Friday, March 14, 2008

Biology is destiny?

Mariel Leonard at Everyday Idealist takes notice of the latest sociobiological argument:
Basically, the more prevalent pathogens are, the more likely a society is to practice collectivism, in order to provide defence against the dangers posed by pathogens.
Mariel links to the original article and Ronald Bailey's take on this theory.

I think the key phrase here is "more likely." In other words, what is being argued is a correlation between two factors -- more germs is "positively associated," as the scientists say, with more collectivism. However, any student of social science must be aware, correlation is not causation, and even where causation can be demonstrated, there are exceptions to every rule.

Biology-based theories of human behavior were purged from the academy in the mid-20th century, when "nurture" topped "nature" as the preferred explanation, in part due to the influential theories of Sigmund Freud and Franz Boas.

Since the 1980s, discoveries in genetics and neuroscience have swung the pendulum back the other way, and now "nature" tops "nurture." This is largely a positive development, but sometimes lay readers carry these theories beyond the point justified by pure science. One example of this extra-scientific argument is the claim of a "gay gene," which is really a political argument seeking to justify gay-rights legislation.

While it is possible that some genetic anomalies might be associated with a greater tendency toward homosexual behavior, such a theory cannot account for (a) those who have the same genetic trait and yet are heterosexual, or (b) those who lack the genetic anomaly and yet are also gay. In other words, there is not an exact correlation between the trait and the behavior it's supposed to provoke.

Thus, homosexuality is not (as gay rights advocates claim) legally analogous to race, because race is an hereditary trait that is generally unambiguous. Of course, in our "melting pot" society, a person's racial ancestry is not always apparent. But since the object of civil-rights legislation is to prevent harmful discrimination (especially in housing and employment), a person whose race can't be determined by appearance is unlikely to be the object of illegal discrimination, so this sort of ambiguity is effectively moot.

This points back to the problem with laws establishing sexual preference as the basis of protected status. Since the only way to know if a person is gay (other than direct sexual involvement) is by their own declaration, it is difficult to locate the danger of discrimination that gay-rights laws are intended to prevent. What such laws seem intended to do, in fact, is to create legal protections for those who desire to publicize their homosexuality. Of course, homosexuality is not the only imaginable deviation from traditional sexual norms -- hey, everybody's probably got a few secret kinks in their system -- but it is the only such deviation that now commonly demands legal protection for its public expression.

What is relevant here, of course, is how the assertion of a genetic basis for differences in sexual orientation has been used by gay-rights advocates to justify their civil-rights campaign. But the "DNA made me do it" argument has consequences that have not been widely considered by either friends or foes of the gay-rights agenda.

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