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Reporting the Biology of Sexuality May 3, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Science.

Nicholas Wade’s fascinating article on biology and sexuality in the NY Times (also in the UT) was unfortunately less than convincing. The article advances the generalization that sexual desire and sexual preference are largely genetically determined. By implication, culture seems relatively unimportant. Yet the research reported by Wade suggests that, for women, sexual preference does not seem to be genetically determined, and that homosexuality is evolutionarily maladaptive. So for roughly half the population, the generalization is false and it confronts an enormous explanatory hurdle. Furthermore, the ratio of hard facts to speculation is disturbingly high.

Part of the difficulty is that the author gives us no sense of the degree of consensus in biology regarding the generalization and barely mentions social scientific research on the topic. If culture plays a substantial role in sexual desire and sexual preference, biologists would be unlikely to identify that role, since they are not looking for it. Some discussion of social scientific research would provide a more accurate account of what we know now on this topic.

We could use fewer snapply headlines and more nuanced reporting.



1. Nina Rosenstand - May 5, 2007

Yes, isn’t it fascinating–after 24 centuries, women are apparently still viewed as the abnormal gender, just like Aristotle liked to point out. Interesting, too, that the two researchers quoted are male, while the one who paints a broader picture (the three kinds of attraction) is a female. Is that, in itself, a sexist comment because I assume that the males are the narrow-minded ones, and the female the one with the broader perspective? No, it’s a comment on how the article was researched. Male sexuality is mapped and called hardwired, while female sexuality is “mysterious.” You’ve come a long way, baby!

2. Jordan Furrow - May 24, 2007

I agree that articles such as Wade’s continue to pathologize women’s sexuality.

Another problem with ignoring cultural influences on sexuality is that we currently operate under a gender binary that is socially constructed. In other words, much of the world (and virtually all of the ‘western’ world) operates under the inaccurate assumption that all people can be easily divided into two mutually exclusive categories: male and female. This culturally constructed idea of binary gender is the basis behind our current understanding of sexuality. We say someone is straight if they are attracted to “the opposite” gender, gay if they are attracted to “the same” gender, and bisexual if they are attracted to “both genders.”

But this understanding of sex and gender is wildly incomplete. Since our understanding of gender is socially constructed and we think about sexuality according to where one fits in the gender binary, it seems impossible to attribute even the majority of one’s sexuality to biology.

I find it fascinating to think about how we would understand sexuality if we acknowledged the full extent of gender diversity.

3. Abdul - May 24, 2007

Jordan –

You’re onto something about culture determining atleast part of our sexuality. Considering that aside from humans, there aren’t any other species on this planet that are either homosexual or bisexual. A combination of genes or a lack of sufficient chemicals that control sexuality such as testosterone and estrogen may be the cause of homosexuality and bisexuality. However, it could also be the case that humans who are gay or bisexual are that way because of a set of experiences that they had growing up, which led them to make that decision. Would a person choose not to be heterosexual if they were born on an island with only one inhabitant, that happened to be from another gender? Would their body respond to that person or would they feel like something was missing, i.e. someone with their sexual organs. If Adam or Eve(or whatever names you wish to use) had decided that they were homosexual, then none of us would be here.

4. Thea - May 24, 2007

Yes, I like what Jordan said very much. I think our culture is moving toward that same realization, albeit at a snail’s pace.

My biggest issue with the article is the accusation that homosexuality is maladaptive evolutionarily. According to Darwin, evolution cannot take place without variation. Therefore, any variation within our species can only be considered adaptive, evolutionarily speaking. Granted, I’m no “expert from Northestern U”, but based on the Darwinian principles of evolution and considering our rapidly changing environment, it seems that we would do well to encourage as much diversity as possible, genetic or otherwise, so that our species continues to exist.

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