Human Nature, Humility, & Homosexuality


And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” -Lennon/McCartney

Is that true?” - Chris Farley

….

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Steve Silberman pointed his Twitter followers to a piece in Salon about the biography of Maggie Gallagher, the point person for fighting against same-sex marriage in the United States. Toward the end of the article, it quotes Gallagher on her views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and human nature, where she makes an analogy to Communism:

“One of the lessons I learned as a young woman from the collapse of Communism is this: Trying to build a society around a fundamental lie about human nature can be done, for a while, with intense energy (and often at great cost); but it cannot hold.”

The author of the article, Mark Oppenheimer, then writes this about Gallagher:

Same-sex marriage is just a big lie, she believes, like Communism.  It is weak at its foundations, like the Iron Curtain. It may get built, she seems to concede — in 10 years, or 20, there may be more states that recognize same-sex marriage, more shiny, happy couples raising rosy-cheeked, well-adjusted children, children who play with dogs and go to school and fall from jungle gyms and break their arms, children often adopted after being abandoned by the heterosexuals who did not want them or could not care for them — but in time (big time, geological time, God time) the curtain will be pulled back, or it will fall. Because it has to. It cannot be otherwise.” 

...

There’s lots that could be said about this… Gallagher’s personal history in shaping her views of human nature, the limitations in making analogies when leaping between concepts (Communism and same-sex marriage), and the problems with being overly confident in one’s convictions.

In a very abstract sense, I would agree with Gallagher: trying to shape human beings into something that they’re not is an exercise that can be sustained only for a limited duration. However, ‘human nature’ is a very slippery thing, and for anyone to claim that they know exactly what that is reeks of arrogance. I may be biased as an anthropologist, but I think this is doubly arrogant if one only views humanity through the lens of their own culture (or their own idiosyncratic view of their own culture) and only over a very limited period of history.  It also implies that there is a single human nature, while ignoring the fact that human beings are quite diverse in genes, phenotypes, beliefs, and behaviors. Rosemary Joyce has recently written that even if one chooses to ignore the views of marriage from non-Western cultures, it has never remained stagnant even within this single part of the world. Within Christianity alone, views of marriage have gone through multiple iterations, written and re-written over history. Today is no different.

So, here’s some advice to people who think like Gallagher.

(1) Step outside of your time and culture. There is a very wide range of human experience out there. If we see things only through the lens we inherited from our parents, then we are cheating ourselves with the finite time we have here to understand our species and our world. 

(2) Try some population thinking – understand that all individuals are unique, that variation is the reality, that nature is messy, and that our explanations of nature represent our limited capacity to find pattern in the chaos. The patterns we find may be real, but don’t ignore the messiness around them.

(3) Consider that there is room in nature for multiple patterns operating simultaneously, including sexuality. In her book Evolution’s Rainbow,  Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden noted that homosexual behavior has been documented in something like 450 vertebrate species. This is not limited to humans. Far from it.

(4) Ask yourself if it even matters whether homosexuality is ‘natural.’ Looking to nature for morality is not necessarily the best way to go (Teehan 2004). There are lots of nasty things in nature (radon, infanticide, malaria, ultraviolet radiation, earthquakes, etc.). The actress Cynthia Nixon received some criticism from the gay community for declaring that her sexuality was a matter of choice. If it is a choice, the argument goes, then one can choose not to be gay. In the eyes of some, when Nixon deviated from the message that our sexuality is more innate than a matter of choice, she created a wedge and left room for detractors to question the legitimacy of non-hetero sexualities. I’m pretty confident that for most people their sexuality is something that comes to them at a subconscious level (if you doubt that, then consider exactly when it was that you chose to be straight, gay, bi-, trans- or whatever). Perhaps for Nixon, it was a choice. Who are we to say? We are all unique (see point #2 above). And so what if it was? Why should consciously choosing to love someone of the same sex be less legitimate than subconsciously loving someone of the opposite sex? One might argue that Nixon’s path is the superior one because she made the choice to love rather than bending to social norms or passively obeying the impulses given to us by our biology without reflection.

(5) Most importantly – and this applies to everyone – be humble in what we know (or what we think we know). Strong convictions and beliefs are wonderful, but  that confidence needs to be balanced with genuine humility. Consider that as intoxicating as it is to believe that we hold ‘the truth’ while our detractors are stupified by a fog of ignorance, that there is always the possibility that we are wrong. Beware the sin of certaintyIt is not easy to live on the edge of self-doubt, always questioning our dearly held beliefs. Describing his own struggles with this, the geographer David Harvey once wrote that “I have often found myself longing for the easy simplicities of faith of the Pentacostals, the certitudes of positivism, or the absolutes of dogmatic Marxism” (1996: 3). This is true of most people, whether their favorite convictions come from religion, science, or politics. We like to be right, even if experience shows that we are often not.

People like Gallagher know that opinions toward same-sex marriage, and homosexuality in general, are shifting very rapidly in recent history as the visibility of diversity grows, and society increases its ‘tolerance’ through the exercise of empathy. 

I cannot remember where I read this, but there was a quote that I came across in graduate school that has stuck with me for a long time. I don’t mean to take credit for it, but it went something like this: “More people have died in the name of extreme intolerance than in the name of extreme tolerance.” All else being equal, if one is to err, then err on the side of tolerance. Make room for people who think differently than you, and give them the benefit of the doubt. 

In the powerful video clip above, Jacob Bronowski visited Auschwitz and spoke about extreme intolerance, the causes of the Holocaust, and the beauty of science:

(This) was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. 

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible….

We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

I am emphatically(!) not comparing Gallagher’s opinions on same-sex marriage to Nazism. I include Bronowski’s words here merely as a general lesson about the need for humility and the necessity to avoid the temptation to impose our opinions, often based only loosely on limited data, on others. For Gallagher, the collapse of Communism provided some lessons about human nature. But there are other lessons one could draw. One of these is that love seems pretty resilient over human history, though its perception has certainly varied across time and cultures (Jankowiak, 2008). Nonetheless, its persistence is a very hopeful attribute of our species. The lesson I would draw from our history would be to cultivate – rather than stifle – that love, no matter the sexual orientation of its progenitor or its target. 

..

This is my opinion, and I have little scientific argument at my disposal to back this up (well, maybe a little), but I would recommend that if we have a choice, then choose humility. Choose tolerance. Choose love.

References

Harvey D (1996) Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Blackwell. Malden, MA. 

Jankowiak WR (2008) Intimacies: Love & Sex Across Cultures. Columbia Univ Press. (Link)

Roughgarden J (2004) Evolution’s Rainbow. University of California Press. (Link)

Teehan  J (2004) On the Naturalistic Fallacy: a conceptual basis for evolutionary ethics. Evolutionary Psychology 2:32-46. (Link)

9 thoughts on “Human Nature, Humility, & Homosexuality

  1. Pingback: The Stakes for Anthropology in 2012 | Anthropology Report

  2. No other comment really than to say to those that jump to the comments to scroll back up and read it. There’s something to be learned here. Excellent blog!!

  3. I have not seen the Jacob Bronowski clip before. I’m happy you introduced me to it. I don’t think an insistence of viewing humanity through multiple lenses represents the bias of an an anthropologist. I’m hard pressed to think of a social science that doesn’t teach the importance of viewpoint–and looking beyond one’s viewpoint–to understand a phenomena that is rooted in a particular time and place. It’s good to be reminded of this–I hope others hear you clearly and perhaps take a moment to jump up out of their own experience and see something from a new perspective.

    • Thanks, Jason. I hope so too. The response has been very positive, as this essay has been one of the most widely things I’ve written here, and in a very short time. I’m grateful to the many people who’ve shared it.

  4. Interesting, related post here: “What can Darwin teach us about sexuality?” (from the Darwin and Gender Project).

    http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/gender/2011/02/17/what-can-darwin-teach-us-about-sexuality/

    “So why did Darwin and his contemporaries fail to observe the homosexual behaviour which naturally occurs in species like the Rhesus monkey? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in Victorian Britain’s narrow definition of sexuality. While during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries sexual acts between people of the same sex were deemed “part and parcel of ‘normal’ sexual behaviour”, over the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “natural” sexuality became more narrowly defined as productive, marital and thus heterosexual.”

  5. Bronowski’s series was actually one of the things that shaped my sense of what it means to be an educated person. That series was brilliant on so many levels despite the march of academic knowledge that makes some of the specific “facts” he cites now seem somewhat out of date or partial.

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