Steven Epstein separates the biology from the bias in Timothy F. Murphy's Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research

Ethics and the search for a scientific answer Homosexual men, according to the famed psychologist and sex expert Havelock Ellis, writing at the turn of the century, were distinguished by an inability to whistle.

These “inverts,” as he called them, could also be detected by their artistic inclinations, vain desire for applause and special fondness for the color green. Female inverts, by contrast, were rather good whistlers, but they were abnormally hairy, except when they were abnormally hairless. Timothy F. Murphy, who provides this example in his study of the ethics of research on sexual orientation, notes that Ellis has hardly been alone in making authoritative claims about how gay people differ from straight people. Since the 19th century, researchers studying lesbians and gay men have purported to discover the markers of sexual difference in fat distribution, metabolism, hair quality, height and the angles at which people carry their arms.

Given the dubious history of scientific research on homosexuality — so much of it premised on the assumption that being gay is an abnormality to be explained and perhaps cured — how are we to judge the current crop of research which suggests that gays are biologically different from straights? What do we make of claims that the size of brain structures varies by sexual orientation, or that homosexuality runs in families? This is one of many scientific arenas where the boundary between pure research and the contentious world of politics gets obliterated as quickly as anyone tries to draw it. Every finding seems freighted with moral and political consequences, and yet different people draw opposite lessons from the very same studies.

On one side are those — including openly gay neuroanatomist Simon LeVay, now famous for his “gay brain” study — who seek in biology the “natural” foundations for gay rights. If homosexuality is shown to have a biological “basis,” so the argument goes, then the right-wing attack on lesbians and gay men for having chosen a sinful lifestyle will be dismissed as groundless, and courts will look favorably on the claim that gays and lesbians deserve protection as a class of people discriminated against on the basis of “immutable” characteristics. By this reasoning, the new gay science is the best thing to happen to queers since Stonewall. Never mind that no other group in U.S. history has argued that it deserves civil rights because it is biologically different, and never mind that such differences, even if convincingly demonstrated, would prove nothing one way or the other about whether sexual orientations are unchangeable. On the other side are those with nightmare visions of diabolical eugenicists intent on the extermination of sexual undesirables. If we discover a gene for homosexuality, they worry, then soon there will be a diagnostic test for the “gay gene,” and in a mass campaign of prenatal genetic screening, queerness will be obliterated from the gene pool.

In his foray into this arena, Murphy is neither dismissive toward nor overawed by the recent wave of research on biological markers or “causes” of gayness. His thoughtful and clearly written book provides an evenhanded overview and clarifies the ethical and political debates surrounding research on sexual orientations. Early in the book, Murphy tracks through several of the recent studies — on “gay brains,” “gay genes” and gay fingerprint patterns, for example — and cogently explains how limited and open to scientific criticism these studies are, and how sensationalistic were the media reports of “proof” that homosexuality is genetic or biologically based. But his point is not to debunk these studies, and he declares himself an agnostic about whether there might be scientifically identifiable causes of sexual orientations. Instead, Murphy seeks to resolve moral dilemmas: How should we decide if such research has value? If it became possible to test for homosexuality, should employers or insurers be allowed to do so? If a prenatal test was developed that could predict the sexual orientation of a child, should parents be permitted to abort queer fetuses?

Much of the book is devoted to Murphy’s careful philosophical reasoning about what would be ethical in such cases, based on liberal premises such as respect for the autonomy of the individual. (He concludes, for example, that while controlling the sexual orientation of offspring is morally problematic, the state generally has no business interfering with the choices of parents.) The problem with Murphy’s “thought experiments,” however, is that many of these dilemmas are ultimately beside the point. As he understands well and explains clearly, there cannot be a genetic test for homosexuality, because there cannot be a gene for homosexuality — if by that we mean a single sequence of DNA that programs people to be gay in the same way that other genes cause people to have brown eyes or black hair. Genes code for proteins, not behavior. And as Murphy notes, “It is highly misleading and reductive to believe that there could be a single cause of complex erotic interests and behaviors.”

In ancient Greece, adult men typically had sex with adolescent boys while also marrying women and having children. Did the “gay gene” make them do it? In some Papua New Guinea tribes, at least until recently, all young boys were taught that they must ingest the semen of older boys in order to grow strong; but after some years of being on the giving and then the receiving end of blowjobs, they would marry women and never have sex with men again. Was this intricate organization of sexuality dictated by some sexual-orientation gene? At most, some combination of genes (and not necessarily the same ones for everybody), in conjunction with some sets of life experiences within societies that understand sexuality in particular ways, might shape how individuals experience and express their sexual desires. But in that case, there is no “gay gene” that functions like an on/off switch, and the fears of gay genocide through genetic screening are equally groundless. Murphy does a great service by clarifying these points. But then he undercuts his own argument with a lot of sober and earnest consideration of the ethics of fanciful, science-fiction scenarios premised on assumptions that he has already criticized.

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