The Corner

Congenital Vs. Genetic

A surprising number of readers of my Friday column seem to think that

“congenital” is a synonym for “genetic.” Not so. Here is the

Merriam-Webster’s Third entry for “congenital”:

1 : existing at or dating from birth congenital idiocy congenital malformations : belonging to or associated with from birth : INNATE

congenital good health : constituting an essential characteristic :

INHERENT the congenital State Department fear of newsmen A.H.Vandenberg

1951 : from birth or by nature *a congenital liar*

2 : acquired during development in the uterus and not through heredity –


synonyms see INNATE

Note that in the second meaning, “congenital” is actually *opposed* to


The evidence that homosexual orientation is, in most cases, congenital, is

rather strong, though still disputed by respectable authorities. The

evidence that there is some genetic component is less strong, and more

disputed — though on my own fragmentary and non-systematic reading, it

seems to me probable that there *is* some genetic component to homosexual

orientation. (Homosexual *acts*, of course, are products of the human


If indeed there is some genetic component to homosexual orientation, that is

an evolutionary conundrum, since obviously an amatory preference for one’s

own sex carries a “negative Darwinian load.” (Sorry about the jargon, but I

think the meaning is clear.) That does not by any means “disprove

Darwinism,” though, as a couple of readers crowed. It is possible to think

of Darwinian explanations for a genetic component, and a great deal of

intellectual effort has gone into this over the past 20 years or so. Early

models — the “kind gay uncle” theory is best known (the idea being that

non-reproducing but caring members of the tribe add a *group* benefit in

child-raising that outweighs the *individual* Darwinian negative) — could

not be made to work mathematically, and are not now taken very seriously.

Other possibilities have been thought up, though, of which the most

interesting is the disease theory. Here the idea (if I have understood it

correctly) is that a genetic mutation that protects us against some horrid

disease turned up, with the slight downside that it pre-disposes to

homosexuality in some small minority of gene-bearers, presumably by acting

in concert with certain other genes that some people have and some don’t.

The Darwinian positive (protection against that disease, whatever it is)

sufficiently outweighs the negative (1 to 4 percent of the population are

non-reproducing homosexuals) to keep the gene in play. Sickle-cell anemia

(a by-product of a genetic defense against malaria) offers a parallel. The

evolutionary mathematics of this *can* be made to work, though until we get

deeper into the genetic code it has to be regarded as speculative.

I will say again what I have said before on this site: The scientific

understanding of human nature is right now just about where chemistry was in

1700, or electricity in 1800, or the atom in 1900. This is going to be a

very interesting century. AND the results we are starting to get suggest

that human nature is much more like what conservatives have always said,

than like what liberals have told us.


The Latest