Homosexuality and Genes: Deja Vu All Over Again?

It’s like déjà vu all over again. Another study claiming to support the idea that homosexuality is directly caused by genes comes to public attention. And then there are journalists eager to trumpet the headline. Alas, as in the past, the reports and public statements of the authors misrepresent and hype the study beyond recognition.

For instance, there is the “blinking” study reported recently in the Behavioral Neuroscience journal. Lead author Qazi Rahman has become a leading opponent of the idea that environment may play a crucial role in the formation of same sex attraction.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof thought so much of this study that he quoted it in a recent New York Times article as being important evidence of a gay gene. Although Rahman’s theories are more hormonal than genetic, the researcher does negate the role of environment in sexuality. Why? One reason is that when startled, 15 lesbians on average blinked in a similar manner to 15 straight men. There were no differences between straight and gay men.

Wait, no difference between gay and straight men? From reading Kristof’s recent piece and the press accounts of the study, you would not know that. Because a small group of lesbians blinked like a small group of straight men, the leap is made to assume being a lesbian is obligatory?

However, the headlines for the Rahman study could have read: “Sexual orientation not genetic for gay men; might be for lesbians.” I must have blinked; I didn’t read that anywhere.

In his Times article, Kristof then quotes another Rahman article from the journal, Personality and Individual Differences that speculates that 50-60% of the differences in sexual orientation are due to genetic influences. Kristof and others in the media uncritically accept these numbers even though there is a considerable debate in scientific circles about the validity of the 50-60% figure and the research on which it is based. Despite a couple of fairly sophisticated attempts, efforts by independent researchers to confirm these numbers have failed.

So what you wouldn’t know if you only read the news services is that the data are highly questionable and there are findings in these studies that better support environmental theories of sexual orientation.

However, even if we did assume that differences in sexual orientation were 50-60% genetic, what would that mean? Well, first of all that leaves a pretty substantial portion of sexual preference open to environmental influence.

So the analogies to left-handedness and eye color fall absolutely flat.

Putting the questionable figure in perspective lets look at other traits and the estimated percent of difference attributable to genetic factors according to existing research found on the American Psychological Association web site.

Attitudes toward reading books – 55%
Feelings about abortion on demand – 54%
Feelings about roller coaster rides – 50%
Attitudes towards the death penalty for murder – 50%
Humility – 58%
Likelihood to engage in casual sex – 49%
Attitudes toward equality – 55%

Think of the new advocacy groups that might spring up. Roller coasters enthusiasts might lobby for free or reduced admission to theme parks since many riders would be hindered from being who they are by restrictive pricing policies. If we thought about these traits the way the media and some researchers want us to think about homosexuality, the campaign for safe sex is futile since nearly half the reason why certain people drop their pants on a whim is theoretically due to genetics. And as we are getting accustomed to hearing, can’t change that, right?

At risk of belaboring the point, the faulty interpretation of all of these studies is that genetic influence is the same as destiny. Certainly the inference desired by many in the gay activist camp is that the only scientifically acceptable approach to homoerotic feelings is to accept and identify with them. Unless one is prepared to say that about attitudes toward equality, the death penalty, abortion and literacy, then why say it about sexual feelings’

Here’s one more human trait that is highly heritable: weight and body type. This trait is estimated to be 60-80% related to genetic influence. If homosexuality is out of control at 50-60% then what of one’s physique? I can hear the doors of gyms, fitness centers and infomercial studios slamming shut now. Why bother to change something so clearly due to genetics’ Oh, to have inherited the six-pack ab gene!

There may be one trait that is determined. I guess we could call it journalistic determinism because it appears that many journalists are determined to find that gay gene. I really shouldn’t be so hard on them, they probably can’t help it.