When I asked on both facebook and twitter what people wanted to see me write, yesterday, there was one joke about a sci-fi story and the rest of the responses were all requests to address the Nature vs. Nurture debate on how it relates to Human Sexuality. Apparently, everybody who reads what I write operates on the same brain wave.
As it turns out, there’s part of a chapter in the book I’m writing that addresses exactly this topic. Thus, instead of re-writing all the same stuff, I thought I would take the important parts of that section and share it with you. Since I’m reading some material on related subjects that are somewhat new to me, there’s a chance that this section of my book may undergo some changes soonish, so don’t worry about running into exactly this again if my book ever gets published. Since these are parts of my book, it is long and some of it is less than entertaining. Thus, I’ve added these links to this blog post, just in case you don’t feel like reading much, today, so that you can skip ahead of the technical aspects and get directly to what you may be interested in. The first two sections offer a decent background of information to what is concluded, so it may help to read them. However, I know many people just don’t have the time and energy, so you can feel free to skip ahead for either a reasonable read with the third section or simply a short answer in the concluding portion. Everything after the following links is a part of a chapter in the book I’m working on. Enjoy!
In order to address the question of how an individual arrives at their sexual being in adulthood, it is important to touch upon the root debate of most of human behavior. The discussion of nature versus nurture. Or, the age-old debate over if watching Barney, constantly, for 12 years of a person’s childhood will really fuck him up or if he was destined, from birth, due to personality presets, to spend his life dressing like some sort of dino-Cher hybrid rocker and singing corrupted versions of songs by Peter, Paul and Mary.
For this chapter, the concept of Nature is defined as those behavioral traits that are developed only because they are caused by innate characteristics, uninfluenced by how one is raised or their socio-cultural environment. In other words, nature is mostly about inheritance, or if I got it from my Mama, as the musician Will I Am, would put it.
Nurture is defined by external influences which not only influence behavior and intelligence, but creates it. Nature includes factors such as parental upbringing, teachers, peer groups and other social structures as well as cultural influences such as leadership, politics and art concepts that an individual is exposed to, like the aforementioned crappy song.
Nature versus Nurture is a debate that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. I know, many philosophy courses will teach that it began within Greek philosophy, but I would have to disagree. There has been too much evidence that early cultures held various ideas on what infludence the world has on an infant’s life and if there were certain behavioral presets that resided in an infant from birth. Original sin, for example, wasn’t really a new concept when the Catholics begain claiming that an infant still possessed guilt from the actions of their believed ancestors. In fact, the premise of all branches of Christianity is that people die because Eve ate some fruit. Regardless of if the religion believes in the passing on of guilt, they still believe in the passing on of punishment and that the role of the offspring is to behave accordingly or be taught to. I can understand this, though. My great grandmother’s mother once said, “if you crank that noisy tinker-toy one more time, I’m going to ground you for so long that your grandchildren’s grandchildren will feel it!” As we write this, I’m shut in my bedroom with only this document as my company and none of my friends are allowed to talk to me. I clearly have no choice but to blame my Great-Grandma Doll.
Many early tribes at various parts of history and from many places have considered infants to be a non-life until they were older, which also provided a justification for infanticide, in some cultures. to them, infants were expendables which must be trained as a child to fill the roles of adulthood. Other tribes seemed to believe in a kind of pre-programmed destiny, which would allow for the selection of Shamans or the detection of infants with bad spirits. This could also be a way for a tribe to explain how defective infants could be born. Some tribes, though, taught that children possessed certain spiritual values from birth and that they could be influenced by others once they are born, indicating that they believed in nature and nurture as guiding behavior.
Examples of attitudes about infants and pre-determined personalities include how followers of some forms of Buddhism believe that the Lutus Sutra, dating back to around 100 or 200 AD, holds doctrine that instructs on the Dalai Lama. Though the tradition of the Dalai Lama has only existed for a baker’s dozen, plus one generations, the concept of reincarnation presented by related Buddhist texts imply that an infant’s mind is a preset consciousness which existed in a previous life, an idea that has been around for nearly two thousand years or more. These same religions, though, have various branches, some of which hold beliefs which claim an infant must go through a process of guidance in order to gain personhood. Given that most branches of Buddhism promote the concept of constant progression, though, it is clear that nurture hasn’t completely been dismissed from any branch as part of their belief system.
The practices of infant sacrifice in ancient cultures at least indicate that the infant has some value to the spiritual world. References to child and infant sacrifices in the Bible imply a value in the infant, even if that value is for purposes of inheritance and their projected value as an adult. Infants and children at that time existed in a culture where their futures were determined for them due to their standing within their culture. A son of a Pharaoh, for example, was believed to be destined to be a Pharaoh and the son of a landowner was often destined to be like his father. The killing of such a child also meant that the futures of the parents would be more difficult, without offspring to care for them in their old age. Because of this, killing a person, even an infant, due to their predicted destiny and in an attempt to change the future, was not unheard of. The story of Oedipus, where is father hired a servant to kill him, is probably the most famous example of one such alleged attempt. It is a story dating as far back as 500 BC, but likely having evolved from earlier myths.
This informal debate that incorporates concepts such as destiny and an essentially hard-wired concept of personality has been carried throughout mythology for ages, even when not brought into formal debates. Movies like Back to the Future and other Sci-Fi movies featuring timeline distortions play with ideas related to how static or plastic a destiny or personality is. Biff Tannen, in Back to the Future, keeps the main aspects of his personality no matter which timeline he is presented in, even with dramatic changes in his life. The variations in behavior that are presented in the movie are present because it is implied that his power allowed him to be a bigger asshole, just a bigger asshole that probably fucked Marilyn Monroe. Still, other modern media present cases for just the opposite, highlighting a belief that we can be altered based on experience, sometimes regardless of age.
Religions that broke off from the above often altered their approaches and beliefs toward children and infants, showing that they disagreed with the pre-existing theories. These cultural conditions are examples of beliefs in nature and nurture and conflicts in thought about nature versus nurture affecting children in their time, though there were not labels for the concepts back then.
Over time, the nature versus nurture debate has become more active and acquired its own terminology (bestowed upon it by Francis Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin), but has existed as an active philosophical debate since before Aristotle, who used the term “tabula rasa” to describe the concept of an infant being born without any intelligence or potential and needing socialization in order to build his or her character.
With advancements in science that have led to a greater understanding of the brain and human behavior, the discussion has been ongoing, though it has evolved some for those who are perhaps more specialized in behavioral sciences.
I know, you’re waiting for the sex, but there is more discussion to have before we get to the fucking conversation about fucking.
One of the current major influences in understanding the Nature versus Nurture debate is our continuing understanding of Behavioral Science. Behaviorism, specifically, has allowed us a peek into mechanisms that influence our behavior. These concepts aren’t entirely new, as some of the founding concepts were observed by Aristotle in his three laws of association:
The Law of Similarity: The idea that like objects and concepts will be associated or categorized together in our mind. For example, games involving the up and down motion of a controller for the Wii console are frequently associated with masturbation because the motion is the same.
The Law of Contrast: The idea that opposing objects and concepts are associated. This is such a strong tendency that you can readily find it as themes in art. Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, Fire and Ice, and for Paula Abdul, this meant bringing together herself in a slinky black dress and a cartoon ferret, posing as a wolf in the video, Opposites Attract.
The Law of Contiguity: The idea that things that occur or are witnessed close together are associated. Masturbation is usually associated with ejaculation or orgasm because one often occurs one after the other. This law, clearly, is one of the main mechanisms for understanding cause and effect.
And related to Contiguity is:
The law of Frequency: The more frequently we associate two things happening near each other, the more we associate those things with each other. For Mormons who were taught to sing hymns when they got an erection (as instructed by Elder Boyd K. Packer), just one instance of singing, Joseph Smith’s First Prayer, after an erection won’t necessarily lead him to think dirty thoughts. However, several instances of singing that song following the onset of an erection could create the embarrassing situation, for him, of thinking about erections whenever he hears the song (and, based on what we know about operant conditioning, a possible erection).
Behaviorism has developed into a much better understanding of human behavior, since then, giving us an understanding of things like latent learning, classical and operant conditioning, desensitization and sensitization, observational learning, modeling behavior, instinctive drift, sign tracking, fixed action patterns and habituation and dishabituation.
Latent learning: A learning process that is not demonstrated by behavior nor necessarily conditioned or intended, but which can become apparent as a condition, situation or setting changes in order to display that something has been learned. For example, living in a neighborhood may not involve an active attempt at understanding the layout of a neighborhood, but a person may display an understanding of that layout when they have to give instructions to another person about how to get to their house from a location they don’t normally travel from.
Classical and Operant Conditioning: The training or learning of a behavior either through learning and associating by consequences (operant conditioniong – an action-consequence training or cause and effect) or by forcing an association between stimuli, one that has a response already present and one that does not so that the one that does not have a response ultimately begins to stimulate the response of the one that did (classical conditioning).
Desensitization, Sensitization, Habituation and Dishabituation: Sensitization happens when a repeated exposure to a stimuli increases the response one has to it. A new mother may become more responsive to her infant’s cry, as time progresses, instead of less responsive. Desensitization or habituation, on the other hand, is a decrease in a response to a stimuli after repeated exposures. In a noisy gym, for example, one may become less distracted by the noise and it may become a ‘background’ as one becomes accustomed to the constant sound. Dishabituation can happen when something new occurs to make an individual suddenly return to their original response pattern. In the noisy gym, then, someone pinching one’s ass may make the gym suddenly seem noisy again.
Observational Learning and mimicking: When an individual sees a behavior and then that leads to them learning that behavior. In other words, when a young monkey sees an adult monkey poke a hole into a large leaf and then masturbate with it and that young monkey then mimics the behavior and learns to do the same, the observation which creates the knowledge leading to the new behavior is observational learning. AKA, monkey see, monkey do.
All of learning behavior works, though, because of a foundation of the individual’s behavioral make up. That is to say, if there weren’t already present behavioral characteristics, latent learning, conditioning and all of the other aforementioned behaviors could not work. In order for latent learning to occur, observations have to be made and information has to be retained. Classical conditioning can’t happen if there isn’t an initial stimuli that has a response already present and the ability to associate two proximate events has to also be there in order for it to work. This foundation is present because of our basic neurological make up.
This brings me to a sad fact about research in human sexuality. The best research into the brain and human sexuality that has occurred so far is actually happening now. Historically, the study of sex has been a precarious place for scientists to go. Thus, the study of human sexuality in fields ranging from anthropology to neuroscience has only just scratched the surface on things that we really need to know about. Our understanding of neurology is such that the processes that lead from you thinking about moving your arm to the actualization of that thought can be described in great detail by nearly anyone who has studied the nervous system. However, descriptions of how the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems function to control arousal and sexual functioning are very basic regarding male sexual behavior and only barely discussed regarding female sexual behavior. Basic information about human anatomy, including how the clitoris is constructed and if the g-spot is or is not a part of this organ are vital to understanding not only female sexual arousal but how the brain relates to it. Since debates about female anatomy are ongoing, there is going to be a huge gap in this part of my discussion.
Since the brain controls so much of our body and we can directly trace conditions in the brain and behavior (for example, we know that certain parts of the brain are active when we’re using language and that other parts are active when we are drawing a picture) it is safe to conclude that conditions in the brain will affect and/or lead our sexual behavior. We do know much about some aspects of this relationship, even if they are mostly developmental. We know that the pituitary gland plays an important role in our sexual development and that a woman’s endocrine system and her brain interact in a cycle that not only controls her menstruation but allows her moods to be affected by it (which can affect her behavior). We also know that a man’s endocrine system does something similar, but less obvious (and less studied) that may also be affected by how often he has ejaculated. Involuntary sexual responses, such as vasocongestion (genitals filling with blood during arousal, causing swelling and color changes in females and erections in males, are controlled by our most primitive processes, ones that are shared by other vertebrates (and our common ancestors), with nerves located near the base of our spinal column. As we evolved and our nervous system expanded upon itself, with higher systems allowing for more complex behavior. The higher brain can then further influence our sexual behavior, complexifying it and allowing for more flexibility in our sexual behavior. So, while other animals may masturbate, the behavior of masturbation to complex fantasies involving rubber boots and Ghostbusters porn is, as far as we know, unique to humans.
Almost form the beginning of the development of Evolutionary Theory, there has been a conflict over the cause of certain sexual behaviors centering around the existence of homosexuality. There is, for example, the alleged quest for the ‘gay gene,’ and questions arise over why masturbation would be a useful habit within the context of evolutionary theory. These conflicts exist primarily due to a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and genetics.
Searching for a gay gene is not unlike searching for a crooked eyebrow gene. The fact is, there probably isn’t one. The reason there isn’t one is because groups of genes work together to create conditions for phenotypes, or physical characteristics, to exist. Thus, while there is no crooked eyebrow gene, there are genetic combinations that create the tendency for a crooked eyebrow to exist on a person. To further complicate matters, when it comes to psychology and genetics, we can find correlations between genetic lineage and psychological conditions, we can’t necessarily track down a specific gene that leads to that behavior. This is because not only is it the case that multiple genes may play a role in a particular trait being expressed, but, oftentimes, these combinations of genes only allow for a precondition to exist that can lead to something being expressed. Thus, we often hear geneticists say that we have an increased chance of a condition, not that we will have that condition with some certainty.
Chances are, there probably are genetic factors involved when it comes to a person being gay. There isn’t, however, a ‘gay gene,’ and the genetic factors involved that lead to someone being gay could be genes related to other aspects of an individual and the person being gay could just be a side-effect.
It wasn’t entirely flawed, though, for people to look for a gay gene. There are genetic factors that lead to many physical variations in human sexual features and taking a step from those genetic conditions to the possibility is not a gigantic leap. As of 1993, there were over 70 observed irregularities in sex chromosomes alone (Hoyenga & Hoyenga). These irregularities often are discovered due to physiological problems, so the leap from genetic understanding of some sexual abnormalities to attempting to look for a gay gene was, perhaps, misguided from the beginning.
The story of the development of sexual preferences isn’t over with just the discussion of genetic factors, though. Critical stages in development, such as when differentiation begins to occur in fetal development and then later, during puberty, has been known to bring out variations in genitals for individuals. Hormonal factors also could play a tremendous role. There is evidence that the slightest variation in a woman’s hormone levels during pregnancy can increase the odds that her offspring is gay or bisexual. Also, variations in hormonal fluctuations during the sexual development of a child may play a role in if that child is gay or not. Investigations into these possible causes are ongoing and more information is being uncovered all the time.
The most famous findings regarding sexual preference were related the discovery of correlations between sexual preferences and certain variations in parts of the hypothalamus. Beginning with a study by D. Swaab in 1990, who found the difference in size between the suprachiasmatic nucleus in homosexual men and the SCN in heterosexual men, there was a sudden increase in the interest in differences in brain anatomy between homosexuals and heterosexuals. While these studies haven’t yet pointed to a cause for homosexuality, they have paved the way for looking for a possible set of causes and they at least show that sexual preference probably has anatomical causes and isn’t a ‘choice,’ as many have claimed.
Outside of sexual preference, there are many other sexual behaviors that have been called into question within the context of the Nature versus Nurture debate. Masturbation is one of those behaviors. It doesn’t take much study to learn that masturbation, especially masturbation to the point of orgasm, can have many immediate benefits, including improvement in mood. However, masturbation doesn’t usually allow for the spreading of genetic material in a way that produces offspring. Thus, there are those who claim that masturbation is not natural. Of course, that’s like saying cutting a potato isn’t natural because french fries don’t produce new little potatoes. Sperm that is sitting in a man’s testicle, you know, waiting for their little hike down the urethra, deteriorate pretty rapidly compared to sperm from many other species of animal. This deterioration means that as time passes, when ejaculation doesn’t occur, the ratio between viable and non-viable increases. Thus masturbation could simply just be a way to clear out the older sperm to make way for the newer, more viable sperm.
So far, most of what I have discussed about sexuality can easily be dropped down into the “nature” category of this discussion. However, there is evidence that much of our sexual behavior could be molded by nurturing. From courting rituals to cross dressing, culture plays a tremendous role in how we put ourselves on display, sexually.
In studies on sexual fetishes, most fetishists have reported that their attraction to their focus (material types, shoes, certain behaviors) began at an early age, close to the onset of puberty or right before. Interestingly, variations in sexual orientation is often reported to begin around that time as well. This puts researchers in a precarious situation when it comes to developing theories about these kinds of sexual behaviors. A commonly accepted theory is that these youth have developed a strong association between their arousal and their preferred stimuli. As early as the 1960s some evidence that arousal responses to non sexual objects can be conditioned. In 1966 and 1968, Rachman and Hodgson used classical conditioning to create sexual arousal in men triggered by the showing of pictures of boots. Similar studies have not been done to test fetishes in youth, due to ethical concerns, so these studies done on adults are used to offer some insight into possible explanations. Given the tendency for youth to be easily influenced by conditioning, it is very likely that behavioral scientists are right in claiming that atypical sexual behavior in adults can be developed early on by various forms of learning and association. In fact, every learning type mentioned earlier could possibly be a mode of learning for an atypical sexual response. Combining that with the human tendency to recall extreme emotional states more readily than things that happen with little emotion, and a case of arousal that is timed with a certain behavior or condition could easily, in theory, lead to a youth becoming sexually fascinated by it.
As more studies are done on this ability to condition responses and people become more open about their sexual practices, the possibility of people being conditioned to be homosexual or to participate in atypical sexual behaviors has gradually been uncovered. A possibility, of course, does not mean that this is necessarily always the cause. But in our modern culture, where sexual preferences are seen as grounds for discrimination from some social groups, this kind of information can be used against those who are not strictly heterosexual in arguments to deny them privileges that heterosexuals enjoy. This, along with many ethical concerns, makes some researchers hesitant to venture farther into the territory of studying some possible factors in nurturing that could alter sexual preference.
When it comes to human sexuality, both nature and nurture come into play in creating the sexual beings that we ultimately become. From our genetic predispositions to how our peers affect our development, our childhoods tend to be one long trek into adulthood that is neither pre-programmed or completely molded by external factors, this trek includes the blossoming of our sexual nature. It has been difficult for us to reach an understanding of this due to the variety of factors that come into play during our development. Barriers such as a misunderstanding of the Law of Parsimony, claiming that the simpler explanations for a behavior are preferable to the more complex ones, as part of behavioral science have also slowed down our ability to examine development more fully. The Law of Parsimony, itself, is a great idea. It is the Occam’s Razor of behavioral science, but many take it to mean that there should be only one explanation for a given behavioral event and behavior, like other elements of science, don’t need just one route to get to the same end. Just as evolution has led to flight in multiple types of animals through different developmental paths, our psychology can be shaped through different paths to lead to the same result.