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.

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