How do genes influence our sexuality? The question has long been fraught with controversy.
An ambitious new study — the largest ever to analyze the genetics of same-sex sexual behavior — found that genetics does play a role, responsible for perhaps a third of the influence on whether someone has same-sex sex. The influence comes not from one gene but many, each with a tiny effect — and the rest of the explanation includes social or environmental factors — making it impossible to use genes to predict someone’s sexuality.
“I hope that the science can be used to educate people a little bit more about how natural and normal same-sex behavior is,” said Benjamin Neale, a geneticist at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard and one of the lead researchers on the international team. “It’s written into our genes and it’s part of our environment. This is part of our species and it’s part of who we are.”
Did that quote make you go huh? I mean, the fact that it was the first quote in the story. Read on, and you’ll see why. For example:
Even before its publication Thursday in the journal Science, the study has generated debate and concern, including within the renowned Broad Institute itself. Several scientists who are part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community there said they were worried the findings could give ammunition to people who seek to use science to bolster biases and discrimination against gay people.
One concern is that evidence that genes influence same-sex behavior could cause anti-gay activists to call for gene editing or embryo selection, even if that would be technically impossible. Another fear is that evidence that genes play only a partial role could embolden people who insist being gay is a choice and who advocate tactics like conversion therapy.
“I deeply disagree about publishing this,” said Steven Reilly, a geneticist and postdoctoral researcher who is on the steering committee of the institute’s L.G.B.T.Q. affinity group, Out@Broad. “It seems like something that could easily be misconstrued,” he said, adding, “In a world without any discrimination, understanding human behavior is a noble goal, but we don’t live in that world.”
Discussions between Dr. Neale’s team and colleagues who questioned the research continued for months. Dr. Neale said the team, which included psychologists and sociologists, used suggestions from those colleagues and outside L.G.B.T.Q. groups to clarify wording and highlight caveats.
“I definitely heard from people who were kind of ‘why do this at all,’ and so there was some resistance there,” said Dr. Neale, who is gay. “Personally, I’m still concerned that it’s going to be deliberately misused to advance agendas of hate, but I do believe that the sort of proactive way we’ve approached this and a lot of the community engagement aspects that we’ve tried were important.”
You get all this spin before the story tells you much of anything about the actual scientific findings. And it goes on:
“As a queer person and a geneticist, I struggle to understand the motivations behind a genome-wide association study for non-heterosexual behavior,” wrote Joe Vitti, a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute, in one essay. “I have yet to see a compelling argument that the potential benefits of this study outweigh its potential harms.”
Wait, hold on! A genetic scientist thinks there’s no reason to study whether or not a widely observed sexual behavior might have a basis in genetics? Another gay scientist, one who works at Broad, explained why he supported the research:
He concluded: “Saying ‘sorry, you can’t study this’ reinforces it as something that should be stigmatized.”
Read the whole story, which is pretty good overall. It quotes the scientist who, in 1993, claimed to discover a “gay gene,” saying that this new study wasn’t actually looking for a gay gene. I’m not sure about that conclusion. If I understand this study, it’s saying that researchers found no significant genetic cause for same-sex behavior. That is not to say that being gay is a “choice,” as we understand the word. The researchers conclude that environmental factors likely predominate. How can you fault a gay man or gay woman for having grown up in an environment that might have nurtured them towards same-sex desire? It seems from this study, “born this way” is inaccurate; “grew up to become this way” is more precise.
Here’s a link to the actual study, if you’d like to read it. And here’s a link to a NYT op-ed by two gay scientists who worked on the project. They say that there’s no doubt that genetics plays some role in homosexuality, but that it’s relatively small, and impossible to pin down. It’s nature and nurture — but mostly nurture. There is no single gay gene. You can’t test the genes of an unborn child and determine if he or she is going to be gay. Thank God! There will be no eugenic abortions over sexuality.
I actually have sympathy for the gay scientists who are nervous about this kind of research. I feel the same way about genetic research into race and intelligence. Given what human beings are, I worry about how those findings might be used politically. I get very, very anxious about that kind of research, and wonder if the potential down sides of knowing that information (that people of some ethnicities are more intelligent, on average, than people of other ethnicities) is worth the risks. That is, I believe that the concept of “forbidden knowledge” is valuable. It’s not unreasonable for the gay scientists to have the same concern. Still, if there was ever a safe period in which to do this particular science, it’s now.
About “forbidden knowledge,” I wrote a post on the topic some years back. In it, I quoted this from W.H. Auden:
“In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.”
Anyway, if homosexuality is primarily a matter of nurture, not nature, why is it wrong to let gay people who want to seek therapy in hope of reducing or eliminating same-sex desire undergo that treatment? This study undercuts the case against this kind of therapy, right? If same-sex desire is not genetically hard-wired, what’s wrong with the principle behind this therapy from a scientific point of view (as distinct from a moral or political one)? To be clear, I understand why one would object to this therapy on moral and political grounds, but this study seems to knock down a strong scientific objection to it.
UPDATE: In the comments, some people have pointed out that someone might not have homosexuality in their genes, but could still be affected by factors in utero that predispose them to same-sex attraction. That would be biological, but not genetic, and not due to socialization or psychology. I appreciate the distinction being made.