A lot of controversy and blogging about the gay brain of late. Here’s the Savic and Lindstrom paper that got the fray started, with Mind Hacks’ accompanying coverage on the Return of the Gay Brain.
Shortly afterwards, Vaughan proposed “hard wired” as one of the worst psychobabble terms. For me, the fixation on biological determinism is the larger, and worse, cultural concept behind that. So I propose leaving behind biological claims for identity. It just gives us claptrap like the opening lines from the New Scientist news report, “Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.”
Compelling evidence? While there is interesting work on biology and sexuality (the LA Times covers some of it), there is plenty to doubt about the present work, as the Neurocritic points out quite well here and here. This sort of work represents bad brain science: reported claims overreaching the evidence, an often notable lack of comparative work and appropriate controls, little longitudinal analysis, and on and on.
The worst thing about it? The science, whatever it turns out to be, cannot take us from is to ought.
To add my two anthropological cents, human sexuality is varied. Trying to shoehorn sexuality into one socially and politically charged box just does not work well from an anthropological point of view. As one example, men in some cultures go through different life stages, and in some of those stages homosexuality is the normal way of being, whereas at other times heterosexual relations are the norm. To speak personally, I’ve known people who have had an array of partners in their lives, individually recreating what cultures like the Etoro have shown us ethnographically.
On the neuroplasticity and experience/behavior side, this type of approach generally leaves out something every consenting adult knows. Sex matters! The experience of a sexual encounter helps shape our desires, our pleasures, our associations.
But there is something that matters more to me, and most of the people I know, than sex. LOVE. All this debate about cerebral asymmetries and biological determinism misses the human point. Love matters.
Who cares whether sex between whatever combination of men and women is or is not natural? Love makes a much bigger difference in people’s lives. Love between two committed partners, love of a parent for a child, love of family and friend and groups finding common bond.
Love holds us together, whereas the debates over how gay our brains may or may not be aims to divide us, to heighten identity politics at the expense of those experiences and behaviors whose impact lasts longer. We sacrifice the strength of intimacy to proclaim the supposed facts of science.
There are those who will say that knowing the nature of the problem (how easy to slide from one sense of the problem to another) will help us make better determinations about what to do, that more information will lead to better decisions. Or that being able to claim the mantle of biologically innate will help in the fight against the other side.
I would counter that these sorts of assertions cut entirely against the grain of the society we have built, whether that is a liberal vision of equality before the law or a conservative vision that government should not dictate people’s private choices. But that vision gets sacrificed at the altar of proclamations of moral superiority and the exercise of vindictive power.
Science, with its claims of facts and evidence, steps so easily into that arena, declaring this and that truth. In doing that, the scientists are forgetting what matters, both about science and about human experience.