Thoughts about Homosexuality: Part 2, Is Being Gay Genetic or Learned?

The second most frequent I get about homosexuality is the Nature versus Nurture question. Is homosexuality genetic or learned?

Some of the issues I raise in response to this question are the ones I talked about in my last post. That is, I'm not sure this question, if answered, really clarifies anything from an normative perspective (i.e., issues of permissibility, morality). However, people seem to think that if homosexuality is genetic then this data will be used to tip the culture wars conversation. So let me offer a few thoughts about how we should think about the issue of genetics and heredity.

First, let me say that I think there likely is a heritable facet to homosexuality. I think this for two reasons. First, empirically speaking, most of the research I've looked at points in this direction (although the empirical situation isn't entirely clear). Second, even if I never looked at the research I'd think homosexuality had a heritable component. Why? Because I don't believe in the Ghost in the Machine. I think the body and soul are intimately related (if not the same thing). In short, I think everything has a heritable component. Why? Because we have bodies made from DNA. And the spirit, whatever it is or does, isn't radically decoupled from that DNA. In short, I think everything is genetic. Homosexuality included. For me, asking if something is genetic is like asking if you have a body. The answer is yes in both cases.

So in a sense, asking if something like homosexuality is genetic isn't really all that interesting. It's only interesting if 1) it means that, due to genetic determinism, life experiences and choices make no difference or 2) the spirit/soul/mind can only be held morally accountable if there is radical freedom from the biological.

Since we are neither genetically controlled robots nor spirits floating free from the causal flux we need better ways of thinking about these issues.

Consider the issue of canalization. How heritable do you think eye color is? I hope you agree that there is a strong genetic component to eye color. Okay, so how heritable is height? Again, I hope you'd agree that height also has a strong genetic component. So both traits we might say are "highly heritable." But a big difference in these traits is how canalized they are. Canalization refers to the expression of the trait in response to environmental input. For example, eye color is highly canalized. That is, no matter your diet or upbringing if you have the genes for blue eyes you'll likely have blue eyes. By contrast, height is less canalized. That is, genetically speaking, you might have the potential to grow six feet tall. But if you are raised in a Third World country you might not get to that height. Nutritional deficiencies--before and after your birth--might mean that you only grow to 5'6''. In short, height is "genetic" but it is highly affected by environmental input.

Most psychological traits are less like eye color and more like height. Consider IQ. IQ has a heritable component but that doesn't make it fixed and unalterable. Genetics, rather, likely defines our "ceiling" in certain areas. That is, no matter how hard I try I'm likely not going to be a rocket science. Or a concert pianist. Or dunk over Lebron James. At some point I hit a genetic ceiling. But there is no guarantee I'll hit or even get close to that ceiling if my environmental input is impoverished. As they say, I might not reach my "potential."

Consider also gene-environment feedback loops. Sally is pretty, extroverted and confident. Jane is plain, shy and insecure. Both physical attraction and personality have heritable components. But notice how environmental forces can lock onto and enhance these genetic tendencies. Sally, being pretty and more extroverted, is looked at, played with and talked to more than Jane. Thus, Sally's face and temperament shape the way her environment interacts with her. Sally grows more and more confident and extroverted. Jane, being plain, doesn't get as much attention from others. This exacerbates her personality tendencies. Genes and environment interact in a loop, each affecting the other.

What we see in all this is that it's not genes or environment. Rather, it is genes and environment, mixing together in a complicated stew.

In short, although I believe there is a heritable facet to hetero- and homosexual attraction I think there is a complex interplay between genes and environment. One's learning history will be critical.

Consider a theory of same-sex attraction by the psychologist Daryl Bem. Bem argues that same-sex attraction isn't hardwired into the genes. However, what is highly heritable is the child's personality, a facet of which will be his or her gender-conformity. That is, many girls will be "girl-like" and many boys will be "boy-like" (stereotypically speaking). As these stereotypical boys and girls grow up the differences they notice in the opposite sex seem exotic, different and intriguing. Eventually, as Bem says, the exotic becomes erotic in adolescence.

Now consider boys and girls who don't conform to gender stereotypes. Tom-boyish girls or effeminate boys. These children will identify more, psychological speaking, with the opposite gender. That is, Tom-boyish girls will have more in common with boys than girls. Consequently, the girls--the same gender--we be the exotic, different and intriguing ones. Thus, following the trend--what is exotic becomes erotic--a same-sex attraction develops. (For more see: Bem, D. 1997. Exotic Becomes Erotic: A Developmental Theory of Sexual Orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 320-335.)

I bring up Bem's theory to illustrate the complicated ways in which genes and environment interact. Genetic inclinations make environmental situations (e.g., early experience of gender, sexual arousal, and the erotic) more or less likely. And these early experiences will play a large role in how sexual attraction first manifests and becomes reinforced.

Summarizing, in the last post I tried to push back on simplistic notions of "choice." In this post I'm trying to push back on simplistic notions of "genetics." In short, you can't answer these questions about homosexuality in a yes or no fashion. Reality isn't going to conform to the simplistic caricatures you hear in the culture wars. The whole "choice" versus "genetics" dichotomy is hopelessly confused and muddled.

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts about Homosexuality: Part 2, Is Being Gay Genetic or Learned?”

  1. "The whole "choice" versus "genetics" dichotomy is hopelessly confused and muddled".

    ya ya that's it. hopelessly confused and muddled"

    i used to say psychologically/sociably retarded

  2. I think the really interesting question about homosexuality and other behaviors is not whether they are genetic or learned, or to what degree of both, but rather whether there is an identifiable moral order, at least in human affairs, such that some behaviors and attitudes are abnormal or aberrant. And if so, is this moral order demonstrable from science? Or some other source?

  3. come on put a bunch of guys 13-15,all church goin folk,with a bunch of girls 13-16 church goin folk.
    we call that school...
    now over the last 30 years how many 6th 7th and 8th graders are haveing oral sex at the theaters on any given week end today...

    wake up people

  4. sorry you guys call that modeling behaviors.young modeling the older.
    cool modeling more cool.
    generated by that looks cool and that must feel cool.
    rich constant

  5. Your sentence here sums it up nicely:

    "Reality isn't going to conform to the simplistic caricatures you hear in the culture wars."

    The bottom line is, some people prefer the same gender, regardless of cause or what we think about it. And I, for one, have larger concerns. I don't care who's sleeping with or marrying whomever, as long as both people are consenting adults and they don't try to involve me. I gots 'nuff goin' on right now. ;)

  6. Loved this post, Rich. The only comment I felt compelled to make here is about your examples towards the end of your entry about same-sex attraction. I get your point and agree with it.

    However, realizing that most of us who read your blog probably are Christians, I feel that one of the really terrible stereotypes that Christians often make about gays is that they all are feminine or girl-like. In my observation, this really is an unfair stereotype - for both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

    Some of the gay people I know are some of the most athletic and buff guys I know. Some of the lesbians I know are some of the most feminine. Some heterosexuals I know are very "metrosexual" and would easily be mistaken for homosexuals if they weren't married (have you seen a worship minister lately? :) ) So, my point is that I want us to be careful about playing into those stereotypes because it is the cause of some derision of homosexuals who are portrayed as pansies, fags or a "girl".

    Otherwise, love your entry. Keep it up.

  7. Wow, great posts Dr. Beck. Thank you so much for your writing.

    I'm glad you brought up Bem's theory (which I've never heard of), it makes a lot of sense and corresponds to my highly untrained observations of reality.

    I have often thought that human beings must be A-sexual when they are born, that's why you can nurse on your mothers breast and it not be a sexual act. But I never could let myself believe that homosexuality was only a choice. I do like the idea that the highly heritable personality is what ultimately dictates gender-conformity.

    thanks for the lesson.

  8. Todd writes: "So, my point is that I want us to be careful about playing into those stereotypes because it is the cause of some derision of homosexuals who are portraid as pansies, fags or a 'girl'"
    I agree but you should know that the derision is about misogyny and not homosexuality as such. The bad thing that is being stereotyped is that a man is in the position of a woman. Being a feminine woman is ok and being a manly woman is tolerated as well as of course being a manly man, but being a womanly man! That is offensive! Be very observant of the language used. Make no mistake. The folks who are most affronted by the homosexual community are actually expressing their un-examined and certainly un-acknowledged hatred of women. This is big in our western culture but it is violent in several eastern cultures that have let their more fundamental elements come into power (think: Taliban and Burka).

  9. "First, let me say that I think there likely is a heritable facet to homosexuality."

    Seems to me all the rambling regarding body/soul/spirit and other ethereal concepts you quickly run through, only to arrive at the conclusion that all life is genetic, is due to not finding any validated experimental study that finds the association of men coupling through the anus with a genetic structure common to this men. Saying that all life is genetic, simply expresses the obvious, but that was not the question you started from. When you say "likely" - what would be your concluded probabilty? "Facet" - another vague term. Just because people keep trying to find an association through controlled studies, measurements, doesn't mean it is more likely there is such association. When such studies fail to be validated, it means the opposite - the hypothesis failed - that is - it is less and less "likely" to find the association. If one cannot explain the results of one's experiment, one starts to find ways to explain the results away... But, this matter has to do with science, not just with thinking.

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