John Corvino, the chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University, has recently published a book, What’s Wrong With Homosexuality, which systematically knocks down objections to the equality of LGBTQ folks. He’s been discussing major points from the book in a series of clever and widely-circulated videos, and I just recently discovered that, in an episode about the biological basis of sexual orientation, he talks about that review article proposing a possible epigenetic basis for sexual orientation that I discussed here a few months ago.
Full disclosure: I found Corvino’s post, actually, because he linked to my piece about the epigenetics paper, and he did so while paying it what I consider the highest compliment it’s possible to pay a science blogger: “A nice explanation of the paper can be found here.” Which: look at me blushing.
But Corvino comes at the question from a somewhat different angle than a biologist: he says it really doesn’t matter whether there’s an inborn basis to sexual orientation.
Why are some people so quick to latch on to bold claims about the biological origins of homosexuality? I think it’s because they believe that we need to show that we’re born gay in order to establish that our sexuality is a deep, important and relatively fixed part of who we are. But that’s simply not true. Consider a counterexample: My comprehension of English is a deep, important and relatively fixed part of who I am. I could acquire other languages, of course, but none would subsume my native tongue at this point. Being forbidden to express myself in English would be a real deprivation. But I wasn’t born comprehending English.
I agree with that entirely. The question of whether or not it’s “natural” to be gay doesn’t tell us a damn thing about how society should treat gay people; there are all sorts of elements of modern life that are demonstrably un-natural (in the sense that they’re not what our ancestors did just after they came down from the trees, which I guess is the standard—right, Sarah?), but I think we can all agree it would be absurd and wrong to try and eliminate them from our lives: Antibiotics. Telephones. Creative writing. That game people play with brooms and a big round stone on an ice rink.
But there is something in Corvino’s take on the issue that rubs me the wrong way just a little bit:
It’s also troubling that this paper, like much research in this area, singles out homosexuality as a particular riddle to be solved. It’s as if heterosexuality were the default setting, requiring us to figure out “what went wrong” when people turn out gay.
Well, yes—there certainly are people who think something “went wrong” with queer folks, but I really don’t believe that any of the biologists studying the evolutionary history of sexual orientation are among them. Evolutionary biology is fundamentally interested in variation—differences between species, differences between individuals within species, and how the former arises, over time, from the latter. I want to understand the genetic basis of my sexual orientation for the same reason I want to understand the genetic basis for my continued ability to digest milk sugars decades after I stopped nursing: because the answers to these riddles provide clues about how I came to be the way I am, and how all of humanity came to be the way we are, today.
Does answering that question matter for deciding present political issues like marriage equality? Not so much. But I absolutely believe it’s a worthwhile and enriching pursuit.
Postscript: Here’s the “born this way” episode of Corvino’s series, which—lest you think otherwise from my complaining above—is well worth your viewing time.