WHAT’S UP WITH THOSE GAY GENES ANYWAY?

By Paul

There was an interesting article by Dr. Simon LeVay in the Oct. 2nd , 2012, issue of the online Huffington Post, entitled “The Paradox of Gay Genes.”  The article itself is not long, and if you are curious about reading it, I would direct you to the following website:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simon-levay/the-paradox-of-gay-genes_b_1929641.html.

In the interest of saying a few words about the subject, I will attempt to give a brief synopsis of what LeVay, a neuroscientist and long-time researcher on the biology of sexual orientation, has to say in the article.  The main issue he begins with is the fact that he is often asked, when giving talks, whether or not homosexuality is somehow genetically determined, and if so what might be its usefulness, if the main biological purpose of sex is to pass genes on to the next generation.  As he puts it: “If being gay is genetic, and gay sex doesn’t produce children, why don’t those genes die out?

As he notes, this is an intriguing question.  And although he makes clear that no one really knows the answer (at least not as yet), LeVay does discuss several possible hypotheses, which others have offered, as to why this may be the case.  For the most part, these theories cluster around how other individuals, that is, not gay people themselves, might somehow benefit from gay genes being passed on.  Sisters of gay people, for example, might receive some kind of advantage from a sort of gay-nanny syndrome (my words, not his), whereby gay brothers would assist their straight sisters in the raising of children.  Another theory speculates that some small amount of gay genes, which are already in the parental mix, may somehow get passed on to the straight siblings of gay brothers or sisters, such that otherwise heterosexual male siblings might present themselves as “mildly feminine,” and females as more “masculine.”  The somewhat feminine men are then purported to be more attractive to women.  As such, in the end they are consequently better able to produce a larger number of offspring.  Regarding more masculine women, although still heterosexual, the theory is that they are more sexually active and aggressive, which would result in more sexual activity, and therefore in a greater number of offspring that might be produced, as a result. 

I want to emphasize once again that LeVay is not proposing that these notions are necessarily an explanation in and of themselves, only that they have been proposed as hypotheses.  And we must note that hypotheses, by their very definition, are starting points, unproven theories.  Even so, I want to say that, as hypotheses, these particular examples appear to me to be extraordinarily lacking in any power to convince.  First of all, at least in my experience, I know of virtually no gay men who have significantly contributed to the rearing of their sisters’ offspring.  And in regard to the greater masculine/feminine tendency in siblings of gay people, again this seems farfetched and fanciful to me.  I certainly have never observed it, either in my own family, or in the families of any gay people whom I have ever encountered.  And what may even be more germane, perhaps, is that the entire idea of what is considered to be masculine, and what is considered feminine, is profoundly dependent on society and on social norms.  Therefore, to conflate biological determinism with societal or cultural constructs seems to me to be highly suspect.  And even if we could somehow agree on what either a fully masculine man (if that is the right term), or a mildly feminine man, might actually look like, who has proven that women prefer the latter over the former?  I will let heterosexual women weigh in on this, but again it is likely that much would depend on exactly what the definition of masculine and feminine turns out to be in any given cultural context. 

Although, as I have said, LeVay does not overtly give credence to any of these theories, he does note toward the end of his article:  “As a happy homosexual, I find it a bit disconcerting that my sexual orientation might simply be the price that evolution pays to improve straight men’s performance in the sexual marketplace.”  That sounds to me as though he may think that such hypotheses might have at least some degree of credibility. 

If, for the moment at least, we assent to the idea that there is a “gay gene,” or perhaps more likely a whole complex of such genes which, when activated by a physical or a social or a cultural stimulus, somehow results in a person being gay, what does that tell us?  In fact, it seems to me that the entire notion then gives rise to a number of other questions.  First of all, I believe that it is questionable to make the assumption that heterosexuality is the base line from which any other sexual orientation must deviate.  Is that really the case?  If sheer numbers are the sole criterion, I suppose there may be a degree of truth in it.  Still, it does not take into consideration the sliding scale, if you will, that sexuality is for most people.  During the course of our lives, all of us are attracted to countless other people.  Some of those people are individuals of the opposite sex, and some are of the same sex; some are older than we are, some are younger.  If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, most of us have to admit that at some time or another in our lives we have been attracted to a whole host of individuals.  If society were to place no special onus, no particular meaning, no negative connotation on same-sex attraction, I have no doubt that many more people would act on such impulses, at least some of the time.  And so, who is to say that exclusive heterosexual attraction is the norm, the default, against which everything else is to be measured and found deviant?  On the contrary, it seems to me that sexual attraction, itself, is the norm, and that this attraction is directed toward whoever it may be, depending on a whole host of individual, societal, and cultural preferences and specifications.

Another question arises in regard to this notion of what “use” gay genes may have.  Just how far are we prepared to go in order to say that things are fully biologically determined?  Are some people, for example, predisposed to being artists because of their genetic make up?  Surely it cannot be construed that the artistic vocation is somehow biologically useful.  And if that is the case, of what possible benefit would an “artistic gene” serve?  How would it enhance the next generation, and what would lead to its selection over, let us say, genes that predispose an individual toward something else which makes lots of money?  The evolutionary theory at work here is that those who are most successful (read, in modern society, those who make the most money) select others who have equal success.  It happens in the animal kingdom all the time.  The biggest and strongest males get to mate with the most fertile female or females.   Yet, it is clear that most artists remain at the lower end of the economic pecking order in the majority of modern societies. 

Neither am I suggesting here that gay people have a corner on the market when it comes to the creation of art.  Who could have been more heterosexual than Pablo Picasso?  And most of the great Impressionist masters of the 19th century were straight in their sexual orientation (at least as far as we know).  We could go on endlessly talking about other heterosexuals who excelled in one form or another of the arts, but that would take us too far afield.  My point here is not that artistic inclination equates either with heterosexual or homosexual inclination.  It is only that, if both stem from genetic predispositions, then both are equally “useless” from a strictly evolutionary point of view. And yet, the world has always had its artists, just as there have always been gay people.

Human sexuality generally cannot be reduced to any one gene, or even to a set of genes.  I believe that sexual orientation, of whatever stripe, is not solely predetermined either by biology or society, as much as both probably do play some role in its unfolding and in the particular expression it can take in any given individual.  This is not to say that neuroscientists such as Simon LeVay ought not to continue research and exploration.  Quite the contrary.  The more we learn, the more we begin to understand the underpinnings of the enormously complex and endlessly fascinating topic which is human sexuality.  But neither should we fall into the philosophical trap known as reductio ad absurdum, and claim that being gay can be reduced to something as simple-minded as help in the rearing of one’s sister’s children. 

If ever we do some day arrive at a full and profound understanding of the origins of homosexuality, my guess is that it will be seen to be as expansive, as full of beauty and wonder, and as utterly mysterious as heterosexual attraction is or ever has been.  On that day, let us hope, religious groups and others who currently condemn same-sex attraction will instead come to honor and to celebrate the stunning and awesome miracle that it clearly is.

EMPATHY AND FREE WILL

By Paul

I recently read an interesting, some might say a disturbing, op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (Sunday, July 15, 2012).  Entitled “Head Case Puzzle,” it was written by a Stanford  University professor of neuroscience by the name of Robert. M. Sapolsky.  In this piece, Sapolsky essentially asks one basic question, namely, how free are we to make choices in life?  Another way to phrase the same question is: do we, in fact, have free will?  He cites the case of Jerry Sandusky, the football coach who was recently convicted on numerous counts of having sexually molested young boys.  Sapolsky goes on to describe in some detail the neuroscientific research that has been done of late, which shows neurobiological differences in the brain between pedophiles and the general population. I won’t belabor the details of the extensive research he cites, including even in-utero abnormalities in hormones which contribute to the regulation of brain development.  If you are further interested in this, I recommend the article to you. 

Sapolsky raises the question, though, as have others, of whether or not pedophiles at very least deserve sympathy, or even if there may be some degree of lessening of responsibility on their part for crimes committed, given these brain abnormalities.  He next goes on to, in a sense, argue against himself, or to anticipate counter arguments against such a position.  Such counter arguments essentially cluster around the issue of free will.  They mostly lay claim to something like the following:  just because someone feels a tendency, even a very strong tendency, toward doing something, does that necessarily mean that the person has to act upon those impulses?  Do we not, in other words, have the ability to reflect, to consider, and ultimately to decide?  Are we not capable of imagining the pain that the crime to be committed would inflict on the intended victim, and therefore saying to ourselves essentially, no, this I will not do! 

His answer to such questions reflects back to his training as a neuroscientist.  He says that if pedophile urges are neurobiologically determined, that is, if it’s true that they are reflective of changes, or let us call them “mistakes,” in the physiology of the brain itself, then so too might not an ability to administer a degree of self-discipline or impulse control also be biologically determined?  Indeed, if that were not the case, what else would we posit?  Is there otherwise some “separate part of us,” as Sapolsky says, “(one that) enables us to resist abnormal urges that have arisen from an abnormal brain”? 

Indeed, is there such a separate part of ourselves?  It seems to me that this is a major question in regard to the issue of free will versus what might be called biological determinism.  It is, of course, easy for most of us to imagine being able to say “no” to impulses that we do not have.  Who can forget (if we are old enough at least) Nancy Reagan’s famous, and famously ridiculed, “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, for example?  Surely, if it were as simple as “just saying no,” then would we ever have anyone addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or any other substance which can ultimately be shown to be enormously harmful to oneself, let alone to society?  Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, always refers to alcoholism as a disease, and one which we very frequently see running in families (just as pedophilia does, by the way, as Sapolsky also points out), and so this would indicate there being some kind of neurobiological abnormality in the brain, would it not?    

Still, people do stop drinking.  They also stop taking drugs, and many quit smoking.  Some people, indeed, do all three!  So, why not stop (or even better, never start) molesting children?  Again, the science appears to point to the fact that such behavior can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop, and it is definitely true that the recidivism rates among convicted child molesters are extraordinarily high.

So, does this mean that there are some people who, because of brain abnormalities, are beyond the pale?  Are there individuals who cannot help themselves from doing certain things most of us would condemn, not just molesting children, but committing let us say even more heinous crimes, serial murder, for example?  It has always seemed to me, in fact, that anyone who willfully kills another person, not in self-defense but in a calculated and cold-blooded way, must in some sense be out of his or her mind.  But does that mean that we should not arrest such individuals, but instead give them a pass because they are, in some way, not “responsible” for crimes committed?  No, surely not.  Every society on record has always reserved the right to protect itself against those who, for whatever reason, do not follow its most basic laws.  And what law can be more basic than one that stipulates not to kill one’s fellow citizens?  Or not to molest them, for that matter, not to inflict unwanted sexual advances on any person, but particularly on a vulnerable child?  Surely, everyone has the right to be protected against such an assault.  At the same time, ought we not to also show a degree of sympathy for someone who “cannot help himself” because of something beyond his control? 

Again Sapolsky cites in his article another piece written by University of Toronto psychiatrist Dr. James Cantor entitled “Do pedophiles deserve sympathy?”  Cantor, in fact, argues exactly for this.  Not that it is easy to feel in any way sympathetic for someone who has harmed us, or one close to us.  And yet, here again we come up against the notion of sympathizing with someone who has powerful impulses that we do not have.  Most of us would never dream of molesting or otherwise harming children, let alone killing another human being in a calculated and cold-blooded way.  But let us suppose that things were different in our own background.  What if somehow, whether in-utero or elsewhere, neurobiological changes had taken place in our lives, which produced thoughts, ideas, impulses which we “did not want,” but “could not control”?  How would we then feel?  Would we think it too simplistic to “just say no” to impulses that may otherwise feel to be beyond our control? 

I therefore ask the question: what are the limits of our free will?  And does (abnormal) biological determinism trump free will?  As for myself, I have to say I do feel as though there is some “place,” to use a metaphor here, somewhere outside of our physical brains, which can at least have influence over our lives and over the choices we make in our lives.  Whether or not that “place” is called the soul or spirit, or any other such metaphysical state of being is something that is, of course, outside the realm of science to comment on.  We have, instead, now entered into the arena of faith, or as some yogis and mystics would say, of experience, although clearly experience beyond that of the mere body. 

There are no easy answers to the question of how free any of us is.  While again, most of us would probably never willfully harm a child, which one of us can say he or she has never harmed another human being in some way?  What, for example, of the person who may have loved us once, but whose love remained unrequited on our part?  Was that person not harmed by us?   What of the cheating spouse, or what simply of the myriad meannesses of the human heart that each of us is capable of inflicting on other people, or on animals for that matter, almost on a daily basis?  Are we not responsible for these?  Or are we, ourselves, so injured, so damaged either by a biological abnormality or by the actions of others in our own past, be they advertent or inadvertent, that we too have less control than we might wish to admit?   And if so, who then has the right to blame another? 

Here is one of my favorite passages from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (Song of Myself, Section 48, lines 1269-1272):

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,

And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own

        funeral, drest in his  shroud

Whoever walks one furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in his own shroud.  We are in fact dead to ourselves and to the world around us if we are incapable of empathizing with another, whoever he or she may be, whatever he or she may have done.  My view is that this must in fact be among the highest, I might even say the truest, uses of free will, that is, to recognize that we, too, have faults aplenty to go around, wherever they may come from, and that, as human beings in the world, we are, all of us, more than capable both of the most sublime actions, and of the most heinous of deeds.