Morality versus biology

Elton Wong

The first few paragraphs of this column were originally devoted to slanderous, lurid, and graphic remarks about Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Unfortunately those paragraphs would have made the column too long and they had to be cut. It’s probably just as well.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dr. Laura, she’s basically the latest ultra-conservative talk show-host. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself.

Although I generally disagree with most ultra-conservatives, I have no problem with anyone who states their views in a rational manner and backs up their claims with reasonable arguments and evidence. This may be the reason I would like to see Dr. Laura crushed like a weasel in an elevator door.

OK, that was mean. But at least I didn’t propose that any eighth grade girls be “sacrificed” Inca style. It was Dr. Laura who made this recommendation.

This was in response to a student in Connecticut who wrote an award-winning essay in favor of free speech on the Internet. Dr Laura also had this to say about that girl: “If she was my daughter, I’d probably put her up for adoption … when she makes her marriage vows and her husband has sex with everybody else, let’s see if she thinks that this philosophy works.”

Comments like these only add to my theory that Dr. Laura is not a person, but rather some kind of rabid, mentally unstable ferret.

Anyway, Dr. Laura has been in the news recently because she is going to get a syndicated TV show with Paramount.

This has drawn protest.

A new web site has recently sprung up at, and activists plan to picket Paramount.

One reason for these protests is Dr. Laura’s history of anti-homosexual remarks. She has called gays “deviants,” prevented by “a biological error” from relating “normally” to the opposite sex. She supports “reparative therapy,” the supposed “cure” for homosexuality. Same-sex parenting is “despicable.”

Now, I have no real problem with anti-homosexual activists who, say, quote the Bible to attack homosexuality.

This just illustrates how arbitrary and unfounded their beliefs are. Leviticus, which is often quoted to defend homophobia, also condemns tattoos and wearing different kinds of fabrics at once. Homophobes also say things like “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

Well, true, but God also didn’t make Adam any male friends. Does this mean that watching football with the guys is sinful?

What really gets me is when people try to use biology to “show” that homosexuality (or anything else) is wrong. Dr. Laura is a prime example of this. Take a look at her rhetoric: “deviants,” “biological error,” “normal.” She’s trying to achieve an air of scientific authority, and thus is attempting to legitimate her homophobic claims using “fact.”

What does biology (or psychology or any number of sciences) have to tell us about homosexuality? Homophobes love to call homosexuality “unnatural.” But what does this claim mean? What does it mean for something to be “natural” in the first place?

Must something be found in the natural world in order for that thing to be “natural?” If this is our criterion, then homosexual behavior is absolutely natural.

Homosexual behavior in primates is extensive and well-documented. Are we to say that this behavior is deviant and wrong when it is done by stumptail macaques?

That would be silly. Animals and plants are not subject to moral condemnation.

If not deviant and wrong, is homosexual behavior at least a “biological error?” Well, no. In order to explain, it is necessary to discuss what biology is. Here goes.

There is something called the “natural world.” There are trees, plants, worms, and furry things in this natural world.

When humans looked at the natural world, they invented biology, which is the scientific examination of the natural world. Biology is not reality, it is a description of reality. There is a difference.

Nothing we observe in nature is a “biological error.” A “biological error” is dropping your petri dish in 201 lab. The natural world can make no mistakes because it has no will, no purpose, no intent. In the natural world (excluding humans), stuff just happens.

It isn’t good or bad, right or wrong. When you use words like “normal” or “deviant” in biology, you are only describing statistical relationships, not ethical or value-laden ones. It is unscientific to impose moral values on the natural world.

When we talk about humans, however, good and evil do apply, because humans are rational; we can make choices.

However, biology can tell us nothing about what is good or bad about these choices.

For instance, if I slip some cyanide into my roommate Tom’s cheerios, biology can describe how the cyanide will bind up his electron transport chains, cause all his cells to die from ATP starvation, and leave him a drooling mess on the floor.

But the moral wrong of my action doesn’t lie in the biology; it lies in my intent to kill another person.

Therefore, when people like Dr. Laura use biology to condemn anybody or call them “unnatural,” they are confused in their thinking. In this case, they dislike homosexuals because they are prejudiced and fear things different from themselves. Biology is only their feeble (and irrelevant) justification.

Biology has been misapplied to “justify” all sorts of evils, from slavery to oppression to genocide.

These acts and motivations were not only scientifically flawed, they were morally abhorrent.

We better ourselves when we realize that science can help us achieve our goals, but it cannot tell us what goals we ought to have.

Human actions are wrong only when they hurt people.

There is no “natural order” involved, because nature has no right or wrong built into it.

We need only be concerned with the moral order.

Trying to bring science into the picture does nothing but cloud the issue.

Elton Wong is a junior in biology and philosophy.