Like the word “theory,” the word “tolerance” means something different in science than it does in ordinary conversation. In “The Principle of Tolerance,” scientist and mathematician Jacob Bronowski wrote that ‘‘all information is imperfect,'' and ‘‘our ability to work and act in the real world depends on our accepting a tolerance in our recognition and in our language.”
The aim of 19th century science – perfect, factual truth – is impossible in human reality. No two findings, no two observations, are ever exactly the same. Our findings are always within a range of “tolerance.” Set that range too tightly, and you reject too much useful information; set it too broadly, and you accept too much error.
Perhaps it would be useful to apply this scientific concept of tolerance to our own social understanding.
Charlotte grows more tolerant
Charlotte is, I think, becoming a more tolerant place; a place that accepts differences without making harsh judgments. Just as we are becoming more accepting of people of different religions, we are also becoming more tolerant of other differences among people.
After an initial kerfuffle over a children's book about “gay” penguins, “And Tango Makes Three,” it went back on the library shelves. Skirmishes over a Day of Silence at Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, and new, more explicit, school anti-bullying standards, were resolved in favor of greater tolerance of gay people.
In society, as in science, the more we know, the more we know what we do not know, and the more we recognize the need for a principle of tolerance. I believe that our increased tolerance of our gay neighbors comes from knowing them better. As they have “come out” and introduced themselves, we can see that they don't fit old stereotypes. They are ordinary people, with ordinary lives, like the rest of us.
Science doesn't support the stereotypes, either. Homosexuality isn't a “sin,” a “choice,” or a “lifestyle.” Research overwhelmingly supports the idea that sexual preference is inborn. Twin studies point to a strong genetic component in homosexuality.
Remember “And Tango Makes Three”? Penguins are just one of 1,500 animal species, ranging from insects to mammals, that engage in homosexual activity.
A new study from the Stockholm brain institute shows that some brain structures in gay men more resemble those of straight women than those of straight men. There is a similar resemblance between some brain structures of lesbians and straight men.
But what about Natural Selection? Wouldn't a genetic allele that suppressed reproduction die out of the gene pool?
A new study shows that some male homosexuality can be explained by what's called “sexually antagonistic selection,” in which genetic factors spread through the population by giving a reproductive advantage to one sex while disadvantaging the other.
Female relatives of gay men – their mothers, sisters and maternal aunts – have more children, on average, than maternal relatives of straight men. This genetic endowment apparently favors daughters enough to offset the reproductive disadvantage to sons.
The evidence is incomplete, as scientific evidence generally is, but all there is falls within the limits of tolerance.
Homosexuality isn't a “perversion,” or a disease. You can't “catch” it, or be seduced into it. It is a normal human variant. If you aren't one, you won't somehow become one. As we get to know our gay neighbors, our common humanity speaks for tolerance.
Some religiously disagree
I know there are those who disagree – religiously – with this assessment; who believe there is an evil plot afoot to impose a “homosexual agenda” on the rest of us. These people have as much right as I do to hold and express their opinions. However, I believe their influence is on the wane. After all, biblical passages used for centuries to support slavery were somehow “reinterpreted” by Christian abolitionists to say something other than what they clearly, literally, said – at least, what they said to centuries of slave owners.
There may well be an absolute, capital “T” Truth out there. But it isn't given to humans to know anything absolutely. We humans are, well, human, and fallible.
Bronowski's “Ascent of Man” series showed him standing in a pond behind the crematorium at Auschwitz, saying: “Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”
Blind literalism may not lead, now, to a new Holocaust, a new Crusade, but it has led to the occasional small pogrom; the occasional Matthew Shepard, beaten and left to die on the cross beam of a split rail fence, for the “sin” of being gay.
Imperfect men, while they may benefit from biblical guidance, need a Principle of Tolerance.