Recently on the blog, some questions have arisen about whether biology plays a role in determining sexual orientation, and if so to what extent. Even though the relevant disciplines are not my area of expertise, I felt that, as a biologist, I should be at least broadly familiar with the available data and schools of thought. I figured I would investigate what is known, what the open questions are, and if it was worthwhile, summarize my findings for this blog. I don’t expect to provide the definitive Christian perspective on the topic; my goal was mainly to present the evidence, whatever it may be (and I honestly didn’t know what I’d find), so that we could have a more informed discussion.
While I continue to research the literature, I have already started thinking about how to organize and present what I’m learning. And I realized that how I generally think about the connection between the mind and the body framed how I approached the biology of orientation. I began to suspect the same is true for many of us, so I think it’s worth getting it out in the open first.
The two main approaches to this relationship are monism and dualism. Monists hold that the mind arises entirely from the physical structure and processes of the brain. Dualists characterize the mind and/or the soul as having some non-physical component entirely separate from the brain. Naturally, there is a lot of diversity and nuance on both sides that is not captured by that dichotomy. My intent here is not to provide a comprehensive treatment of the mind-body problem, but instead of highlight the primary difference between the two and how it pertains to discussions of sexual orientation.
Now, strictly speaking, both monism and dualism are compatible with a model of orientation that is fully determined by biology, or one that is entirely learned or chosen, or anything between. Monism still allows for learned behaviors; no one is born knowing calculus, but that doesn’t mean that the biology of their brain can’t fully mediate their ability to integrate. And dualism permits for a connection between physical bodies and non-physical minds; I doubt many would deny that there is a physical component to hunger or thirst.
Nevertheless, monists and dualists will have certain divergent tendencies. For a monist, the idea that sexual orientation would be correlated with biological features is a natural outgrowth of that general perspective. It is not a question of if, but of how. There is still plenty of room for uncertainty in areas such as heritability — just because something is biological doesn’t mean that it is completely or even partially inherited — but a basic question has already been answered by opting for monism.
For a dualist, however, everything is still up for grabs. Orientation may be entirely a function of the non-physical mind, in which case there would be no biological correlates or markers for it. And if you are the sort of Christian dualist who further believes that the mind and/or soul are given directly from God, and that God has declared homosexuality a sin, it will be very difficult to fathom how or why God would give anyone a homosexual soul. The idea that orientation would be even partially determined by biology is thus essentially ruled out deductively, before any observations have been made.
Anecdotally, I gather that many Christians have some form of this particular dualist perspective, whether they are aware of it or not. Given all of the verses that talk about the body, spirit, and soul, this is perfectly understandable. It is my hypothesis, then, that this perspective makes it particularly difficult for these Christians to entertain the idea that sexual orientation could be even partially determined by biology. And if I’m correct, then having a conversation about scientific studies isn’t going to get very far if we don’t first acknowledge how our assumptions about how the mind and body work.
So, how do we proceed? I’m not going to try to convert everyone to monism or dualism; I don’t expect that is possible, nor do I think it necessary. I do think it will be helpful for all of us to come to the table having reflected on the assumptions that come with our monist or dualist perspective. For what it’s worth, I would describe myself as a monist. My concept of the mind has been influenced by having spent a lot of time programming computers in general, and doing some research involving applications of machine learning techniques in particular; the writings of Douglas Hofstadter are also a strong point of reference.
I’d love to hear from you, whether you think my hypothesis about the significance of monism/dualism to conversations about the biology of sexual orientation holds water. Are there other assumptions that also factor into the conversation, perhaps even more significantly than the mind-body problem? Do you agree that the sort of dualism I describe is common among Christians? What other perspectives on the question have you encountered in the church?
This looks to be the prologue for a series of as-yet-unknown length on the topic of biology and sexual orientation. The next installment will appear at the end of June, in my usual Science in Review time slot.