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Science Does Not Have the Final Say - Science and Homosexuality

by John Luteijs in Films & Books , 03 juli 2016

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Nothing is more fickle than man. This becomes clear when considering the phenomenon homosexuality. “Half a century ago, it was perfectly normal to claim that homosexuality was a disease. Nowadays, those who defend this position are considered sick themselves,” according to the authors of a solid book on views of homosexuality, “Born this Way: Een filosofische blik op wetenschap en homoseksualiteit” (Born this Way: A philosophical view on science and homosexuality; 2015).

What has happened to cause such a radical change of view? And did those views change that radically?

Lecturer Peter Adriaens from the University of Leuven and Professor Andreas De Block give the reader insight into the philosophical way science dealt with homosexuality. That approach has succeeded in an attractive way. Often, the authors take the reader along, making them think that it must be how it is. But later on, they look at matters from a different perspective and give nuances making you doubt - obvious things don’t turn out to be that obvious at all.

The authors limit the scope to male homosexuality as that has been researched more extensively. Also, male and female homosexuality are entirely different, and cannot be considered one single phenomenon. The book is limited to zoology, evolutionary biology, psychiatry, and social psychology. Fields of science such as genetics, the science of brains, hormonology and sociology are hardly discussed or not discussed at all. The authors had to choose.

What is Homosexuality?

One of the central questions in the book is: is homosexuality natural, and if yes, what does that mean for the acceptance of homosexuality? Another central question concerns the definition of homosexuality. The authors challenge the idea that there is something as the biological essence of homosexuality. To explain homosexuality, much more is needed than a gay gene or other biological theories.

In the first chapter, the authors compare between homosexuality in animals and humans, and discuss two hundred years of research in that field. They look at homosexuality from five different angles. Homosexuality can be behavior, but there are various kinds of behavior. If Orinoco dolphins penetrate each other in the blowhole, it is a different form of sexuality than grabbing each other’s private parts, as occurs with the Aboriginals in Australia and the Bedamini in Papua New Guinea. Homosexuality can be a desire. This sexual desire does not necessarily say something about sexual preference. In prison, men can have homosexual desires, but still prefer heterosexual contacts in spite of these desires. The authors then differentiate between preference and orientation. A preference can be a one-off or casual, while an orientation is constant and stable. Finally, the authors discuss homosexual identity. This concept, as are the afore mentioned concepts, is not unambiguous. At times it is a label that people use on the basis of certain sexual traits and behaviors to distinguish themselves from others. Sometimes it has political purpose: a person does not refer to himself as male, black, athlete, but homosexual. Sometimes, people assume a certain lifestyle because they consider themselves homosexual. What these forms of identity have in common is that they presuppose self-awareness.


The first four categories out of five occur in animals, the fifth category is very questionable. However, the authors warn that the aforementioned categories are not exactly the same as the categories for humans. “By humanizing sexuality in animals we miss the opportunity to learn from the unique determinants in their behavior [...].”

The other side of the coin is also true: Research in animals (not just homosexuality) helps in the unraveling of human behavior. Because of these animal models, hypotheses about the nature and cause of human (homo)sexuality can be formulated, but what holds true for animals, does not hold true for humans. The authors also show how scientists denied homosexuality in animals: that what should not exist does not exist.

Evolutionary Paradox

In the second chapter, the authors discuss homosexuality as an evolutionary paradox. The question: if homosexuals do not reproduce, how is it possible that homosexuality still exists? This is an interesting question, because it influences the discussion between essentialists (scientists try to discover a purpose to homosexuality) and social-constructivists (there are many homosexualities that each derive their form from specific social and cultural circumstances). The proposition that homosexuality is an evolutionary paradox presupposes three assumptions. “Homosexuals” are not fertile, and the second is heredity (gay gene).


The third assumption is that many evolutionary scientists assume that homosexuality is very unstable from an historic perspective. Modern western homosexuals supposedly do not substantially differ from homosexuals in other cultures. This assumption is incorrect according to the authors, also because a lot of research has been done into homosexuality in test subjects (often students) that have the following characteristics: Western, highly educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. But only twelve percent of the world population has these characteristics. “It is premature and misleading to presume that ‘our’ homosexuals are representative of all forms of sexuality for all eras and cultures.”

Stable factors in human behavior are homosexual behavior and homosexual desires. Some historians are also of the opinion that certain individuals have a preference for sex with members of the same sex. But the homosexual identity as we know it now clearly is a western phenomenon, something the French philosopher Michel Foucault researched in the last century with ground-breaking results. Foucault proposed that from the eighteenth and nineteenth century onwards, it was not only possible to act homosexual, but also to be an homosexual. Especially the medical world played an important part in this. With the rise of homosexuality its counterpart heterosexuality arose. Both phenomena are therefore relatively modern and Western in nature.

It is incorrect to draw an uninterrupted line from the ancient Greeks to modern times when it comes to homosexuality. On the whole, modern homosexuals for instance have sexual encounters with individuals with the same sex, sharing age and social status. This was not common in non-Western and pre-modern societies. In our days, it is unwanted that men have relationships with boys and young men, and that those boys and young men later in life do the same with other young boys and young men, and are married to a woman and have children at the same time. Such relationships occurred in certain parts of the ancient Greek world, in the samurai culture in Japan in the middle ages and the early modern period, and with the medieval Mamluks in the Islamic world and in Italy during the renaissance. Can you call them forms of homosexuality as we do now?
Another point in which modern western homosexuality differs from other forms of homosexuality are the many characteristics that are characterized as feminine in our culture. This “femininity” is in sharp contrast with earlier and non-Western forms of “homosexuality.” The anthropologist Gilbert Herdt described, for instance, how in a New-Guinea tribe, adolescents would swallow the sperm of older group members to obtain masculinity. You have to wonder if you can call this homosexuality in the way we use the term.

The authors also question the sources they use, especially the historic ones. How representative are they? Is the role of the medical world, which largely shaped the homosexual identity, overrated? Is it not true that femininity in “homosexuals” also occurred in the Greek world, with the so-called Kinaidos, who were despised and kept quiet about? Incidentally, the Kinaidos show that they were considered an identity, making the concept of the modern homosexual identity not a unique one, according to the authors. During the Middle-Ages “these kinds of men” were also present. So: Yes, the modern homosexual is indeed a relatively new phenomenon, and No, the link between homosexuality and identity is not unique in history.

Homosexuality in Society

In their attempt to bring together the essentialist and constructionist views and show that homosexuality from an evolutionary perspective is a paradox, the authors fall back on two theories. The alliance formation hypothesis presumes that homosexual contacts enforce and maintain the strategic alliances between non-relations. These alliances were assumed to occur in both animals and humans. Think of the Thebans in ancient Greece and the similar homosexual comradeship in wartime among the Japanese samurai. The other theory mentioned by the authors is the “Dual Inheritance Theory” (DIT) which explains that diversity in human behavior is the result of both genetic and cultural information.

The social environment has an important influence on the development of our sexual preferences. Striking is that populations with a good economy show a remarkable fertility decline, but gender roles and family ties also change because of this. It is also striking that countries with lower economic development show an attitude towards homosexuality that is diverse: from strong rejection to connivance.

In countries in which economic development is taking place, the acceptance of homosexuality is increasing. One of the possible reasons is that the strict reproduction standards become less strict in strong economies. The authors come to the conclusion that the evolution theories mostly show that change and variation are part of human nature, and therefore also of homosexuality.

A Disease?

In the third chapter, the authors discuss the question whether homosexuality is a disease or not in detail. After homosexuality was mostly seen as criminal behavior up to the early nineteenth century, the subject of homosexuality was increasingly embraced by medical science, and was increasingly seen as a disease. Especially psychiatry concerned itself with the theme.

Psychiatry seems to have created a U-turn in thinking about homosexuality, but that is only partly true. Ethics, law and theology worked closely with psychiatry. Often, doctors and psychiatrists were also forensic experts. The legal approach reinforced the psychiatric approach. But also theology reinforced psychiatry. Not just because both used the term perversion (as deviation from the Divine norm), but also because medieval theologians and philosophers stated that divine law was also the law of nature. All forms of sexuality that did not result in offspring were unnatural.

These “unnatural vices” were frowned upon more than, for instance, adultery, rape, and incest. Psychiatry as well saw homosexuality as an unwanted phenomenon. This only changed forever when homosexuality disappeared from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1974. This was hardly uncontroversial - striking homosexuality deeply divided the profession. The handbook was published by the American Psychiatric Association and received world-wide recognition.

In a fascinating way, the authors show how critical questions and lobbying led to a vote by the APA members on maintaining homosexuality as a disorder in the handbook in 1974. Homosexuality was then stricken as a disorder. To many outsiders, this was perceived “as if establishing a psychiatric glossary was much more political than scientific.” Robert Spitzer, who was given the assignment to iron out the differences in the APA, realized as one of the few that science could not have the final say, “and that factors outside the scope of science would always play a part in such decisions. According to Spitzer this was due to the fact that terms as ‘disorder’ and ‘disease’ also had to do with values.” This is an important conclusion in the book, as science remains important, but is not the authority when it comes to essential questions on values.

This also means that there are no indisputable criteria as to why you cannot label an abnormal phenomenon as a disease. According to the authors, the solution to this dilemma lies in letting go of wanting to differentiate between disease and health, as it is not essential to psychiatry and medical science. Psychiatry should be focused on describing and explaining, and then wonder if a certain condition is desirable or not, and whether or not it should be treated.

This raises questions such as: What is the opinion of the individual? What does society think? Why should it form an opinion? Is that opinion justified? How do you deal with that? This solution is not ideal for all of health care: what should insurers do when it is not clear what should be treated (and compensated for)? And what about the consensus in medical science?


In the fourth and final chapter the authors write about the relationship between the mostly negative attitudes and beliefs concerning homosexuality. An important source of homonegativity is natural law thinking. This thinking has always played an important part in the radical rejection of homosexuality throughout Christendom. The Christian philosopher and theologian Thomas of Aquino (1225-1274) stated that sexuality is only acceptable when it serves procreation. Whether or not this would lead to offspring was not important, as the partners could not know if one or both were infertile. After all, the genitals were used “generative.” All other sexual acts (masturbation, homosexuality, bestiality, anal sex) were a sin.
The natural law philosophy is still current, except that natural law thinkers also see another important function of sex: the affectionately charged act. Natural law thinking is under siege because of the thought that people can deduce how things should be from a description. This would approve of matters such as incest and rape. Although natural law thinking is difficult to defend philosophically, for many people it still functions as an important source on how to form their moral judgements.

Psychological Essentialism

The authors avoid the concept of homophobia, as it does not concern a disease or fear. Other emotions play their part, for instance moral or sexual disgust and fear of “contagion.” That is why homosexuals had to be removed from society. The authors prefer to use the concept of homonegativity.
Another interesting concept the authors use is psychological essentialism. They refer to psychologist Douglas Medin and philosopher Andrew Ortony. “What they call psychological essentialism is ‘not the view that things have an essence, but the vision that the representations people have are based on a conviction that things are in possession of an essence, however wrong this conviction may be.’”

People, for instance, tend to divide animals into species and think that animals possess the essence of that species, even though often this is not the case. It is sufficient that we think that certain things have something in common, even though we hardly know what that thing in common should be. If we think that skin color is caused by a deep essence all persons of a certain race have in common, we start using that skin color to divide humans up into races. “From a young age, people all over the world tend to categorize the natural and social world around them into essentialist categories. Animals, plants, and sexual preferences are identified and separated on the basis of a presumed underlying essence that in reality is not there.”

Essentialist convictions about a social category often go hand in hand with a negative attitude towards that group. Essentialism leads to more stereotypes and prejudices, but sometimes also gives way to a positive attitude. This seems to hold true for homosexuality: the more people see homosexuality as an essence, the more tolerant they seem regarding gay marriage, gay adoption, etc. The reason for this lesser degree of homonegativity has to do with the fact that if people cannot help being gay/black, etc., it is considered natural. However, other essentialists give homosexuality negative characteristics, such as promiscuity, causing their homonegative attitude.

Rationalizing Existing Attitudes

On the basis of recent studies, the authors show yet another phenomenon. It is not true that people develop an attitude through rational thinking, it is the opposite: “In reality, people mostly seem to rationalize their existing attitude by agreeing with certain positions on the nature and origin of homosexuality. In other words: people choose convictions which conform to earlier attitudes.” But this does not mean that convictions no longer have any influence, but the authors clearly show how it works.

The authors warn against characterizing homonegativity as something irrational. Just as irrational as a positive attitude towards homosexuality, as that is based on the presumption that homosexuality occurs in animals. And it is possible to negate the proposition that homosexuality is of all ages, without being intolerant towards homosexuality. Someone can have rational arguments against gay marriage without having a homonegative attitude or homonegative feelings. Within the gay movement itself, thankfully, people were/are not always entirely happy with gay marriage.

In their book, the authors show that they have reason to be skeptical when it comes to the moral importance of scientific research into the nature and cause of homosexuality. But, of course, they make the necessary differentiations. Science can correct refuting inaccurate or incorrect statements about the morality of homosexuality. And science can show that the fight against discrimination and stigmatization can have quick and impressive results for the well-being of homosexual men and women.

No Page Turner

The book by Adriaens and De Block is not a page turner. The reader truly has to go for it, preferably more than once. But that pays off. The book can be recommended to everyone involved in gay studies - in the broadest sense. The authors make you think about homosexuality and show no respect for sacred cows. They take you with them and seduce the reader to follow their trail of thought, and then put you on the wrong foot by confronting the reader with things that go without saying that do not go without saying. Their main conclusion: the homosexuality as we know it in the West is just one of many forms of homosexuality. There are many other forms of homosexual behavior and desire one cannot heap together.

The book is also disturbing. The equality of homosexuality / homosexuals cannot just be substantiated with scientific research. There are no objective criteria on the basis of which homosexuality is equal to other forms of sexuality. Science does not always have the final say. There are forces outside of science that play their part in establishing “facts.” Getting more insight into that is what the book does in a fascinating way. But it certainly is not reassuring.




In the New Issue of Gay News, 324, Augustus 2018

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