A Strange Island
This thought experiment has similarities to Berger and Luckmann's claims from a Social Construction of Reality in their discussion about sexuality. But to allow for a clearer marker of what exactly genes are structuring for or not structuring for we have to sharpen such an example a little more.
(think of The Village by M. Night Shyamalan)
So, we take an island, or a very large enclosed space for greater control. Perhaps with the help of confederates at first, we create a culture or society. Except in this society it is all one sex, which we will take as all male. This society has also been configured to have zero knowledge about the female sex, either in humans or other species. We have to limit scientific knowledge a little bit on such an account, but we could still have their knowledge be rather robust in many other ways. In general, this culture and social structure looks much like ours, except there is only one sex and only knowledge of one sex (and hence desires, beliefs, intentions all only engage one sex.)
Now, we are going to imagine any set of genes that are born or brought as a baby to be raised on such an island. My intuitions, similar to Berger and Luckmann's claim, is that all humans here would experience sexual urges and engage in sexual activity (not to say there are not ways to do away with sex altogether). Furthermore, I am going to argue that they would have sexual desires, that is, they would have a sexual mental life. And, no matter whether their genes or epigenetic structuring were “heterosexual” or “homosexual,” such sexual urgings would most likely be towards other males. This is where terminological problems erupt, even for most scientific and psychological descriptions as regards our own society. For most uses of the idea of heterosexual or homosexual, the common cultural parlance of sexuality within our cultural sphere is being used, and such a use would not permit a “heterosexual” male to have sexual thoughts, desires and behaviors towards other males for their entire life. When describing genetic considerations, say from evolutionary development, what is taken to inhere in the gene takes a certain social world as given. Assuming certain fixed environmental conditions is a good strategy on one level, it works for evolution's “desires,” but when describing a relationship between genes and behavior, when actually understanding what genes are going to be coding for, it often leads to empty statements.
Terminology aside, there are facets that we can explore about behavior. There are many things that we think as part of our sexuality that are environmentally and culturally contextual. Our culture encourages our desires and thoughts to have certain parameters. Heterosexual males in our society not only like females, generally speaking, but they in general like them even more when they show their femininity in certain, expressive ways, say in socially normative way. Due to our large mental and associational abilities, we create categories and attach unnecessary things in unlockable ways within our brain/minds and within our cultural beliefs.
Back to our male-only island, assuming we are right that all individuals on the island are having sexual relationships, even the most “heterosexual” oriented male on this island will not one day turn to their partner(s) and say something like “I enjoy your rather large breasts, your less hairy body, and your smaller penis, but I get the idea that something is wrong, that perhaps there should not be a penis there at all. I cannot quite conceive of what should be there . . .” These kind of thoughts do not occur. As far as questions of whether there may still be some kind of bifurcation of behaviors and thought, such as the possibility that those we would conceive of as “heterosexual” and “homosexual” end up choosing partners in a relatively different way or with different characteristics, it is questionable what kind of effects would follow. Or it may be that the cultural and environmental situation would essentially eat up what we see as expressed as far as sexually divergent behaviors. There is good reason to think that even if some kind of bifurcation is happening, all individuals in the end are still having sex with another male. Which throws a wrench into how we think about sexuality for the most part.
Following on previous posts on identity, there is a gap between what your self is and what your genes are. There is a great cultural chasm that shapes possible behaviors, which is why I argue we are blank slates. The set of genes that makes up any individual, if they were raised on our island, would be a significantly different individual, different self than what they are or have become within the parameters of our present society. The radical differences in behavior, mean radical differences in “mental” conceptions. They mean radical differences in attitudes and even emotions. It is a different mental process to be having thoughts about having sex with a male than it is to be having thoughts about having sex with a female. Our present culture probably overestimates those differences, perhaps because we over highlight and over-create gender and sex differences. And, as can be seen through simple analysis or through artistic expression, there are of course many similarities to being in any kind of relationship, and thus many mental thoughts about such things may be parallel.
The bottom line however is that behavioral and mental processes are going to be significantly different based on social structures, social institutions, and discourses. On our island we have shadowed out “heterosexual” desires and emotions, but we can go through endless other (actualizable) social thought experiments that would mean a certain given set of genes would become a robust self but not have the behavior, emotional, or characteristic response that we want to claim attaches to our genes in some way. That does not mean that genes are not structuring and limiting and encouraging different behaviors, only that they do not do it inevitably so to create a given characteristic of a given self. Such an understanding thus makes our behaviors and mental world infinitely malleable.
Another important point from Berger and Luckmann: It is madness to think we do not control our social and discursive worlds. I deny free will and we can argue for the dialectical buildup of social structures, discourses, and norms, but we have to accept that we are capable of changing a great deal of our social worlds. And though much of this we could only do after we have become knowledgeable, more reflective adults, it does not mean we could not setup significantly different worlds around children that would mean they become vastly different than what our current structures create. This essentially happens every generation as social norms, technologies, and institutions change. We have to accept that we can set up the island from above. Most of us would define that as a world we want nothing to do with, but all of our social institutions and structures have to be considered within our grasp. Furthermore, we are born into families, communities, nations, and a broader world, including the specific time frame and all that comes with it. As individuals we do not control the entirety of those institutions, structures, and discourses (“moral” norms, for one). But, in time, we can make significant changes to such worlds, especially those institutions and discourses more immediately within our personal and familial spheres. We can within limited communities speak different thoughts.
Though I would argue that we do not have personal, sexual and family relationships that are as healthy as they should be across most swaths of society, and I believe there are significant changes that can be made on such accounts, the world that is most necessary for change (from where I stand) is the socializational/educational world we set up around most (really all) individuals. As to sexual identity and politics, obviously the first thing that needs to happen is the naturalizing of humans, to see sex for the act that it is, to see drives and emotions for what they are. Which means that any politicizing or moralizing of sexual acts have to be ignored as complete stupidities. The idea that any sexual act, such that is consensual and not obviously problematic, should be considered deviant, a sin, socially degrading, or whatever, such people should quite frankly be ignored as they come to the public or political sphere. And that is happening to some degree, I think. Though preachers may still say homosexuality and other sexual acts are sins or inherently wrong, most politicians refrain from doing so, even as they implement policies from such thought.
Lastly, we have the identity politics of the day. Such discourses have suffered both from a poor understanding of human development but also suffered as people tried to expand social protections to all individuals. In doing so they found a “born this way” narrative to be empowering, which makes sense from an argumentative and political point of view. I would argue (probably almost libertarian-like, which I am about as far from as possible) that a better argument is just that personal choices, behaviors and ways of being are not to be interfered with unless there is evidence that they provide any social problems. People have a freedom to express identity in whatever way they find sensible and empowering, especially when it involves the stupidities of our more animalian bases. As we pull the thread, unravel why we are the way we are and how we can organize social institutions and our selves so that we are the way we want to be, empty moral notions and even moral language around issues like this simply have to be set to the side.