Born This Way; Now That Way

(Like most things I write now, this came about after I read an SSC post.)

What if sexuality really was a choice?

When you turn 13 the sexuality fairy knocks on your door, and you get to choose: How would you like your attractions to be distributed across the space of possible people? Would you like to be attracted to some subset of the people in the “male” cluster of the binomial distribution of gender, or the “female” cluster, or mostly in-between, or neither, or mostly one but sometimes the other depending on the phase of the moon?

In this world, Lady Gaga writes a song called “Chose This Way”. Maybe social conservatives talk about how predilection towards choosing nonstandard sexualities is a defect you’re born with, not a choice, and people need to be rescued from these horrible sexualities they’re inflicting on themselves.

The point is, nothing about the basic ethical rule of “everyone deserves equal rights and respect regardless of who they choose to engage in consensual relationships (of any kind) with” changes. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with whether it’s a trait determined at birth or by the puberty fairy or anything else – there is exactly no reason for society to get in the way or your joyful consensual relationships, and every reason to encourage and celebrate them (to the extent that you’re comfortable with that – I don’t know how you chose when the introversion fairy came to your house, after all).

It looks like the whole idea of “born this way” came about as a defense mechanism against fears that not making nonhetereonormative people miserable could result in more people becoming nonheteronormative. The correct answer is, of course, “so what?”, but that’s a hard sell when you’re trying to get past people’s unconscious flinches and you just really want to visit your partner(s) in the hospital.

The really funny thing is that it looks like, in our reality, genetics account for about one-third of the variance in sexuality. Whatever determines gender and sexuality, it’s probably not a completely static circuit, soldered at birth and left nascent until puberty. There are Complicated Things going on, and I’m willing to bet that the proportion of self-identified nonheteronormative people goes up along with acceptance and tolerance. (That’s an actual offer. If you think that won’t happen, we should discuss terms and pick a judge for our bet.)

So let’s compare this to some other traits: you’re “born with” your sexuality (~35%) less than you’re born with your height (60-90%), IQ (45-85%), conscientiousness (~45%), happiness (~65%), or weight (75-85%) (percentages are best estimates of heritable contribution to variance). And I feel like these are all things where society keeps screaming “You can change this if you believe in yourself! You can be happier, or smarter, or harder working, or in better shape! You can do it! Come on! Why aren’t you trying?!” And pretty much everyone (+/- I-live-in-a-bubble) now recognizes how insane and harmful it is to say these things about sexual orientation, and understands that it’s better to build a society that accommodates a wide variety of orientations and identities than torture people into trying to be something they’re not.

Of course, the true and really-good reason for tolerance is that people’s relationships and feelings should be respected, whether or not the tendencies underlying those relationships were chosen or fell out of the sky. But to the extent that the “born this way” argument makes sense, it makes even more sense for all the other traits that are even-more-heritable. We shouldn’t build a society that is hell for people with low IQs or low conscientiousness, and then comfort ourselves by saying that it’s their fault for being “dumb” or “lazy”. We should be searching for ways to help and accommodate people with low baseline happiness, not just scold them for being “gloomy”. We should be building a world that accommodates people’s sizes, or even better allows people to choose what size they want to be (see Transhumanism is Simplified Humanism).

tldr: Be nice to everyone.

9 thoughts on “Born This Way; Now That Way

  1. Isn’t hormonal balances during the fetal developmental period rather predictive for sexuality? The reason I mention this is because although genetics might not be all that predictive for sexuality, the entirety of the prenatal process might be.

    Also, could the argument be made that if ostricizing behaviours might motivate people not to fall victim to certain failiure attractor states, then certain kinds of nastyness might be concidered benign in the long run?Concider for example how cigarette smoking or drunk driveing is treated in some circles. Or the social preassure to wear a bike helmet. You might not thank your oppressors now, but in a few years you’ll see that you are all better for it.

  2. Small fallacy in your argument. The reason society finds it so unacceptable to tell people to change their sexualities is because, well, it appears to be nearly impossible to change one’s sexuality. Just because it was only 35% genetically effected can still mean it is 100% effected by causes that are out of the control of the person. Meanwhile, weight might be 75% genetically effected, but it might also be 25% effected by present actions, and thus people who would like to live healthier/are uncomfortable with their body/etc can usually meaningfully alter their own weight to some degree.

    tldr; genetics is a bit of a red herring and has nothing to do with it. regardless, i don’t think you need to make this sort of argument to conclude that people should never be treated negatively based on their personal decisions.

  3. Two observations:

    1) The idea of society screaming at people that they can change their height if they try hard enough made me smile.

    2) Assuming that homosexuality is partly (heritably) genetic and partly environmental, and the environment is becoming more favourable to it, shouldn’t we expect to see homosexuality climb until it reaches a peak and then decline towards some limit well below that peak?

    Like, imagine there’s a nasty heritable genetic disease that frequently kills those afflicted by it in childhood. Luckily, society has great healthcare for people with the disease, and gives everybody a treatment throughout childhood that *usually* suppresses all symptoms of the disease in those who have it and keeps them alive. They go on to live normal lives and have kids. One day, society cuts the treatment. Maybe they couldn’t afford it any more, or maybe society is just a jerk. What’s the outcome?

    In the short term, you’re going to see more children exhibiting symptoms of the disease. But at some point the proportion of kids displaying the disease is going to decline, because the people who inherit the disease are usually going to die before they have children of their own. Depending upon precisely how the numbers work out, perhaps the number of symptom-exhibiting disease-bearers ultimately ends up higher than before treatment got cut, or perhaps it ends up lower. In the extreme version of this scenario where having the genes for the disease without treatment results in a 100% chance of childhood death, withdrawing the treatment actually eradicates the disease in a single generation.

    Replace the disease with homosexuality, childhood death with having only gay (and hence non-reproductive) sex, the treatment with pressuring gay-inclined people into having straight sexual relationships, and the withdrawal of treatment with a cultural shift towards tolerating homosexuality, and don’t you have basically the same scenario?

    If we do, then the question somebody needs to ask themselves before taking your bet is: have we passed peak homosexuality, yet?

    1. Maybe try the same explanation without comparing homosexuality to a childhood disease that might kill you 😉

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