Born this way (1): Genetic determinism and moral revolution

“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Psalm 51:5

The last two decades of social development in western nations has seen an almost incomprehensible shift in moral reasoning that is so vast in its reach that it has been rightly called a “moral revolution.” Rather than a gradual slide in private morality, this revolution has come in the virtual blink of an eye and within plain view. What was once taboo—especially in the sphere of human sexuality—is not only permitted but glorified as an embrace of diversity and a vindication of the vulnerable in our society.

One simple statistic is sufficient to make this point. In 2004, the Pew Research Center—a respected polling institution—reported that roughly 60% of Americans were opposed to gay marriage. In 2019, the same poll showed that opinions had been almost perfectly invert­ed, with about 60% of Americans now supporting gay marriage.1 That is a massive shift in public opinion in the space of only fifteen years.

How did this happen? And why did it seem to hap­pen so fast?

As in so many other cases of moral change, there is no one simple answer to either of these questions, and certainly not one that we can adequately demonstrate in the space of three short articles. We can, however, point to and describe the role of one key component in this moral revolution—the field of genetic science. Be­cause this area of science is at once both commonplace and mysterious to so many people in modern society, its methods and proper use within the Christian worldview are worth discussing in an article aimed at extolling the works of God in His creation. Our genetic composition is indeed a part of who we are as created beings and something that ought to direct our worship to the Cre­ator. The great irony of human depravity, however, is that rather than rightly glorifying the Creator through this knowledge, our society has used the very evidence of His handiwork as a reason to deny His existence and moral authority over the creation (Rom. 1:18-23).

The foundation of genetic science can be most direct­ly traced to the work of a small collection of researchers in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, starting about the same time that Charles Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution. The work of chemists and biologists during this time demonstrated that the newly discovered sub­stance called DNA—or deoxyribonucleic acid—was the molecular blueprint for living organisms, and that it primarily functions as an information-storing chemical. This work shed important light on the findings of ear­lier scientists such as Gregor Mendel (the other famous German-speaking monk!), who had demonstrated the patterns by which pea plants transmitted their specif­ic traits from one generation to another. The fields of biochemistry and heredity converged in the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1953, which opened the door to understanding how inheritance works at the molecular and cellular level. The decades of research since then have been largely devoted to two tasks: first, learning how DNA encodes the visible features in living organ­isms; and, second, understanding the complexity and variation in genetic sequences across all living organ­isms. This includes the genetic variation among differ­ent species, but also the difference in DNA sequence within a single species, including humans.

Today we take for granted that most of our visible features are governed by the sequences of DNA that we inherited from our parents. Grade-school age children learn that the brown eyes, attached earlobes, and wid­ow’s peak they share with their mother or father were determined by which ‘genes’ they inherited. Alongside of this we are also aware that certain diseases, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, tend to run in families because there is a genetic component to these diseas­es. This understanding is especially clear in the case of cancer, since we know that exposure to DNA-damaging chemicals puts us at risk for developing the disease. A generation or two ago, most people probably realized that smoking was not great for their health. But to­day, almost everyone in modern western society knows that there is a significant risk of throat and lung cancer, among other diseases, that results from inhaling the tox­ic chemicals present in burning tobacco leaves. Many of these toxic chemicals irreparably damage the DNA in throat and lung cells, which subsequently accumulate enough genetic mutations to transform into cancer cells

The twin concepts mentioned above—that genet­ics define many of our visible characteristics and that changes to our cellular DNA can cause disease—are the basis for much of our modern understanding of human identity. We accept without question that the genes we have inherited from our parents determine much about who we are, including our looks, our risk for disease, and even how we act. Who has not noticed, for in­stance, that many girls laugh just like their mothers or that many boys seem to have the same sense of humor that their fathers display? In the modern form of think­ing it makes logical sense that these patterns of behavior have a genetic basis over which we have absolutely no control. We get the genes that we were given at concep­tion, and that is just the way we are.

While this line of reasoning is certainly correct to a limited extent, there is a significant danger in becoming too comfortable with the idea of ‘genetic determinism‘ which is the term that has been assigned to the idea that we are simply a product of our genes. Prior writers in the Standard Bearer and elsewhere have correctly pointed out that blind acceptance of genetic determinism played a large part in the early eugenics movement in Europe and the United States, and also provided support for the rac­ist philosophy of the Third Reich in Germany.2 Today, however, we are seeing a new use of this concept to jus­tify sinful behavior, which we are told cannot be helped because it is simply a product of who we are genetically.

The specific aspect of genetic determinism that we are concerned with here is in the realm of human sexu­al behavior. Like other behaviors, sexual behavior is a complex trait that has a variety of components; these in­clude our emotions (feelings), our cognition (thoughts), and our conscious decision-making process (will). All of these components are inseparably connected to the physical and chemical processes of the brain (neurolo­gy) and endocrine system (hormones), which together form the biological basis for human attraction (orien­tation) and sexual behavior. Despite the apparent con­fidence with which secular media outlets and popular writers present their opinions, the extent to which ge­netics shape sexual orientation and behavior is a matter of significant controversy in fields of psychology and neuroscience. In reality, the assertion that variations in human behavior are controlled by genetic differenc­es between individuals has rather limited support from actual scientific studies. We will examine some of this scientific data in the next article, but for now we will simply trace the effect that blindly accepting genetic de­terminism has had on our culture.

The idea that orientation and behavior are two dis­tinct aspects of human sexuality arose within the German intellectual tradition during the mid-nineteenth century, which roughly coincides with the rise of rationalism and secularism in academic institutions across continental Europe.3 It was during this time that psychology (which had previously been viewed as a branch of philosophy) was reclassified as a science related to human physiolo­gy based largely on the experimental work of Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt’s theories laid the groundwork for the next generation of secular psychologists including the fa­mous Sigmund Freud, who proposed a wide variety of theories to explain human behavior in general and sexu­al behavior in particular. The common thread we trace from these men to our situation today is the separation of human responsibility from human action.

It has become popular in the field of psychology to make a distinction between sexual orientation and be­havior by suggesting that orientation is something that is essentially programmed, whereas behavior is more of a conscious choice to act upon the emotional attractions.4 Whether sexual orientation is a product of envi­ronment, development, parenting, or genetics, the basic premise is that humans develop sexual attraction un­consciously and without their own participation. Even more significantly, it is posited that this programming of orientation cannot—and should not—be changed. Blind acceptance of this notion has played a critical role in shaping the misperceptions of sexual behavior that the majority of people now hold in modern developed countries. The central misperception is that because orientation is genetically programmed, no one is re­sponsible for his or her sexual attractions. Again, the mantra: “It’s not my fault. I was born this way.”

The concept of ‘fault’ plays an especially important part in the massive shift in public opinion regarding ho­mosexual behavior. The basic idea is that if ‘fault’ can be removed from a particular action, then it cannot be considered as sin. Furthermore, if fault can instead be assigned to something that is ‘natural’ or apart from the power of an individual to change—such as his or her genetics—then the guilt or accountability for any activities that result from that natural source must nec­essarily be removed from the individual as well. Such has become the case for homosexuality.

The blatant redefinition of sin to allow for homosexu­ality is becoming a prevalent error even in the Reformed community.5 This error posits that because the New Tes­tament church has been freed from the judicial (that is, civil) and ceremonial laws of the Mosaic law and does not expect the state to enforce the first table of the law, only the second table of the law remains as a binding moral force in society. Because the second table is about sin com­mitted against other people and not God, the functional purpose of the moral law is to respect creatures made in God’s image. In this perspective, the act of sin is to vi­olate the natural rights and freedom of another person. Or to put it in the negative: no victim, no sin. Assuming this logic is accepted, we can easily see the argument for supporting consensual homosexual relationships bound in marriage. Such relationships are described by mutual af­fection and may be characterized by monogamous union in which there is no ‘victim.’ This supposedly distinguish­es it from pedophilia or other gross sexual deviancy where no consent can be given or monogamy is impossible.

As a justification for this position, the defense of ge­netic determinism is offered by Christians who support the normalization of homosexuality. Science, they say, demonstrates that homosexual orientation is a biolog­ical result of genetics and other external forces over which a believer has no control. We must allow for the variation in genetics among humans, which are simply a “creational variance” rather than a choice.6 In this line of reasoning, discriminating against homosexuals for their genetics is akin to racism and sexism. The real sin is in our treatment of people living within God’s good creation who simply differ from heterosexuals because of their genetic makeup and life experiences. Such rea­soning, together with the redefinition of sin as victim­ization, has won the day in nominal Christian circles. When the 2015 Supreme Court decision on gay mar­riage was handed down (Obergefell v. Hodges), it truly represented the majority position in the country.

Ironically, it did not take long after this decision for supporters of LGBTQ rights to begin backing away from the bad science of genetic determinism due to its poten­tial liability for the movement’s real goals.7 After all, one cannot have the freedom of choice in sexuality—which was the real goal all along—when constrained by genetic determinism. Concepts such as gender fluidity (woman one day, man the next) and bisexual attraction are some­what hard to justify if sexual attraction is genetically hard­wired into the human brain, but quite easy to accept if the language of “human rights” and “freedom of choice” are invoked. Genetic determinism had served its purpose and could be discarded on the pile of bad ideas in place of something newer, better, and more progressive.

But the damage was done, especially among nomi­nally Christian Americans who had bought into the idea that people with homosexual attractions could not help themselves. They were just born that way.

Or were they?

In the next article we will examine some of the more recent work on the genetics of sexual behavior and also reexamine the concept of genetic determinism from a theological perspective. We will focus on the biblical term “flesh” as it relates to the Reformed doctrine of total depravity to understand how our genetics influence our behavior without removing responsibility for the actions we perform.


[1] Pew Research Center, May 2019, “Majority of Public Favors Same-Sex Marriage, But Divisions Persist” (https://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/).

[2] Cal Kalsbeek, “Ideas Have Consequences: The Cult of Charles Darwin (3),” Standard Bearer (April 15, 2012):163-166. And Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History (New York: Scribner, 2016), 64-77; 119-132. The eugenics (Greek for “well born”) movement was popularized by British scientist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. This movement ar­gued that human reproduction should be controlled to maximize desirable characteristics and minimize undesirable characteristcs in the human population.

[3] These distinctions, along with a general defense of homosexual­ity, are usually attributed to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895). Ulrichs wrote in defense of his own homosexuality under a pseud­onym, arguing that same-sex attraction is a natural and biological phenomenon. (K. H. Ulrichs, The Riddle of Man-Manly Love, trans. Michael Lombardi-Nash. Prometheus Books, 1994).

4 This distinction is used in the current official CRC position on homosexuality (adopted in 2002), which distinguishes between same-sex attraction (“homosexual Christian”) and the practice of homosexual behavior (“homosexualism”). The former is pro­posed to be related to identity, while the latter is still considered sin. (https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2002_report_careforhomosexuals.pdf).

5 Gayla R. Postma, “Wolterstorff: Biblical Justice and Same-Sex Marriage,” The Banner, October 24, 2016.

6 Gwyneth Findlay, “Wolterstorff says “yes” to same-sex mar­riage,” Chimes, October 22, 2016.

7 Shamus Khan, “Not born this way.” Aeon, July 23, 2015 (https://aeon.co/essays/why-should-gay-rights-depend-on-being-born-this-way).