May 7, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)


In animals, including the higher primates, most behavior is instinctive and intellectually neutral. It is rarely if ever oriented toward a distant future that the animal tries to predict and to bring about willfully. In contrast, man's response to most environmental stimuli are profoundly affected by anticipations of the future, whether these anticipations are based on fear, factual knowledge, desire for achievement or mere wishful thinking. Indeed, man's propensity to imagine that which does not exist, or would never come to pass without his willful and deliberate action is the aspect of his nature that differentiates him most clearly from animals.

Rene Dubos, 1968

It has been said that the principal difference between man and other animals is that man has "free will." This concept implies that man can make choices based on knowledge, experience and some awareness of the future.

While I have no doubt that people have more free will than animals, I suspect that intelligent animals make decisions based on experience and training in much the same way as we do. A cat makes seemingly independent decisions as to what to avoid and what to seek out. It makes decisions as to what food it likes and what it doesn't like. Like man, if it is hungry enough, it will eat anything that is edible.

I believe that most people make fewer truly free decisions than they think they do. People often delude themselves that they are making decisions, when they are actually following their early programming. I have often made what I thought were independent decisions, only to find out later that I was following the instructions of my culture as passed on to me by my parents.

In a town or village where everyone has been there from birth and all are members of the same culture and religion, people can't conceive of a different way of thinking and living. The way that people behave in novels or on TV can be quite a shock to a resident of such a community.

It is well established that much of who we are is programmed during the first five or six years of life. Furthermore, we don't remember much, if anything, of what happened during that period. Do you remember crawling or learning to walk, or talk? I once thought that I remembered grabbing for my father's nose and he would playfully try to bite my hand. On reflection, I actually remembered a child sitting on my father's lap and playing the game. I conclude that what I really remembered was my father playing with my younger brother.

I remember my father telling me to "think for yourself." That directive gave me a good deal of freedom to make choices that many people don't have. The reason that most people remain in the religion of their birth is because they have been specifically forbidden to change. A large number of people are proud of their culture even though there is no logical reason to be proud other than that the culture survived.

A friend of mine told me, "I knew I was gay for as long as I can remember." I believe it, but it has no more significance than someone saying "I knew that I was Jewish for as long as I can remember." It sheds no light on why a person prefers sexual relations with people of their own sex.

I have heard arguments about whether a person who is gay can change his/her sexual preference. They shed little light on why those preferences exist and what options truly exist. Often the protagonists in these arguments choose to ignore the fact that there are great individual differences. No two Catholics or Jews or Albanians are alike, even identical twins.

The sights, sounds and odors that excite a person sexually are rooted in part in one's genes and in ones childhood. It seems unlikely that what excites a person is likely to change much until old age. To the old saying, "There is no accounting for taste," we might add "Tastes can be added to, but rarely subtracted from."

Suppose that a man is excited by anal intercourse; what choices does he have? He can declare himself to be gay and join the gay culture. He can choose to declare as a heterosexual and find a female mate who likes anal intercourse. According to a recent article in the British Medical Journal, there are more married couples in England who engage in anal intercourse than there are declared homosexual men.

I had a friend who was apparently happily married and raised two children. In his forties, he divorced his wife and went to live with a man.

What I am saying is that you have little or no choice as to what turns you on. What you decide to do about it can be a true free will type of decision. Many a man has had the desire and opportunity to have sex with a woman or man and, for a variety of reasons, decided not to. We are often tempted, but some resist the temptation for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is fear of the consequences.

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