Science and Section 377

Beloved author Vikram Seth protesting Section 377 on the cover of India Today.
Beloved author Vikram Seth protesting Section 377 on the cover of India Today.

India’s Supreme Court recently decided to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a British-era provision that criminalizes homosexuality, as well as other “unnatural” sexual activities. A number of opinions, both for and against this ruling, were soon broadcast in the media, making it clear that Indian views on this subject are diverse. Most of the opinions in favour of criminalizing homosexuality can readily be identified as bigoted, being based on nothing more than unfortunate views of “morality” and “Indian culture” (see here for a sample of diverse opinions).

One article, however, stood out to me in its attempt to attach scientific merit to an argument in support of Section 377. In a piece for The Hindu‘s Open Page, Dr. Mohaha Krishnaswamy made a confused case for criminalization, somehow managing to include discussions of evolution by natural selection, Hitlerian eugenics, genetic vs. environmental bases for “traits” such as a propensity for suicide or being a terrorist, black urine, and having six fingers per hand instead of five. Readers responded rapidly and with strong condemnation, and I suspect that these responses prompted an editorial clarification that “submissions on the Open Page are the extended comments of readers and in no way do they reflect the views of The Hindu” (UPDATE: here’s the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu admitting an error of judgement in publishing the article and reiterating that the article does not reflect the views of the newspaper.)

I was particularly angered by how Dr. Krishnaswamy tried to disguise bigotry with the authority of science, and I wanted to express my particular problems with their arguments. Here is the text of a letter I sent to The Hindu: 

“Like many of your readers, I was appalled to read Dr. Mohana Krishnaswamy’s Open Page (December 22, 2013) article in support of criminalizing homosexuality. As an evolutionary biologist, I object strongly to the manner in which Dr. Krishnaswamy attempted to use the science of evolution and natural selection to add a veneer of respectability and authority to their bigoted and noxious arguments. Readers were quick to respond with shock and outrage to this article; in adding my voice to the chorus of condemnation, I would like to point out a major problem with Dr. Krishnaswamy’s arguments that appears to have been missed in the published responses and online comments thus far.

The thrust of Dr. Krishnaswamy’s logic is that homosexuality is “unnatural,” referring to homosexual behaviour as “non-standard” and claiming that “the risk of people with homosexual and bisexual tendencies exploiting a natural partner into unnatural behaviour will increase.” By equating un-naturalness with wrongness, Dr. Krishnaswamy is committing the naturalistic/moralistic fallacy. These twin fallacies claim that on one hand, what is natural is good, and on the other hand, what is good is found in nature. To illustrate the fallacious nature of such arguments, consider that forcible copulation is incredibly common across animals, yet no one would claim that, because rape is natural, rape is morally correct. On the flipside, nobody would claim that wearing clothes, cooking food, or treating disease with medicine are morally wrong, even though no other species on the planet engages in these activities.

In fact, some kind of homosexual behaviour has been documented in many non-human species, ranging from dragonflies to lions. But whether homosexual behaviour is natural, or whether it is genetically or environmentally determined, is completely irrelevant to the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. The most important aspect of an action’s morality is whether anyone is being harmed by the action, and in the case of consensual sexual activity of any kind, it is clear that no harm is being perpetrated. Dr. Krishnaswamy’s comparison of homosexuality to terrorism falls apart under this criterion—terrorism certainly harms people. I implore readers to not fall prey to the use of any scientific justifications either for or against the decriminalization of homosexuality—it is a question of morality and freedom and respect for each other, and not a question of science.

As a person engaged in both science and the media, however, Dr. Krishnaswamy owes it to readers to get the science right. Biologists have understood for decades now that the genetic bases for all sorts of traits are complex, and that examples of a single gene determining a single trait are rare. Therefore, that “there is no gene identified to pinpoint and say that it is responsible for a homosexual behavioural pattern” says nothing about whether or not homosexual behaviour is genetically determined. But to reiterate, while these questions might be interesting to scientists, their answers should have absolutely no bearing on whether we consider homosexuality and the criminalization of homosexuality right or wrong.”

3 thoughts on “Science and Section 377

  1. Here! Here! Ambika, well said and forcefully put. I hope that Dr. Krishnaswamy and the editors consider what they publish a great deal more carefully and critically from here on out. May they also learn to recognize bias and bigotry thinly veiled in bad or pseudo-science.

    I’d expand on one of your points about the naturalistic/moralistic discussion even further, and argue that even the use of “naturalistic” is unhelpful. It implies that there is “natural” vs. “unnatural,” which is a false dichotomy. Rather nature is a gradient with no clear demarcations. The terms natural versus unnatural are value terms whose connotation is society-determined and often rife with judgement. As biologists, we strive to understand what we observe, and it is much more interesting and useful to investigate the causes of those observations rather than focus on binning them into natural or unnatural. Homosexuality exists. Heterosexuality exists. That is variation within populations that we can investigate the genetic and environmental basis of without needing to assign any sort of value. At the very least, perhaps the fallacy should be called “biological/moral.”

    On a side note, in the first few chapters of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins discusses the difficulties of describing a trait or behavior as genetically (or environmentally) determined. For example, in a society where all girls are raised to play with stuffed elephants and all boys are raised to play with stuffed rhinoceroses, an outside observer would argue that toy usage is 100% genetically determined (XX vs. XY) despite the fact that it’s driven by environment. In the end, both genetics and environment play a role in all traits and behaviors, and for Dr. Krishnaswamy to suggest otherwise undermines any credibility afforded by the qualifier in front of his or her name.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Yoel! I like your elaboration on the trouble with the term “naturalistic”–it really shows nicely why we scientists should not be consulted on questions of morality.
      Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate also deals nicely with the false dichotomy of describing traits as being genetically or environmentally determined. Anyone interested in these issues would do well to read these two incredibly well-written works of popular science.

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