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Science and Homosexuality : HOMOSEXUALITY A Philosophical Inquiry by Michael Ruse (Basil Blackwell: $19.95; 291 pp. , illustrated)

September 18, 1988|Douglas J. Futuyma | Futuyma, a professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is author of "Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution" (Pantheon)

Almost everyone who reads this newspaper has homosexual relatives and friends. That many readers are unaware of this, or would deny it, reflects the invisibility of gay people that has been one of the strongest obstacles in the path to tolerance and elementary rights. Now, in the age of AIDS, gays must contend with two reactions: visibility, but as scapegoats viewed with fear and loathing, or continued, studied indifference at every level, from families that deny their children's sexual orientation, up through the highest levels of government ignorance reinforces prejudice; but the local bookstore offers little indeed to the person who might seek a reasonably objective disquisition on sexual orientation and society's responses as they are or ought to be. Michael Ruse's "philosophical inquiry" goes a long way toward filling the void.

Ruse, of the University of Guelph, is a philosopher of science who has made substantial contributions to the history and philosophical analysis of evolutionary theory. In the first half of this book, he draws on his familiarity with biological science and with the principles of scientific methodology and sufficiency of evidence, in an epistemological analysis of the causes of homosexuality. In the second, he uses ethical and moral philosophy to explore the morality of homosexual behavior and of society's responses to it.

After justifying the value of scientific inquiry into the causes of homosexual orientation--or, more properly, into causes of variations in sexual orientation--Ruse carefully analyzes a variety of psychological, hormonal, and sociobiological hypotheses: three classes of explanation that, he believes, may be complementary rather than antagonistic. He is rather less convinced than in his previous writings of the force of the evolutionary theory of homosexuality offered by sociobiologists; he and I now agree that it is "hardly more than a clever idea." He is on firm ground, too, in his skepticism about the evidence for hormonal causation, or for any of the several psychoanalytic theories. He rejects the "adaptational" theory of Bieber and others but concludes that we must reserve judgment on other psychoanalytic theories: They are legitimate scientific hypotheses, but no adequate evidence supports any of them. Although the causes of sexual orientation remain unknown, Ruse rightly--and importantly--recognizes that one's sexual orientation is caused, not willfully chosen.

This exploration of causes draws on such philosophical concepts as holism and reductionism but is mostly a comprehensive analysis of data and research protocols that could have been written by a competent biologist. It is in his treatment of ethics that (as far as this biologist can tell) Ruse uses modern philosophy most powerfully, in dismissing the concept that homosexuality is unnatural, in exploring the complex philosophical question of whether it is an illness (he concludes that it is generally not), and in showing that both neo-Kantian and utilitarian theories of the just state must affirm the moral worth of homosexual relationships and support equal rights for homosexual and heterosexual people. Ultimately, he concludes prejudice against gay people can be defended only on grounds of religion or of personal aesthetics, neither of which can provide justification from a logical philosophical perspective. Ruse finds no justification for extreme promiscuity, either homosexual or heterosexual, but accepts the utilitarian position that, provided that one person does not abridge the liberty of another, "liberty means precisely letting others do what they want to do because they want to do it, not because we approve."

Far from being couched in abstruse philosophical jargon, Ruse's exposition is easy to read, although his style is not a model of grace. A few of his arguments are unconvincing. For example, in trying to justify the relevance to humans of female-like behavior in hormonally altered male rats, Ruse concludes that gay men show cross-gender (i.e., female) sexual behavior, because "it is normally women, not men, who relate sexually to men." This is to define cross-gender behavior without reference to what people actually do; for many gay men, neither their sexual acts nor their perception of their own behavior have any evident homological or even analogical resemblance to those of women.

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