The Left loves to tell the Right that it’s anti-science, pointing (not without reason) to the correlation between conservative beliefs and a failure to come to terms with the scientific facts of evolution and human-caused climate change. But there’s a subtler tendency on the Left; a fear of research into human nature, in case the findings are in some way politically uncomfortable.
Steven Pinker wrote at length about this in The Blank Slate – about a politically correct fear that, if we found genetic differences in abilities between sexes or races, it would undermine efforts to establish political equality between those sexes and races. Two pieces in the last few days have expressed similar fears about research into a possible genetic basis for human sexuality.
“I cannot think of a single positive application for such research, other than the generic claim that it will help us understand better,” says The Guardian’s Alex Andreou, adding that in the context of our failure so far to cure cancer and dementia “that a single cent of medical research should be devoted to explaining whom I choose to share my bed with is utterly obscene”.
Nick Cohen, in The Observer, claims that any such finding would be a gift to homophobes: “If you ‘biologise’ all aspects of human life, you have no right to be shocked if your opponents propose ‘cures’.”
The “what good will this research do?” trope is well-worn, and can be discounted easily enough. The history of science is littered with examples of unexpected, serendipitous findings that the researchers didn’t expect; the story of how the Big Bang was mistaken for pigeon poo is my favourite, but there are thousands, and scientists have to trot them out most years in defence of funding for pure research.
Nick’s suggestion, though – that a discovery that there’s a genetic component to human sexuality would be a gift to homophobic bigots – is on the surface more plausible, and needs to be addressed. He says (and Andreou agrees) that if there’s a “gay gene”, then people could try to find a “gay cure”, or even abort foetuses with that gene. He thinks that any “reductionist” approach to human sexuality would be “pseudoscience”.
More on homosexuality
Perhaps there would be some people who would try to use the findings to their own stupid and ugly ends. But that would be the case whatever the findings of the research, or even if there was no research. If it were found that sexuality was entirely environmentally determined, no doubt the same bigots would try to push anti-gay laws, because they’ll think that you can make children grow up straight by “straightening” their environment. That already happens: see Vladimir Putin’s “leave our children alone” comment before the Sochi Games, and the dozens of “homosexual propaganda” laws around the world (bear in mind that it’s barely a decade since Section 28 was repealed here).
The point is: homophobes are homophobes. They aren’t homophobes because of science; whatever science discovers will confirm their prejudices (as is true for all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, of course). The discovery that homosexuality is genetic would be support for the possibility of a gay cure; the discovery that homosexuality is environmental would be support for the possibility of a gay cure; the discovery that (as is almost certainly the case) homosexuality is a fantastically complex interplay of the two would be treated the same.
And there’s nothing “pseudoscientific” about trying to determine the extent to which homosexuality is heritable or genetically influenced. The research (which, as Nick points out, quoting the geneticist and Telegraph columnist Steve Jones, is still unpublished and only identifies chromosome regions, not specific genes) is explicit about this. One of the researchers says: “Our findings suggest there may be genes at play – we found evidence for two sets that affect whether a man is gay or straight. But it is not completely determinative; there are certainly other environmental factors involved.” It is not “greedy reductionism” (to quote Daniel Dennett) to try to tease out those factors; it is reductionist, perhaps, in the positive sense that it seeks to explain complex phenomena in terms of lower-order factors, but that is the heart of all science.
In a tweet to me just now, as we were discussing his piece, Nick said: “If you say in reductionist fashion all that matters are genes, then identify genes, you open the door to screening and abortion.” But this is a fantastically risky stance. As it happens, it’s almost certainly not the case that “all that matters are genes”, as the researchers say. But what if it was? Would we then have no defence against people who wanted to “cure” it? Of course not. We don’t base our moral attitude towards gay people on whether or not it’s genetic. Being gay could be entirely genetic, or entirely environmental. It could be quite literally a choice (just as when I woke up one morning in 1993 and decided to be straight). And none of it would matter. We (right-thinking, decent people) think that being gay is OK not because of how people become gay (or bi, or straight, or lesbian, or whatever) but because we think that it is none of our business what consenting adults get up to in their bedrooms. We should want to learn the truth about the bases for sexuality, because we want to learn everything we can about the universe, and about humanity, because it is there. But we can’t base our belief that humans are all equal on fragile empiricism, because facts can change, but some moral stances simply shouldn’t.
Nick is absolutely right about one thing, though: finding a genetic component to sexuality would not be “good” for gay rights. It’s not something to be celebrated or cursed. It just is.
More by Tom Chivers