Sunday, November 01, 2009

Why "My Genes Made Me Do It" Misses The Point

One of NARTH's favourite writers is a fellow by the name of Dr. Neil Whitehead. He has published a book entitled My Genes Made Me Do It which attempts to dispel the notion that there are genetic factors at play in the existence of homosexuality.

Not unlike Michael Behe's book "Darwin's Black Box", one doesn't need to be a specialist in the domain to recognize the logical errors in the arguments presented - no matter how hard the authors attempt to substantiate their position with diagrams, and serious looking statistical analysis.

In many ways, Dr. Whitehead falls into precisely the same trap that Behe did - he's so convinced of the rightness of his argument that he cannot see or recognize the glaring holes in his interpretation of the data.

Consider the following assertion in Chapter 1:

The implications of “many genes” for homosexuality would reflect what happened with the mice, or fruitflies: the typical genetic pattern would be a gradual change in the family over about 30 generations from heterosexuality through bisexuality toward homosexuality - a few percent with each generation. Similarly,homosexuality would only slowly disappear in the descendants (if any) of a homosexual person. Any other proposed mechanism is highly speculative and runs against the known evidence.

The flaws in this argument are many. First of all, it makes the incorrect assumption that evolution would have to progress through bisexual variations to arrive at a homosexual variation. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that this is the case at all, in fact the evidence overall could easily be read as implying that heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality occur naturally and concurrently. This claim implies a determinism that in fact evolutionary theory does not actually reflect.

Similarly, Whitehead asserts that in such a scenario, homosexuality should die out, and yet it clearly does not. Therefore, argues Whitehead, homosexuality could not possibly be rooted in genetics. Again, this makes the false supposition that evolution is deterministic, and further that because a homosexual is less likely to pass their genes on to offspring, that it should die out - more of the "evolution is deterministic" line of thinking. However, it fails to take into account that there may be other reasons why the patterns that result in homosexuality persisting through many generations.

Further, even though we have sequenced the human genome, we should not be so naive as to believe that we have anywhere near a complete understanding of how the genetic attributes we can now describe respond to the surprisingly complex organic chemistry that fills our bodies and makes us tick. We have but begun to explore those very questions.

I'll skip ahead to Chapter 3 for now. Chapter 3 is where the author's bias and agenda is clearly stated:

We all tend to take our heterosexuality for granted as if it just happens. But it seems to develop slowly and steadily and to consolidate over about two decades - through clearly defined and documented stages. Psychologists are in broad agreement about the general stages of heterosexual development and unanimous about one thing: heterosexual orientation is not genetically determined.

This is a strange assertion, and one that seems to be quite at odds with the consensus statements from the APA on homosexuality:

What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

This is subtly different from what Whitehead states. Whitehead conveniently leaves out is that the research is inconclusive with respect to causality. The lack of concrete evidence either way should not be interpreted as negation of the idea that there are biological factors involved.

In Chapter 5 (no I'm not deliberately skipping even numbered chapters, but Chapters 2 and 4 really don't say anything significant), Whitehead takes a stab at trying to explain the gender and sexual orientation of Intersex people.

Ironically, his interpretation of Money et. al. falls into almost exactly the same error that Money himself made - namely he confuses gender identity with social gender.

Social gender is largely learned through experience. It builds on gender identity to some degree. If we didn't learn it through experiences, then by what purpose would the natural segregation of male and female children in school years serve? Further, if gender was purely socialization, then the outcome of Money's experiment involving John Reimer would have been dramatically different.

Money's work with John Reimer actually can be understood as validating the narrative of many transsexuals, who almost universally claim that they felt "like the opposite sex" from a very young age (often well before any sense of gender is supposed to be understood by the child) - and transsexuals move towards transition with a surprising degree of persistence - seemingly without swerving once they start to understand themselves.

Whitehead, however, goes on to argue that because many Intersex people choose to remain in the gender role that they were raised in, that gender identity, and correspondingly sexual identity are in fact primarily learned.

Unfortunately, Whitehead has made a serious error in his theoretical construct in making such an argument. Instead of expanding his interpretation to encompass the percentage of Intersex people who do choose to transition to a different gender role as adults, he effectively argues that their story is not relevant and discards that evidence.

There is a fundamental construct out of Mathematics that Whitehead has clearly ignored or misunderstood - namely that of completeness. Mathematical completeness has a strong definition, but the principle applies to scientific theory as well. A theory that fails to encompass the breadth of the available evidence is either in need of revision, or it suffers from logical inconsistencies, and this is where Whitehead's arguments begins to fall apart.

Whitehead wants his reader to be convinced that in the absence of concrete proof of biological causality that sexual identity and behaviour are therefore learned. If something can be learned, it can obviously be "unlearned" or changed, right?

Well ... perhaps that is the case - after all transsexuals learn the social aspects of their chosen gender, often in the face of having transitioned later in life.

However, that does not explain in the least their stated motives for choosing to transition (or, in the case of some, making the choice not to transition).

For much of the rest of his book, Whitehead spends his time expounding on how various lines of investigation have "not turned up any conclusive evidence" in building his argument that sexual orientation is primarily learned behaviour.

Right now, based on much of what Zoe Brain keeps digging up, I think the interesting work is not going on in the causality of sexual identity, but in understanding gender.

The more of this evidence that gets published, the more convinced I become that to assume that we must all try to be heterosexual is deeply flawed. In no other respect to we expect people to fit into absolute categories. Even handedness is mixed - few people are absolutely left or right handed. I'm strongly left-handed myself, but even there, I find that there are things that I do right handed. There's no absolutes in life, and it seems to me that where we are talking about sexual or gender identity, we should not be attempting to impose some kind of absolute models either.

I think that the notion of gender, and sexual identities as occurring along a spectrum of behaviour, as discussed in this essay series is a more reasonable notion than looking at it as if it is all learned, or all innate. It is far more likely that it is actually a mix of factors, and none of us should assume that there is an absolute of any sort at play.

Whitehead's book is essentially a piece of apologetics for the ex-gay lobby. It depends on the classic logical fallacy that the absence of conclusive evidence is equivalent to negation. This is no different than the classic "gaps in the fossil record" arguments against evolution theory - it fails to prove anything, and does not acknowledge that the evidence is gradually getting filled in. Further, because it requires us to discard information in order to hold together, Whitehead's work is clearly based on a weak foundation.


Diane Gall said...

Thanks for this. There is so much misinformation masquerading as legitimate argument that no one can keep up by herself. Great commentary here.

Anonymous said...

1To the author of "The Cracked Crystal Ball" and to those who thought it a trustworthy opinion, do your research... You might also consider taking a class on Argumentative Writing. I'm sick and tired of the ridiculously arrogant and quite frankly, anti-intellectual bias. Really? Reeealllly? Your just angry,because he has done his research and he explains why biologically based theories can't be substantiated. And, in regards to what you said about the APA, they refused to even see his research when they voted to do away with the diagnosis of homosexuality as being a mental disorder. Debate over, and how dare Whitehead for exposing research contrary to the research they embrace. The majority of homosexuals don't even care to argue, as they are good-natured, open-minded and loving people. It's just the activists, as yourself that are the true haters. You hate what you can't debate, in my opinion. Political b.s...

MgS said...


Anti-intellectual bias? I've been accused of many things before, that isn't one of them.

As for the form of how I write my arguments, I never asked you to like it.

I think I have quite nicely explained my objections to Whitehead's claims, and the problems I see in the implicit assumptions that he is making.

If you have actual counter arguments beyond accusing me of being "angry", please feel free to post them.

Anonymous said...

While the work certainly has its flaws, My Genes Made Me Do It is much more than simply 'apologetics' for the ex-gay lobby. Yes, Whitehead's views on homosexuality and his religious sentiments are evident in his work, and he doesn't try to conceal them. But that doesn't mean his research can be discounted entirely.

Also, I noticed that you quoted the APA. I don't think they are the authority on sexuality. If you've done any background reading on that monolith of an organisaiton, you will find a lot of 'glaring holes' in their conception of modern day psychology as we know it. aka the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. You will also find that when they redefined homosexuality in 1973, declaring that it was 'not an illness' per se, they did so under intense pressure from members of the gay community. Some of the members of the APA and even their families were threatened.

"Further, even though we have sequenced the human genome, we should not be so naïve as to believe that we have anywhere near a complete understanding of how the genetic attributes we can now describe respond to the surprisingly complex organic chemistry that fills our bodies and makes us tick. We have but begun to explore those very questions."

^^^ By the same token, in our mad rush to label and understand the sexualities, we should not be so quick to declare sexuality is simply a product of our genetics. An inborn, unalterable trait. But I think were are agreed on that point? Sexuality is influenced by a wide range of factors.

I am happy to see someone like Neil, who though influenced by his religious beliefs, is coming from a different angle. Modern day notions of sexuality are absurd and I think many of us miss the point: humans are complex.

MgS said...

1) I will point out that the APA has adjusted its position with respect to sexuality as the balance of evidence has required them to. Unless you have a concrete example of why the APA is wrong in taking the position that I cite, your dismissal seems rather arbitrary.

2) I argue that because Whitehead allows his religious beliefs to influence his work, he is not being objective and worse he is ignoring a growing body of evidence which considerably undermines his argument in the first place.

3) Whitehead's work is neither peer reviewed research nor does he present a meaningful new analysis of the data. Instead, he basically argues "no single gene has been found which causes homosexuality, therefore it has no genetic cause".

We know today that the expression of genes is regulated by a complex biochemical process and cannot be looked at as just an "either/or" statement.

As you point out, we are complex creatures. Whitehead's argument attempts to dismiss the probability of biological factors in the formation of sexual identity, thereby supporting the "it's a behaviour" claim from the religious lobby and contradicting the very real, lived experiences of LGBT people. That puts Whitehead's reasoning on incredibly thin ice to start with, and the sheer volume of evidence which calls into question the assumptions in his argument is enough to render his claims suspect at best, junk science most likely.

Anonymous said...

WOW to site the APA as a source to tear down a book that argues in the INTRODUCTION that that same association is continually pressured to adopt gay-friendly language is absolutely ludicrous. Also, you complained of the omitting of transitioning people in his book; unfortunately, I caught your excuse of why you yourself omitted information contained in whole chapters of the book. Nothing interested you enough? OR perhaps it didn't fill your own agenda? Don't be a hypocrite now, especially when your own argument looks like Swiss cheese.

MgS said...

@Anonymous @12:59 13/8/15:

This is a fucking blog, not an academic journal, you twit. I didn't dissect each and every chapter of Whitehead's book because significant amounts of it are repetitive. I cited the pieces of Whitehead that I needed to make my point.

As for having an agenda, yes I have an agenda: It's called taking down junk science like Whitehead's work which so obviously misconstrue reality.

Now, if you have some legitimate counterpoint to, for example, back up Whitehead's assertions regarding the APA, I'd love to hear them. Otherwise, fuck off.