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.