Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Begging the Question: Is Gayness Biologically Determined?

A week ago, a friend of mine said he didn't follow this poorly written argument of mine about how scientific studies about gayness often beg the question, so I'm going to more clearly explain my point.

First of all, by question-begging, I mean employ circular reasoning. In his 350 BC book on logic, Aristotle described this logical fallacy, using the following example: democracy must be the best form of government because the majority is always right. The conclusion is snuck into the premise (in this example helped along by confusing syntax). Other examples are usually more subtle, often using vagueness or ambiguity in the premises to sneak in the very thing supposedly being proved.

So in the example of gay studies trying to determine if gayness is biologically determinable, I am arguing that the definition of gay used by researchers sneaks in the conclusion. By using a specific definition of gayness in selecting their subjects, the researchers are more likely to come to the conclusion that gayness is bio-determinable.

Using a different model of human sexuality could lead to different results. By only picking subjects who identify as monosexually gay, perhaps the scientists are selecting for an unrecognized cofactor that is in fact biologically determined.

I thought of this when reading the brother study because my first reaction to the study was that it probably had to do with how the mother's hormones affected gender expression (which has been pretty persuasively connected to in utero hormone exposure). Gender expression is (in my worldview, at least) very distinct from sexual orientation. So by sneaking in a misleading, 21st century, American way of thinking about sexuality, the researchers were that much more inclined to misinterpret their results. Or at least my hunch was that they might have been.

Antid Oto's rejoinder was that it is impossible to do extracultural biological research. There are no other options when trying to study human traits, because all traits are socially influenced to some extent. I agree, but my point is that those cultural influences can be accounted for or ignored.

For example, one wouldn't conduct a study about whether "coolness" was biologically determined. One would try to find a better candidate for a physical substratum for the (clearly) socially constructed trait/behavior "cool." Similarly, scientists should make more effort to find underlying biological factors that cause or correlate with behavior that we then socially construct as homosexuality (for example, gender expression or a propensity for risk-taking, perhaps). Then, the results would read more like "scientist find that in utero chemical baths increase the propensity for risk-taking, which correlates somewhat with American male identification as gay or bisexual." It's not as good a headline, but it seems more accurate.

This is very longwinded, probably because I'm not totally confident with my argument. This is what I think I think.


  • At 11:00 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Anything other correlate you chose to identify as more fundamental would also beg the question. For example: why measure the correlation of risk-taking to gayness? Because we believe gay identity to be in part culturally rather than biologically determined. I don't know that this logical trap can be escaped, only displaced.

  • At 11:52 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    To put it another way: why should the gender you identify with be more fundamental than the gender you want to screw?

  • At 12:55 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…


    I guess I thought they question-begged the wrong way, which drew my attention to the question-begging.

    I guess if you measure something that you really think is not, or is insignificantly, or is less significantly, culturally defined, that avoids the question-begging.

    In other words, measuring inheritability of schizophrenia or something like that is not very question-begging, because we're pretty convinced (based on prior research) that that's largely genetically determinable.

    So research should be done on things we are confident are genetically inheritable and branch out from there. Er, or something. Maybe our confidence in results like these should just be a lot lower, compared to traits and behaviors established as genetically determinable...? (though I do realize that's the very thing in question -- it's almost like a circle)

  • At 9:55 AM, Blogger Brian Varitek said…

    Actually your argument is a pretty good one. In the end, unless homosexuality is 100 percent biological (I'm not at all convinced it is), we will never really KNOW what causes it. It's really hard to soundly test for nonbiological factors.


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