Is Homosexuality Biological?

I am a self-identified gay man who recently stumbled across your book, Finally Out, and it raised some points that I want to ask you about. It seems to me that sexual desire may be learned rather than instinctual. Aren’t instincts and intelligence mutually exclusive? If homosexuality is a biologic instinct, in other words, hard-wired, wouldn’t it just die out?

The debate about whether being gay is nature versus nurture is one that has gone on for a long time and undoubtedly will continue for a long time.  I usually say that 99% of our brain functions at a primitive or primal level and 1% at a rational level.  Of course, these numbers are chosen arbitrarily to make a point.

Most evolutionary biologists would say that primal (survival) instincts were the first to develop and the higher functions found in the prefrontal cortex evolved later. These are often referred to as “executive functions” and include things like judgment, planning, organization, and logic. But it also includes things like conscience, shame and guilt, things that Freud would have attributed to a super-ego.

Rationally thinking humans then created a “culture,” a collective memory of events that lead to development of morals, values and standards of behavior.  Obviously, these have evolved quite differently in different cultures, and homosexuality is not necessarily discouraged in all of them.

For many years, my husband and I raised cattle, and I know that that our bulls had no thought that sex is what caused babies. Their sexual impulses triggered instinctive sexual impulses, and they behaved accordingly. When and how did humankind figure out that sex is what causes babies? “Reproductive consciousness” is unique to humans and probably evolved several thousand years ago. It’s my belief that without rational thought, humanity simply pursued orgasms which Nature designed to be intensely pleasurable, but I suspect it wasn’t important how those orgasms were achieved until rational thought came into the picture.

Many fundamentalist religions believe, however, that because God created the sexes, it wasn’t an evolutionary accident, and that Darwinian evolution is but a modern-day myth. They would also argue that the most obvious of God’s purposes for sex and marriage is for the reproduction of the human species. Then “wise” men with “rational” brains began to believe that sex should be directed only toward reproduction.  The next leap for the rational mind was to suggest that because they are not related to reproduction masturbation and homosexuality were wrong or sinful.

I would disagree with your idea that sexual desire is learned.  In fact, I don’t even think to whom we are attracted is learned.  If you consider young men who are only attracted to older men, often with huge differences in age, this attraction appears to be fixed. Here is a link to an article I wrote.

I don’t see instinct and intelligence as mutually exclusive but both are constantly seeking to over-power the other. Think for example of those who take risks of unprotected sex with multiple anonymous partners. At least some of the time, our rational brains are capable of balancing those forces. We are constantly being pulled toward sex by instinctual forces even though our rational minds may be saying, “Stop! Stop!”

We are all the same but we are all different.  Life course determines how these things are played out in our lives.  You mentioned that a species would die out if homosexuality became dominant.  The book, Zoobiquity, makes a strong case for the role of homosexuals in many species where homosexuality doesn’t lead to reproduction. The author argues that homosexuality serves a species caretaking function, and the species is more likely to survive because they perform other functions essential to species survival.

Thanks for provoking some thought.  I do enjoy these discussions.