New Scientist this week published a report on the ongoing search for a “gay gene” focusing on what is seen as the most promising candidates for such a thing in men: gene markers in the Xq28 region of the X chromosome and in the 8q12 region of chromosome 8.
As is to be expected of such writing when so much completely unscientific concerns are riding on it, the reporting is full of self-contradiction. For instance, compare statements in the magazine:
“A genetic analysis of 409 pairs of gay brothers, including sets of twins, has provided the strongest evidence yet that gay people are born gay.”
Ah! So, they have found evidence that people are actually born homosexual! Or have they? Well, no, they haven’t. From the same article, further down:
“Whatever the results, [study leader Alan] Sanders stresses that complex traits such as sexual orientation depend on multiple factors, both environmental and genetic. Even if he has hit on individual genes, they will likely only have at most a small effect on their own, as has also been seen in studies of the genetic basis for intelligence, for example.”
So, the beginning says they have found “the strongest evidence yet” that homosexuals are born homosexuals, yet later on the lead scientist in the study stresses that even if the study’s findings stand it would still only mean that being a homosexual depends on “multiple factors, both environmental and genetic” and, in fact, that the genetics “will likely only have at most a small effect on their own.”
That is truly sloppy writing on the part of New Scientist magazine–and, unless he is simply suffering under poor editors, the article’s author.
The self-contradiction within the magazine is not limited to the article, itself. For instance, while the article stresses that “Even if he [Sanders] has hit on individual genes [that may be related to homosexuality], they will likely only have at most a small effect on their own.” Yet a different article elsewhere in the issue–an editorial titled “Gay gene discovery has good and bad implications” (or “Get over it” in the print version)–states, “But as we report this week, there is growing evidence that male homosexuality has a strong genetic contribution.”
The contrast is stupefying. “[Genes] will likely only have at most a small effect on their own” versus “evidence that male homosexuality has a strong genetic contribution” — which is it, New Scientist?
Such irrational self-contradiction is what you get when such strong social bias infects science and science journalism. Science reporting becomes social advocacy, and results are replaces with desired, fanciful interpretations — something that New Scientist is, regrettably, very good at. (Very tempted to borrow one of the schticks of the WSJ’s James Taranto and declare New Scientist to be two magazines in one.)
There is much to say on this, so let me categorize things into a Q & A:
Have they found a “gay gene”?
Short answer: No. Long answer: Noooooooo. Longer answer: The only way to answer “Yes” is (1) to completely ignore what the words “gay gene” mean to most people and (2) to ignore the actual results of the study.
Concerning (1), when some claim to believe in a “gay gene” they are stating a belief that homosexuality is determined by your genetics — that there is no real choice, environmental, or psychological influence involved, but rather it is just how you are “coded” in your DNA. That is, they believe there is genetic coding that completely determines your sexual preference just as it might determine your hair color or eye color.
This is what most people think of concerning the words “gay gene,” and no such “gay gene” has been found in any way, shape, or form. No genetic instructions have been found that determine one’s sexual preference. Nothing in this study changes that fact.
[UPDATE, 11/21/2014 PM: I came across a webpage referencing an earlier Guardian article on the same work. That article, too, showed a similar confusing mix of statements and words that implied more than they should. But it also contained some straight out clarity in a few statements. For instance, it pointed out: “The genes were neither sufficient, nor necessary, to make any of the men gay.” A far cry from a “gay gene,” to be sure, if some homosexuals have them and some don’t and if some heterosexuals have them and some don’t. Clearly, not a gene determining sexual preference. Then, too, there was this fact, which many seem to like to forget: “The flawed thinking behind a genetic test for sexual orientation is clear from studies of twins, which show that the identical twin of a gay man, who carries an exact replica of his brother’s DNA, is more likely to be straight than gay. That means even a perfect genetic test that picked up every gene linked to sexual orientation would still be less effective than flipping a coin.” That is, studies on twins have proven beyond doubt that sexual preference is not genetically determined. There may be a variety of influences in a person’s life — biological, emotional, sociological, psychological — that create vulnerabilities to certain temptations, but no true “born that way” excuse to completely justify any sinful lifestyle or remove the possibility of repentance and change has ever been demonstrated, and these studies are no exception. There is no “gay gene” as the concept is popularly understood, and homosexuals are not born that way in the same manner that zebras are born with stripes and leopards with spots. — WGS]
So what has been found?
What the recent study has done is try to establish more solidly that on two particular genetic regions there seems to be a correlation between certain DNA markers and homosexuality in some men. Previous studies had suggested such a correlation, but later studies had made that correlation questionable. This study uses a larger group of men and establishes more robust conclusions than the studies before it, and it suggests that such a correlation may exist.
Yet, as I understand it, it does not show that all homosexual men have this DNA marker and it does not show that all men with this marker are homosexual. It does not establish that the DNA marker is actually in any way causing a tendency to homosexuality, though that is something that the scientists will now explore. The two regions where a noticeable correlation seemed to exist between the presence of markers and homosexuality: region Xq28 of the X chromosome and region 8q12 of chromosome 8, have many genes. As the article above says, “Both regions contain many genes, and the next step will be to home in on which ones might be contributing to sexual orientation.”
Notice the important word there: “might.” They don’t even know if the gene correlation implies any sort of causation — that is, that anything in these regions is actually causing any effect on sexual preference, at all. All they have found is strong suggestion of a correlation between certain genetic markers and the homosexual preferences of the men being studied.
Still, doesn’t a correlation imply that one causes the other?
That is a very common misconception, but, no, correlation does not imply causation. Actually, that error is humorously illustrated by a fun website I came across not too long ago (admittedly, “fun” is a matter of taste) that demonstrates real correlations between sets of data that are completely unrelated. The title of the website is plain enough, Spurious Correlations, and here are a few of its examples:
So, just because things correlate that does not mean that one causes the other. (Though they really should look into that Nicholas Cage thing, though.
Now, that said, correlation is a place to start, to be sure. While the presence of a correlation between two things does not imply that one causes the other, at the same time if one causes the other in some way then you would expect a correlation. The new study, if it continues to hold up to scrutiny, would demonstrate a possible correlation that should be followed up on. Without the follow up, the study really tells no tale of anything significant. As the article said, from here they should go on to look if any of the genes in those regions “might” (their word) have an influence.
And there are things that make the correlations more compelling as something worth investigating. For instance, the Xq28 region is an area of the X chromosome containing genes that help regulate the androgen receptor protein, connected to testosterone. (Not pretending to be an expert, here. Just a Wikipedia user.)
What if a genetic influence is found?
Well, what if it is? The analysis you get from those who are already “pro-homosexuality” will be pretty inconsistent. The New Scientist editorial I referred to above is a good example. There, the editor says,
“To socially liberal and tolerant people, this new knowledge will be entirely unchallenging. It is in circles where homosexuality is still considered problematic – of which there are many – that it could have implications.”
There are other evidences of irrational biases in the paragraph, but let’s look at just this statement. It is, of course, completely false.
The idea that sexual preference could be biologically determined would, indeed, have the potential to have a great impact on “socially liberal and [errantly described as] tolerant people.” For instance, I’ve read some homosexual activists who hate the idea of identifying a “gay gene” because they believe “sexual freedom and self-determination” is the goal, and they wouldn’t want to see any sort of biological determinism one way or the other. Also for young people surrounded by and soaking up such a “socially liberal and [so-called] tolerant” worldview as promoted by this editorial, any feelings they may experience that they might interpret as homosexual in nature would be seen through the lens of the “some are born this way” doctrine. Such a coloring of their perception and processing would lean some much more heavily toward accepting that they may be “one of those by nature,” while, in a worldview lacking in such biological determinism, they would be more inclined toward considering the experience to be something fleeting.
The author actually explores one of those possibilities, without recognizing the other side. He talks of genetic testing where a child in the womb who is found to have “that gene” is aborted or “cured” through genetics-based medicine. What he doesn’t talk about is the possibility that those who find their child has “that gene” might then alter the child’s environment and their approach to raising him in such a way that actively shapes him toward homosexuality, making it that much harder for him to choose otherwise than it would have been — mistaking such a finding as an imperative to raise a child in accordance with some fantasized genetic “destiny.”
And on the author’s second sentence, I have found the reverse to be true: As someone who definitely considers homosexuality to be “problematic” I don’t see any implications, at all, if a genetic connection is eventually discovered.
But, if there is a genetic connection (admittedly, not yet shown), shouldn’t that change whether or not homosexuality is morally acceptable as a lifestyle?
No, not at all. What is considered moral is not determined by genetics in any way, shape, or form. Really, that’s obvious, right?
I’ve made the point before as a model of logical thinking and identifying assumptions (check that out here: “Australia’s ‘You’re having a lesbian’ ad versus Logic”), but let me make the point again with another recent article.
Almost as recently as this New Scientist article, the Daily Mail Online published an article in October of this year titled, “Are criminals born with a murder gene? Scientists identify cause of violent behavior.” The beginning of the article summarizes the rest well:
“Researchers have claimed that some people may be born with genes that makes them inherently violent.
If true it would indicate some are simply born to be violent, rather than being criminalised by society.
The scientists identified two genes that may be associated with extremely violent behaviour.”
Actually, if you read the article (caveat navita stans: the Daily Mail tends to include a lot of trashy celebrity-oriented articles and pics in its margins), you’ll find that, concerning the study, it reads very similar to the article about the study of homosexuals. If anything, the differences in the study seem to make the conclusions of the “violence” article stronger.
So, if it ends up being true that scientists have, indeed, “identified two genes that may be associated with extremely violent behaviour” and make them “inherently violent” then we should embrace such behavior as morally acceptable?
Of course not.
And such possible genetic linkages have been found with other problems, as well, such as alcoholism. Should we accept alcohol abuse as moral behavior if genetics plays some sort of role in one’s susceptibility? Again, of course not.
I realize that at this point some might take offense that I am lumping homosexuality in with the vices of extreme violence and alcohol abuse. To that I would say two things. (1) If that bothers you, then you prove my point. You are saying that there is a moral difference between the behaviors, yet you are judging that independently of genetics. If genetic tendencies played a role in determining what is morally acceptable, you would see no difference. And (2) consider something that is not negative, then. There have been findings that suggest some have a genetic predisposition toward greater intelligence. Do we then declare “intelligence” to be a moral virtue? Are those who are less intelligent somehow less moral, as well? (Let me say: Wow, I hope not!)
If that hasn’t yet made the point that genetics should not be used to determine what is moral or immoral, consider this paragraph from the New Scientist article:
“‘This study knocks another nail into the coffin of the “chosen lifestyle” theory of homosexuality,’ says Simon LeVay, the neuroscientist and writer who, in 1991, claimed to have found that a specific brain region, within the hypothalamus, is smaller in gay men. ‘Yes, we have a choice in life, to be ourselves or to conform to someone else’s idea of normality, but being straight, bisexual or gay, or none of these, is a central part of who we are, thanks in part to the DNA we were born with.'”
Now, reimagine that exact paragraph to be talking about extremely violent offenders:
“‘This study knocks another nail into the coffin of the “chosen lifestyle” theory of violent behavior,’ says Doctor von Doctor, the German biologist and neuroscientist who claimed to have found that a specific brain region, within the central lobe, is darker in violent offenders. ‘Yes, we have a choice in life, to be ourselves or to conform to someone else’s idea of normality, but being passive, aggressive or extremely violent, or none of these, is a central part of who we are, thanks in part to the DNA we were born with.'”
Who in the world would be OK with that second paragraph? By the way, that is a real German neuroscientist, Dr. Gerhard Roth, who discovered that, indeed, there is a “dark patch” in the central lobe area of the brain in many violent offenders — a discovery which “led him to believe that some criminals have a ‘genetic predisposition’ to violence,” according to the Daily Mail article referenced above. I removed his name from the quote above in the hope that no one would accidentally grab that terrible, fake quote and give it as something he actually said.
Because such a thing would be a terrible thing to say. Yet it is logically equivalent to the previous, very real paragraph in New Scientist quoting Simon LeVay.
We could do the same thing with the last paragraph of the New Scientist editorial:
“Ultimately, what causes homosexuality doesn’t matter as much as the fact that homosexual people exist, and have always existed, in every society on earth. In the words of the activists: some people are gay. Get over it.”
“Ultimately, what causes extreme violence doesn’t matter as much as the fact that extremely violent people exist, and have always existed, in every society on earth. In the words of the activists: some people are extremely violent. Get over it.”
Logical? No. Scientific? No. Advocacy? Yes. (Fitting that the New Scientist editor is quoting activists at the end. His article shows that he is among them.)
So, no, if some genetic influence, whether strong or weak, related to homosexual temptations were ever discovered (and, again, one has not been discovered, yet), it would be irrelevant concerning whether or not homosexuality is morally right or wrong.
What is right or wrong is not in the hands of geneticists, and it certainly isn’t in the hands of the writers of New Scientist magazine. It’s in the hands of God. And, frankly, it’s a lot safer there.
Morals of the story: (1) Read science articles very carefully, especially if they touch on a social “hot topic.” (2) Even after reading a science article, keep in mind that the author may not be properly conveying the actual results of the study being discussed. (3) No “gay gene” has been discovered, and this recent work does not change that. Some interesting possibilities have shown themselves, but they need more research and, even if confirmed in the strongest sense, they still don’t look like they would demonstrate the magical “gay gene” some people hope so desperately to find. And (4) what is moral or immoral is not determined by genetics, and people only pretend it is when doing so supports something they have already pre-determined is morally OK.