Biology does not determine ethics

Arthur Caplan

September 12, 1991|By Arthur Caplan

IS HOMOSEXUALITY a learned behavior? Or, is it simply the result of biology?

The answer to these questions seems to make a great deal of difference to the moral views of many people. It shouldn't. The latest volley in the nature-nurture war over homosexuality was fired by Dr. Simon LeVay of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

In a paper in the prestigious journal Science he presented some findings that seem to favor the biological explanation of homosexuality. LeVay reported that, in examining samples of brain tissue obtained after autopsies performed on 19 gay men, 16 men thought to be heterosexual and six heterosexual women, he found systematic differences in their hypothalmuses, an area of the brain thought to be involved in controlling sexual behavior.

The cells from the brains of the homosexual men more closely resembled those of the women than they did the heterosexual men. Many gay rights groups greeted LeVay's article with unabashed joy. The Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a national gay rights group, gushed that "if there is a biological basis for homosexuality, it is difficult to fathom on what moral, ethical or religious grounds one can reasonably discriminate (against homosexuals)."

What is really difficult to fathom is how a group committed to human rights could get so caught up in scientific claptrap.

Are there likely to be differences in the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals? Of course, there are. Unless sexual behavior arises from the vapors, it is going to have some basis in the brain.

Do post-mortem differences in parts of the brains of 19 gay and 16 heterosexual men prove that homosexuality is biologically innate? Of course, they don't. Brains, like any other part of the body, reflect the influences of genetics, environment, development and learning. The fact that brain cells in a small sample of gay men differ from the cells of an even smaller number of heterosexual men reveals nothing about why the differences exist.

LeVay's study does not settle the question of whether you are born gay or choose to be that way. Why are some people so desperate for an answer that they want to believe it does? There are two reasons, both bad.

Many people, including the folks at the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, firmly believe that if homosexuality is biological, then it is natural. If it is natural, then it must be normal. If you are gay, not because you learned to be or chose to be but because your genes made you so, then it must be OK.

This is pure malarkey. Things are not normal, good or OK simply because they are natural. Cancer, acne, depression and allergies are all natural, but that is no reason to say they are normal or good.

Equally dumb is the idea that if homosexuality is biological, then those who are gay cannot change or did not choose their behavior. Every human behavior has some basis in biology, but that does not mean we are not responsible for who we are and what we do.

Morality does not follow from biology. Whether homosexuality is caused by nature or is a product of nurture, it is wrong to discriminate against homosexuals. Ethically, it does not matter why homosexuality exists. All that matters is that we use our brains and treat others fairly and with dignity.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biological Ethics at the University of Minnesota.

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