Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Behaviorism & Genetics

Last night Dylan and I got into an initial discussion about the president of the Southern Baptist Association's recent article about the science world's possible finding of a genetic basis for homosexuality, and what that could mean. The Baptist douchebag of course looks at this hopefully (in a bizarre turn of events in their constant harping about it being a choice), because to him, a genetic base could mean a "cure." Which is just further proof that the specter of gay is far more frightening and important to the far-right than their own professed beliefs that all babies, born or unborn, are God's creations and not to be "tinkered" with. In other words, they don't believe in abortion for any reason, or that life should be toyed with by science for any reason, unless that reason is that you know you'll give birth to a gay baby, in which case it's perfectly all right for science to butt in and fix it. The first people that would propose such a solution are probably the first people that would also vote against stem cell research. It's completely confounding. It doesn't even make me angry, it's so confusing.

Anyway, mine and Dylan's discussion led into a further, and slightly more emotional, talk about the general ethics of messing with unborn life in the first place. If he and I were both to say that it would be morally reprehensible to abort a baby just because you knew it would be gay, what about handicapped babies, or babies that you know will be born with severe disabilities or brain damage? I mean, where do you draw the line? If it's okay for one couple to abort a child they know will be retarded, for instance, why is it worse for a couple to maybe not even abort a gay baby, but just take out the "gay gene" and then have a "straight" baby? I don't really have answers to any of those questions, and if I can stand back in non-judgement against people who might abort their child because it's brain-damaged (and even go one step further to say that I would do that too, I know without a doubt), then I also have to stand back in non-judgement against a couple who, in 10 years, might choose to abort a gay fetus. But is there a difference? Should we only take into consideration how that baby might affect the adult's lives? Do you draw the line at behavioral versus physical attributes (retarded versus future sex life)? Dylan brought up some gay friends of his that he said have told him that if they could somehow turn a switch to make themselves straight that they would do it. I know where they're coming from, because I used to say that too, until I realized it was an attitude rooted in internalized homophobia, self-hatred and shame. It makes me sad because it condones an almost fascistic point-of-view that everyone should be the same, and fails to just accept that you are who you are, and you're created the way you are, and that's just the way it is, whether you believe you were created that way by evolutionary accident or by some kind of god (or a combination of the two). Autistic people have hard lives too, but they just are who they are, and that's all they know, and that's what makes them who they are. I can't imagine being a heterosexual, and I can defiantly say that if heterosexuality were offered to me in a pill, I would never take it. I wouldn't even know how to function as a straight man, and being gay has shaped so much about who I am, for better or for worse, that getting rid of that part of me would be like committing suicide. I would essentially cease to exist and someone else would be walking around looking just like me, but not being me.

But the discussion also got me to thinking about the founder of behaviorism we've been studying in my psychological history class, John B. Watson. It feels to me like a very bitter school of thought, mainly because it completely shuns emotions and introspection in favor of purely observable behaviors and reactions being all that matters with humans. In fact, it goes further to say that we're basically indistinguishable from animals, in that we humans are nothing but a collection of condititioned responses and behaviors. Watson even went so far as to suggest that humans lacked instincts and that when we're born, we're nothing but amorphous, empty shells containing nothing.

Watson was known for being extremely stoic and unemotional, and found emotions to be useless and trivial. He strove for a society based purely on scientifically shaped beliefs and behaviors, and advocated an end to all religion, myths, traditions, and convention. This all came about starting around 1913 or so, and was extremely popular. (As an aside, in his later career, Watson worked in advertising, and figured out much of what we now consider to be psychological responses to advertising, i.e., what makes things sell.)

Watson claimed that he could take 12 newborn babies, and condition them in such a way that by the time they were teenagers, he could have them completely molded into whatever he wanted, such as a star athlete, an expert violinist, a thief, an artist, a lawyer, and so forth, regardless of the child's natural abilities, talents or proclivities. Watson didn't believe in such things.

In one famous experiment, he conditioned a toddler to be terrified of bunny rabbits by loudly banging on a pipe with a hammer behind the baby's head every time he played with a cute little bunny that Watson provided for him. It worked like a charm, and not only did the child become terrified of fuzzy bunnies, he became terrified of anything even remotely resembling a bunny, like a fuzzy scarf, a fur coat, or even pictures of Santa Claus. Of course that experiment would never fly today because it's unethical and it's abuse, but the point is, at one point, people thought this was okay.

I'm not sure that people will ever think that genetically tinkering with unborn fetuses is okay, aside, inexplicably, from right-wing hatemongers. Just because the technology is there to do something doesn't mean that a) it will be available, or that b) any scientist or doctor would be willing to use it for dubious purposes (although if enough money were involved, I have no doubt that doctors and scientists could be found who would be willing to do it). People were intially excited about Watson's proposals to shape people into anything, but eventually the public turned on it, and recognized the emptiness and immorality of such a proposal (not including that Watson was clearly wrong, and probably never could have followed through on his bold claims). It's an interesting proposal in purely theoretical terms, but I can't imagine anyone, religious or not, wanting to live in such a sterile and mediated society.


jmKelley said...

For decades, bible fundamentalists have denied any genetic or biological causation of sexual orientation. This has been key to their assertion that people "choose" to be gay.

But clinical evidence now shows that sexual orientation probably does have biological causes -- that God really does create some individuals as naturally homosexual, just as some are naturally left-handed or red-haired.

In the face of this evidence, Rev. Mohler resorts to Plan B. Even if homosexuality is biologically caused, he asserts, it must be a "disease", a result of Original Sin, not part of God's good creation. Therefore, he says, this "defect" should be eliminated pre-natally (smacking of Nazi Dr. Mengele’s eugenics experiments).

Rev. Mohler correctly perceives a threat to fundamentalist credibility here. For if science proves that God does create some people as naturally gay, then not only have they been wrong about homosexuality -- wrong in their literalist scriptural interpretations -- but they’re wrong in their whole pharisaic approach to Christianity itself.

For an excellent essay by a Baptist minister who had a change of heart on this issue, visit:

Stacy said...

I think that the human body is just sneaky and adaptable enough to evolve new challenges for us, real or imagined, if we started swithching genes on and off.
I didn't even think about these thinks back when I was pregnant, I was just amazed by the whole process.
I loved my child as she was from the moment I saw her. I didn't have expectations of who she would be, how she would live, who she would love, I just loved her. I believe that is an instinct, or an intuition, it comes naturally.
I'm glad we're all so different. It reminds me of that scene in Harold and Maude in the field of daisies. Maude tells Harold that the saddest thing is wishing you were like all the other daisies and not realizing that each one is different.