Is homosexuality “natural”? Do gays have a “right” to adopt children?
Rosie O’Donnell is the latest celebrity to go public as a homosexual and take the stand as a champion of gay adoption rights. Her challenge has reignited the controversy about rights and wrongs based on what is “natural.”
The argument goes something like this. There’s nothing wrong with homosexuality. The animal kingdom is filled with examples of same-sex erotic behavior. Further, scientific evidence indicates that sexual orientation is physically pre-determined. Condemning homosexuality and restricting adoption rights is wrong because sexual desires are not chosen; they are part one’s physical constitution.
There are two claims here that propel this kind of argument. The first is that homosexuality is “natural.” The second is that if a condition is natural, then it must be moral.
Mother Nature’s Way
On the surface, there seems to be some truth to the claim that homosexuality is natural. It’s not unusual, for example, to see male dogs mount each other in an erotic way. There are two problems with this view, however.
First, the observation is flawed because it assumes that erotic behavior in other mammals is the same as homosexual desire in human beings.
Male homosexuals engage in sodomy not because of an attraction to a physical body part (women have that body part, too), but rather because of an attraction to a gender. They are male erotic, and sodomy is an expression of that desire.
Does the animal kingdom display this kind of same-gender eroticism? When a male dog mounts another male dog, is it because he’s attracted to the male gender of the other dog?
I don’t think so. This same poor pooch will slavishly mount sofas or shrubs or anything else available, including the leg of your dinner guest. None of these things are the object of the canine’s sexual lust; they are merely the subject of it. The dog does not desire your unfortunate visitor. He simply desires to be stimulated. This may prove that dogs masturbate. It doesn’t prove they have homosexual desire in any way parallel with humans.
Secondly, the view asserts that simply because the condition “occurs in nature” it is “natural.” But by this use of the word all sorts of things would be natural—humans mating with animals, children drinking cleaning fluid, rain forests being replaced with concrete—because all would be occurring “in nature.” Human beings are part of nature by this definition, and therefore all and any human conduct would be natural. Virtually nothing could ever be considered unnatural on these terms.
Generally we mean something else when we say that replacing virgin forests with parking lots, imbibing poison, and copulating with beasts are not natural. Things are natural if they fit the pre-technological, natural order of things; they are functioning according to their primitive pattern or purpose, and that’s key. A natural sexual desire, then, is a desire that serves to accomplish a sexual goal in the primitive order of things.
However, this definition of “natural” doesn’t help the homosexual either. According to the primitive natural order of things (evolution), the natural purpose of sex is reproduction, getting one’s genes into the next generation. But homosexuals don’t reproduce, so homosexuality can’t be “natural” on this definition either.
Further, wouldn’t one consider it unnatural if someone had eyes, but couldn’t see, or ears and couldn’t hear? Why is it then deemed natural to have male genitals, but be dispositionally incapable of using them to accomplish their reproductive purpose with the opposite sex?
Homosexuality does not seem to be natural in any meaningful sense of the word. Therefore, its morality cannot be defended by a mere appeal to nature. What if the focus was turned, though, from the external patterns of nature to the internal design of one’s own nature? What if homosexual desire were dictated by internal biological mechanisms?
“I Was Born This Way”
Much has been made of the correlation between homosexual desire and certain physical anomalies: size differences in neurons in the anterior hypothalamus (LeVay), unique “tags” on the genetic code (Hamer), incidence of homosexuality among twins (Bailey and Pillard), etc.
The term “sexual orientation” itself implies biology rather than preference. Sexual desires are not mere preferences, but a direction one is forced to face (“orientation”) because of predetermined physical factors.
This argument won’t work for a number of reasons. First, the empirical evidence that homosexuality is genetic is meager to non-existent.
Columbia University Psychiatrists William Byne and Bruce Parsons report, “Recent studies postulate biologic factors as the primary basis for sexual orientation. However, there is no evidence at present to substantiate a biologic theory, just as there is no compelling evidence to support any singular psychosocial explanation.”[i]
None of the suggested scenarios connecting either chemistry or physiology with homosexual desire has played itself out empirically. There are reasons to doubt it ever will.
For one, we already have experience with male bodies and female hormones in the case of transsexuals[ii] who inject hormones to change their physical appearance. Female hormones, being physical things, influence a male’s physical body—secondary sexual characteristics like size of breasts, facial hair, etc. But do those physical changes also give rise to changed sexual desire? The answer is no.
This is a double whammy against the argument that physical conditions predetermine sexual desires. First, the absence of female sexual characteristics in the bodies of male homosexuals indicates that their basic physical chemistry is not different from heterosexual males. Male homosexuals have bodily chemistry that produces male sexual characteristics, just like heterosexual males. This is prima facie evidence that the genetics are the same.
This point can be stated another way that is so obvious it often goes unnoticed. What kind of sex is natural for the homosexual when one considers the physical body that nature has given him? It’s obvious that a homosexual’s genitalia are fit for a woman, not for a man. At best, a homosexual’s body is giving him mixed signals: mental homosexual desires coupled with physical heterosexual body parts. The shape of his physical body proves that, at least in one sense, his desires are not natural.
There’s a second problem. The infusion of female hormones into male homosexuals can create secondary physical female characteristics, but not sexual desire. Instead, they are artificial changes forced upon the physical body because of a prior mental desire unrelated to physical chemistry.
I am not implying that all homosexuals desire female bodies. I’m only making the point that efforts by transsexuals to change their physical bodies tell us something about the relationship of physical constitution to sexual desire.
Because of a prior sexual desire, the transsexual seeks to change his physical characteristics. In other words, the desire comes first, then the physical change is made, not the other way around. In fact, a homosexual’s physical body will go back to its natural state if he stops taking female hormones. The desire was prior to the physical condition, not a result of it.
At best, the scientific evidence may show that some homosexuals share physical anomalies. Whether those similarities are unique to homosexuals and necessary for homosexual desire has never been established by science. And there are counter-indicators: homosexual genetic “tags” shared by non-homosexuals; homosexuals that don’t manifest the tags; etc.
The correlations between homosexual desire and the physical body, when they can be found, appear to be accidental, not necessary. To establish a physical cause one must show a consistent direct relationship, that every person with homosexual desire has a physical characteristic shared by all homosexuals and not possessed by heterosexuals. Yet in one study of identical twins who were homosexuals, the genetic marker was missing in nearly 20% (7 out of 40) of the cases.[iii] It’s hard to establish that a physical characteristic A causes behavior B if in a significant number of cases there is behavior B and no physical characteristic A.[iv]
Science has shown nothing that even approaches a genuine universal and necessary physical difference. If there is just one male with true homosexual desires who doesn’t have the requisite “gay” physical condition then I have made my point: A physical condition is not an adequate explanation for the existence of a homosexual desire. Something else is going on.
Nature vs. Nurture
Such a necessary physical marker will never be found, I think, and for a very important reason. All constitutional arguments seem to face a serious objection. They ignore the evidence that much—if not all—of homosexual desire is developmental rather than constitutional.
The constitutional homosexuality argument turns on the claim that homosexual desire is dictated by physical conditions. Offered as evidence are studies of identical twins separated at birth and raised in completely different environments, yet who turn out to be homosexual. The determining factor in the shared homosexual desire, it seems, is not environment (nurture)—which was completely different—but constitution (nature)—which was identical.
This strains at a tiny gnat and swallows a huge camel. In the case of the twins, a small sampling of people share a similar physical characteristic and a similar sexual desire, implying that the shared physical state causes the shared sexual orientation. Yet there are millions of people in the opposite situation. They share the same physical conditions, yet possess entirely different sexual tastes.
Homosexual twins are an exception that is completely eclipsed by the rule: millions of people with the same physical machinery (genetics)—same plumbing, wiring, and chemistry—but utterly disparate sexual desires. The great similarity is physical; the overwhelming dissimilarity is developmental.
One can examine every physical aspect of 100,000 males—a full assessment of their body parts, hormone levels, blood chemistry, etc.—and never be able to determine from the physical evidence alone who has a desire for the same sex,[v] even though one to two thousand in that group would be so inclined.
To sharpen the point, one wouldn’t be able to know any particulars about the nuances of anyone’s sexual desire by examining his physical make-up—who was hot for redheads rather than brunettes, who turned on to Twiggies instead of Reubens, who was sensually rabid, or who was sexually listless. Ergo, since so many people have the same basic physiology, yet differ radically in both sexual tastes and environment, it seems to follow that developmental factors—the formation of sexual tastes as one matures—are the preeminent influence in sexual preference.
Second, one’s own sexual tastes change over time with no change in his physical body. Heterosexuals can manifest homosexual desires, homosexuals can manifest heterosexual desires, yet there is no change in diet, no alteration of genes, no injections taken, no brain surgery performed. There’s no physical modification of any kind, only a change in mind.
If homosexuality were constitutional, no one could be heterosexual at one point in life and homosexual at another point without some corresponding physical change. This is a clue that sexual tastes are largely developmental.
For this reason, it is a monumental mistake for Christians to blithely claim that if homosexuality isn’t genetic it must be chosen. It should be obvious that, even though acting out one’s desires requires a choice, the desires themselves are not chosen. It’s equally a mistake to say that since sexual preference is not chosen, it must be genetic. There’s a third alternative.
Psychologists talk of the “formative period” of sexual identity. There seems to be no physical or chemical reason, for example, why heterosexual men should be attracted to certain women and not others, but most will not entertain fantasies about their mothers or sisters. Why not? This aversion is not dictated by physical factors of any sort. It must therefore have a non-physical cause, in this case, social taboo.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a large body of research indicates a strong correlation between failed father-son relationships and homosexuality.[vi] Sexual preference is not solely physical; it’s at least partially developmental. And if it’s developmental at all, then I’ve made my point, because that which develops is clearly not the body, but a mental frame of mind.
The homosexual advocate fails to make the case that his sexual orientation is either natural in the broad sense—a normal occurrence in nature—or natural in the narrow sense—determined by his physical constitution. Yet even if homosexual desire were discovered to be completely physiological, it still wouldn’t follow that the conduct was moral.
Is and Ought
Columnist Robert Scheer noted that, “Homosexuality in the vast majority of cases is a condition that is given and not chosen, and must therefore be honored as part of the natural order of things.”[vii] Scheer’s comments reflect a standard misconception about homosexuality and ethics: If we can find a connection between homosexuality and nature, then we must surrender our moral objections to it. The error is in thinking that one has anything to do with the other. It doesn’t.
Philosopher David Hume argued that it is impossible to produce a deductively valid argument with factual premises and an ethical conclusion. In short, you can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” This is called the naturalistic fallacy.
In layman’s terms, just because a behavior is “natural” doesn’t make it right. This is obvious on a moment’s reflection. Does a natural tendency towards violence justify assault? Does a natural desire for food justify theft? Does a natural aversion to homosexuals justify gay-bashing?
Animals do what comes naturally. We are not mere beasts, but human beings protected by morality from the tyranny of our natural appetites. The difference between “just doing what comes naturally” and principled self-restraint is called civilization.
Further, persisting in this line of reasoning annihilates the argument for adoption rights by homosexuals. If homosexuality is right because it’s natural, then adoption must be wrong because it’s unnatural. If nature dictates morality, and the natural consequence for homosexuals is to be childless, then it’s unnatural—and therefore immoral—for homosexuals to raise children. Artificial insemination of lesbians or adoptions by homosexual couples would be wrong by their own argument. The same principle governs both issues.
My goal here has not been to prove that homosexuality is immoral, though I’m convinced it is, but rather to refute one of its common justifications. The morality of homosexuality can never be defended by any appeal to nature, but only by an appeal to moral rules. Nature alone can never provide us with those.[viii] Rosie O’Donnell and those like her must find another way to make their case.
[i]Byne, William and Bruce Parsons, “Human Sexual Orientation: The Biologic Theories Reappraised: Archives of General Psychiatry, March, 1993, vol. 50, 228-39, cited in Larry Burtoft, Setting the Record Straight (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family, 1994), 9.
[ii] One who has undergone surgery to change his or her sex.
[iii]Hubbard, Ruth, “The Search for Sexual Identity; False Genetic Markers,” The New York Times, August 2, 1993, A15.
[iv] Logically, this is called modus tollens: If A, therefore B. Not B, therefore not A.
[v]Friedman, Richard C. and Downey, Jennifer. “Neurobiology and Sexual Orientation: Current Relationships,” Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, Spring 1993, vol. 5, no. 2, 131-153 (136), cited in Burtoft, 18.
[vi]See Joseph Nicolosi, Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson), and Elizabeth Moberly, Psychogenesis: The Early Development of Gender Identity (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1983).
[vii]Robert Scheer, “The Ellen Controversy Revisited,” LA Times, May 6, 1997, B7.
[viii] By “nature” I mean appealing to things simply as they are, or the mere facts of nature. I do believe moral arguments can be based on nature in a different sense: natural teleology, function, or design, as in the natural law arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas.