This is the first in a series of opinion pieces about the intersection between politics and science. Joseph Wuest is a graduate student of American politics and political theory at the University of Pennsylvania. His ongoing projects are on the politics of genetic research as well as atheist political organizations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments, questions, or concerns.
At the risk then of going against the popular trend of connecting academic research to what is often referred to as the “real” and existing world, I want to use this piece to highlight how distorted our notions of identity have become as a result of a vulgar application of biology, genetics, psychology, and psychiatry to politics, especially the politics of sexuality. In the struggle to be policy relevant, many scientists working in the academy—those with good and bad intention alike—have actually begun to usher in yet another historical era of reductionist explanations for human behavior. Like the race scientists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, we have once again convinced ourselves that there must be some biologically-discoverable truth about the predilections and mannerisms of certain populations. As with past researchers and politicians, these newer studies craft “just so” stories about the natural origins of stereotypes, such as the chemical basis of effeminate characteristics in gay men or the natural preponderance of heart disease in African-Americans (the latter claim has been investigated and debunked by historian and law professor Jonathan Kahn in his book on the race-targeted heart medication BiDil). Some of this research, such as former New York Times science contributor Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book on differences in IQ among different racial types and Charles Murray’s equally deterministic account of the upper class’s superior intellect, sounds like it could have been written by Herbert Spencer and his Social Darwinist ilk themselves.
The normal response to this charge is that—save the few bad apples like Wade and Murray—we are far beyond the eugenicist mistakes of our past and that we are much more capable of applying our theories properly now. To the contrary, there is plenty of progressive and liberal-motivated research currently being conducted that makes the same problematic assumptions about how to go about conceptualizing and measuring human nature in all its diverse forms. In this brave new world of the Human Genome Project coupled with the promise of making a more enlightened and egalitarian society, scientists and their political collaborators have given us an array of political solutions that at first appear rational and geared toward the betterment of society but upon closer inspection are disturbingly close to the race science and eugenic programs many of us have assumed are parts of a distant, uglier past.
To give one example, University of Pennsylvania neurocriminologist Adrian Raine’s work involves monitoring the heart rates and scanning the brains of children in order to discover and “treat” the origins of criminal behavior. By these measurements, Raine and his colleagues can recommend whether or not a child should be fed special diets, take medications, or be sent to live for a period of time in a segregated environment in order to combat his or her innate criminality. Much like those who forcibly relocated homosexuals, schizophrenics, and other sufferers of supposed mental illnesses into segregated colonies in the early-twentieth century for the public good, Raine has justified his desire to taxonomize and manage various populations in a rhetoric of “reducing crime” and “treating criminals humanely” in a way that respects the fact that they just couldn’t help but engage in theft and violence. We see here that in an effort to create a more perfect society, many in the academy are quickly reducing all of humanity’s complex characteristics into allele frequencies, physiological indicators, and blips on a brain scan, which can be used for chilling social engineering projects such as those for which that Raine advocates (see here his reference to the film Minority Report where he states his plan to “lock [a] person up before they have the chance to become violent”).
How then does all of this relate to claims about the discovery of the “gay gene” and others elements of the “born this way” conception of sexual identity? Throughout most of American history, biodeterministic, psychiatric, and medicalized notions of an innate homosexuality proved to be politically and socially dangerous for sexual minorities. Even though many of these theories of identity were originally established to protect identifiers from charges of criminality and sinfulness, they were quickly adopted—and expanded upon—by those seeking to justify policies such as discrimination in federal employment as well as mandated sterilizations. It is true that the backlash against Nazi eugenics helped discredit many biological and neurological assumptions about the “deviancy” of gays and lesbians and other precarious populations, but the psychiatric tradition of diagnosing “contrary sexual feelings” as signs of mental illness gained even more acceptance throughout much of the mid-to-late twentieth century.
As academics, we need to have richer debates that focus less on scientifically proving why we are who we are and more on moral questions about what research can do to promote autonomy and equality as well as think about what it means to respect and protect human life."
Having spent the past decade building their presence in Washington politics to secure funding for victims of the AIDS crisis, civil rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found themselves in a key position to politically mobilize these scientific claims. The HRC lobbied Congress by distributing copies of Chandler Burr’s famous Atlantic Monthly piece on these studies in the hope that the scientific discoveries would compel congresspersons to pass protective legislation for gay and lesbian Americans. Litigators representing the Lambda Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU went as far as to invite Dean Hamer to serve as an expert witness during the trial proceedings of Romer v. Evans (1996), a case on sexual orientation and civil rights law that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Although the trial court did not seriously consider these arguments in its final ruling, it is striking that these mainstream advocacy groups placed so much faith in the potential for biological determinism to translate into legal and constitutional protections. While the most recent Supreme Court decisions did not take into consideration the question of immutability, the “born this way” rhetoric has remained a popular slogan among gay rights supporters and indicates a new common-sense understanding that sexual identity is a biologically-rooted characteristic.
The successes in gay rights cases such as Windsor v. U.S. (2013), however, beg the question: what is so wrong with conceptualizing sexual orientation as a scientifically-discoverable phenomenon if it has helped lead to such positive changes for LGBT Americans? More radical queer groups such as ACT-UP argue that not only are these conceptions of homosexuality uncomfortably similar to the logic of early-twentieth century race science, they also tend to reify the binaries of man and woman and homosexual and heterosexual. These groups argue that populations like bisexual, transgender, and genderfluid Americans are unduly left out of these constructions of identity and, therefore, are more likely to continue to be discriminated against. Due to their more radical egalitarian and leftist politics, these critics also argue that these binarisms tend to lend themselves to more heteronormative and neoliberal campaigns for things like same-sex marriage that—unlike their own claims for universal healthcare coverage for diverse sexual minorities—are insufficiently politically transformative. The former are seen more as a “let me in” style of political change rather than an emancipatory project that would flatten out hierarchies of wealth and power.
Moving back to the scientific nature of the claims, investigations into the research methods and theoretical bases of these popular neurological and genetic studies has questioned—and often outright discredited—their results. As legal scholar Janet Halley warned in 1994, even if arguments about immutability are taken up favorably by political actors it is only a matter of time until the results of such studies are destabilized (in some ways). Most notably the Office of Research Integrity’s investigation into Hamer’s lab along with the inability of University of Western Ontario geneticists to replicate Hamer’s findings undermined much political support for the gay gene. Even though researchers have continued to search for genetic causes of homosexuality, groups like the Human Rights Campaign and others have begun to scale back on the political use of these. Not only have they begun to critique these arguments on their own websites but they have also stated in amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court that it does not matter whether homosexuality is biologically determined, only that sexual minorities ought to be treated equally.
It seems that the LGBT movement is in a politically safe position and that the risk of an improper use of scientific theories of identities is relatively low for the time being. After all, even if the gay gene arguments were politically risky when first employed they seemed to have panned out without any serious repercussions. As queer political organizations have argued, however, that many sexual minorities have been left out of many of these gains and that the more recent LGBT movement’s victories have pushed gay rights battles into a more neoliberal direction where equality is measured less by how many disadvantaged minorities’ lives have been made materially better off and more by the colors of the identitarian rainbow represented in Congress and corporate boardrooms. Much like how those argue that the Civil Rights March on Washington’s focus on economics and jobs has been distorted by a politics of bourgeois racial uplift, these activists now charge that the LGBT movement has left the poor (and despite the myth, LGBT Americans are actually more likely to live in poverty) to struggle while affording new rights and channels of opportunity to its more affluent members.
Not only are civil rights arguments based in genetics flawed political tools for all the above reasons, but they are also fraught with liabilities presented by those would-be social engineers that lurk in politics and the academy. Even at the height of the progressive and liberal invocation of the gay gene there were LGBT sympathizers who were making neo-eugenic argument about what to do with this new information. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, opined that medical advances would allow mothers-to-be to choose the sexual orientation of their child with the strong implication that these women would choose to “spare” their offspring the difficulties of living as LGBT persons. Others echoed Watson’s call, including openly gay journalist Chandler Burr who also wrote about genetic therapies that could soon reverse sexual orientation in utero. In juxtaposing these statements with the kind of research and policy recommendations being made by those like Adrian Raine in his neurocriminological work, the risk of pursuing these types of research agendas becomes frighteningly clear. To avoid these ever-present pitfalls, scientists must admit more humility and, like famed scientists and skeptics of determinism such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, eschew the temptation to reduce all of humanity down to genetic markers and measurements. As academics more broadly, we need to have richer debates that focus less on scientifically proving why we are who we are and more on moral questions about what research can do to promote autonomy and equality as well as think about what it means to respect and protect human life. There are better and worse answers to these questions of course but they promise much more than attempts to prove certain identities are “natural” because—as our past and our present reminds us—these are not safeguards against those who would rather “cure” minorities than respect them.