Before I get started I want to address some immediate objections. In claiming that sexual orientation is a myth I am not claiming any of the following:
–That sexual orientation isn’t in some way biological.
–That homosexuals aren’t “born that way”
–That homosexuality can be cured or changed
–That homosexuality is immoral
–That homosexuality is a choice
–That homosexuals ought to be denied their rights or treated poorly
Sometimes the phrase “sexual orientation” is used to refer to the phenomena of different individuals finding different sexes sexually attractive, and sometimes it is used as a theory to explain the phenomenon; as in, A finds B sexually attractive because A has a certain sexual orientation. I am here only referring to this latter use. In this case, sexual orientation refers to a theoretical property of an individual. Those who study the nature of theories use the phrase “folk theory” to refer to theories offered to explain phenomena before science has done the job of actually explaining it. The classic example of a folk theory is that of phlogiston. It used to be believed that fire was the release from matter of a fine substance called phlogiston. It was actually a pretty good theory that accounted for much of the observable nature of fire. For one, you could see the phlogiston flowing out of the burning thing in the flames. Second, ashes have less mass than the item did before it was burned which was explained by claiming that all the phlogiston had escaped from the item. Third, ashes don’t burn because there is no longer any phlogiston in the object left to escape. The theory of phlogiston explained all of this, but it was abandoned when it was shown that fire is actually oxidation.
Here is the Google ngram chart of the phrase “sexual orientation.”
From looking at this chart you might be lead to believe that sexual orientation was discovered around 1968 and that there has been a scientific explosion in understanding the nature of how the object of sexual attraction is determined. But of course no such discovery happened then or since; we still do not know how the object of sexual attraction is determined. The theory of sexual orientation is a folk theory offered to explain the nature of sexual attraction in the absence of such scientific knowledge. Before the boom of the use of sexual orientation people of course knew that homosexuality existed, they just didn’t use the phrase “sexual orientation.” Someone could write an interesting book about the history of this phrase. (Someone could check up on it but my sense if that sexual orientation was born from behaviorism which only admitted observable behavior as the legitimate object of study in psychology.)
However, just because the theory of sexual orientation is a folk theory doesn’t mean it isn’t a true theory. There are certain observable facts about sexuality that are explained by sexual orientation:
1. Some individuals are sexually attracted to members of the same sex, or both sexes
2. Homosexuality has been present in all time periods, no matter how repressive they may have been of homosexuality
3. An individual may experience homosexual attraction no matter how much their parents of religion discourages it.
Like phlogiston, sexual orientation does a pretty good job at “saving the appearances.” According to the folk (in the popular understanding), there is a theoretical biological trait (hereafter referred to as SO) which is assigned to individuals, perhaps at the moment of conception, or perhaps at some latter time. The theory holds that SO is distributed by some as yet unknown biological mechanism, process, or device which distributes SOs to individuals. How one’s SO is handed out is still mysterious, but it is assumed that science will one day come to understand the nature of this distributive process. There seem to be two explanations floating about in the culture. In one view, the process distributes SOs in a weighted quasi-random manner which weighs heavily towards heterosexuality as it is present in much greater frequencies in the population than other SOs, something like 97:3. The SO you receive is a matter of luck of the draw. The other view is that there is a determinant mechanism for distributing SOs that has some way of choosing which SO an individual will receive, perhaps in a way akin to the way eye color is determined by the combination of dominant and recessive genes, or perhaps it is by some still to be discovered mechanism. Whatever the distributive mechanism, it is implied that this is how nature acting through evolution has designed the distribution of SOs to occur. Since SO is distributed as a matter of biology, and the workings of biology are the result of evolution, then there is an evolutionary reason for having SOs distributed in this manner. It is claimed that all sexual attractions are equally normal and that none of them are the result of a biological defect or abnormality. All sexual orientations are equally natural and normal, even if some, like pedophilia, might be immoral to act on them. My remarks will all be directed against this popular conception of how sexual attraction works.
First of all, when is meant by “natural” and “normal” is never spelled out. Sometimes “natural” just means “happens in nature.” But as regards SO, natural must mean more than this; heart disease, damage, and deformity happen in nature, but are not the normal condition for hearts. Bestiality happens in nature too, but that is not natural or normal. Sometimes “normal” means frequent or often, in which case homosexuality is not normal. On the other hand, sometimes “normal” means “accepted by society” in which case homosexuality is normal now. But in the theory of SO, “normal” means biologically normal. Biologically natural or normal means something more like “acting as designed by natural selection.” A damaged, diseased, or deformed heart is not in a biologically normal state in that it is not in the condition it was designed to be in, where “designed” means that the item is in the conditions the item’s ancestors were in when they actually did what they were selected by natural selection to do, those cases where they actually made a reproductive difference. This can happen in two ways, either the item is structurally abnormal as in deformed, diseased, or damaged items, or the environment might be abnormal as in the case where mating displays fail, or camouflaged animals are detected by predators anyway.
Something might be biologically normal but only occur quite rarely. Sperm are designed to fertilize eggs, but only an astronomically small percentage of them succeed; the camouflage of snowshoe hares is designed to make them undetected by predators, but most hares get eaten anyway. (Philosophy nerds will recognize that what I am calling biologically normal is what Millikan calls Normal conditions (with the capital “N”)). So on SO theory, homosexuality is said to be normal or natural because the mechanism of distributing sexual orientations is working as it was designed to.
The biggest problem for the theory of SO is to understand why nature would assign something as seemingly disastrous from an evolutionary perspective as homosexuality or pedophilia to individuals. The idea that instances of same sex attraction could be evolutionarily advantageous and so be selected by natural selection flies in the face of what we know of how natural selection works. And yet SO demands that we treat something which to all appearances would be disastrous to the propagation of one’s genes–I mean really, really, really, disadvantageous– nevertheless to have been selected by natural selection. Absent any compelling reason to think otherwise, the better path would be to treat something that appears to be disadvantageous to actually be disadvantageous, and something that seems unlikely to have been selected for by natural selection to not have been selected. Furthermore, something that to all appearances would be really, really, disadvantageous—such as being sexually attracted to the same sex– would require a really, really high standard of evidence to show otherwise.
Secondly, SO theory holds that sexual attraction is infallible. The theory seems to take the subjective nature of the experience of sexual attraction as evidence for its correctness, but contemporary philosophers have long abandoned subjective certainty as a sign of infallibility in all cases except sexual attraction. Everything in the biological world is capable of malfunction in principle, and does fail in actuality: hearts that can’t pump blood, bee dances that do not accurately map the location of nectar, chameleons whose pigment arrangers do not match the objects upon which they sit, malfunctioning mitochondria, and so on. Any theory which posits an infallible biological process should be rejected. And yet SO treats sexual attraction as infallible, sexual attraction is always working right. We should expect to find those with malfunctioning sexual attraction just as we find people with every other sort of psychological or physiological malfunction (ala The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat). There is nothing special about sexual attraction which makes it infallible.
Third, SO theory violates what we could call the functional universality of humanity. To say that homosexuality is biologically normal would be to say that it has been selected for natural selection. But then you need to say what has it been selected to do. Evidently it could not have been selected for its ability to bring male and female together in order to produce offspring since it sets the object of attraction to be the same sex. Suppose someone holds that homosexuality has been selected for the advantage it gives to one’s sibling’s offspring in that one will not be producing offspring which could compete with them for resources. (This kin selection model of homosexuality was once common, but I believe it has since been abandoned.) If so then the biological function of homosexual attraction is to not produce children whereas the function of heterosexual attraction is to produce children. And so SO holds that the same biological phenomenon, sexual attraction in this case, could be for one thing in one group of people and for something else in others. It would be like saying that in some people the heart has been selected for pumping blood, but in some other people it was selected for something else. Or that there are some people whose eye lens was for focusing light on the retina but there are other people where it has some other function. I can think of no biological phenomenon for which this is true. In any case, absent compelling evidence otherwise, the assumption should be of functional universality. (This is different from saying that someone might have some functional mechanism like lactose tolerance that is entirely absent in others.)
Instead, we should treat sexual attraction the way we would any other biological phenomena we were seeking to understand. The question to ask is how does this feature contribute to reproductive success? And this answer is obvious, sexual attraction brings male and female together in order to produce offspring; nature has hit on the solution of producing a sexual desire in males for females and in females for males in order to get them to come together for this end. That is the function of sexual attraction just as it is the function of the heart to pump blood, or the lens to focus light on the retina. This biofunctional approach to sexual attraction holds that there is a great advantage, to put it mildly, to be had by a mechanism whose function it is to ensure that the object of sexual attraction be members of the opposite sex. At some point after the sex of the fertilized egg is determined, this process or series of processes would have been selected so as to ensure that one is attracted to the opposite sex; the benefits of being attracted to the opposite sex being obvious from the perspective of contributing to reproductive success.
On the biofunctional theory, homosexuality would be the result of this process failing to function as designed and instead setting an individual with the evolutionarily wrong object. Imagine a biologist who notices newborn chicks that have imprinted on a tractor and so follow it around to their own great disadvantage. Noticing this he ponders why evolution would select for such a behavior. He comes up with a theory that some chicks are assigned tractors as imprinting targets and that this mechanism is working as designed in imprinting the chick on the tractor. The problem is that evolution has not selected for this behavior at all, the chick’s imprinting mechanism is malfunctioning in this case and hooked it up with the wrong or abnormal object. From the biofunctional point of view, wondering how evolution could select for an individual to be attracted to the same sex is like wondering how evolution could select for newborn chicks to be imprinted on a tractor. And yet many continue to ponder how homosexuality could have been selected for in a likewise manner. (This is not to say that the mechanism for determining the object of sexual attraction is set the same way that a duckling imprints on its mother. It is just that in both examples nature has set an intended target for a process and that this process may fail to perform as designed and hook up the subject with the wrong object.)
The argument is that biofunctionalism should be adopted as it is a better explanation for the phenomena at hand. Given the two theories, one that having an individual be attracted to the same sex is how nature has designed things to go, and the other that same-sex attraction is the result of a biological malfunction or abnormality, whatever the cause, the argument claims that the latter explanation is the rational one to adopt. Biofunctionalism accounts for all the phenomena that the SO theory does, but does not suffer from the major defects of the SO theory. First of all, SO theory demands that something which to all appearances would be a disaster from an evolutionary point of view nevertheless be considered to be selected by evolution. The biofunctional approach, on the other hand, treats the seemingly disadvantageous nature of homosexuality as evidence that it is in fact not selected by evolution, whereas the SO theory demands that we see something which on its face value should not be selected by natural selection, as it contributes nothing to an individual’s reproductive success and instead ensures reproductive failure, as being evolutionary advantageous.
The other main faults of SO theory, its infallibility and violation of the universality principle, are both absent in the biofunctional approach offered here. Just like any other biological process, the mechanism by which the object of sexual attraction is determined is fallible. It sometimes malfunctions, for whatever reason. And finally, it assumes that sexual attraction has the same function in everyone, to bring the sexes together for reproduction. And so, in saying that SO is a myth, I am denying the following claim:
–that individuals possess a theoretical trait called sexual orientation which A) is infallible, and B) has been selected for anything other than heterosexual attraction
None of this proves anything. In the time it has taken to read this article science still has not figured out how the object of sexual attraction is determined. I have merely offered another folk theory, but one that is superior to sexual orientation. It is possible that SO might be proven to be correct at some point and the theory offered here proven incorrect (although I doubt it). It is merely a claim that until science understands the actual cause, biofunctionalism is superior to SO theory and ought to be adopted via inference to the best explanation. Nor have I explained what causes homosexuality. The nature of homosexuality is odd in that gay parents can have straight children and straight parents can have gay children. Also 3% is rather high for a harmful mutation to remain in the population. Greg Cochran has proposed that homosexuality is the result of a pathogen (see here), this being the only explanation that fits these facts. I have to position on the matter.
So where does this leave the notion of sexual orientation? Elimitivism is the position that a theory or concept does not correspond to anything real, or does no useful work in our understanding of nature. When it was discovered that fire was oxidation, phlogiston was abandoned as an empty and useless concept. I’m an elimitivist towards SO; it should just stop being used the way phlogiston is no longer used since SO doesn’t correspond to anything in nature; it obfuscates more than it illuminates. On the other hand, I would expect someone to try to repair the concept of SO in light of these criticisms. First, they would have to remove the notion that homosexuality has been selected for by natural selection. Next, they would have to remove the notion that sexual attraction is infallible. Finally, they would have to remove the biological normalcy of homosexuality. Is there anything left to SO after you have removed all this? After all, SO’s raison d’etre was to provide a neutral concept that normalizes all forms of sexual attraction, and once this is stripped out I see no good reason to retain it.
You could retain sexual orientation as those cases where sexual attraction is indeed working as it was selected to. This would result that there is only one SO—straight—and it can malfunction in various ways by hooking the subject up with various objects. But does a class with only one member do any good? Another option would be to retain SO as just referring to the fact that people have different objects of sexual attraction and make no functional or normative assumptions. Maybe there would be some use in this, but I don’t think that this concept does anything more than the concept of sexual attraction itself does. The word “orientation” smuggles in certain normative and functional implications that we are supposedly trying to avoid, such as that all orientations are correctly orientated. If you want to say something like “Some SOs are the result of a malfunction of the process by which the object of sexual attraction is determined, and some aren’t” it isn’t saying anything other than “Some objects of sexual attraction are determined by malfunction and some aren’t.” Now we’re just talking about what convention to adopt rather that any particularly substantial matter. If that convention that gets adopted, so be it, but I don’t see the need to invoke a theoretical object like SO.
To summarize the main points of the argument:
–Science does not know how the object of sexual attraction is determined
–In absence of such knowledge, SO is a folk theory offered to explain it
–To all appearances, same-sex attraction would be incredibly reproductively disadvantageous
–Absent good reasons to think otherwise, a theory should not take something that appears incredibly disadvantageous to actually have been selected for by natural selection
–SO theory treats something that appears to be incredibly disadvantageous to have nevertheless been selected for by natural selection
–A better theory would be one that treats something that appears to be incredibly disadvantageous to actually be disadvantageous