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Gay Genes II: The Spectre of Creeping Exculpation Returns

Results of DNA tests of gay men reported to the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week provide further evidence of a genetic influence on male sexuality.


Psychologist Michael Bailey’s research suggests that a region of the X chromosome called Xq28 had an impact on men’s sexual behaviour. Those with a particular genetic signature had around a 40% chance of identifying themselves as gay.

Hamer Time

The results echo the findings of a 1993 study by Dean Hamer that found, for example, that more than 10% of brothers of gay men were gay themselves, compared to 3% of the general population.

Hamer’s findings provoked a firestorm at the time and Bailey’s results have triggered similar controversy. The controversy is varied. However, one element is a heterodox illustration of familiar responses to ‘gene for x’ debates: left wing commentators in particular tend to respond to such reports with dismay (see for example Rose et al. 1990). Those that find the implications repugnant go on the offensive, questioning the methodology and sometimes resorting to ad hominem attacks (Sterelny & Griffiths 1999, p.313). Yet the right wing don’t seem to have such a problem with these types of findings (Okasha 2002, pp.191–192; Pinker 2009, p.47).

‘Gay gene’ debates tend to play out in the opposite way. For example, Stephen Pinker commenting on Hamer’s results points out:

‘To the bemusement of Science for the People, this time it is the genetic explanation that is politically correct. Supposedly it refutes right-wingers like Dan Quayle, who had said that homosexuality “is mote of a choice than a biological situation. It is a Wrong choice.”'(2009, p.56)

A Spectre is Haunting Ethics

The debate reflects an oft identified pattern whereby the identification of deterministic causes of human behaviour seems to make people less inclined to hold people responsible (see Pinker 2009, pp.53–54 for a list of examples). Correspondingly, people encouraged to believe in determinism seem to be more willing to cheat (Vohs & Schooler 2008). Dennett labels this ‘the spectre of creeping exculpation’ (1984, pp.156–165).

People somehow seem aware of this pattern, meaning that they tend to resist empirical findings that have normative implications they find unwelcome. My colleague Joshua Shepherd commented yesterday on a related pattern whereby those motivated to punish express a stronger belief in free will. See also related research by Brian Earp.

What is Going On?

Common sense and its formal counterpart, rational choice theory, assume that we only have one way of looking at the world. This implies that there is only one right answer to questions such as whether homosexuality (or other conduct that some people find worthy of censure) is a matter of determinism or choice. However, others believe that common sense and rational choice theory do not provide a completely accurate picture of the world.

The motivation for doubting common sense and rational choice assumptions lies in the particular difficulties of responding to social behaviour. We might navigate parts of the physical world by having an accurate model in our heads, but as Binmore points out: ‘if Bob is as complex as Alice, it is impossible for her to create a model of the world that incorporates a model of Bob that is adequate for all purposes’ (2011, p.146). The social world tends to be more uncertain, and more complex, than much of the physical world.

As a result, some believe that we use different mental processes to navigate the social and physical worlds (Dennett 1971; Strawson 1985; Pinker 1999, p.9; Dawkins 2007, p.211). For the former we use ‘folk psychology’ and the for the latter ‘folk physics.’ Issues of free will and blame are only relevant to folk psychology.

The boundary between the folk psychology and folk physics will be fuzzy. We know, for example, that in primitive cultures, many of the elements of nature were understood in intentional terms. Thus the domain of folk psychology used to be much larger than it is now (Churchland 1981, p.74). Somehow, in a way which is not well understood, we manage to distinguish between things in the world that we understand using folk psychology, and those we understand using folk physics.

This analysis may provide a helpful way of understanding the spectre of creeping exculpation. Deterministic explanations of behaviour may be more likely to trigger folk physics, with a resulting decrease in blame. It seems that we intuitively recognise this dichotomy, which manifests itself in two distinct directions: Where people want to blame, they encourage the use of folk psychology and thus resist deterministic accounts. Where people want to avoid blame, they prefer to encourage folk physics and thus encourage deterministic accounts. Bailey seems to fall in the folk physics camp, having been quoted as saying: ‘Sexual orientation has nothing to do with choice.’

Thus the battle between the left and right wing over deterministic causes of behaviour such as homosexuality is not just a battle about science. We could assume that everything in the world, including people, obey the laws of physics and therefore that we could someday identify deterministic causes of behaviour with much more accuracy and reliability than at present. Instead, the battle might be best understood as the consequence of our imperfect means of understanding the world. Pinker’s view is that such situations are problematic: ‘moralistic science is bad for morals and bad for science’ (2009, p.401). The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould sought to avoid similar controversy in the context of evolution and religion by arguing that the domains of science and values constituted ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ whose domains of authority did not overlap (1997, p.19). I personally am more skeptical. Though this analysis might help us to see the problem with more clarity, it does not suggest an easy way forward. Values do not exist in a vacuum, they respond to or supervene on facts. As such, I doubt that it is so easy to avoid the controversy by trying to confine facts and values to their respective boxes.



Binmore, K.G., 2011. Rational Decisions, Princeton, NJ; Woodstock: Princeton University Press.

Churchland, P.M., 1981. Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. The Journal of Philosophy, 78(2), pp.67–90.

Dawkins, R., 2007. The God Delusion New Ed with additions., Black Swan.

Dennett, D.C., 1984. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D.C., 1971. Intentional Systems. The Journal of Philosophy, 68(4), pp.87–106.

Gould, S.J., 1997. Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Natural History, 106, pp.16–22.

Okasha, S., 2002. Philosophy of Science : A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Pinker, S., 2009. How the Mind Works, New York , N.Y.: W.W. Norton.

Pinker, S., 1999. How the Mind Works. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 882(1), pp.119–127.

Rose, S.P., Lewontin, R.C. & Kamin, L.J., 1990. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Sterelny, K. & Griffiths, P., 1999. Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press.

Strawson, P.F., 1985. Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties, London: Methuen.

Vohs, K.D. & Schooler, J.W., 2008. The Value of Believing in Free Will Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating. Psychological Science, 19(1), pp.49–54.


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4 Comment on this post

  1. There is a third option beyond “blame” and “exculpation.” How about we stop viewing being gay as a “bad thing” whether by choice or genes? Then there is no one to blame or excuse! Who cares what two consenting adults do in a bedroom? Why is this even an issue for our society? I am happily heterosexual and live rather traditionally – but I do not view homosexual behavior as something that needs an explanation.

    I doubt we were “designed” by nature/nurture or evolution to be gay – but then again, I don’t think we were designed to type on computers, eat Doritos, or drink Pepsi either……

    So why are we do we allow ourselves to get all tripped up over what we do with our bodies in private?

    1. Lori: Very interesting point. I have never thought of it that way. I am also heterosexual. However, I have friends who are gay. The first thing that pops to mind when the genetic basis issue comes up is all the struggles that they face with people that reject them and hurt them. When I think of this issue I think of all the pain that they go through because others do not understand. I think it may go a long way to help stem that misunderstanding if the genetic factor could be proven. I personally believe it is part of the RNA sequencing of DNA creation in which many other variances are created. If the genetic component could be identified perhaps it could be helpful to some who fear those that are homosexual be less fearful. I think many of the changes that you envision would come about if we could get past the 50-50 split that many surveys suggest we are presently at on this issue.

  2. Dear Lori, thanks for your comment. I agree with your aspiration as I too think we should let consenting adults do what they like in the bedroom. However, getting others to come round to this view is sometimes tricky. We could rely on the traditional tools of rational argument, but these tools are not always successful. That may be the reason why some seeking to make progress have looked to other approaches. This has included taking advantage of Dennett’s Spectre of Creeping Exculpation – the fact that the identification of deterministic causes of behaviour tends to take the heat out of normative disapproval. One technique could be to specifically search for deterministic causes of behaviour relating to behaviour that others find worthy of censure with this aim in mind. However, others dislike this whole approach. See for example: Equally, this deflationary normative pattern may not work in all circumstances. Britain’s Daily Mail infamously greeted Hamer’s original research with the breathtakingly offensive headline: ‘Abortion hopes after “gay genes” findings’!

  3. The genetic associations are probabilistic, and even the strongest one leaves a lot open for environmental factors and individual choice. If I remember right, even in monozygotic twins the sibling of a gay sibling had just 50% chance of being gay. So using deterministic thinking about it will not work, and will indeed be misleading. In theory there might be some neat mechanistic explanation (“This variant of protein A makes the neurons of the preoptic area preferentially connect to the subpopulation of the gender-sensitive temporal lobe neurons expressing protein B…”) but given normal human brain plasticity and the fact that our actual behaviour emerges in a complex way from low-level neural structure this does not tell us very much.

    There are also “genes for religiosity” (44% heritability, various genes like CYP2C19 and serotonin receptors influencing the self-transcendence trait), yet it seems likely that this would not be seen as evidence that we do not choose our religions or that being religious is an inborn trait. What actually happens is of course that the genes influence the personality type, and then the growing person picks up religion from their culture, often choosing its deliberately as they become adult (indeed, a study has shown that US people change religious affiliation more often than political affiliation!) Having a genetic element doesn’t mean religion is given, just as sexual orientation is not given.

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