Family planning

Julian Sanchez muses on what would happen if we could change our sexual preference:

Hetracil, a drug that supposedly "cured" homosexuality, was an elaborate, clever joke. But apparently, researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered the real thing... at least for fruit flies. As John Tierney wryly notes, it will be interesting to see whether the Leon Kass types denounce such technology as "meddling with nature" or "playing God."

Of course, the reaction of the gay community will be interesting to watch as well. For perhaps understandable reasons, gay activists have staked a lot on the notion that sexual orientation is—whether by genes or early environment—biologically hardwired, not the result of any conscious choice. But of course, this meant that someone might one day come up with a biological means to artificially produce either orientation. If something like this ever reaches the market—still, to be sure, a far-off hypothetical—I'm guessing we'll watch X-Men III play out, though (alas) with fewer mutant powers.

With respect to adults, this seems all to the good. If I were single, it might be interesting to try being gay for a few months. But children will present a difficult case. Doubtless there will be parents who—whether from homophobia, because they're eager for grandchildren, or because they fear the discrimination gay kids and teens face—decide to ensure their kids are straight. If their numbers are substantial, that obviously creates a series of both personal and political problems for the gay community.

We already have a test case: deaf children and cochlear implants. We've never spent any time quibbling about whether deafness is innate or chosen; the answer is obvious. Or, it was. Because now congenitally deaf children can be given a device that will transform them into hearing children. While they may never hear as well as I do, the cochlear implants pull them out of the deaf community: they acquire spoken language, go to hearing schools, and usually don't learn to sign. This is a choice that unfortunately must be excercised not by the children, but by the parents; unless kids get them early, their oral language acquisition will always be stunted.

Deaf activists are very, very against cochlear implants. For one thing, they imply that deafness is a disease that needs to be cured, which is a pretty unbearable way to view something as central to your identity as the language you speak. I sympathize though I ultimately disagree: if sign language can only be maintained through forcibly denying people oral language acquisition, I am against it, just as I would be against preserving the French language by forbidding anyone born in France to ever leave.

But another animating passion in the fight against cochlear implants is very relevant here: there are network effects in deviation from the norm. That's certainly apparent to me when I go shopping with female friends who are tall, but not that tall; while I can try on perhaps 5% of the clothing currently sold in American retail stores, they can try on nearly all of it.

If we can turn most deaf kids into hearing kids, the quality of life of the remaining deaf people will suffer dramatically. There will be fewer services available for deaf people, less research into products that can improve their lives. They will have a smaller pool of people from whom to choose friends and spouses. Less deaf culture will be produced--and it's fairly hard for them to consume most non-visual arts, particularly those who are illiterate. It's not crazy to worry that deaf culture and institutions would be crippled, leaving the few remaining deaf people stranded in an island of silence.

What's even more worrying is that this could lead a general drive to reduce variance even in areas where there is nothing inherently dangerous, restricting, or wrong with the underlying condition. Recently, someone who is himself average height, but who has a very tall daughter who is going through the particularly awful adolescence common to most women taller than six feet, asked me if it got better. "But in the end, you're glad you're tall, right?" he said, in the tone of someone who clearly wanted reassurance that his beloved daughter will be fine. "If you had to choose, you'd be this tall?"

Well, no. I like being tall because I like being me. But if I were responsible for my own development--if I was a parent who could choose their child's height--then no, I would not make my daughter 6'2. I would make her 5'8. Being that different from everyone else is mostly an enormous pain in the ass only partly mitigated by being able to see over crowds and fetch things off high shelves without a footstool.

There is nothing wrong with being gay. But having a minority sexual preference by definition has costs: a lot fewer potential partners to choose from, for starters. It also makes having children with a partner much more complicated, at least until technology enables us to fuse the DNA from two eggs or two sperm. A loving, non-homophobic parent could choose to turn the gay genes off simply in order to ease their child's life for reasons that have nothing to do with social stigma.

But of course, even aside from reinforcing (however implicitly) the idea that gayness is a problem, this is bad for other gay people. They suddenly have even fewer partners to choose from, even less political clout. Moreover, the more parents, or adults, who make that choice, the less attractive gayness becomes, which will tend to push marginal choosers into the "straight" camp. And the charge probably will be led by parents who make their children straight, not to avail them of the network benefits of a majority preference, but by parents who are simply repulsed by homosexuality. One imagines that the gay community will be somewhat resistant to letting those parents in effect make choices for them.

Moreover, reducing variance is bad genetic strategy. The less genetic variety you have, the more vulnerable you are to unforeseen circumstances; genetic variance is a reservoir of potential adaptations. Similarly, even if they were not worthwhile in themselves, the subcultures we now have the medical possibility of destroying are sources of dynamism in our society. We will all be poorer without them.