Sexuality and Discontinuous Thinking

I can’t recommend Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale enough. The UK hardcover edition, at least, is beautifully bound, breathtakingly illustrated, and endlessly fascinating. But I’ll leave the commercial there. I bring it up because in a part of the book called “The Grasshopper’s Tale” (if I remember correctly) Dawkins cautions against “discontinuous thinking.” This is the habit of grouping things into distinct, mutually exclusive categories, such as “short” and “tall” or “black” and “white,” when in reality these qualities fall on a continuum. A Scientific American podcast I listened to recently referenced a study into sexual orientation that suggests that “gay” and “straight” may need to be added to the list.

The podcast referred to an article in Scientific American Mind, which is freely available on the author’s website. (I acknowledge that this is pretty old.) The article appears to be mostly a persuasive piece, but at the end Dr. Epstein describes his index, the Sexual Orientation Continuum, which is designed to tell you how “gay” or “straight” you are. (Why “straight?” Are gay people “crooked?”)

This is a fascinating idea to me, and one I endorse purely for aesthetic reasons, though I’d like to see more research done. I think, for example, that much of the difficulty many people have in accepting evolution is their habit of looking at different species as distinct “kinds” of organisms. They are victims of discontinuous thinking, failing to understand that “species” is a purely arbitrary distinction, useable only because so many of the intermediate species are extinct. It seems to me that this same difficulty pervades many people’s thinking about sexual orientation.

The article boils down to this: people can’t be tidily assigned to either the “homo” or “hetero” camps. There is a continuum from 100% gay to 100% straight, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle (though for obvious evolutionary reasons, the distribution skews strongly to the “straight” side.) Dr. Epstein’s test can be taken for free online. Why not give it a try?

(I got a mean of 0.5 with a range of 1, for anyone who’s wondering. How boring!)


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