Science in Review — September 2013

Painting of Satan offering to turn a stone to bread to feed Jesus

Would Jesus have been tempted if his physical body didn’t experience hunger? The Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness by Juan de Flandes

This is the fifth and final post in a series on the topic of biology and sexual orientation.

I set out to write this series primarily as a forcing function to update my own understanding of the evidence for biological mediation of sexual orientation. After reviewing studies on heritability and the biological pathways, I have satisfied myself that there is a biological dimension to orientation. So now I suppose the question becomes: what does that mean?

For starters, let’s consider what that means with respect to homosexuality and sin. The best answer I can come up with is: not much. Ultimately, matters of sin and righteousness are theological or perhaps philosophical questions, not scientific ones. I’ve hedged in the past on whether I can call myself a scientist, but I know I am not a theologian or a philosopher. The most I would be prepared to say is that biological mediation does not rule out the potential of it being a sin.

The Bible speaks often of connections between our flesh and our sinfulness. Consider Matthew 26:41

Stay awake and pray that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Along those lines, we are susceptible to temptations of gluttony because we can experience hunger, a feeling which is clearly mediated by our biology. The weariness we sense in our bodies opens the door to sloth; and so on. The link between our biology and our trespasses may not be obvious or even present for all categories of sin, but it seems clear that even without a biological mediation of sexual orientation, we would still be responsible for actions precipitated by the physical realities of our bodies.

What, then, of free will? Are we just fleshy animatrons, executing a program handed to us at the moment of conception? I think it’s safe to say that the answer is no. The genes we inherit from our parents are not sufficient to explain everything about our orientation. The circumstances of our early development also do not perfectly predict outcomes in adulthood. Whatever the nature of the mind, it does not appear to be completely enslaved to the environmental inputs it happens to experience.

So, then, orientation is a conscious choice? Well, no, that would seem to be an oversimplification as well. While the correlation isn’t 100%, there is evidence that inheritable and environmental factors influence our orientation. That influence is complex, multi-factorial, and probably incomplete, but it does seem to exist. And, really, should that be a complete surprise? At the risk of treading into indelicate territory, we are talking about something that is ultimately expressed in a physical way; it seems reasonable that there could be some feedback in the other direction as well.

And thus we are left with a scenario that, I suspect, will smack to some of a vacuous compromise that tries to please everyone and consequently says nothing of substance. If you find it at all unsatisfying, I can certainly understand. For what it’s worth, I did not set out to find a middle ground nor to try pleasing everyone. What I did want to do was find answers that made sense to me, and that’s where I am now.

Why do these answers work for me? Certainly the science is part of it; the evidence found to date can be fit into some plausible frameworks, and I find them compelling. It is also the case that not all the pieces are filled in, some of the evidence and explanations aren’t in complete agreement, and there is room for critique of some of the study designs. But that’s science, especially biology; it’s often messier than we would like (literally and figuratively), but my qualitative assessment is that there is something to all the evidence and theories.

Another part of what works for me is that there is something challenging for many of us to confront. For those of who would like to believe orientation is entirely volitional, we have to confront the reality that, even if we have immaterial souls, we are not just immaterial souls. We are (also) physical beings, with all of the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. Should we not therefore have sympathy for our fellow physical beings and the particulars of their biologies? Was that not one of the purposes of God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus, to demonstrate his ability to sympathize with the idiosyncrasies of our physicality? I think, for example, of Hebrews 4:15

For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.

And for those of us who would like to believe that biological mediation is the entirety of the story, we have to wrestle with what it means to be made in the image of God. Does that mean that we are more than our instinctual or automatic reactions, that we can transcend them in order to make choices that glorify our Creator rather than gratify His creations? Is that one of the things Jesus modeled for us, such as when he resisted the temptation to eat in the wilderness?

Finally, I feel ready to move on because this series has given me plenty to think about with respect to my own life and why I behave the way I do; hopefully it’s done the same for you. I suspect next time I’ll be looking at something a bit more esoteric, like the possibility that the visible universe is actually the surface of a 4 dimensional black hole.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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