Variability and Perturbations of the Spiral Universe Inside Us
By Cosima Herter, Series Science Consultant
I was born with the sun in Pisces, the moon in Aquarius, and an Aries ascendant. What does this tell you about me? According to my mother, who had an astrologer cast a natal horoscope for each her children when we were born, it doomed me to chronic ambivalence when faced with big life decisions and a sensitive soul. She believed this map of celestial motion at the time of my birth divined all manner of potential pathologies and behavioral expressions. It foretold the complications she’d have in our relationship, what kind of careers I’d be interested in, outlined the likelihoods of my romantic involvements, and even provided insight into my future financial practices. Insofar as it revealed the unique constellation of my innate qualities and characteristics, my mother believed it to be both an instructional tool in childrearing, and a useful apparatus by which I could channel my innermost being towards adulthood in the most effective and fulfilling ways possible. She also made us sleep with crystals under our pillows to aid prophetic dreaming, and consult tarot cards when unsure of what action to take next.
I grew up thinking that the fact that Saturn was conjunct with my ascendant bound me to an irrepressible sense of loneliness, and my Aquarian moon and twelfth house Venus made me the kind of person prone to secret love affairs with unconventional people. And when I was being particularly naughty and defiant as a child my mother would levy my Aries rising against me like an indictment. To be honest, I really don’t know whether or not the interpretations of these configurations that were espoused to me when I was growing up accurately match those conventionally taught by professional astrologers. What I do know is that I was taught that my personality traits were to be understood as qualities influenced and fixed by the zodiac, and the ‘stronger’ the geometrical relationship between planets and signs indicated a higher likelihood of expression throughout my life. A bit sheepishly, I’ll admit that well into my adulthood, I still indulge secret fantasies that each failed relationship might have been due to the rather depressing array of my planetary aspects, my Neptune in Sagittarius makes me a irrepressible idealist, and every time I get a headache I still describe it to myself as a momentary Aries affliction. Old frameworks by which one has been taught to analyze the world – fiction or not – are hard to suppress, I suppose.
Today we often find our horoscopes relegated to the final pages of beauty magazines and online dating questionnaires, but astrology as a soothsaying tool has a long history. Early modern western astrology was employed as a predictive model by which one’s fate could be foreseen. It was deeply integrated into medical practice, and was considered an indispensible tool for treating ailments and formulating surgical practice. Now, of course, professional astrologers are quick to defend their craft by explaining that they do not profess to reveal predetermined fates, rather potentials – potential experiences an individual may have during their life because there is a pre-existing tendency towards certain kinds of capacities that compel one to behave and respond to their world when the planets are aligned in a particular way. Yes, your idiosyncratic cosmic propensities matter when expressing yourself, but they are inextricably influenced by the idiosyncratic conditions you encounter in your material world. Nothing is written in stone, despite what deep-seated astrological proclivities one might have. Proneness does not equal inevitable.
We are also born with certain genetic potentialities. To be sure genetics provides an epistemic access to certain anatomical truths that astrology does not (and I certainly put my trust in the science of genetics far and above astrology!). Breast cancer runs in my family, but I am not fated to succumb to it. Heterosexualism also seems occur with some regularity, but I am not predestined to succumb to that either. There is little doubt in my mind that genetics plays an important role in just about everything that happens within our bodies, but there is a hefty surtax on thinking that our genes furnish us with compulsory behaviors that we are unconditionally bound to express. Indeed, this thinking often contributes to an arrested development of understanding about how genetics ‘work.’ No geneticist worth their salt will argue that simply because some particular gene sequence occurs within our genome it necessarily must express itself, let alone in a very specific predetermined way. Genetics is not a synonym for determinism any more than astrology is.
Human sexuality, for example, is as much a biological characteristic as it is a political institution. It is a lighting rod for controversy, and the subject of an increasing number of contentious, yet politically efficacious, scientific studies. Civil liberties, human rights, access to health care, basic respect and human dignity, and freedom from prejudicial violence are at stake. But, insofar as sexuality has a genetic component (like all biological characteristics) it is not so simply explained by genetics alone. Moreover, it is not regulated by any one single gene. Despite how studies on the genetics of sexuality are represented in the popular press that either decry or redeem the genetic basis of sexual orientation, none of the research to date that espouses to have found the “gay-gene” (or, more recently the “male-loving gene”) are actually supported by a claim that one gene, and one gene alone, determines sexual orientation. Sexuality is complex, both as a biological component and a political identity. Our genes do not define who we are, and while certain genes may indeed be present, they may or may not be expressed depending on a whole spectrum of environmental and biological circumstances. The reductionism of either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ is far from adequate to explain sexuality. The “Brief on Sexual Orientation and Genetic Determinism” published by the Council for Responsible Genetics offers a sensitive and cogent discussion of this issue: “The social urgency to answer questions regarding sexual orientation has pushed a greater interest in the “science” of it. Yet a narrow focus on the variability of sexual expression threatens to cloud the issue altogether. Without giving proper attention to the mutability of human sexual expression, questions regarding its origins and character cannot be answered.”  Neither genetics, nor sociological and psychological studies, alone can answer the questions we ask about the origins of human sexuality. By no means am I attempting to position myself as an authority on this subject. I sincerely do not know how much of a role my genetics, my familial, social, physical environment, or my choices play in the configuration of my sexuality. But it’s important not endow either genetic or social science with an epistemic reach into the truths about ourselves that they simply do not have (and that most geneticists would not grant themselves). All manner of factors affect the expression of genetically coded traits like height, hair color, and disease, just as much as they affect the expression of sexuality. Genes are no more the final arbiter of my sexual and romantic relationships than my moon and Venus in Aquarius.
I want to thank my dear friend Cameron Lazaroff-Puck for this essay’s title. I was struggling with that, and I couldn’t be more delighted with his help with this! – Cosima Herter
 Brief on Sexual Orientation and Genetic Determinism, Council for Responsible Ethics, 2006.