Genetics, recent, Science / Tech

There is No ‘Gay Gene,’ but Sexuality is Affected by Many Genes of Small Effect

The authors of an international research project into the genetics of same-sex behaviour recently reported their findings, and created a minor media stir. The international team of researchers looked at DNA markers and data from surveys of sexual behaviour completed by over 400,000 UK Biobank participants, as well as 69,000 users of 23andMe, and found five genetic markers associated with same-sex behaviour. The authors concluded that genetics can explain between 8 percent and 25 percent of the variation in same-sex sexual behaviour.

A debate over the extent to which human sexuality is linked to genetics, if at all, has been going on since at least 1993, when a controversial study appeared to find that some people have a genetic predisposition to homosexuality, and gave rise to the concept of the “gay gene.” The idea that a single gene might be responsible for sexual behaviour—or, indeed, any other psychological trait—has since been discredited and we now know that human behaviour is influenced by many genes, each having a small effect.

The media coverage of the recent study suggests this area of research is widely misunderstood by journalists, including some science journalists. Consider the headline on the BBC report: ‘No single gene associated with being gay.’ While this is true, it’s misleading since it suggests that there are no genes linked to homosexuality. Forbes carried an equally confused piece. Its headline read: ‘The “Gay Gene” Is A Myth But Being Gay Is “Natural,” Say Scientists.’ The Guardian published an article by its columnist Owen Jones under the headline: ‘”Gay gene” theories belong in the past—now we know sexuality is far more fluid.’ Jones manages to dismiss the research altogether with the bizarre comment “…while the research may be interesting, it is surely irrelevant…”

Why is an important scientific finding being downplayed by journalists who clearly don’t understand its meaning? It may be because LGBTQ+ rights advocates are conflicted about whether it helps or hinders their larger cause to acknowledge there’s a genetic component to same-sex behaviour or indeed any psychological trait. On the one hand, it suggests LGBTQ+ identity isn’t a choice and therefore the attempts to persuade gay people to choose otherwise—Christian “cures” for homosexuality, for instance—are misguided. But on the other, it seems to open the door to biological explanations for other social behaviour—the fact that fewer women than men choose to pursue careers in STEM, for instance—and that undercuts orthodox progressive views, which prioritise socio-cultural explanations. We see this conflict in the disagreements between traditional feminists who popularised the idea that gender is a social construct, and trans rights advocates who maintain that a person’s internal sense of what gender they are has a neurobiological basis but that it doesn’t always coincide with their natal gender.

Day by day, as genetic science advances, it becomes ever clearer that all psychological traits are genetically influenced. The geneticist Erik Turkheimer expressed this in what he called the First Law of Behavioural Genetics: All human behavioural traits are heritable. From sexual assault to anorexia, we are discovering that genetics plays a significant part in influencing how we feel and behave. The blank-slatist response is to caricature anyone who defends such findings as a “genetic determinist,” which in today’s febrile and anti-intellectual political climate is just one step away from calling someone a fascist. That’s dangerous. After all, if it’s okay to punch fascists, and behavioural geneticists are propagating an ideology that is almost fascism, then we are getting close to justifying the forcible suppression of scientific research in genetics (which is, one should point out, what actual fascists tend to do).

What’s needed instead is a public conversation about these findings. If it’s true that we will soon be able to predict sexuality (or, at least, assign probabilities to different sexual orientations) from a DNA test on an embryo, how should we respond to this? And extending from that question, how do we respond when we can predict many other aspects of an unborn child’s future personality, from intelligence to their propensity for violent criminality? There are liberal and illiberal answers to these questions. Those who care about reason and liberty need to begin preparing a position which defends scientific freedom, as well as equal rights for all, regardless of the content of their genome. There needs to be a strident response against both blank-slatists on the anti-science Left, and right-wing bigots who might seek to misuse our new understanding of the genetic underpinnings of human behaviour to advance their own political agenda. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, if we suppress intelligent, measured analysis of these controversial scientific findings in the mainstream media, and push those interested in them to visit right-wing websites and message boards to find out more, it is the bigots who will prevail.

 

Jerry Barnett is a technologist, author, and campaigner who for some years has written about, and opposed, the rise of censorship. His book Porn Panic! documents recent moral panics against free expression that have arisen on the identitarian Left. He runs the Sex and Censorship page on Facebook and you can follow him on Twitter @PornPanic

 

Image courtesy of Adam Lynch on Flickr.

Comments

  1. The author is refuting the notion of a binary; heritable (facsist?) versus non heritable (Owen Jones) and the attempt to frame it either way on a political/ideological basis.
    It’s not even a question of all or nothing.

  2. Woah, what is this vague smear? Does anybody really believe the right is going to abort gay people out of existence? The people who insist on the sanctity of human life from conception, who abhor the eugenicists who’ve aborted Down Syndrome out of whole societies and a hugely disproportionate number of black and female babies? They’re the ones we fear will misuse this information?

  3. The real issue behind this is whether science can anymore be about the impartial seeking out of truth and the acceptance of that truth no matter where it leads. Or whether science is now compromised and its results must fit in with a preconceived ideology or be rejected. It is increasingly apparent that many who are involved in research are merely looking to justify their own and current social beliefs. Sadly recent reports in Nature and Scientific American have shown that seems to be the case and science is no longer about looking for the truth, and those who claim to be researchers are politically and ideologically compromised.

  4. It was never going to be possible to trace homosexuality to a gene or even a group of genes as that would directly contradict the theory of natural selection. Nature is utterly ruthless in selecting out those traits which do not improve survival and anything which inhibits sexual reproducing will be selected right out. Any gene or group of genes favouring homosexuality would be selected out of the gene pool in a single generation. There is no evolutionary mechanism available to propagate such a gene by definition. It is only ideology which drives some to demand such a gene, not science.

  5. Oh, that’s soooo wrong, Philip!

    theconversation.com

    Best of mates: why ‘gay genes’ are a good fit for Darwin - Brendan Zietsch

    Sexual orientation has long been cause for discussion and controversy, but just where does our sexual orientation come from? Are people “born gay” or are environmental causes at play?

    …Decades of research – reviewed by Qazi Rahman and Glenn Wilson of the University of London – has revealed that genetic influences play a significant role in sexual orientation.

    For example, non-heterosexuality runs in families and genetically identical twin pairs are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than are genetically non-identical twin pairs.

    Analysis of twin pair correlations in many studies shows that genetic factors account for around 30% to 50% of variation in sexual orientation, although we have yet to find a specific “gay gene”…“Gay genes” also pose an evolutionary conundrum.

    Natural selection favours individuals (and their genes) that reproduce most successfully. Given homosexuality is non-reproductive, how have “gay genes” managed to survive natural selection?

    Work by myself and others has shed light on this Darwinian paradox.

    I have shown that psychologically feminine men and psychologically masculine women (those who see themselves as similar to the opposite gender) are more likely to be homosexual.

    On the other hand, I’ve also shown that psychologically feminine men and masculine women who happen to be heterosexual are more “successful” at mating – that is, they have more lifetime sexual partners (there’s some evidence that behaviourally androgynous characteristics are attractive to the opposite-sex).

    Using genetic modelling on thousands of identical and non-identical twins, I’ve shown the above is due to genetic factors with multiple effects: these predispose to homosexuality and sex-atypicality and, in heterosexuals, to having more sexual partners.

    So “gay genes” actually increase mating success in heterosexual carriers of those genes.

    Consistent with this, I’ve also shown that heterosexuals who have a homosexual co-twin (and who therefore may carry “gay genes”) tend to have a higher than average number of sexual partners – that is, they are more successful at acquiring mates.

    So it appears that any evolutionarily detrimental effect of “gay genes” (predisposing to homosexuality) is balanced out by the evolutionarily beneficial effects (increased mating success) in heterosexual carriers of those genes. This might explain why such genes have survived natural selection.

    ------(end of excerpt from Zeitsch’s article)-------
    To put it in crude terms, there is evidence that gay men have super-sexy sisters whose own offspring can carry on the family’s genetic lineage.

    You’re also assuming, Philip, that homosexuals are behaviorally sterile when in fact many gay men and lesbians do have their own genetic offspring. In recent times, of course, lesbians can avail themselves of artificial insemination, and in the past some gay men married and started families as part of ‘being in the closet.’

  6. Thank you for drawing my attention to that research which was unknown to me, but not unexpected. It needs to be subjected to a close argumentation analysis to see if the conclusions are valid. This would need close examination of the entire argument chain to discover all assumptions and close off all alternatives. I haven’t attempted this but some areas suggest closer examination

    It would have to be seen that all environmental factors were completely eliminated to validate this. The mechanisms used would need rigorous checking.

    Similarly

    It would need to be checked whether it is an assumption that feminine traits in men and vice versa are genetic or environmental and how robust that is.

    Similarly

    ‘Some evidence’ does not sound like conclusive evidence and this needs to be checked for validity.

    Similarly

    How valid is this modelling? What assumptions have gone into the model? All models use assumptions (which is why they are models) what are those assumptions and have they predisposed the outcome? This needs checking.

    Similarly

    Heterosexuals with a homosexual twin may have more partners for a range of reasons including environmental other than an assumed gay gene. The assumptions input into the argument need to be checked here too

    Finally

    As a conclusion this is only as strong as the assumptions, many of them hidden, that have gone into the argument. At the end of the day it may be correct, but as it stands it is not convincingly valid until such an analysis is properly undertaken

    These are of course the links in the chain of reasoning that need testing which just occur to me as an immediate and not fully thought through response. It deserves to be checked more thoroughly by someone with expertise in this area but having seen so much science more dependent on assumption than evidence we need to treat such arguments with caution until a full analysis is done

  7. Who are these phantoms? And what makes them right wing?
    The truth is that you can count the number of true anti-gay bigots on the fingers of a leper’s hand.
    WHat people do hate is the constant whining of th activists who are constantly lying to us about how the people they supposedly represent will be oppressed as soon as anyone doesn’t agree with the whole of the gaystapo’s agenda.
    The whole gay lobby needs to be ignored, so that real people can get along without the need to worry about these evil, fundamentalist twats.

  8. The issue was never the ratio of contribution that nature and nurture have in human behavior.

    The issue is that the gay agenda mainstreamed the notion that if a behavior can be said to be rooted in genetics, then a person is not responsible for the behavior and should be immune to criticism for it.

    Society cannot function under such notions.

  9. Boiler-plate designed to tick a box marked “non-partisan opinion”. We’ve seen that a lot in Quillette articles.

  10. The author’s concept of right-wing bigots is a left-wing bogeyman.

    The real concerns are as follows:

    1. Abortion based on desirability of psychological traits via the artificial insemination process
    2. Undermining the “narrative” that everything is socially created

    The scientific ignorance of progressives is doubly astounding with their pretensions to scientific literacy. Blank slate was debunked decades ago.

    I suspect what we’ll find is that the real issue is similar to addiction: A genetic predisposition to certain traits and tendencies that need a “trigger” to activate; with the requisite size of required trigger being variable.

    I further suspect that it will take a century to clean up the mess that progressives have left academia on these kinds of issues- specifically, it sounds like they used self-reported homosexuality.

    Well . . .you have closet gays in denial, the potential confounding factor of bisexuality (I would buy that the highly promiscuous pan-sexuality form of bisexuality has a genetic component, possibly with the libido being sufficiently pronounced to overwrite what would otherwise be preferences), and there’s always the double-secret demon in the room: Eliminating whether some unknown percentage of gay people are gay out of early childhood sexual trauma. As in, if say 95% of gay people are “wired” gay, but 5% of gay people are scared of heterosexual sex due to abuse and turned to a “safe” community alternative; you are going to confound your data.

    Unfortunately, you can’t “scrub” your data until/unless a gene or gene cluster is/are identified that do directly lead to homosexuality.

    EDIT: Sidebar, this kind of thing reminds me of my favorite detail in Star Trek: Nemesis. Jean-Luc Picard noted that his fondness for Earl Grey tea came from an aunt who introduced him to it when sick, and that while at first he didn’t like it, it became his favorite tea.

    SynJean (Synthetic Jean-Luc) absently orders “Tea, hot” while preparing to attack.

    That’s really how it should work. The predisposition to liking tea? That’s a matter of exposure to tea. The specific favorite? Well, that’s dependent on life experience.

    Second EDIT: For many on the left, the cognitive dissonance should approach ego-crisis levels if they accepted this research. Expanding the idea of inbuilt personality characteristics means you have to look at populations- implicit in that is lacks. Example: If those who accrue wealth and rise to the top all have trait A & B that are responsible, then everyone who languishes in the left’s favorite “But what about Bob?” groups, such as the poor, must lack those traits. Since the left actually is pessimistic about people, this means conceding (in their minds) that these people are lacking and in fact don’t deserve what the rich have. It also means that everything they’ve ever attempted has been what the right has said all along- a waste of time and resources.

    The scary thing is, if they can move past the horror of admitting what a colossal waste of resources their creed has caused and the damage they’ve done to so many lives- they might move into the truly terrifying part of communism, which is the effective slavery of the gifted to support the parasites. The “from each according to their talents” portion.

  11. We have tons of genes that aren’t useful to survival, but they may be tied to genes that are useful, or there may have not been enough time for evolution to eliminate them.

    Take intelligence. Very intelligent people are often autistic. Did evolution “select” for autism. No. But it may have selected for intelligence and, as part of the package, some of the genes that help with intelligence can also increase the chance of autism.

    In genetic traits are indeed multi-causal, its entirely possible for negative genetic traits to survive.

    This doesn’t even get into the biological realm. For instance, the fraternal birth order effect (younger brothers are a lot more likely to be gay) may be due to anti0bodies that are produced in a woman when she has carries a male child build up and could possibly effect younger male siblings more. So some positive thing (protecting a pregnant mothers health) could inadvertently make someone more likely to be gay.

  12. There’s actually a study I once found that the sisters of gay men are more promiscuous- therefore it is a beneficial survival trait for the gene line, and the gay brothers are inbreeding protection.

  13. I don’t think your take on the Deep South, as it is today, bears close examination. A couple of generations ago, perhaps. Not now, after decades of travel and relocation of the American population. Nevertheless, I’m sure that with only a few minutes on Google, you can find a study from somewhere that shares your view.

  14. In the mind of Leftists the Deep South plays the role of Hades in the Progressive religion. The Deep South is the Hades of anti-gay bigotry, black church burnings and violent gun owning pick up driving hunting rednecks. The Deep South serves as the justification of progressive policies. Just like their bible thumping brethren Leftist dogma will help us avoid the Deep South hell.

    According to https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/lgbt_populations

    the states with the largest LBGT populations are CA, TX, FL and NY/NJ. NC and GA have LBGT populations comparable to MA,MI, PA, OH and WA. Whereas SC, AL, TN, MS, LA and AR have LBGT populations comparable to MN, WI, OR and NH. VT, DE and RI rank among the states with the lowest LBGT populations. Eureka Springs, AR has a vibrant LBGT community. https://www.thrillist.com/travel/nation/most-gay-friendly-city-in-every-red-state-in-america

    Matthew Shepard and Harvey Milk were not killed in the Deep South, yet the venues of those murders bear no stain. South Dakotans are not delivering small pox infected blankets to Indians, Californians are not mistreating Chineses immigrants, Bostonians are not racists rioting over busing, but the antebellum Jim Crow South is alive and well. Nashville, TN, the home of country music, is a progressive city. Memphis, TN, Atlanta GA and other southern cities are predominantly run by black politicians. The northeastern United States ranks as the most segregated area in terms of schools, which is a product of housing discrimination. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/05/15/the-most-segregated-schools-may-not-be-in-the-states-youd-expect-2/

    Ah but it is the rural south that is the problem so the refrain goes. I have already referenced the Eureka Springs, AR. The effeminate southern male is as character in southern literature is as ubiquitous as the Steel Magnolia matriarchal figure.

    Klansman and segregationists like Robert Byrd, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Ross Barnett and other like mind Democrats are long since gone. Yet nothing survives in the Leftist mind like the phantom racist anti-gay Deep South. The old collectivists ideas have been tried and failed. The Left has nothing new. Like the old jock reliving his time as Big Man on Campus, the Leftist seeks to revive what he perceives as his glory days. If it weren’t so pitiful and patronizing to blacks, it would be funny.

    But polls show the Deep South is most hostile to gay marriage. Yes and those same people believe the government is going to coerce their church into preforming a gay marriage or criminally punish the local Christian baker. Having seen a Christian baker harassed in Colorado and a Pastor in Houston, TX having his sermon notes subpoenaed, can one truly say these fears are unwarranted? Additionally many of these church members are black belonging to predominantly black churches.

    Yes racial and bigoted incidents still occur in the Deep South, just as they occur in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, ect… There exists racists, bigots and criminals on both the Left and Right and in Blue States as well as Red. Salt Lake City has one of the highest proportion of LBGT citizens in the U.S. but sits in the middle of Red State Mormon Utah. Believing that all the ne’erdowells reside in one region of the country or populate only one political party is either naive or delusional.

  15. Because people mix up genotype and phenotype. The probability of homosexual behavior increases with certain genetic traits but there is always an environmental component. Not everyone who has these genetic factors will be homosexual or exclusively homosexual. These genetic factors may also have beneficial impacts that improve survival or reproduction. Or be linked to other loci that improve survivability. Genetics is not straight forward nor is evolution. Trying to state homosexuality cannot be genetic because of evolution demonstrates a fairly simplistic understanding of both genetics and evolution.

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