Spirit in the Material World: The Science of Homosexuality

I was going to write about statistics, causality, and Rosie O’Donnell, but homosexuality seems to be the fire-starter around here. Thought I’d throw on a little gasoline. I’m not going to discuss theological/spiritual explanations of homosexuality. That’s been done and is being done ad nauseum. Adding scientific theories about the etiology of homosexuality might enhance the discussion a little.

The science on homosexuality is bad. I’ll talk more about why that is in a minute, but it’s important to note that none of the theories below stand atop mountains of evidence. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it covers the major theories.

The genetics theory. Twin studies show that monozygotic (identical) twins demostrate higher concordance for homosexuality than dizygotic (fraternal) twins. Even twins separated at birth have a higher than normal similarity rate. Since identical twins share almost 100% of their genes, this suggests that homosexuality has genetic roots.

Limitations: Small sample sizes in many of the studies. It’s difficult to establish causality due to the interaction factors like environment and temperament.

The brain theory. This is another biological theory with a slightly different focus. Autopsies of homosexual men found brain structures different from heterosexual men, yet similar to each other. This was some of the first “evidence” cited in support of a biological basis for homosexuality.

Limitations: Very small sample sizes – too small to obtain results with true statistical significance. Most subjects died of AIDS, which affects the brain and central nervous system.

The social learning theory. It suggests that people learn homosexual behavior through reinforcement, such as having a first orgasm with a same sex partner. Likewise, heterosexual behavior might be punished or prevented somehow.

Limitations: The weakest of the four theories presented here. It’s unsupported by empirical data. All cultures strongly reinforce heterosexual behavior.

The psychoanalytic theory. This one is the darling of “ex-gay” ministries. I’m going to oversimplify it to the extent that I should get a visit tonight from the ghost of an appalled Sigmund Freud.

If the same-sex parent (such as a boy’s father) is absent or rejecting AND the opposite-sex parent is smothering and needy, the child never resolves the Oedipal crisis. This results in failure to develop gender identity and a longing to connect with the same sex parent. This longing becomes eroticized at adolescence, resulting in homosexual feelings.

Limitations: Tends to fit for men more than women. Homosexual men and women describe numerous exceptions to the theory. Fails to account for the impact innate temperamental factors on parental relationships.

These theories all have experimental limitations that preclude conclusive scientific explanation. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to change. It’s almost impossible to do research on the causes of homosexuality anymore. "Gay affirmative" results are the only ones a scholarly journal would publish. A study that supported the psychoanalytic theory, for example, would meet huge resistance, no matter how scientifically valid the findings. Of course, many who think homosexuality is a sin are just as likely to be hostile toward studies that support genetic theories. As a result, nobody is really testing hypotheses anymore because they don't want to deal with the political crap. It’s unfortunate from a scientific point of view – an avenue of research about a culturally and historically significant phenomenon is closed.

These theories all agree on one thing, however: Homosexuality is not a choice. There is no evidence indicating that people decide to have a homosexual orientation. I’m not saying this does or doesn’t make it a sin; I’m saying it’s a scientific reality the Church has to accept. Regardless of your theology on homosexuality, it’s ignorant and a bit mean to act as if it results from willful depravity. As folks around here have been saying lately, it’s time to encourage our brothers and sisters share their stories with us, whether it’s a struggle with sin or a struggle for acceptance. Or both.


  1. Back in the day, when I was a science teacher, I was particularly interested in any mainstream newspaper article which reported studies from journals which would normally be read primarily by those in the scientific community.

    When I started noticing the first ones purportedly showing proof that homosexual tendencies are genetic (the brain ones mentioned in this blog post-in the early 90's), I was saddened to see the agenda present in the reporting. That is, the paper would show a deceptive headline, then have a deceptive opening paragraph.

    Then it would stop there, followed by "continued on page 14a". On page 14a, you'd read that the content of the journal article actually mentioned nothing about genetics, but explained it was likely that the physical differences they observed were results, not causes, of homosexual behavior.

    The problem is, very few people turn to page 14a. The newspaper headline writer was able to accomplish his agenda while not technically being dishonest.

    In my years as part of the scientific community, I have seen it do nothing but prove the truth of Scripture, over and over, without exception. I just wish the mainstream press would be honest about it.

    I know we're staying away from theology here, but you kind of opened it up a little with your last statement about choice. It's true that someone has no choice about their tendencies. But we do have a choice about what we do with them. I have alcoholic tendencies (probably genetic in my case), but how I act on those tendencies determines in I sin or not.

  2. Dang! Almost made it through the post without a typo. The last part should read "determines if I sin or not".

  3. Steve, thanks for going here. I've been curious about this for a long time now but I've remained on the fringes because I've always been a little confused at where exactly to start because of all the politics involved...it seems as if everyone has an agenda. So yea, thanks for going there.

    I saw that you teach psychology. Just curious to where? I also just checked out Amazons blurb on your book, "What Women Wish You Knew about Dating" and I really want/need to read it. And not to be too crass but maybe i'll give your book to my lesbian friends when I'm done.

  4. I didn't realize you teach psychology. Then you are most likely aware of this from the American Psychological Association:

    "There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors."

    That should pretty much put an and to the idea of a genetic cause, but of course, the mainstream press isn't reporting this, so....

  5. @ James. I was with you until the alcoholism part. People make analogies like that all the time to distinguish between homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior, but I don't think it's fair. Our families, cultural norms, popular entertainment, and art doesn't revolve around alcohol to the extent that you will have a completely different life than almost everyone they know if they don't drink (unless maybe we're talking about drinking microbrews in Portland). Not drinking doesn't mean you can't have a family. "Struggling" with homosexual feelings isn't one-to-one with something like alcoholism or even heterosexual lust. Heterosexuals like us really can't fathom what it's like. It's not just about controlling behavior - it's about choosing a very difficult life. Again, I'm not saying this does or doesn't make a sin (my theology on this takes about an hour to explain and pisses off both conservatives and liberals).

    BTW, don't let that APA statement make you think their neutral. Their neutral about causation but very gay-affirmative in their policies. I know a psychologist who sees men who want to change their sexual orientation, and they make very life hard for him.

    @Eric: Email me your address and I'll send you a book. Just don't make any promises about its effectiveness to your lesbian friends.

  6. I'm flattered. Facebook just asked me about the coolest gift I've received on 'friendship day' and this might top it because I've never really paid attention to friendship day before. So thanks. And my lesbian friends don't know the advice that is in store for them.

    Eric Allen
    1415 SW Alder St.
    Apt. # 403
    Portland, OR 97205

  7. "...it’s time to encourage our brothers and sisters [to] share their stories with us, whether it’s a struggle with sin or a struggle for acceptance. Or both."

    I will be thinking on this for quite a while.

  8. Steve, I offered the alcohol thing up because (1) I'm personally familiar, having seen alcoholism wreak havoc in my family, and (2) because science HAS discovered evidence that the tendency to become addicted to alcohol is genetic.

    As for the rest of your comment, I simply don't agree. There is a huge difference between being weak toward a particular sin and actually committing that sin.

    For the record, I think the desire to sleep with someone of the same sex is demonic, as is the desire to lust (hetero, I mean), or to wallow in self-pity, or to be prideful, or to be judgmental. And where science falls short is that it cannot test for demonic influence.

  9. 1) Eric I cannot believe you posted your address on here, now I am tempted to send you a subscription to Ladies Home Journal, just because I can.

    2) James, you think that homosexual desires are demonic? Those are some strong words. I just don't know how I can agree with that when I have so many close friends with the Spirit inside them who do all they can for the Lord, yet are attracted to the same sex. How could demons stand to be around that kind of Holy fire? And you said that you think hetero desires (you called it lust) was demonic too? Hell no! Lust is sinful yes, but my desires to have sex with a man (which I'm not doing don't worry) are not sinful, they're natural, it's what I do (or don't do) with those desires that matters.

    God made us as sexual beings. Song of Solomon baby.

  10. Emily, your comment confuses me. I said specifically lust is sinful and therefore demonic. Then you change it from lust to sexual desires (which are not sinful) then tell me that sexual desires are not sinful, then say "Lust is sinful yes", which is exactly what I said in the first place. That entire quote of yours has now confused me to the point that I am reminded of an old Star Trek episode where Harry Mudd's android catches on fire when Bones tells "I am lying", and he cannot process that statement.

    Maybe I'm just not awake enough yet to process what you said.

    Anyway, I am married and I like sex and it's not sinful. I have 3 kids as tangible evidence that I like sex. Never said otherwise. Sorry if I wasn't clear on that.

  11. Oh, and Emily, regarding the first part: my point wasn't to start a debate about whether homosexual desires are sinful, demonic, or whatever. My point in bringing it up here, in a blog post about the science of homosexuality, is that science, by definition, rules out supernatural involvement as a possible cause, and that is a shortcoming of science.

    I still love science, as I think it reveals the wonders of God's creation in eye-opening ways. Science has benefited mankind in untold numbers of ways. But the shortcoming of focusing on only natural causes of homosexuality (or any other behavior) rules out the possibility of a spiritual cause. And if the cause is, in fact, spiritual in nature, science isn't going to catch that.
    That's not a slam of science, just an acknowledgement of the way it is. Science isn't perfect.

  12. homosexuality itself is definitely not a choice. A choice would make it a trend, like choosing to wear a specific coat on any given day and that is simply ridiculous. The first gay guy I ever met allowed me to understand this. He was a great friend and I NEVER would have imagined he was gay. He came from the streets, a former gang member and an awesome fighter. So when I saw him holding hands with another man for the first time I was stupefied for several days later. Being Hispanic and Christian, made for a preconceived double backlash against his homosexuality. Then I started thinking about the fact that I loved him as friend and he was in need (he was going through the “coming out of the closet” time) and I figured that I couldn’t leave him to deal with this alone. So I talked to him about it. I made it very clear that I did not understand homosexuality at all but that I was his friend and I would always be there for him no matter what. Then I started asking my judgmental Christian questions like, “can you stop being gay” or “do you like women at all? They are so beautiful!” But when I saw his tear filled eyes and heard his explanation about him praying his entire life to be straight and an entire small church fasting for him to turn straight, I realized that this wasn’t a choice and everything I had ever known or thought to have known about homosexuality was incorrect. Good article.

  13. I thought this was about science, not sin issues. If you are going to bring it up, I will respond by saying that the fact that someone prayed that the desire for a sin would go away, and it didn't, does not mean it isn't sin. I people who have struggled with other sinful desires, some of them sexual, and they still had the same desires.

    We cannot base out theology on our experiences. Scripture is full of examples of people who heard what God said, made their own decisions to ignore it, and regretted it later.

  14. My apologies James. My comment was simply about my realization that homosexuality was not a choice but seemed to be more of a biological factor. Then again various environmental or developmental factors such as growing up without a father figure, growing up with more women than me, the existence of abuse in a household, a past of abuse (physically, sexually, etc.) or a variety of other factors can also contribute to homosexuality in a psychological level, but that is merely speculation on my part.
    I am unsure as to why some people are homosexual and some aren’t. All I was trying to say is that it seems that it is much more than just a choice made only to defy God as some would say.

  15. Thank you for this post. Honestly, the subject of homosexuality... choice vs. biology has been one that has bothered me my entire adult life.

    My parents taught that it was a perversion and a choice. At one point my mom even told me that she'd rather one of her children be dead than gay. (Thankfully for both of us, I'm straight.)

    When I left home for college and actually had some friends who were gay, my heart began to look for answers about the "cause" of it all. It is a subject that I'm looking forward to talking with my Creator about one day.

    I also appreciate your comment, "Heterosexuals like us really can't fathom what it's like. It's not just about controlling behavior - it's about choosing a very difficult life." Many Christians seem to take on the subject of homosexuality with such hatred and judgment that it's just hard to be around them.

  16. J, no apology necessary. Often, my comments come across much harsher than I mean them.

    I agree with the idea that in many cases, something in a person's childhood, not their fault, led them down that path toward homosexual feelings. TO me, putting Christianity aside and trying to be as objective as possible, those studies make the most sense. Some show a large percentage of gays had overbearing moms and passive dads. Some had overbearing dads (in fact, the gay person I have been closest to in my life had this scenario). Some had the things you mentioned in your post.

    Where I disagree with some here is that the fact that it wasn't their fault that those things happened to them somehow means that their choice to act on those leanings is not sin.

    The clearest example is this: study after study has shown that teenage girls are much more likely to be promiscuous if they had an absent or emotionally absent father. This has been the case in so many studies that it's really not disputed. Yet we as Christians know that premarital sex is sin. If a teen has sex outside of marriage, it's still sin, even though it was the result of something that wasn't her fault. And her dad is going to have to stand before God and it's going to be on him. I shudder at the thought. But even so, her behavior is sin. That is clear.

    I have been saying 4 things all along in these 3 threads:
    1. We may not choose our leanings, but we choose what we do with them. We can choose not to sin.
    2. Jesus can and does heal those who are struggling sinful desires.
    3. All sexual sin is sexual sin. Doesn't matter what kind.
    4. Because sexual sin is destructive to the person doing it, pretending that it is not sin is not a loving thing to do at all. Someone who maintains that it is sin is not a Pharisee, and not hateful. They see someone running in the middle of the street, with an 18-wheeler approaching,l and in love, they don't keep their mouth shut.

  17. I totally agree James. I was trying to say that it doesn't seem they have a choice of whether or not they are gay. They do however have a choice on whether or not they act on their homosexual urges. Their temptation to act on these urges is not the sin, acting on their desires would be the sin.

  18. Who says depravity needs to be wilful to be depraved?