexuals (as homosexuals are a group whose equality within society is a very recent advance, whereas jewish equality has a longer, if very maculate, history). An instructive incident comes from the life of Pope Pius XII, when he was merely Eugenio Pacelli, secretary in the Department of Extraordinary Affairs (Hitler’s Pope, pages 69–71).

In 1917, towards the end of the First World War, Pacelli received a request from German jewry to assist in lifting an Italian embargo that affected palms needed for a religious rite. Pacelli wrote to his superior that to accede “would be to give the Jews special assistance ... in a positive and direct way to assist them in the exercise of their Jewish cult”, making sure to delay processing of the Germans’ request (“I entirely approve,” responded his superior). Discussing this incident, John Cornwell writes: “Some Catholic canonists would defend his action to this day, arguing that he was under an actual obligation not to assist non-Christians in the practice of their religion”. In other words, McFarlane’s defence is identical to that of Pius XII: for both, their christian values lead them believe themselves obliged to deny services to particular groups.

If Pacelli, the psychosexual counsellor, were dismissed for refusing his services to jews, that is, for “discrimination ... on grounds of religion, race, gender, age, beliefs, sexual orientation, disability”, would the Christian Legal Centre have complained that jews’ rights had trumped christians’? Or would an ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, “his heart in anguish”, have decried that those striving for “the highest development of human spirituality” should be “but a short step from ... a ‘religious bar’ to any employment”? Would newspaper columnists, inspired by his example, “Thank God for the one man who has the courage to stand up to our ruling elite’s assault on Christianity”?

If x = y, then y = x. The equality of homosexuals cannot be less than the equality of jews and the equality of christians cannot consist in the denial of the equality of others. Equality is equal for all and religious rights cannot demand the denial of the rights of others.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Burqa bashing

Burqa bashing is back in the media. One argument (e.g., Nigel Farage snippeted on the bbc world service) for banning the burqa is that it’s a symbol of oppression. The United Kingdom Independence Party leader is not the first person I’d look to for defence of minority rights, but that just shows you how naive I must be.

Now, naive as I am, I would have reasoned as follows: some oppressed women are bundled up in burqas; some women wear them freely; just because the burqa is an instrument of oppression there doesn’t mean it’s an instrument of oppression here; so people should be free to wear it. But, says Farage, if it’s an instrument of oppression there, then it’s a symbol of oppression here and that’s why we should ban it.

Well that’s clever: taking a symbolic stance against oppression there is ample enough reason for denying freedom of choice here. So, let’s apply the logic across the board. The cross was used by the Romans as an instrument of oppression, and, if it’s an instrument of oppression there, then it’s a symbol of oppression here. So we should ban the cross!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Ruth Deech on Civil Partnerships

Last night, Ruth Deech (professor and baroness), delivered an address on civil partnerships at Gresham College (transcript). Nearly the entirety of the speech was given over to an extremely interesting summary of relevant case histories in Britain, Europe, South Africa and elsewhere, showing how we have moved from a legal conception of marriage as heterosexual, procreative and Christian to an extension of many of the same rights to relationships between people who are none of these. Deech adopts a tone of such dispassionate factuality that it is nearly impossible to gauge whether she herself thinks that these changes have gone too far, or not far enough (e.g., should civil partnerships be called marriages?). It is only in the last three paragraphs that she notes ‘two issues in all this which give me unease’. On one of these, I agree: now that ‘biological parenthood, legal and social parenthood’ can diverge in so many ways (adoption, sperm donation, egg donation, ...), birth certificates should, while still respecting anonymity, no longer conflate or force a choice these. However, I do take issue with Deech’s second point, which plays a bit fast and loose with the science, citing inconclusive evidence that appears to have been cherry-picked by a Christian interest group.

Deech’s qualm concerns ‘the removal from the law of the provision ... that when a doctor is considering whether or not to give infertility treatment to a woman, he or she had to consider the welfare of the potential baby, “including the child’s need for a father”’. This is a legitimate concern, but whether it represents a defect in the law ultimately depends on matters of fact. Deech offers two observations in this regard, neither of which I find convincing.

First, she considers message-sending: ‘The removal of the requirement to consider the need for a father is to make a fresh statement that the child does not need a father... It sends a message to men, at a time when many of them feel undermined as providers and parents...’ I find this slightly implausible. Are there really any men who were undecided about whether or not to participate in their children’s lives but who reached a decision once the government changed the law about which names should appear on birth certificates, because this constituted a message, in their eyes, that their involvement was neither expected nor valued? The law, and the brief administrative moment it affects, strike me as so far removed from any actual decisions that parents must reach that it cannot honestly be thought to have any effect or to send any message.

Second, she alludes to ‘a wealth of research showing that children need fathers, not just two parents’. She writes ‘that boys without fathers do worse at school and turn to worse role models’. However, as a bare fact, this is irrelevant to concerns about same sex parenting. Did the study (or studies) in question compare mother-father families with single-motherfamilies? If so, then it tells us nothing about two-parent, same sex families. Moreover, she writes, ‘Research shows that [fathers’] presence gives girls as well as boys advantages in educational and social development’. Again, does the research in question specifically address educational and social development in homosexual versus heterosexual two-parent families, or only in mother-father versus single-motherfamilies? If the latter, then it again tells us nothing about children raised by same-sex parents.

For details of this research, Deech points to This takes one to The Fatherhood Bibliography, which presents 26 pages each containing about 3-4 citations with representative quotations. So, a sizeable but hardly huge body of research (and I haven’t checked whether some works are cited more than once, in different sections). However, the publication, prepared by CARE (‘Making a Christian difference for the sake of the future’), makes no profession of objectivity: it is not a systematic review, deciding, first, what counts as good evidence, and then taking all research, positive and negative, into account in order to reach a balanced conclusion. Instead, its aim is simply to demonstrate the ‘significant amount of research ... showing the importance of fathers’. This is perfectly fine as a motive for publication. However, in order to justify Deech’s concerns, the relevant comparison set is not fathered versus unfathered children, but heterosexual versus homosexual two-parent families.

And in this regard the report is decidedly underwhelming. Only 12 publications are cited. One of them is not a piece of scientific research but the opinion of a French governmental body. Of the remaining 11 cited works, 6 simply say that the evidence does not permit proper conclusions to be drawn, 2 are of dubious relevance, concerning breakdown rates of homosexual versus heterosexual relationships (whether coparenting lesbians break up more than coparenting heterosexuals is irrelevant unless one controls for, e.g., whether the children result from previous partnerships or from a joint decision of both parents), and the remaining 3 point to possible socialization difficulties of children of same sex parents (though nothing that seems to me to be beyond what one would expect of children who might be teased or ostracized because of their minority status).

So, Deech may be right to raise fatherlessness as a point of concern. However, to suggest that CARE’s fatherhood publication provides relevant evidence seems wrong. That said, in the end, she warns only against parenting that ‘cut[s] out all contact with members of the other sex or falsif[ies] the birth registration’. When this is not the case, ‘Tolerance of both types of parenting has to be ensured’. Deech’s careful laying out of the legal steps that have brought us to where we are now seems sure to me to contribute to this tolerance and, like her, I am particularly struck by the eloquent advocacy of South Africa’s Justice Albie Sachs:

‘The exclusion of same sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, accordingly, is not a small and tangential inconvenience resulting from a few surviving relics of societal prejudice destined to evaporate like the morning dew. It represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples. It reinforces the wounding notion that they are to be treated as biological oddities, as failed or lapsed human beings who do not fit into normal society, and, as such, do not qualify for the full moral concern and respect that our Constitution seeks to secure for everyone. It signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples. It should be noted that the intangible damage to same sex couples is as severe as the material deprivation. To begin with they are not entitled to celebrate their commitment to each other in a joyous public event recognised by the law. They are obliged to live in a state of legal blankness in which their unions remain unmarked by the showering of presents and the commemoration of anniversaries so celebrated in our culture. It may be, as the literature suggests, many same sex couples would abjure mimicking or subordinating themselves to heterosexual norms. Others might wish to avoid what they consider the routinisation and commercialisation of their most intimate and personal relationships, and accordingly not seek marriage or its equivalence. Yet what is at issue is not the decision to be taken, but the choice that is available. If heterosexual couples have the option of decising whether to marry or not, so should same sex couples have the choice as whether to seek to achieve a status and a set of entitlements and responsibilities on a par with those enjoyed by heterosexual couples. It follows that, given the centrality attributed to marriage and its consequences in our culture, to deny same sex couples a choice in this respect is to negate their right to self definition in a most profound way.’

Monday, March 15, 2010

What is homophobia good for? (Or: how to use science to advance moral debates)

In an earlier posting asking what homosexuality is good for, I sketched the idea that both homosexuality and homophobia might in different ways be adaptions. A recent publication about where Europe’s Y-chromosomes come from supports the ideas behind this thinking, especially with regard to homophobia, and this, in turn, affects how we should respond to the place of homophobia in the so-called ‘judeo-christian ethic’. Which brings back the topic of the earlier posting (about one attempt to reform attitudes to homosexuality by barraging the homophobes with scientific facts). There, I argued, that scientific fact rarely impacts on moral opinion. However, when science feeds our understanding of the history of ideas, when it shows us how and why our ‘morals’ originated, then it is a very powerful tool indeed. In the current case, science unmasks the charade that promotes judeo-christian homophobia to the status of a moral principle, revealing it as the remnant of pressures far distant, indeed antithetical, to the demands with which our modern world confronts us.

To begin with, here, again, is the scientific idea: homosexuality is a biological adaption and homophobia, a cultural one and each of them is associated with dominant strategies of resource management. That is: under some circumstances, a group with some homosexuality will be ‘fitter’ (i.e., will more successfully dominate resources) than a homophobic group that coerces reproduction from all its members; and, under other circumstances, a homophobic group will be ‘fitter’ than one in which some members support their siblings’ offspring rather than raising offspring of their own. In more detail, when resources are finite and, so, cannot support an indefinitely expanding population, having a proportion of (male) homosexual offspring induces collaboration, rather than conflict, over resources when the offspring in turn raise the next generation. Conversely, when resources can also be increased indefinitely (for instance, by bringing new land into cultivation, or by breeding larger herds and seeking new grazing land), then the genes of the parents are better served when all offspring independently raise their own next generation.

If this is correct, then it leads to some very specific expectations about how different genes will fare in expansionary farming/herding communities as opposed to others. Since males are freer to raise large families than are women, the scenario of resource abundance suggests moving from hunter-gather or small-scale farming to agriculture or nomadic herding will favour men and, hence, male genetic lines: a man in possession of large cultivated areas or large herds will be able to support several wives and their offspring and each male descendent will be able to do likewise, provided the expansion rate of the resources permits (i.e., provided there is enough new land or new technology to permit greater farm/herd yields). Precisely this claim is supported by a recent article about European paternal lineages and their relation to the spread of agriculture across Europe.

The article (A predominantly Neolithic origin for European paternal lineages, examines the distribution, across Europe, of different genetic lines of Y-chromosomes (inherited from the father) and compares these with lines of mitochondrial DNA (inherited from the mother). It argues that the ‘microsatellite diversity [‘of the commonest European Y-chromosomal lineage’] is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic’ (after the last major ice age). The significance of this result is as ‘a prime example of how technological and cultural change is linked with the expansion of a Y-chromosomal lineage’. Moreover, ‘the contrast of this pattern with that shown by maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests a unique role for males in the transition’. More specifically, the authors, Balaresque et al., argue that ‘the disparity between mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA] and Y-chromosomal patterns could arise from an increased and transmitted reproductive success for male farmers compared to indigenous hunter-gatherers, without a corresponding difference between females from the two groups’, resulting in ‘the expansion of incoming Y lineage’. References in article point to the same pattern in other parts of globe: the Han expansion in China, the Bantu expansion in Africa, and the introduction of agriculture to India. Moreover, if the Bantu expansion involved herding rather than farming (as, e.g., work on patriarchy and herding would lead on to suspect), then the results apply equally to farming and herding. This is as one would expect if my hunches about homophobia are correct (though data about levels of homophobia in the Neolithic is unfortunately lacking—contemporary anthropological data is the obvious proxy, but I haven’t done a search for any relevant studies).

Such evidence permits one to make sense of why judaism and its descendent faiths, christianity and islam, think of homophobia as a moral virtue. The ancient Israelites were (a) a settler nation, concerned (b) with routing indigenous inhabitants, and whose economic mainstays were both (c) agriculture and (d) herding. All four factors are concerned with expansion of population and its resource base. The societal organisation we therefore expect is one that favours the male genetic line, and this is precisely what we see, with homophobia on the hand and polygamy on the other. Now, the ancient Israelites, needless to say, were not versed in the game-theoretic concepts at play in the foregoing reasoning about strategies for resource dominance. Instead, like all pre-scientific societies faced with forces beyond their comprehension and control, they commanded obedience to social norms by imputing them to their gods: religion, once again, filling the vacuum that only later could be rightly filled by reason.

What light does this understanding of the origin of homophobia have on attempts to invoke our ‘judeo-christian heritage’ in order to deny equality of rights to homosexuals? The answer is: it deals it a mortal blow. Scientific discoveries alone rarely impact on moral misunderstanding, because what’s natural doesn’t determine what’s right (early posting). However, what we are dealing with here isn’t only science: it’s how science impacts on our understanding of the history of the ideas we take for granted. And the history of ideas is a wholly different affair: once we show that what we take to be a universal, self-evident truth is merely a dreg of history, a residue of ancient habits, the encrustation of an atrophied misapprehension of how the world works, the purported truth, like a leash released, simply ceases to hold us back. It becomes only one more foolish idea contracted, like a bad habit, in childhood, and exposed and erased in adulthood.

Tying this back to the current discussion, if judaic homophobia and its kin are just the result of a prescientific mind attempting to grapple with the game-theoretic realities that lay beyond its grasp, then the judaic ‘moral code’ and its later variations are only as applicable nowadays as the circumstances that engendered them. So, let’s note (a) that we are no longer a society of colonial conqueror-settlers, (b) that we have by and large moved beyond dispossession of indigenous peoples, and that, although we continue (c) to farm and (d) to herd, we have since undergone the industrial revolution and the information technology revolution and are increasingly aware that future farming and herding cannot be a process of relentless domination of new lands. In other words: homophobia, it’s just a phase we were going through. But now that humanity has passed beyond its adolescent growth spurt, now that we’re in our societies’ adulthood and thinking about making a sustainable, responsible living, it’s time to recognise that homophobia is something we simply have to grow out of.

All of which points to a can of words which is only now being slowly opened and which has yet to make its proper mark on public debate and society at large, namely, understanding religion from the point of view of natural science and unravelling religious doctrines from the perspective of the history of ideas. There is a charade that we engage when we debate homosexual equality with advocates of ‘judeo-christian ethics’. It is that both sides are articulating ethical systems, that is, that both sides have a set of abstract principles (about the value of society and of the individual and how these are connected). In reality, this is precisely what ‘judeo-christian ethics’ lacks: what the science shows us is that homophobia is just a resource management heuristic arrived at by a society that did not have the intellectual resources to distinguish truly ethical behaviour from mere socially expedient norms and which muddied the issue further by burying this confusion in the morass of divinity, from which we still struggle to extricate ourselves. The sooner we appreciate the human origins of divine law and the more rapidly we come discern the fingerprints of humanity in the purported penmanship of deities, the sooner we can unburden ourselves of ancient half-truths masquerading as eternal immutables and the more rapidly our actions, and not just our species, will deserve the name of ‘humanity’.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

“Family values” harm families and values

Jamie Oliver has apparently been trying to bring dietary rectitude to the fattest town in America, managing in the process to spark a near riot over the removal of french fries from a school menu (link). Wondering whether he had himself slimmed down for the exercise, or whether his own increasing girth risked breaking the back of his moral high horse, I set about googling the locus of his exploits, Huntington, West Virginia, and instead came across a prime example of one of the most egregious “because” charades: “we’re anti-gay because we’re pro-family”. Yes, it’s the family “values” lobby showing itself at its family-phobic worst. And just in time for Sydney Mardi Gras!

The scene: some locals are attempting to portray Huntington as more than a place ‘obsessed with gay-bashing, obesity, donuts and gossip’ (link). Enter: Sheila! Sheila is part of ‘the movement ... to protect our families and children from homosexuals’. How does the movement achieve this protection? By making it ‘legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation’. Yes, in Huntington, families and children are protected because ‘you can legally tell a homosexual no if they want to rent from you, do business with you or work for you’. But don’t think that Sheila is content to leave it to the movement’s ‘friendly faces in local government’ to assure this. No armchair activism for her! She writes: ‘As a matter of fact, I did have a gay son. Notice the past tense ... did. My husband and I cut our ties when he “came out” to use [sic] during his sophomore year in college. He was no longer welcome in our home or in our family.’

So here are Sheila’s family values in a nutshell: family matters so much to her that she has destroyed her own. The advocate of family values, and not her son, has chosen to regard flesh and blood as ‘dead and gone’. And the person who dismembered her own family sees her son’s homosexuality as ‘his cross to bear’, when the only cross he bears is her reaction to it. Moreover, if any other family should embrace what she has expelled, Sheila would be there! If homosexuals are renting and, who knows?, providing health care to their mother or father, she’ll put a stop to that by making them homeless. That’s one more family fixed! If they’re working and, who knows?, contributing to the education of a brother or sister, she’ll put a stop to that by making make them jobless. That’s one more life improved! And if they’re self-employed and, who knows?, providing a niece or nephew with a model of hard work and honest endeavour, don’t worry, she’ll make their business fold and put a stop to that, too. One more child protected!

So far as “because” charades go, this is one of the best. In a normal “because” charade, what follows “because” is simply unrelated to what goes before it: “I can’t be an atheist because science can’t explain the origin of the universe” says the person who never thinks about physics and so couldn’t possibly base any belief on it can or can’t explain. But the family “values” lobby go one better: what follows their “because” is the exact opposite of the real reason. What they should be saying is “we’re anti-gay because we’re anti-family”. For what could families and children more urgently need protection from than Sheila and her gang of ‘friendly faces’?

It’s time to stop the family “values” lobby from destroying and dismembering families in the name of ‘protection’. It’s time to stop them from ruining lives and wrecking relationships in the name of ‘tradition’. Time to stop them from bullying children and persecuting adults in the name of ‘compassion’. It’s time to tell the truth: that anti-gay means anti-family and pro-family means pro-gay. And, if for nothing else, we should do this for Sheila’s sake, and for the sake of the family in whose ruins she, like a misguided Samson, stands, denouncing her ‘dead’ son in blindly fervent bewilderment.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What is homosexuality good for?

Back to Jacques Balthazart’s interview about homosexuality and science (previous blog) with some comments on choice of words leading into some thoughts on evolutionary advantages of homosexuality.

An interesting point about the interview is how careful Balthazart is to avoid the word ‘abnormal’. Instead, he uses the term ‘atypical’ and he applies it generally to hormone levels in the womb, rather than to people or behaviour. On the one occasion when he does say ‘abnormal’, he immediately corrects himself back to ‘atypical’.

Choices of words matter to Balthazart. When the interviewer, even tentatively, talks of ‘abnormal’ or ‘anomalous’ people, Balthazart very quickly corrects him, pointing out that ‘abnormal’ may be fine as a statistician’s term but should be avoided here because of its pejorative (and normative) implications.

Despite this care, there are other choices of words that are not so apt: he characterises the hormone levels to which homosexuals are exposed as being ‘too high’ at certain points but ‘normal’ at others. (And le monde, reporting his work, chooses the equally partial term ‘disequilibrium’.) In our medicalised society, hormone levels that are too high, not normal, or in disequilibrium are targets for correction, and so this talk plays into the hands of people who want to regard homosexuality as a disorder to be treated (I’m sure that Britain’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jacobowitz, made precisely such a comment concerning medical intervention, but I haven’t been able to track it down). In the same way, psychiatric “treatments” for homosexual “disorder” have sprung from our psychiatrised society’s belief in the power of psychiatry to normalize any non-norm behaviour.

And right away we’re back to another “because” charade: “we cure because we care” say the bigots whose only concern is making sure everyone else is like them. The retort to which is obvious: “let’s seek medical and psychiatric interventions to cure the bigots of their bigotry”. Given that bigots far outnumber the targets of their bigotry, this would be a much more lucrative cure if ever we could find one.

But playing into the hands of bigots isn’t what really bothers me about this pussyfooting around the terms ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. It’s that if we’re concentrating on not giving the impression that homosexuality is abnormal (hence “bad”), there we’re never going to ask why it might be normal (hence “good”). In fact, I think it is not just legitimate but enlightening to ask what homosexuality—and, indeed, homophobia—is good for in the long path of human (and non-human) history.

The idea that homosexuality might be good for something first occurred to me while I was looking at a study of foxes (yes, I know I’m meant to be a linguist, but I have weirdly catholic reading habits). I can’t recall the exact details now, but at some point, for whatever reason, the fox cubs were abandoned. However, rather than being left to starve, their uncle turned up and fed them. This put the idea into my head that it may be disadvantageous for the parents (from an evolutionary/genetic point of view) if the children come into conflict over resources when trying to raise the grandchildren, meaning that the grandchildren each have less access to resources. Conversely, it might be advantageous for the parents if one of their children cooperates in the raising of the grandchildren, providing them with greater access to resources. Clearly, homosexuality is a simple way of ensuring this, especially if homosexuals form valued parts of extended family units (contrary to the “family values” propaganda).

Support for this idea comes studies examining where in age range of the family homosexual offspring are more likely to occur. One paper, reporting four separate studies, found that ‘the number of biological older brothers, including those not reared with the participant (but not the number of nonbiological older brothers), increases the probability of homosexuality in men’ (pnas)—the paper is particularly interesting because, as the middle part of the quotation shows, it controls for a number of nonbiological, environmental factors. A different paper, dealing with a smaller sample, found that male homosexuals have ‘have a greater number of older brothers, older sisters and younger brothers’ (royal society). In all the studies, there’s a correlation between family size and (male) homosexuality. If homosexuality is a means of providing more resources gatherers for, and fewer resource conflicts between, grandchildren, then these are precisely the types of results one would expect: once one has produced enough reproducer males, one’s interests are better served by producing resource sharers (as non-parental adults would be) rather than resource dominators (as parental adults would be forced to be).

I think that marital practices around the world support this way of looking at the benefits of homosexuality. Consider fraternal polyandry, where two brothers marry the same wife and therefore end up raising children who are either their children or their nephews/nieces. Apparently, this practice has developed in regions of Tibet where resources are very scarce. The fact that it’s connected with resource management is important. It prevents conflict over resources between siblings raising different sets of children and instead provides a greater number of resource gatherers for the same set of children. This is the same effect as would be achieved by having a homosexual uncle who plays a semi-parental role to his brother’s offspring. In other words, where biology isn’t enough to guarantee it, cultures can develop a form of marital behaviour that mimics the benefits of homosexuality.

I wonder whether consideration of resource management and marital patterns might also shed light on homophobia. Underlying the idea of the advantages of having some homosexual offspring is an assumed scarcity of resources requiring management. Of course, part of the evolutionary success of humans results from our having altered our environment, especially by making it much more resource-rich through agriculture and herding. In the face of an abundance of resources, biological interests might be best served by having all one’s offspring producing more sets of offspring, rather than collaborating on raising fewer. This would lead to pressure against homosexuality.

Again, cultural behaviour provides support for this view. Specifically, consider studies correlating the loss of matriarchal social structure with the introduction of cattle: matriarchies are good at preserving small landholdings intact, but once the economic mainstay of a group shifts to cattle herds, which, unlike landholdings, reproduce and so are divisible, the structure of the group shifts to a patriarchy (ecology and evolution). A strongly patriarchal culture is likely to stigmatise male homosexuality because it looks like a dereliction of duty or a form of subversion: abandoning the man’s dominant role and adopting, or desiring another man to adopt, one similar to the subordinate female one. If this is right, then it suggests a link between cultural homophobia and expansionist reactions to resource abundance.

So, bearing in mind that our cultural aversion to homosexuality stems from the patriarchal customs of a nomadic people, descended from herders, concerned with the conquest of new resources and a speedy increase in population, is it then any surprise that they should have stigmatised homosexuality?

I argued in my earlier posting (link) on this topic that facts about what natural don’t entail much about what’s right. And if homosexuality and homophobia both have their own natural histories, then neither has the upper hand in the naturalness stakes. However, if we ask which aspect of our nature is better adapted to the challenges facing our current societies it’s pretty obvious that expansion-driven resource domination is far inferior to resource sharing for the benefit of the next generation. Let the family “values” lobby mull that over for a while...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Religious right to bear arms?

A judge has criticised a school for refusing to let one of its students carry a knife. Does the fact that religion is involved make a difference?

The knife in question is the kirpan, the sikh dagger that has, for the last three centuries, been part of post-baptismal attire (along with bangle, comb, hair and pants). The school in question offered to allow the child to carry the weapon if it was welded into its scabbard, but the parents of the boy chose to withdraw him from the school (bbc). And the judge in question, the first sikh to rise to such a position in the UK (toi), presented quite a balanced view by the time he reached Radio 4 the day after initially making the comments: given that kirpan carrying is ‘a requirement of the religion’, ‘it’s wrong [for the observant] to be discriminated against’, though he is ‘conscious of the health and safety position’ at a time of ‘increase in crimes of violence involving ... knives and other offensive weapons’ (bbc). What I’d like to consider here is whether “because my religion says so” is a legitimate defence.

The first I heard of kirpans was in the days following 9-11, when a man carrying one was frogmarched off a Massachusetts commuter train to calls of satisfaction from fellow passengers—an act of egregious stupidity in a nation reeling with shock. Like, I suspect, many, all I knew of sikhs at the time concerned turbans and Indirā Gāndhī. Much of what I’ve learned since is very appealing: high levels of education, especially amongst women, high levels of economic and political activity (witness India’s sikh prime minister), and generous policies on feeding the poor (which has apparently led to a gurudvara in Southall being somewhat overrun)... All of which I mention in a doubtless vain attempt to convince you that I’m not engaging in mindless sikh-bashing here.

A useful comparison is between the kirpan and the niqāb. The British home secretary, Jack Straw, has said that he regards niqābs as impediments to social interaction which make him uneasy (guardian). But I’ve had niqābed students in my classes and they’re just as willing and able to participate as everyone else and, far from making me uneasy, they’re a useful excuse for me not remembering who my students are. The case of the kirpan and the niqāb strike me wholly as different: one is a weapon, the other is a piece of cloth. Pieces of cloth don’t, as a rule, need special justification (and I suspect that antiniqābary has been seized on by some as the socially acceptable face of muslim-bashing). Carrying offensive weapons, on the other hand, does require justification. And this brings us back to the question: is “because my religion says so” is a legitimate defence?

And it seems pretty obvious that it’s not. To take a somewhat extreme comparison, female genital mutilation is illegal in the UK, despite constituting a tahur (‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’) ritual in some (mostly African?) muslim communities (fgmnetwork). Now clearly, there’s a world of difference between kirpan carrying and genital mutilation. But the question is, where does the cut off point lie?

In coming to an answer, it’s useful to consider what a kirpan is actually for. My understanding of the matter—which is admittedly limited and probably owes too much to New York taxi drivers—is that sikhs practise ahimsā (nonviolence) but believe in the resort to force when no alternatives exist: ‘when the affairs are past other remedies, it is justifiable to unsheath[e] the sword’ (guru Gobind Singh); ‘the sword is only meant ... for the good of the people’ (sgpc). Well, this means that there’s a factual basis to kirpan carrying: it protects people. And like any factual claim, it can be evaluated.

However, the evidence appears pretty unequivocal: knives carried even for non-aggressive purposes are dangerous and harmful. This was the thrust of expert evidence to the House of Commons investigation into knife crime (house of commons) and stopping it has been the cornerstone of successful violence reduction schemes (mirror). And, worryingly, the abstract principles that the kirpan is supposed to represent, ‘independence, self-respect and power’ (sgpc), sound exactly like what teenagers say about how knife carrying makes them feel (Why Carry A Weapon?). Given that handing untrained adults, let alone schoolchildren, daggers does not make ‘for the good of the people’, sikhs have a choice: to uphold the abstract principle of protecting the public good, or to carry a concrete object that endangers it.

But sikhs’ past pragmatism points to a simple solution. The guru’s quotation above speaks of swords, as does: ‘Sword ... O symbol of the brave ... Sword, you are the scourge of saints’ (sgpc). What sikhs carry is a dagger. Therefore, they have already embraced the notion that what you carry is not the real article, but merely a symbol. So, why not make the symbolic sword one that is not a potential danger to its bearer or those it is to protect; and to fulfil the injunction of protecting the weak whilst practising nonviolence, can I suggest aikido, a martial art in perfect philosophical alignment with the precept of ahimsā?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New book about science and sexuality

I’ve just been listening to an interview with Jacques Balthazart about his new book The Biology of Homosexuality. The book marshalls much evidence, particularly in relation to embryos and hormones, to the effect that homosexuality is a naturally occurring form of biological variation, not, as some would have it, a choice, a vice, a perversion, an abomination, ... In addition to contributing to scientific understanding, Balthazart hopes that scientific understanding will affect moral understanding, undercutting the “argument” that homosexuality is wrong and that the persecution (or more mildly, denial of rights) of homosexuals is justified. I wish he were right. And he is, partly. However, there are two difficulties with his position as expressed in the interview (I haven’t read the book yet). The second one will be the subject of a separate blog (link). Here, I’ll concentrate on whether the book can affect the moral advance that its author hopes.

In my opinion, Balthazart overstates the effect that proper scientific understanding can have on our ethics. Sure, there are circumstances under which you can call on Balthazart to win certain debates about ethics. For instance, consider the Vatican’s recent huff about not being allowed to discriminate against homosexuals when hiring in the United Kingdom. The Vatican objects to equality for homosexuals because ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’ and ‘contrary to the natural law’ ( Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan believes that ‘one is not born homosexual, but becomes it’ for reasons of ‘education’ or ‘not developing one’s proper identity over the course of one’s adolescence’ ( Well, you wave Balthazart’s book at these claims and sure enough they go away: the scientific evidence is exactly the opposite of what the Vatican wishfully asserts it to be.

But the problem is: mere truth is insufficient to upset the Vatican’s and others’ opinions. What comes first is their wish to believe that homosexuality is wrong and they simply use whatever “facts” there are to hand to make their belief appear reasonable, rational and well-founded. If the foundations collapse, they don’t change their beliefs. They just look for new “facts” to dress their prejudice up in. (This is the classic “because” charade that I’ve chosen to name my blog after: what follows the word because isn’t the reason for what precedes the word because. It’s just a sham, to avoid revealing the real motivation.)

Where Balthazart’s contribution might have some effect is in places like Uganda, which has recently been considering instituting some of the most draconian anti-homosexual laws in the world (dream on Taliban!). In the context of lawmaking, where one can demand actual discussion of actual facts, people such as Uganda’s ethics minister, James Nsaba Buturo, can be called out for saying, e.g., that homosexuality ‘is not natural in Uganda’ (msnbc) (to which Balthazart retorts: only if Ugandans’ wombs don’t work like everyone else’s). Equally due for a good dose of “factage” is the characterization, inherited by Uganda from the British Penal Code, but strengthened in 1990, of homosexual acts as ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ ( If you want to know about nature, you ask a natural scientist, and, as soon as you do, up pops Balthazart and one leg of this debate collapses. (Though who actually believes that Buturo and pals’ motivation is their understanding of natural law, rather than having something to do with the delegation of christian ultra-cons who came to tea a while before the law was proposed (msnbc)? Another “because” charade...)

But leaving aside the abuse of science by the Vatican, the Ugandan legislature or the British Penal Code, let’s return to the stronger claim that Balthazart wants to make, against anti-homosexual persecution in general. Here, he’s overreaching. Simply put: natural isn’t ethical. If it were, we would decide the legality of rape based on whether rape was at some point an adaptive, evolutionarily advantageous behavior for our ancestors (the latter apparently was the case and the former in no way should be; see A Natural History of Rape). Arguments about what’s ethical have to turn on consideration of an action’s consequences, not on what is, or isn’t, natural.

And when we turn ask the people who want to persecute homosexuals to explain what harm homosexuality causes, the case is startlingly threadbare—so much so, that I again suspect that we’re looking at another “because” charade. The opponents of homosexual equality rally under the banner of family “values” and it’s for the good of families that homosexuals are to be persecuted, or, at the least, denied rights. However, what’s never clearly spelled out is how homosexuals are meant to harm families. I just cooked lunch for my mother who turned up unannounced after an early exit from a Sunday service (don’t know why it says Friday at the top of this post). She didn’t look particularly harmed when she left. The truth is, there’s no sense in which homosexuality harms families. The only families that have ever been damaged because of homosexuality are those whose family values were so contemptibly low that they rejected one of their own members on the basis of sexual preference. Or putting it another way: homosexuals don’t harm family values, homophobes do. (family “values” blog)

But, like I said, I suspect that people who play the family values card are just engaging in another “because” charade. Either they don’t know any homosexuals, or are only aware of what they take to be egregious ones, or else that think that god wants them to dislike homosexuals. Which are feelings they’re perfectly entitled to, so long as they remember that we’re not living in a (theocratic) dictatorship and personal taste is what you exercise in the privacy of your own conscience, not what you attempt to inflict on others.

As a cognitive scientist, I’m interested in all aspects of the interplay between biology and behavior. So, I’m very glad that Balthazart has written this book. And I don’t see any grounds to question either his science or his ethics. What I question is only the soundness of his step from the science to the ethics. The implications of this science for the debate about homosexual equality are more limited than he hopes. The real argument against legalized discrimination is that it harms precisely what its proponents purport to protect: the integrity of the family, the value of relationships, and the dignity of the individual.