Why study whether we evolved this way?

baby i was born this way

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.

Further postscript: I thought about illustrating this post with the obvious music video, but I still have no idea what’s going on for most of it. Mitosis of the what now? And where’s Jimmy Stewart?

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8 comments on “Why study whether we evolved this way?

  1. genobollocks says:

    “heterosexuality were the default setting” – “I really don’t believe that any of the biologists studying the evolutionary history of sexual orientation are among them”
    What about this one? http://westhunt.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/biological-determinism/
    Thinks homosexuality is caused by germs.
    I don’t think his case is very strong, but I think most biologists will consider heterosexuality the “default” setting for the obvious reasons, not necessarily coupling that to a value judgment, hopefully.

    • Yoder says:

      Yeah, so I think I can state authoritatively that the “germ theory” of homosexuality doesn’t have much currency among biologists.

      But, yes, I’m principally objecting to the characterization that scientists are trying “to figure out “what went wrong” when people turn out gay.”

      • Yoder says:

        Also: revised text to clarify same.

      • genobollocks says:

        I’m not even sure whether that guy would say something went “morally wrong”, don’t want to misrepresent that here.
        Ideally, that idea could have currency without any nice person having to be worried, even if were true, it wouldn’t connect to any kind of moral imperative in my mind. Though of course germs connote “curable disease” to most and that may be why he’s pushing the idea, though he of course says he’s voicing the obvious that others don’t dare because political correctness clouds their minds and he’s careful enough to avoid plain hate speech in what I’ve read.

        I’m somewhat sympathetic to the “disconnect PC and science”-argument, a real bother with research on intelligence, but I still don’t he has a strong case.

  2. I feel like his response is a classic over-correction. I think most progressive, intelligent people would agree that no matter where sexuality falls on the spectrum from purely genetic to environmental to individual choice, that should not affect how we treat people who identify as anything other than cis-gendered heterosexuals. But as Jeremy said, that doesn’t mean the variation in human sexuality is not interesting from a scientific standpoint, and we shouldn’t stop that kind of research just because it won’t have any real bearing on the moral issues regarding sexuality. It’s kind of a like saying that because racism is bad, we shouldn’t have any research looking at the genetic variability or evolutionary history of different human populations.

    • Yoder says:

      Agreed, Keaton! Although, in cases like race and sexuality, we do need to constantly keep in mind that past attitudes about both can color our scientific perspective. There’s a weird moral valence to talking about what natural selection “favors” that I worry about every time I discuss the evolution of sexuality in public.

      • Well, of course. I think any research, on pretty much any aspect of humanity and the human species should be communicated in a very thoughtful way, and researchers should be upfront and clear that their language is not meant to imply any part of the naturalistic fallacy, or that evolution and natural selection are in any way arbiters of value. Scientists, should, of course, also be very mindful of the way that science has historically been used to oppress (or at least justify the oppression) of non-western Europeans, and understand why people might be immediately defensive about these topics. But, of course, it’s exactly this kind of discourse that’s required. Making these topics taboo for research will not solve any of these problems, and only obscure people’s understanding of what science is actually meant to do.

  3. Sam Steffen says:

    I don’t see how heterosexuality would not be the “default setting.” Organisms must reproduce to survive, adapt, and evolve. For humans, heterosexuality is how we reproduce. One of each gender to mix and match DNA. That being said, reproduction is a primitive instinct. Humans, for the most part, have the capacity for love. Our love does not have a sexual orientation. If a man falls in love with another man or woman to woman, then that’s how it’s gonna be. What most biologist want to know is where did it start? IS there a trigger for it? Were people born gay? Where can we go from here? Everyone knows that you won’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Tecumseh said it best ” Trouble no one about their religion;respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.”

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