Nature vs. Nurture in the Policy Debate

Article excerpt

The age-old nature vs. nurture debate assumes immediacy as the new Congress and new administration gin up to address age-old issues such as poverty, crime, drugs, etc.

This, the most intellectually intriguing debate around, is moving far towards nature (and far from nurture) with new evidence presented by an odd pair - gay activist Chandler Burr and conservative scholar Charles Murray.

In brief, their new findings show that (1) homosexuality and (2) educational-economic achievement are each largely a matter of genes - not of upbringing. If true, as appears so, the scope for effective government programs narrows.

Fate, working through chromosomes, bestows both sexual orientation and brainpower, which shape one's life and success. Little can be altered - besides fostering tolerance and helping in any narrow window left open - through even an ideally-designed public program.

Chandler Burr builds upon his March 1993 Atlantic article, in which he concluded that "sexual orientation, far from being a personal choice or lifestyle ... is something neither chosen nor changeable." He elaborated in a book, "A Separate Creation: The Search for Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation" (Hyperion).

Mr. Burr advanced his argument in last month's cover story in the Weekly Standard. Like Charles Murray, Mr. Burr is an imminently accessible social scientist who writes in unqualified sentences. Nearly half of Americans told a New York Times - CBS News Poll that they consider homosexuality mostly a matter of lifestyle choice, say like vegetarianism. They're wrong, Chandler Burr asserts, given "the discovery that sexual orientation is a biological trait, produced by a `gay gene.' " He writes unequivocally of "clinical research - all but universally accepted among biologists - showing that homosexuality is a biological trait."

Sexual orientation impacts individual life far more than left-handedness, but Mr. Burr believes that each of these are "clearly heritable ... and neither correlates with any environmental factors." The political policy ramifications of Mr. Burr's conclusions are less obvious than those of Mr. Murray, who contends that IQ nearly determines educational and economic attainment. Consequently, Mr. Burr makes plain the ramifications of his research. Liberals contend nurture shapes much in life. Mr. Burr answers: "The research on homosexuality says: No. It says: In fundamental ways, we are born with many important aspects of the way we are. And nothing - no Head Start program, no midnight basketball, no welfare check ... can modify that or make it better."

Hence the "brand of liberalism than now dominates public policy is futile because it ignores human nature." Given the "biological roll of the dice" that determines homosexuality, as it does left-handedness, Mr. …