Uncertainties associated with classification and the notion of stability

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In popular and quasiscientific analyses of homosexuality, it is frequently argued that the category of homosexual acquires meaning only when used in opposition to the category of heterosexual. I am not familiar with all the arguments for and against this opinion, but I am not convinced that it enlightens us much. Likewise, many social scientists and very few neuroscientists are of the opinion that the concept of homosexuality is a social construction. It is, according to this point of view, a socially created category with obscure correspondence in nature. I am not sure that this belief is helpful either. In fact, all concepts are products of reason and created by humans living in society. Nevertheless, it may be of some help briefly to examine the basic concepts employed both in the research on same-sex behaviors and in the non-scientific discussions of them.

At the beginning of this chapter, I have already mentioned that the concept of homosexuality as well as the category of homosexual is problematic. With concept I mean here an idea of a class of objects, not the objects themselves. The concept of homosexuality, then, refers to all mental representations evoked by the word. It is, in a way, an intrapsychic abstract event. On the contrary, a category is an entity consisting of a class of objects sharing some property. The way to define a category is to describe the property shared by all objects belonging to it. Thus, individuals belonging to the category of homosexual have at least one property in common. In order to make the category meaningful, all members must have that property, and no individual having it can be outside of the category. In the case of homosexuality, the defining property is controversial. On one extreme, we can consider that any individual ever having had sex with a person of the own sex is a homosexual. On the other extreme, we can consider that only individuals who exclusively have had sex with their own sex are homosexual. There is no agreement on this point. An additional uncertainty inherent in categories formed by living organisms is that some properties may change over time. Whenever this occurs, we are faced with an unstable category. Individuals can move out from it and into it at any moment. Some individual properties, like eye color or sex are stable. Others, like hair color or body weight may change over time. The category formed by individuals with green eyes can be considered as stable, while the category of slender is unstable. In the case of the category of homosexual, there is a considerable debate with regard to its stability. I will pursue the problem of categorization with a couple of additional examples and I will also introduce the contentious issue of search for causes of the defining property.

Instead of classifying people in the categories of homosexual and heterosexual we may, for the sake of an innocent example, classify them either as Steelers fans or Dodgers fans. Whether these categories are meaningful or not depends on the use we want to make of them. If I just want to figure out how to mention the Steelers' shameful loss against the Dodgers last week in a conversation with the barber, it is helpful to know if he is a Steelers fan or not. If I should happen to offend him, he might use his knife to cut my throat. Although vitally important in the moment, this use of a category is quite trivial. On the contrary, if I want to start a research project to find out the differences in brain structure between a Steelers fan and a Dodgers fan, the categorization of people in these groups should have some relevance, practical or scientific. Furthermore, we have to ensure that the classification of individuals as either Steelers or Dodgers fan is correct. Having done that, we can look at the brains, find a difference and propose an explanation for differential preference in terms of that difference in brain structure. This is straightforward, even if the coincidence between a difference in brain structure and a difference in football preference not necessarily establishes a causal relationship of any kind. That would require a series of additional studies, but we leave that issue in peace for the moment. However, it might so happen that my research hypothesis states that the future preference for a football team was established perinatally, during the period of brain differentiation and axonal growth. If I assume that, then I must also assume that football preferences are stable throughout lifetime. Although not an expert on sports, I have no reason to doubt that this might be the case. If it indeed were, then my research project could proceed and perhaps discover the crucial difference in brain structure between a Steelers fan and a Dodgers fan. Obviously, even if such a difference were to be found, it needs to be shown that it is significant for preference for a particular football team rather than an accidental observation. Now let us imagine that I am wrong with regard to stability of preference, and that a Steelers fan suddenly may become a Saints or a Giants fan. It might even happen that a Dodgers fan becomes a Steelers fan. The category of fan would, then, be unstable. In this case, a search for a perinatally established preference for a football team would be absurd. A search for the momentaneous brain differences would still be valid, provided my classification into categories is correct at the moment the brains are analyzed. However, an attribution of these differences to some perinatal factor would clearly be contrary to reason.

The preceding example should have illustrated the quandaries of research on homosexuals. First, we need to ask whether the category of homosexual is of any particular interest. The answer is probably more dependent on moral and/or sociopolitical convictions than on facts of science. Second, the classification as homosexual, or heterosexual for that, may be based on different criteria, making it unclear what the category actually means. This is a small problem, though, compared to the third issue that needs to be solved: the problem of stability. Is a homosexual always a homosexual, or may she/he change into heterosexual at any moment? Likewise, is heterosexual a stable category? These questions become of fundamental importance for many of the studies searching for a neurobiological cause for homosexuality. Rather than trying to give an immediate answer, we will first explore some sources of information regarding homosexuality and homosexual.

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