Geekological Determinism

Wil Wheaton’s career has described a curious arc around the atmosphere of pop culture.  He came to fame starring as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek:  The Next Generation, a teenage prodigy and transparent Mary Sue figure; though nerd culture was still a fringe activity and not the dominant force that it is today, Trek fans, then as now, were an unforgiving lot, and Wesley became one of the most despised fictional characters since Scrappy Doo.  What this must have done to the psyche of young Mr. Wheaton, who was then only 15 years old, is hard to imagine, but to his credit, he seemed to emerge from the hailstorm of hatred relatively unscathed.  Even more to his credit, he did not let the experience sour him on his passions; indeed, he grew into what he is today:  one of the most outspoken and enthusiastic advocates of nerd culture.  He is a ceaseless defender of the once-obscure habits and hobbies of his youth, and it is his curious good fortune that he has become widely beloved by the same sort of people who once so reviled the character that made him famous.

Recently, a video has achieved virality that features Mr. Wheaton answering a question from a young girl about whether he was called a nerd as a young boy.  His response has become widely circulated because Wheaton turned it into a commentary about something called ‘anti-nerd bullying’; that alone is a subject worth exploring, but it is not what I want to explore now.  Before I begin, because I am going to settle into what is clearly a comfortable seat for me, attacking the highly praised but slackly investigated utterances of the well-meaning, I should make the following qualifications:  I have no problem with Wil Wheaton.  I find his public persona as an advocate of the joys of nerdery inoffensive and charming, if not particularly to my taste.  It certainly does hurt to be called names when you are a child, and there is nothing wrong with seeking to put an end to bullying and cruelty of any sort.  When Mr. Wheaton says that you should never let someone “make you feel bad because you love something”, he is not only right, but he is right in a very straightforward and admirable way.  He is generally correct in identifying self-loathing as the proximate cause of much bad behavior, and even if the whole encounter was contrived — and I have no reason to believe that it was — if all he did was encourage a little girl to not let the careless words of a bully destroy her self-esteem, then he has unquestionably done a fine thing.

What troubles me is this curious statement, which appeared in the middle of Wheaton’s speech, and which cast a cloud over it to my hearing:  “It’s never okay when a person makes fun of you for something you didn’t choose,” he said, apparently referring not to blindness or cerebral palsy but to enjoying science fiction.  “We don’t choose to be nerds.  We can’t help it that we like these things.”

Surely not.

Nature and nurture once had a “vs.” between them, I know, and if we have wisely decided to place them on a continuum rather than as binaries in opposition, it is still true that many things about that most vital of issues, human behavior, are difficult to definitively attribute to either genetics or environment.  I will not argue that it is still little-understood why we turn out one way and not another.  But surely we are not arguing that, like  albinism or the length of one’s fingers, an affinity for comic books is bred in the bone.  Are we really to believe that we are born with an inherent proclivity to dress up in a Darth Vader costume?  What possible use is it to teach a child that she “can’t help it” if she spends all her money on Magic cards?

The language is easy enough to recognize.  Its familiarity comes from the fact that it is the exact same language of those who use the ‘biological determinism’ argument to defend the rights of homosexuals.  Gay people “didn’t choose” to be gay, this argument goes; given the torment attached to such behavior, who would?  Instead, they are “born that way”, as if made so by a capricious god, and it would be wrong to punish someone for something that they “can’t help”, just as it would be wrong to push a cripple down the stairs.  It’s a compelling argument, and one can certainly see the rationale behind it, especially as its formal qualities appeal to those who think of human behavior exclusively in moral and spiritual terms — the very people most likely to condemn homosexuality and other perceived forms of social deviance.  There’s just one problem with it:  it’s wrong, it’s false, and it’s harmful on almost every conceivable level.

For one thing, science — you know, that thing so beloved of self-identified nerds — is hardly conclusive on the question of whether or not homosexuality is an inborn quality.  The study of genetics, as deep as it has become, is still in its infancy, and the question of what “causes” homosexualty is fraught with difficulty — not least because the most informed consensus is that “homosexuality” is not a trait, but a behavior.  This is a subtle but crucial difference.  Certainly there is some evidence that genetics play some part in homosexual behavior, but what that part is has not been answered in anything like a definitive way.  And it is also true that one does not “choose” homosexuality, as such; but the very formation of the concept of sexuality as a “choice” is deeply flawed, as is the notion that it is absolute and diametric.  It seems much more likely, the more one studies not only genetics but history, sociology, psychology, zoology, and anthropology, is that sexual behavior is not always located at an absolute of same-sex or opposite-sex affinity; rather, it is located on a spectrum, and can move towards one end of that spectrum or away from it over time and in different situations and environments.  It is certainly indisputable that in the animal kingdom, homosexual behavior is found all over the place, and becomes more common the more the object of study resembles humans; it is also true that human beings are perfectly capable of evincing straight, gay, or bisexual behavior at different times in their lives.  What this means is still very much in dispute, but what is clear is that the idea of homosexuality as a strictly deterministic dichotomy is rather unlikely.

It is in this way — by using an argument that plays into a moralistic model constructed by its enemies — that the gay community does itself a disservice.  For the very arguments they use to defend themselves against oppression are the most likely to be turned against them.  If homosexuals are born that way, after all, might not homosexuality itself be viewed as a flaw, a genetic mistake, a birth defect to be isolated and eliminated like harelips or spina bifida?  If homosexuality is a condition and not a behavior, then it is subject to a cure.  Claiming that same-sex relationships are something its participants cannot help and did not choose frames them as a moral failing, a biological horror, something shameful that its participants would just as soon be rid of if they had any say in the matter.  It is not just a failed defense, it is a dangerous one; for not only does it play into the moralistic worldview of its opponents, but the more sophisticated among them will seize on its error, leading to an intolerable situation where we’re hearing the truth about something from the last people you want in possession of that truth.

All these things apply just as much, if not more so, to Mr. Wheaton’s strange claim that nerd-culture affinity is unchosen, inherent, unbidden.  While it is not a scientific impossibility, the idea that one’s personal tastes in art is simply the manifestation of a genetic code is even less supportable than the idea the vast spectrum of human sexual behavior is attributable to fate in the form of a stray gene.  Even if it were true, which it isn’t, it would paint a pretty dismal picture, even from — perhaps especially from — the viewpoint of people like Wheaton.  If one does not choose one’s tastes in art, what does one choose?  If aesthetic tendencies are genetic, they are also, therefore, objective, and it’s just a short step to Zhdanovite thinking or Ayn Rand’s preaching that some composers are just definitively superior to others.  Believing that you can’t help your preferences for art, music, film, and other manifestations of culture robs you of your specialness; who wants to be a nerd if being a nerd is just some biological manifestation you had no more say in than you did your height or your hair color?  Why be enthusiastic about the books you love if your love of them is just a genetic proclivity?  Why be proud of the hard work you did learning science and math while the other kids were playing softball, if your aptitude in science and math was going to express itself anyway with the relentless inevitability of a receding hairline?  Better, surely, whether the subject is same-sex marriage or a love of Star Wars, not to say “I cannot help this; I was born this way”, but rather “Whether I chose this or not, this is who I am and what I want to do, and you have no right to judge me, because what I am doing is not wrong.”

Worse still, the idea that our cultural beliefs are nothing more than the emergence of a pattern laced into our brains at birth enforces one of the most noxious aspects of nerd culture:  it destroys the possibility of the fan as creator, the reader as writer, the audience as actor, and relegates the entire relationship between artist and art to that of consumer and consumed. What hope have we to take an owner’s view of culture when we are merely eating things that we were born to have a taste for?  If you didn’t choose to participate in the culture you are drawn to, how could you possibly choose to take it any further, to turn it into something more than what it already is?  When you cannot help the culture you belong to, you cannot change it, and you certainly cannot turn it into something different.  You are not a participant in your art (or your sexuality, or your society, or your gender, or your race, or any of the other arbitrary constructs so eagerly forced on you by people who want to stop you from questioning them; you are merely a part of it, and bound to conform to the contours of what other people say it is.

I honestly believe Mr. Wheaton is sincere in what he says, and that he was doing his genuine best to help that girl, and to help other people who were like the child he once was.  But he can help even more by shedding this notion of culture as a deterministic straitjacket, and by telling the next girl he talks to that she is not a born expression of factors she cannot change, but a free mind who can make of her culture and anyone else’s whatever she likes, and that she need not apologize for the choices she makes.


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  1. Rob
    04/02/2014 at 6:17 PM

    If homosexuals are born that way, after all, might not homosexuality itself be viewed as a flaw, a genetic mistake, a birth defect to be isolated and eliminated like harelips or spina bifida?

    I’ve seen the opposite argued – that if homosexuality is a choice then, well, why not encourage people to choose differently? Maybe we could dissuade people from homosexuality by, say, making it illegal, preventing schools from discussing or acknowledging it, and generally stamping out homosexual culture. If we stamp hard enough, maybe they won’t come back! Anyone who still persists with their deviancy will have to undergo extensive therapy, but if it’s just a bad habit they’ve picked up then they should be amenable to proper psychiatric treatment. The ‘born this way’ argument suggests that this cannot work, that a certain proportion of people are likely to be homosexual and oppressing them is just that, oppression. It’s a pretty useful argument against the kind of real-world threats that gay people have faced.

    A lot of anti-homosexuality (and, for that matter, anti-nerd) propaganda is very much based on the notion that people’s minds are changeable, and much too easily so! The notion that impressionable youngsters (or even not-so-youngsters) might be seduced into homosexuality, like passive victims of an infectious disease, is just as harmful. UK laws against ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools were predicated on something similar to this notion. The ‘disease’ model is actually a large part of why unpopular ‘nerdy’ kids are shunned, because to spend too much time around them is to run the risk of being ‘infected’ too. There are nerd-world parallels in some of the moral panics around D&D in the 80s or videogames in the 90s, where ‘good’ kids could be turned ‘bad’ by exposure to the wrong sorts of people or ideas (and where ‘bad’ didn’t really mean ‘harmful’, it just meant ‘something we don’t like’).

    I agree with you that a robust defence of people’s right to choose their cultural affiliations does answer both questions, but I think there’s still a problem with the fact that, if people’s minds can change, what’s really wrong with setting out to change them to something we’re happier with? I suppose we need some criteria to determine when we ought to try to change people’s minds, in defiance of the culture they grew up with (say, racism) and when it’s explicitly not OK to do so (say, that being homosexual is OK or that Star Trek cosplay is acceptable). It’s notable that most of the ‘born this way’ traits that people want to claim are positive ones, and that very few people want to claim that they are, for example, innately racist as a way of justifying their behaviour (although, hey, I guess some extreme right people do pretty much argue that people are innately racist and they’re just acknowledging the reality). The only way to rob the ‘born this way’ argument of its usefulness would be to demonstrate that ‘I am what I am because I chose to be’ is actually workable and doesn’t just lead to the riposte of ‘well, you can just damn well choose to stop then, can’t you?’.

    the idea that one’s personal tastes in art is simply the manifestation of a genetic code is even less supportable than the idea the vast spectrum of human sexual behavior is attributable to fate in the form of a stray gene

    ‘Not consciously chosen’ does not equate to ‘genetically determined’. We don’t choose our nurture either. Many people do not question their place in the world too much, and come out of early childhood with a set of preferences, habits and ways of seeing the world already in place, without having chosen any of them (and whether the choices of a five-year-old would count for much is also disputable). I don’t think this invalidates much of what you say, but picking on genetic determinism in particular might be undermining your argument a bit.

  2. Michelle
    05/24/2014 at 8:54 AM

    Well in his defense, Wheaton didn’t say that liking science fiction is inherent. He simply said he didn’t choose it. We are nurtured into many loves and likes that had we different experiences, we’d have chose other loves and likes. That can be said of many things. We often can’t control what gets us excited. We can control behaviors but we are talking about behaviors that bother other people not us. So why should we change our behavior that stems from something out of our control, because others can’t take it? That’s what having no choice over our likes is.


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