What If It Turns Out the Earth Were Flat After All?

Unfortunately, science is not always cumulative.

Posted Nov 28, 2010

Science is a cumulative endeavor.  We build on past knowledge to attain even greater knowledge than before in a progressive manner.  Unfortunately, however, science doesn’t always work as it should.

J. Michael Bailey, one of the greatest behavior geneticists and sex researchers in the world today, alerted me to an article, published in Time in 1966, entitled “The Homosexual in America.”  I have no idea why and how it is possible to have electronic access to an article published in 1966, but it’s been my experience that Mike has greater powers than mere ordinary mortals.  Anyway, the article is a survey of the then current attitudes toward homosexuality in the United States, back in the days when homosexual behavior was illegal in 48 states.

The article is not particularly surprising or otherwise notable, as long as you remember that it was written in 1966, except for one paragraph.

The once widespread view that homosexuality is caused by heredity, or by some derangement of hormones, has been generally discarded.  The consensus is that it is caused psychically, through a disabling fear of the opposite sex.  The origins of this fear lie in the homosexual’s parents.  The mother – either domineering and contemptuous of the father, or feeling rejected by him – makes her son a substitute for her husband, with a close-binding, overprotective relationship.  Thus, she unconsciously demasculinizes him.  If at the same time the father is weakly submissive to his wife or aloof and unconsciously competitive with his son, he reinforces the process.  To attain normal sexual development, according to current psychoanalytic theory, a boy should be able to identify with his father’s masculine role.

Today, in 2010, we know, through a large number of careful behavior genetic studies of twins, many of which have been conducted by Mike Bailey himself, in collaboration with his colleagues and students, that male homosexuality is almost entirely caused by a combination of genes and prenatal hormones.  The so-called “gay genes,” which are yet to be sequenced but are probably located in the region Xq28 on the X chromosome, are one factor that strongly influences male sexual orientation.  The other is the level of androgen to which the male fetus is exposed inside his mother’s womb.  The greater the prenatal androgen exposure, the more likely the fetus is to become homosexual, which is why the number of older brothers is a significant predictor of male sexual orientation.  The more older brothers a man has, the more likely he is to be homosexual.  The current scientific consensus in 2010 is that, between the genes and prenatal androgen exposure, by the time he is born, a boy is either gay or straight, nothing in between, in his sexual orientation.  Sexual behavior, however, is a different matter.

The 1966 Time article, in the paragraph quoted above, suggests that scientists knew all of this before 1966, but subsequently abandoned the idea that male sexual orientation was caused by a combination of genes and prenatal hormones, in preference for an entirely environmental, “psychic” determination of male homosexuality.  Today, in 2010, no respectable scientist believes that male homosexuality is caused by “overprotective mothers” and “aloof fathers.”

What happened?  How did we go wrong?  How could scientists in the early 1960s abandon (what we know today to be) the true theory of male sexual orientation for such Freudian nonsense?  In 1966, I was in kindergarten; I was too busy writing a (not terribly original) sequel to 101 Dalmatians to stay abreast of the cutting-edge frontiers in sex research.  (I also believed that girls had cooties, so I would not have made a good objective scientist then.)  But if this kind of reversal of knowledge can happen, if scientific knowledge is not cumulative but cyclical, as sociologists and philosophical conventionalists and relativists would have you believe, then how can we trust any of the knowledge that we produce?  How do we know, for example, that the earth is not flat after all?  We once believed that the earth was flat, but the notion was abandoned in preference for the new idea that the earth was round.  How do we know that, at some point in the future, it will not turn out that the earth was flat after all, as the ancients always believed?

About the Author

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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