Nature vs Nurture: Does it matter?


The debate and controversy surrounding homosexuality almost always gravitates towards debate about its nature: whether people are born gay or not.

Knowing the nature of sexuality would of course be helpful and as a science student I definitely think we should never stop chasing for answers. But I don’t think these particular answers are as central to the debate as people think they are.

In other words, even if we were to untangle all the gazillion factors that goes into making someone who they are in terms of their their sexuality and gender identity, the debate (or mudslinging and discrimination) would still continue, because that’s not what people are actually arguing about.

A disclaimer: Here I use the word ‘gay’ (or ‘homosexuality’) as an umbrella term for all of LGBT. I personally prefer the word gay to any other word because it sounds simple and happy. 8D

It’s Nature! …So What?

People on the pro-gay side of the argument tend to lean heavily towards ‘nature’ as the answer: Gay people are born this way. It’s natural. It’s like being born with red hair: not a choice and can’t be changed. Discriminating against gays is like discriminating against redheads.

But being born that way might not offer as much immunity from discrimination as you might think. Why? Because being born that way does not imply that it cannot be changed (it just can’t changed by your will alone), nor does it necessarily imply that it should not be changed.

People can be born with deformities or diseases. That’s natural, and there’s no choice involved. But if medically something can be done to reverse the effects, to cure the disease or fix the deformity, it will be done.

If nature means encoded in genes, then gays are safe for now, since science isn’t that far advanced yet to be able to  mess with the genetic code to get exactly what they want, especially since no ‘gay gene’ has been or is likely to be identified. Besides, most would consider it unethical to ‘play god’ and make ‘designer babies’ with customizable genes.

Genes are only the first step in the story though, not the only step. we may not be able to tweak the genes themselves, but we can certainly moderate and modify their effects or results, as when people with hormone deficiencies take supplements, or babies born with cleft lips undergo surgery, or a person with severe epilepsy undergoes brain surgery.

A gay gene hasn’t bee found, but plenty of research has highlighted the importance of hormones, mostly hormones in the womb and during early development. If abnormal amounts of hormones are found to be the main biological cause for gayness, wouldn’t that, ironically, be a blow for gay supporters since it implies a hiccup in the natural development that can and should be fixed? Being born gay would become less like having brown hair and more like having a hormone imbalance which can be treated.

What’s the difference between treating a disease and “treating”, for example, having red hair? Someone with a disease is likely to want to be treated, someone with brown hair may or may not want to change their hair colour. Treating someone with a disease should undoubtedly improve their quality of life, changing the colour of your hair, not so much.

Regardless of which you think homosexuality resembles more, it’s clear that what differs is not how someone came to have that condition but whether or not the condition should be treated, that is, whether or not it is something intrinsically undesirable.

It’s Nurture! … So What?

On the other side, detractors say homosexuality is a choice. It’s due to your upbringing, the effect your parents had on you. It’s insidious influences from society/internet/television. It’s a misguided choice,  a bad habit, a flawed perspective.

But even if ‘nurture’ played a more significant role, it doesn’t necessarily imply choice, or even the ability to change.

Language is certainly more cultural and ‘nurture’ than inborn or ‘nature’. Yet cases of feral or confined children who never heard speech during all important formative years ended up being unable to speak later in life, or at least had a much harder time picking it up than you’d expect, showing that a cultural factor (exposure to language) does not imply ability to change.

I like the colours blue and purple. Probably this isn’t 100% genetically coded. Probably it’s much more ‘nurture’ than ‘nature’. I mean, when I was younger my favourite colour was once orange. and light green. and red. and silver. and black. and… you get the point. It probably has a lot more to do with what I was exposed to when growing up; the subtle meanings and moods society gives to these colours; my mother’s favourite colour (also blue); the different things, memories, concepts I subconsciously associated with these colours to give me a positive experience when viewing them.

But… could I choose to discard these as my favourites? and choose pink instead, a colour I’ve disliked all my life? Could I choose, similarly, to like the music that I don’t like? could I choose not to like durian, or choose to like eating liver?

I can choose to wear a pink shirt (for Pink Dot, for example). I can choose to listens to trance music at a friend’s insistence. I can choose not to eat durian (because I have a sore throat) or to eat liver (because my mum asked me to). We can choose our actions, not our inclinations.

Well, you can choose to engage in behaviour that might alter your inclinations: you could go for anger management therapy to learn to control your temper even if you can’t choose whether to being angry or not like an on-off switch. And maybe wearing pink, listening to trance, and eating liver often enough would make me, slowly, change more opinion in time.  Maybe.

It certainly seems silly to think it’s impossible to change my favourite colour to pink. Yet… I have no idea how I would begin to approach such a task. Surround myself with pink things? Repeat daily “I love pink!” until i believe it? Deal out punishments when I choose colours other than pink, and rewards when I choose pink? Pinkify all my favourite celebrities, bands, people, items? Sounds dangerously like mental torture or brainwashing. Actually… wait a minute. Before we get to ‘how’, more importantly, why should I want to do this at all?

Again, even if we know with certainty whether sexuality is a result of our upbringing or a even a conscious choice, it still wouldn’t stop the debates. For clearly negative things like anger problems or difficulty integrating into society, no matter how difficult the process, therapy for a change would still be recommended. But for a neutral thing, like colour preference, the mere idea becomes ridiculous. Even if homosexuality can be changed… should it?

The Real Debate

Thinking that
Nature = natural = cannot be changed = should not be changed
Nurture = unnatural = a choice, can be changed = should not be changed
is too simplistic, and not really true.

If science proves that it’s genetic, or hormonal, or not a choice, it’s not going to stop anti-gay people rejecting it: people can and will still label it as an abnormality to be ‘cured’, a flaw to be ‘managed’, much like how my choice in feeling pain or getting angry is limited, but I still have to learn to control it.

If science proves that it’s mostly upbringing and can be changed with proper and careful counseling or prevented with proper upbringing, it’s not going to make gay people want to change their orientation: people will argue that it’s their right to live their life the way they want it, the way they’re most comfortable with, that the gay lifestyle doesn’t hurt anyone, that it’s a loving relationship between two consenting parties.

The real issue is not whether it’s nurture or nature, its whether sexuality is more like a genetic disease or hair colour. More like a psychological problem or colour preference.
The debate is about whether or not homosexuality is intrinsically undesirable, whether or not it is wrong.

Anti-gay people don’t think it’s Wrong because they think it’s a choice; they think it’s a choice because they think it’s Wrong. If you think something is Wrong, regardless of it’s causes or origins or nature you would want to resist it. If you think something is Right, you would want to promote and defend it, again regardless of other factors.

So the real debate is one of morality: why homosexuality is or is not Wrong.
And I personally believe that there is a much stronger case to be made for why homosexuality in itself is as morally neutral as heterosexuality, colour preference or hair colour, even from within a religious point of view.

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2 thoughts on “Nature vs Nurture: Does it matter?

  1. Fascinating argument. Two points: first, what is culture, if it is not “natural”? How has it arisen other than through evolution starting with genetic inheritance?

    Second, whose choice should it be? Would you restrict people’s right to make the moral argument, or their right to seek to persuade gay people into ex-gay programmes? If a gay man accepts that moral argument, should he be allowed to enter the programme, to harm himself until he learns better? Or should the person promoting the programme be required to prove that it is not harmful (prove, to whom?) before inviting people in?

    • Hey, thanks for your comment. :)

      It depends on how broadly you define ‘natural’, I suppose. In some sense, everything is ‘natural’, since everything arose from and is part of our natural world.

      Most people would see culture as a social construct, meaning something created by people. Not consciously, but something that arises when groups of people gather and live together. That’s not to say culture isn’t natural; it’s undoubtedly only natural for human societies to develop cultures. But ‘nature’ in my entry refers more to a biological nature, I guess, and most people would deny that culture is part of our biological nature. I think probably the tendency to form a culture, that is,the tendency to group together and form various practices and traditions, is part of our genetic make up, but definitely not specific cultures themselves.

      Choice and rights are tricky, aren’t they? who decides what rights people have? Why do we give people the right to choose to smoke, even though in this case it’s known to cause undisputed harm to the individual and those around them?

      If a gay man chooses to enter himself into a ex-gay programme, I suppose it’s his right to make that choice for himself, just as you might say it’s a smoker’s right to smoke. But i think the important thing is that he should have the right to make an INFORMED choice, which possibly is what is lacking right now, given all the controversy and taboo. If a smoker decides to start smoking despite knowing all the health risks and cost involved, then perhaps that’s his right. But if smoking were something controversial, with the facts hidden behind opinions and agendas (ie tobacco companies preaching the benefits of smoking, peer pressure from your community and friends) and someone makes his decision on misinformation and social pressures instead, would you still grant him that right, or withhold it the way a parent forbids a child from making a bad decision?

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