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Is Homosexuality Biologically Determined?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 20, 2012

We’ve been trained by the media to believe that same-sex attraction is biologically determined, that it is unchangeable and damaging to attempt to change it, that it has no correlation whatsoever with decreasing mental health, and that homosexual relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships in every significant way, including stability. Therefore, homosexuality must be treated like other non-prejudicial differences, such as skin color. Science says so, or so we are told.

But does it really? In a word, no.

In a major article in the February 2012 issue of First Things, Stanton L. Jones—a professor of psychology at Wheaton College—provides a thorough review of the relevant scientific studies. While Jones acknowledges that there is a great deal science does not know about homosexuality, he concludes that sufficient studies have now been done to give the lie to all of the common assumptions listed in my opening paragraph.

To repeat the scientific literature would be to duplicate Jones’ efforts, so I’ll content myself with summarizing his findings. These are:

  • The best and most comprehensive studies available suggest that depression and substance abuse are 20 to 30 percent more prevalent among homosexuals. This is typically dismissed by the claim that it results from social stigma, but (in Jones’ words), “the possibility that the orientation and all it entails cuts against a fundamental, gender-based given of the human condition, thus creating distress, is not raised.” Tellingly, the percentages do not appear to drop in cultures which are deliberately gay-friendly.
  • Early claims that homosexuality is biologically determined were based on a theory of pregnancy which posited that the mother’s body increasingly reacted against male hormones with successive male children, thereby causing a higher percentage of younger brothers to be incompletely masculinized, and so to be homosexual. This thesis that homosexuals have a disproportionate number of older brothers has now been disproven.
  • Genetics is, of course, another area of research into homosexual biological determinism. But the latest and most comprehensive studies of twins and siblings show that heritability for homosexuality is relatively weak (no stronger than for other behavioral tendencies); further, there is no evidence to support the notion that these tendencies are not as modifiable as other tendencies (such as a tendency to watch a great deal of television, which appears also to be heritable).
  • In addition, there are many studies which correlate homosexuality with environmental factors such as broken families, absent fathers, older mothers, childhood sexual abuse, and even being born and living in urban settings.
  • Despite the uniform proclamation of the psychiatric establishment that homosexual orientation cannot change, no body of properly-conducted studies proves this contention. Jones himself has led studies of groups of persons who are trying to change their orientation, resulting in either a completely successful change in orientation (23%), or the ability to live chastely (30%), or at least a continuing effort with limited success (27%). Only 20% abandoned the effort and affirmed their homosexuality more strongly. Jones concludes that “homosexual orientation is…sometimes mutable.”
  • Conclusive evidence exists that committed relationships between homosexual men are 50% more likely to break up than heterosexual relationships. Between homosexual women, the dissolution rate is 167% higher than the heterosexual rate.

Professor Jones also raises in passing two issues which involve value judgments unprovable by science, and to which has called attention on a number of previous occasions. The first is the issue of sexual identity. To claim that the fundamental sense of identity of the human person is based on their sexual attractions is not a scientific statement, but an overall personal judgment of a an incredibly complex and varied question which no scientific study could ever fully explore. Many people, probably most, have in fact reached a different conclusion, understanding themselves not as having identities determined by their feelings but rather “telic” identities, that is, identities determined by teleology—our natural understanding of the design, purposes and ends of the human person.

This brings us back to a fundamental point. For even if all the claims in the opening paragraph could be proved by science, they would tell us nothing about whether or not homosexuality is a disorder. Even if same-sex attraction were biologically determined and unchangeable, and even if the psychological health of homosexuals equaled that of heterosexuals in the ways measured, and even if homosexual relationships had the same durability as heterosexual relationships, we still would have no grounds to argue that same-sex attraction is a well-ordered human affectivity.

This is because we already know from teleology, from our perception of the very nature and purposes of things, that same-sex attraction is incapable of carrying the full range of goods appropriate to sexuality in the natural order. Thus same-sex attraction is identifiable as a disordered condition in and of itself, whether its cause lies in biology or elsewhere, or in a combination of things. Ultimately, one can claim homosexuality is well-ordered only by ruling out of court the most obvious and widely-accessible factors in the case, the ordinary factors of judgment about the nature and purpose of human sexuality, the factors that are available to all of us.

This is rather like claiming it is not a disorder to be born with only one leg because we do not know that the human person was designed or intended by God or nature to have two. Or, perhaps more to the point, it is like claiming a person suffering from bilumia is not suffering a disorder because we have no way of knowing whether eating constantly with no proportion to our need for food is a normal condition in human nature or not. In all such cases, to define the person down to a set of his own peculiar characteristics is to rob him of his full identity as a person, which is essential to his self-understanding, development, growth and maturity. A man with one leg has been prevented by a disorder from having two, but he will live as much as possible as if he had two legs. A woman with bulimia will know that the full measure of her personal identity is inhibited by a disorder, and she will strive to overcome it in order to be fully what she is called by God and/or nature to be.

It is essential to understand that such faulty judgments cannot be proved (or disproved) “scientifically” because they arise from a fundamentally human and personal way of knowing which science cannot (and does not seek to) utilize in its own tightly restricted purposes and methodologies. This manner of seeing things whole is natural to the human person (among formal mental disciplines, philosophy comes closest to it).

But it remains very important to know whether specific claims which can be addressed scientifically are true or false. Without ignoring the larger issues, Stanton Jones has done an exemplary job of answering this question, based on the full range of scientific studies available to us now.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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