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Epigenetics possibly responsible for homosexuality
December 12, 2012 1:06 AM   Subscribe

Study Finds Epigenetics, Not Genetics, Underlies Homosexuality: Epigenetics – how gene expression is regulated by temporary switches, called epi-marks – appears to be a critical and overlooked factor contributing to the long-standing puzzle of why homosexuality occurs. In the current study, researchers from the Working Group on Intragenomic Conflict at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) integrated evolutionary theory with recent advances in the molecular regulation of gene expression and androgen-dependent sexual development to produce a biological and mathematical model that delineates the role of epigenetics in homosexuality.
posted by aleph (102 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
The study solves the evolutionary riddle of homosexuality, finding that "sexually antagonistic" epi-marks, which normally protect parents from natural variation in sex hormone levels during fetal development, sometimes carryover across generations and cause homosexuality in opposite-sex offspring.

So my mom made me gay? I knew it!
posted by helmutdog at 1:52 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somewhere out there is a homosexual guy named Gene who's tired of people saying he doesn't exist.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:27 AM on December 12, 2012 [25 favorites]


Biology. There's always another bit.
posted by effugas at 2:47 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


It will be very strange indeed when technology allows fundamental desires to be directly reprogrammed. There's a reason you don't have direct access to your emotions.
posted by effugas at 2:49 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


My prediction is that we're gonna keep seeing articles of the form "biological trait X is much more dependent on epigenetics than anyone had previously thought!" for the next few decades.
posted by breath at 2:53 AM on December 12, 2012 [36 favorites]


Weird, I have never heard them called "epi-marks" even by friends who work in that field.
posted by shelleycat at 3:21 AM on December 12, 2012


Are epi-marks made by EpiPins?
posted by ryoshu at 3:28 AM on December 12, 2012


Hmm ... Brian Epi-stein was gay. Coincidence?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:36 AM on December 12, 2012


Basically another one of God's poorly thought-out design lash-ups, then?
posted by Segundus at 4:00 AM on December 12, 2012


Somewhere out there is a homosexual guy named Gene who's tired of people saying he doesn't exist.

I was at the performance of a comedy radio show the other night, and one of the performers cited this as his favourite homophobe trope, mainly because he used to live next to a guy called Gene, the gayest, campest person he had ever met, and an all around great guy.

So when a bigot taxi driver blathered at the comedian "no one's ever found a 'gay gene'", he retorted "I have. He lives at 23 Russell Street".
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:04 AM on December 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


OK, from the press release and the abstract, as I understand it: There is an epi-genetic mechanism regulating fetal androgen sensitivity. This usually erased between genetations. The researchers think it's plausible that occasional non-erasure leads to differences in sexual orientation, but they don't actually have any evidence for it yet.

So maybe an interesting idea, but not remotely "scientists ... have unlocked the puzzle of why people are gay". That would require actual evidence, and we'll have to how how plausible other geneticists think this is.

(And thank you JSTOR for not even letting us read the entire abstract!)
posted by nangar at 4:05 AM on December 12, 2012 [17 favorites]


I can never quite figure out the appeal of this constant scientific inquiry over the root causes of homosexual desire beyond the obvious cultural imperative to eventually engineer predominantly homosexual people out of existence like they did in the Star Trek universe. Sure, I get the whole notion of curiosity and expanding scientific knowledge, but there does seem to be an awful lot riding on this, from the peculiar need of highly politicized gay people to point out that genetics make us, because they think that is the perfect defense against rampaging moralists (it isn't), to the peculiar need of highly politicized sanctimonious ninnies to find a reason to abort that even they can love.

It's all just so silly, because homosexual behavior is completely value-neutral. We are unlikely to cause a population crash, despite the claims of highly politicized sanctimonious ninnies, and are not particularly gifted in the arts, sexual prowess, and shoe selection, despite the claims of highly politicized gay people. Who gives a shit? Unless you're looking to find either a way to make more homosexuals or fewer homosexuals, it's a line of investigation that should get no more press attention than a study in, say, why some people love cilantro and others find it tastes like soap. Everyone thinks it's somehow going to justify their position, but is that really a good reason to push science into the public consciousness?

Of course, I became queer in the usual way, by setting up candles in the bathroom, praying to a picture of Charles Nelson Reilly that I cut out of the TV guide, singing "There's Got To Be A Morning After," by Maureen McGovern, and eating a stick of cold margarine, but how I live in the world is more important than the tired old origin story. There's not much to be gained from all this but a rollicking ad campaign from Pfizer for their new wonder drug, Normalia™ (now with supplemental Heteragra™ for that difficult transition) and a thousand more tiresome misdirected counterarguments from the HRC about gay penguins.

In the end, people are fixated on this because they think that the way we live isn't right, somehow, and yet that's something that's just not true, and demonstrably not true, so we go to the genetic battleground instead of just shrugging and getting on with the task of being alive.

Of course, everyone's mileage may well vary, probably because of stress hormones in utero.
posted by sonascope at 4:14 AM on December 12, 2012 [50 favorites]


The idea that homosexuality is a "puzzle" to be "solved" is homophobic bullshit.

This is also bad, overhyped science. There's no single, simple explanation for any complex human behavior, including sexual behavior.
posted by medusa at 4:17 AM on December 12, 2012 [14 favorites]


It's only a matter of time until it's weaponized.

...

Well, y'all have a nice morning.
posted by indubitable at 4:46 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I can never quite figure out the appeal of this constant scientific inquiry over the root causes of homosexual desire beyond the obvious cultural imperative to eventually engineer predominantly homosexual people out of existence like they did in the Star Trek universe.

Well, it might put a stop to wankers moaning about the footwear choices of five-year olds.
posted by pompomtom at 4:47 AM on December 12, 2012


The people at the "National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis" were obviously less concerned with whether their name made sense than whether they could fit "BIOS" into the acronym of an entity studying what sounds a lot like a built-in operating system for the genetic code.

For that, I salute them.
posted by radicalawyer at 4:57 AM on December 12, 2012


It's only a matter of time until it's weaponized.

30Rock beat you to it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:00 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sonascope: "I can never quite figure out the appeal of this constant scientific inquiry over the root causes of homosexual desire beyond the obvious cultural imperative to eventually engineer predominantly homosexual people out of existence like they did in the Star Trek universe."

Not to derail too much, but as a lifelong Trekkie I cannot let this slap against Star Trek stand.

It's true, Trek never did enough to make it clear that gays were welcome and common in the Federation. There were all sorts of arguments about this behind the scenes (Roddenberry was perfectly fine with gay characters in Trek) but Paramount steadfastly refused to budge and so homosexuality was always an awkward fit in Trek. But it was there. There were a couple of episodes that dealt with gay themes directly (you could call it too little, too late, but it was something) and there were a number of occasions where it was made clear that homophobia simply didn't exist in the 24th century.

Yes, they could have done a lot more, but it's not fair to say that gays were "engineered" out of Trek.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:01 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yes, they could have done a lot more, but it's not fair to say that gays were "engineered" out of Trek.

In the first episode that you cite, the people exhibiting nonmainstream sexuality are literally engineered back into the mainstream using (as I recall painful) medical technology.

In the second one, the homosexual-equivalent relationship is against the law/culturally taboo, and that law/taboo is complied with, because the alternative is (eventual) death. And Dax never mentions it again. Same result.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:11 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can never quite figure out the appeal of this constant scientific inquiry over the root causes of homosexual desire

What the hell is so hard to understand about human curiosity, especially as it applies to the root causes of our most basic behavior?

Human beings want to figure stuff out. It's kind of what we do.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:39 AM on December 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


In The Outcast, the non-gendered (bi-gendered?) society cruelly represses those who don't conform, and we're obviously supposed to see that as a tragic thing. Will Riker has a romantic relationship with one of the gender non-conformists. It takes some real effort to see that episode as anti-gay. In Rejoined, the fact that both of the Trill lovers are women now isn't presented as the problem. Their culture has very strict taboos against people re-uniniting after they've reincarnated, and that is the problem. Dax's former lover gives up, but Dax doesn't. In both episodes, the regulars, the characters we're supposed to identify with, clearly have no problem with non-heterosexual sex. Yes, Dax never mentions it again, but how often do Star Trek characters ever talk about their old romances?

In both cases, the show's creators were clearly attempting to tells stories about homophobia, in an indirect way. Again, they could have done more. But I give them credit for what they did do, given the limitations they faced.

Sorry folks, I really don't want to derail this thread with Star Trek stuff. Shutting up now.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:47 AM on December 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


"sexually antagonistic" epi-marks, which normally protect parents from natural variation in sex hormone levels during fetal development, sometimes carryover across generations and cause homosexuality in opposite-sex offspring.

so if somebody really didn't want a queer kid they'd just have to make sure to have a kid that's the same sex as the parents!

it's...
so...
simple!
posted by entropone at 5:52 AM on December 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


The argument about whether homosexuality is a physical trait or whether it's a choice bugs the crap out of me. I know I didn't choose to be gay; I was about twelve when I started realizing that I fantasized about boys, and decidedly not girls, and back then I would have given anything to just be normal and not have to deal with that.

There are millions of gay people with similar experiences, and we're not reticent about telling our stories; we didn't choose to be gay. (A smaller segment of the gay population claims to have chosen to be gay; I don't blame them, it's pretty awesome, but it's apparently not the most common experience.)

It seems to me that the whole debate as to whether it's genetic or not comes down to trying to figure out if millions of gay people are lying. Because without some sort of physical reason for some people to be gay and others not, the alternative is that millions of kids spontaneously decided, at great personal sacrifice, to join a lifelong political conspiracy designed solely to piss off the conservative mindset.

It would be nice to know the nature of whatever physical mechanism is responsible, out of a sense of scientific curiosity. But when millions of people vouch that they never chose to be gay, it shouldn't take decades of scientific inquiry to prove to the world that they're not all just lying.
posted by MrVisible at 5:52 AM on December 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


(And thank you JSTOR for not even letting us read the entire abstract!)

Maybe I'm special (well, I am, but in this instance I don't think so), but when I hit the Article PDF link on this page I get the entire article. Which I will read and probably not understand very much of, but hey.

It's interesting that it might be my dad's "fault" that I'm gay, although none of his other daughters (I have two older half-sisters and one younger) are queer.

What the hell is so hard to understand about human curiosity, especially as it applies to the root causes of our most basic behavior?


Not hard at all to understand, but there's no point in pretending that this kind of research occurs in a value-neutral atmosphere, either. The researchers themselves may have the purest of investigative motives, but they don't get grant money or press attention in a vacuum.
posted by rtha at 6:10 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's only a matter of time until it's weaponized.

And think of the possibilities for pranking other people, once science gets a fuller understanding!

"So how does your coffee taste, Joe?"
"Good, I guess... wait, why are you all laughing? What did you put in it!?!"
"Hahaha! Dude - we totally spiked your coffee with a retrovirus! Now you're gay!"

Yes, the future will be an interesting place.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:41 AM on December 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


> "... it's a line of investigation that should get no more press attention than a study in, say, why some people love cilantro and others find it tastes like soap."

I understand your point, but I did feel that I should point out that I have seen the results of cilantro taste studies come quite close to provoking violence.
posted by kyrademon at 6:47 AM on December 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


It seems to me that the whole debate as to whether it's genetic or not comes down to trying to figure out if millions of gay people are lying. Because without some sort of physical reason for some people to be gay and others not, the alternative is that millions of kids spontaneously decided, at great personal sacrifice, to join a lifelong political conspiracy designed solely to piss off the conservative mindset.

Are those really the only options, though? What if environmental factors cause homosexuality? That doesn't mean that homosexuality is a choice or that someone is lying when they say they didn't choose it; it means that it was determined by something other than genetics. It's not like free will and genetics are the only ways of determining human behavior.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:48 AM on December 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


scientists ... have unlocked the puzzle of why people are gay

It could also be looked at as why people are straight as well. Genetic reasons for things such as these straight/gay/bi, depression, confidence, etc., and so forth are fine for research and understanding but anything can be abused by society at large of course.
posted by juiceCake at 6:58 AM on December 12, 2012


the alternative is that millions of kids spontaneously decided, at great personal sacrifice, to join a lifelong political conspiracy designed solely to piss off the conservative mindset.

Although when you put it like that I find myself kind of liking the idea...
posted by Segundus at 6:58 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can never quite figure out the appeal of this constant scientific inquiry over the root causes of homosexual desire

What the hell is so hard to understand about human curiosity, especially as it applies to the root causes of our most basic behavior?

Human beings want to figure stuff out. It's kind of what we do.


Yes and no. There is pure scientific curiosity, and then there is cultural pressure. The curiosity can, like any other force, be manipulated into the service of cultural pressures.

You see this in the odd fact that we have study after study trying to prove that Men Do X while Women Do Y, despite the fact that the differences turned up in brain abilities seem to be fairly negligible, and the benefits of finding those differences small, especially in proportion to the amount of effort expended.

The same goes for What's Up With Gayness studies; it's an interesting question but the amount of time/money that we spend on it seems out of proportion to the benefits we can derive from answering it.

Which of course, makes you wonder about the motives for funding so many of these particular kinds of studies.
posted by emjaybee at 7:04 AM on December 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


to eventually engineer predominantly homosexual people out of existence like they did in the Star Trek universe.

That's absurd.
What about Kirk & Spock?
posted by Gordafarin at 7:07 AM on December 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


It takes some real effort to see that episode as anti-gay.

It's the bit where they get 'reprogrammed'. Reading that episode as homophobic is the overwhelmingly most common reading. I didn't understand it that way as a kid, but I haven't seen it as an adult.
posted by hoyland at 7:10 AM on December 12, 2012


Reading that episode as homophobic is the overwhelmingly most common reading.

Do you...have some evidence for that? You're supposed to identify with the Federation characters, who obviously see what's going on as a Bad Thing. Shit, even Worf is willing to stand against it (for Riker's sake).
posted by adamdschneider at 7:18 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's the bit where they get 'reprogrammed'. Reading that episode as homophobic is the overwhelmingly most common reading.

Do you have any links to that as a reading of that episode? That reading makes very little sense to me, and my googling only turns up stuff that basically says "This is Star Trek's attempt to address the lack of homosexual characters, and it's not a great effort, but it's an effort" which is basically how it reads to me.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:18 AM on December 12, 2012


It's really hard for me to sympathize with the dismissal of all manner of research into this stuff. For example, digit ratio, which is likely tied to fetal androgen exposure, can correlate with homosexuality and various diseases and psychological disorders. That's valuable information! If we figure out that gay men are likely to get X cancer, information about why they are gay will help explain if the cause is genetic or environmental. Making research into sexual orientation a scientific dead zone seems like it would have consequences somewhere down the line.

I'm coming at this from the perspective of a fairly butch straight woman. It IS frustrating that this study is framed in terms of sexual orientation, because this kind of stuff likely applies to me. I think it's interesting to learn why I have some masculine traits and other women don't. But the takeaway from this study is "man, science sure does think I should like chicks." Shoehorning research about gender performance into being research about sexual orientation to get press attention does a disservice to overall understanding, because that's not what this research is actually isolating.
posted by almostmanda at 7:20 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is not even remotely a new idea, its been around since at least the 80s along with most of the theory the authors present. However the actual paper is a really good and reasonably accessible review of current thought on the topic in a solid and somewhat new-ish synthesis. If anyone would like a copy please feel free to memail me with an email address I can send a PDF along with a promise not to distribute it any further - for the purposes of this academic discussion we are having of course.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:42 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't have any problem with basic scientific curiosity. I have a problem with the level of interest in this particular question because it's wildly overrepresented in terms of research by comparison to things like handedness, aethetics, or favorite color selection, and it would be my contention that this is so because people can't get past a very old-fashioned way of approaching the concept of alternate sexual constructions. It's not the research—it's the motive that gets me, and I think it's just too much spending and attention for results that don't, so far, represent much in terms of scientific value.

Using sexuality as a structure from which to explore the way genes are expressed is perfectly valid, but I find it suspect that we're not also doing research on this scale to ask questions like "If homosexuals don't reproduce in most cases, why is the proportion of people with homosexual attraction so consistent across cultures? What's the mechanism by which a proportion of non-reproducing members of a community benefits the reproductive fitness of that community?" These are questions that can go a long way in explaining how cultures work, and combating bullshit mythologies that don't serve our humanity.

This genetic thing, though? If we want to study epigenetic aspects of genetics, why aren't we concentrating on things that are problems, like diseases? Trouble is, despite any claims of neutrality from the researchers, this gets investigated because, on some level, scientists still think that being queer is a problem and not a natural function of social animals. The genetics are interesting, but the queers really wish the rest of y'all would spend more money on worthwhile causes instead of continuing to poke at us like we're circus animals. I'm gay because I am, and I'm okay because I am okay. A nice tautology works as well as a million dollar study here.
posted by sonascope at 7:56 AM on December 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


Reading that episode as homophobic is the overwhelmingly most common reading.

In my neck of the woods reading that episode as the opposite of homophobic is the overwhelmingly common reading.
posted by juiceCake at 7:56 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bulgarkotonos: Are those really the only options, though? What if environmental factors cause homosexuality? That doesn't mean that homosexuality is a choice or that someone is lying when they say they didn't choose it; it means that it was determined by something other than genetics. It's not like free will and genetics are the only ways of determining human behavior.

The options are: a) We didn't choose to be gay, it was caused by some factor, either genetic or environmental or a combination of the two or something entirely else that we don't understand yet, and we're telling the truth when we say we didn't have a choice in the matter, or b) We chose to be gay, and we're all lying about it.

What bugs me isn't the research into option A, it's the right wing's insistence that the incredibly absurd and insulting option B is true, despite its ridiculousness.
posted by MrVisible at 7:58 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


It has been suspected for a lot longer than the article implies. A combination perhaps of genetic imprinting failure, fetal cells from previous pregnancies left circulating in the maternal blood and partial uniparental disomy were proposed several years ago. Except for the uniparental disomy, which is error in early stages of fetal cell division and thus mechanical error, the rest is epigenetic event.
Forgive the bad grammar.
posted by francesca too at 8:00 AM on December 12, 2012


What bugs me isn't the research into option A, it's the right wing's insistence that the incredibly absurd and insulting option B is true, despite its absurdity.

I certainly understand that, and I agree with sonascope that the amount of energy put into this research is disproportionate to how much it matters. My point was mostly that human behavior is so complicated that we shouldn't simplify it to genetics or choice.

I also think there's something to be said for the idea that homosexuality should be accepted even if were a choice(obviously, the overwhelming evidence is that it isn't a choice); even if someone decided to be gay, it doesn't make treating them like shit for it anymore acceptable.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:03 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Regarding the ST:TNG episode, "The Outcast," I think they were trying to make a point against homophobia, but by casting an actor against Riker who wasn't remotely androgynous, they did what ST:TNG always did—they bunted. For all of the many, many flaws of TOS, they did at least go out on the occasional limb, but Berman/Braga were a world champion cop-out team. (IMHO, obviously.)
posted by sonascope at 8:05 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, for what it's worth, according to that Wikipedia article Frakes agrees with you, re: bunting.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:18 AM on December 12, 2012


> There's not much to be gained from all this but a rollicking ad campaign from Pfizer for their new wonder drug, Normalia™

This is the part that always squicks me out about these investigations. Regardless of any insights into population genetics, gene-linked diseases, or basic scientific curiosity, the ultimate goal is to find out what makes people gay. Logically extending from that discovery is the question, "Can we make people not-gay?" which, given the massive continued prejudice, is a choice a lot of people may take.

I'm all for probing the mysteries of the human condition, but I'd prefer we as a society could reach a point of fully accepting homosexuals before we start coming up with ways to eliminate them in utero. Maybe we could start investigations into finding out the genetics of homophobia?
posted by Panjandrum at 8:19 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have a problem with the level of interest in this particular question because it's wildly overrepresented in terms of research by comparison to things like handedness, aethetics, or favorite color selection...

A quick scan of pubmed shows this isn't true.

handedness       48,696
homosexuality    20,744
asethetics          20,136
favorite color      21
posted by euphorb at 8:20 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


around since at least the 80s

As long as that? I had the impression that specifically epigenetic explanations of this kind were not around in the last century; I would have thought they would have undercut the 'gay gene' stuff?
posted by Segundus at 8:22 AM on December 12, 2012


I think it's interesting to learn why I have some masculine traits and other women don't.

Well, me too, really, but we (editorially speaking) tend to forget or ignore that how we define "masculine" and "feminine" are very culturally bound.

There was an fpp a while back (a couple years?) about a researcher who was looking at how certain in utero conditions physically masculinize girls. (I think I'm remembering this correctly.) On the one hand, this condition can cause pretty serious medical problems, so research into prevention and treatment is good. On the other, the press coverage seemed to be treating it like "How to prevent your little princess from liking trucks!" And someone in the thread said that maybe this wasn't such a bad thing because wouldn't it be better if a homophobic family didn't have gay kids and in utero treatment could "cure" the baby butch growing there?

Which, you know, is not the solution to the problem of non-gender-conforming kids growing up in families that don't support them.
posted by rtha at 8:34 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


You can add me to the list of gay people who think that being gay, or straight, is a choice, and "born this way" is the wrong discussion to be having.

Genes probably play some role in regulating physical attraction, but that's completely different from whether or not you choose to engage in that behavior. Choosing to be straight and to stick to mostly-straight behavior is very socially regulated in our culture.

I wish there were more interdisciplinary work that talked about the biological and social views of "homosexuality". The idea of homosexual as a category is very recent. Genetics can possibly tell us the genes that regulate people's sexual urges, but to me that has extremely little to do with the social expression or identity of the "homosexual" - look at how many super-Christian, Republican dudes swear that they're not gay after they get caught in various scandals.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:35 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"This genetic thing, though? If we want to study epigenetic aspects of genetics, why aren't we concentrating on things that are problems, like diseases? Trouble is, despite any claims of neutrality from the researchers, this gets investigated because, on some level, scientists still think that being queer is a problem and not a natural function of social animals. The genetics are interesting, but the queers really wish the rest of y'all would spend more money on worthwhile causes instead of continuing to poke at us like we're circus animals."

At least from my experience knowing researchers who study the biology of gayness, they do it for pretty much the opposite reason you've suggested here.

Science is already shaping the 'debate' over homosexuality in incredibly positive ways, if only by giving it a shape with some relationship to reality. Of course being gay would be perfectly fine were it a 'choice' or 'not a choice', 'natural' or 'unnatural', or if it were caused by inattentive mothers or the alignment of Saturn at birth - but by being able to talk about what is means to become gay as it actually happens rather than what we guess maybe happens we can narrow the conversation to one that is both real and winnable.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:39 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess the point I'm trying to make is that both gay and straight people might have some cocktail of genes that might point them towards men, or women, or blondes, or anything, but these things are just as much conditioned by social upbringing, which overwhelmingly tells us that the opposite sex is what we "should" be attracted to, such that even someone with at least some of the gay-cocktail-genes has them shut off by their brain in response to social conditioning.

So essentially I don't think there is such a thing as a "natural" gay or straight person. The choice can't be made in a vacuum.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:44 AM on December 12, 2012


It's only a matter of time until it's weaponized.

30Rock beat you to it.


The US MILITARY beat you to it.
posted by gerryblog at 8:47 AM on December 12, 2012


Are those really the only options, though? What if environmental factors cause homosexuality? That doesn't mean that homosexuality is a choice or that someone is lying when they say they didn't choose it; it means that it was determined by something other than genetics. It's not like free will and genetics are the only ways of determining human behavior.

Not only that, but the theory that observed characteristics are the products of BOTH genetic and environmental influences have been the dominant theory for both psychology and biology for well over decades. It's the idea that allows for some forms of quantitative rigor in evolutionary biology. If you're not using a both/and model you're pretty much stuck with Victorian-era science (and likely, quite a few Victorians knew better.)

On the other hand, I don't think diversity in sexuality in humans can be explained evolutionarily at this point beyond the phylogenetic observation that humans have diverse sexual behavior.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:50 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


It would be pretty hilarious if the "gay bomb" got made and worked and the upshot was that the enemy fought all the harder to defend each other, a la Sparta.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:53 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can add me to the list of gay people who think that being gay, or straight, is a choice, and "born this way" is the wrong discussion to be having.

I'd completely believe you if you told me you'd chosen to be gay.

Please believe me, and millions of others, when I tell you that we didn't.

We're really not lying to you.
posted by MrVisible at 8:55 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Meanwhile, bisexuality is caused by a genetic dimmer switch.
posted by orme at 8:55 AM on December 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


As usual, the the media spin on this science sucks. It's there in the first sentence: "... the long-standing puzzle of why homosexuality occurs". After some heavy bean-platting, it's the word "why" in that sentence that sets off alarms. Think about how different it would sound if they had used "how" instead.

The closest I can come to gayness in terms of belonging to a non-majority group that's been kicked around a lot is being jewish, and if I read an article starting with "the puzzle of why some people are Jewish" I'd feel less than welcome.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:59 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think the intention is often good, but it's predicated on the belief that a virtually irrefutable proof that homosexual attraction is genetic would change anything socially. The thing is, a substantial fraction of anti-gay activists already acknowledge that being queer is not a choice, and they happily point to genetic roots for alcoholism, criminal tendencies, and birth defects. All this data does is validate their contention that we're a mistake, while doing nothing to look at the notion of how same-sex attraction fits into the spectrum of human experience.

I'd be curious how many gay people care where their orientation comes from. I certainly don't. Doesn't make a damn bit of difference in my daily life, and in who I am. I don't think straight people care where their orientation comes from, either. Why should they? What's gained here besides the potential for a preventative measure? What if being gay turns out to be a mistake, a mutation, or a birth defect? Does it make me any more than what I am? Does it make me less? Can I celebrate who I am if I'm an accident?

Research is fine. You won't find many people who love and champion science more than I do, but sometimes, there are just silly blind alleys that people just can't leave alone because science! Airless tires, automatic transmissions for bicycles, the Segway, neutron bombs, eyelash-thickening drugs that may accidentally turn your eyes brown—do we really need this stuff?

Does knowing why I love who I love matter as much as the fact that I can, and I do, and that that's fine, no matter what?
posted by sonascope at 9:02 AM on December 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


I will be interested to see how all this stuff works into the popular culture discourse of "women are naturally sexually fluid and men are naturally not, so basically straight chicks can totally get into making out with each other or having girl-girl-guy threesomes but non-gay-guys would rather gnaw off their own forearms than do anything like that!"

As a queer person with many years' experience reading "what can possibly explain the gays" news stories, I tend to think that the "explanations" for sexual behavior usually to boil down to "whatever is most convenient for rich white men, sexually speaking". So "women are sexually fluid" when it's convenient to justify threesomes and women making out with each other in bars and "it's genetic" when the rich white dudes are gay and want to justify their sexual behavior, and no doubt there will be twenty other reasons in the next few years, all of which will be convenient and none of which will really "unlock the puzzle". All of the reasons will ignore the incredible variability in actual, lived, historical human sexual practice, because that's complex and doesn't advance agendas.

So maybe an interesting idea, but not remotely "scientists ... have unlocked the puzzle of why people are gay". That would require actual evidence, and we'll have to how how plausible other geneticists think this is.

Naturally.
posted by Frowner at 9:07 AM on December 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Meanwhile, bisexuality is caused by a genetic dimmer switch."

Thank you- I wasn't sure how I was going to explain myself within the context of this epi-mark business. I was thinking that maybe they work like a midi sequencer or something.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 9:09 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Seems to me the whole 'gay gene' search, in this case 'gay epigenetics', is part of the massive overemphasis we have on genetic determinism and the determination to ignore the obviously massive role of culture and socialization in human behavior. I mean, how obvious could it be that romantic and sexual attraction have a cultural and environmental component? Apparently there is a political motivation because some people feel that if they can't make a hard-core 'born that way' claim then homophobes will tell them to just get over it. But arguments for gay rights don't seem to me to depend at all on how people become gay, any more than arguments about the rights of straight consenting adults to use their genitals as they please.

Related: what I suspect is a massive underestimation of the number of bisexuals out there.
posted by zipadee at 9:15 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Regarding the ST:TNG episode, "The Outcast," I think they were trying to make a point against homophobia, but by casting an actor against Riker who wasn't remotely androgynous, they did what ST:TNG always did—they bunted.

Maybe it was bunted by 21st century standards, but it was still pretty awesome for this young bi-kid, and one of my favorite episodes. There wasn't much other queer content on TV at the time - it was this and the occasional foreign film. Yes, it did suffer from the "all lesbians die" ending - but at least (unlike other dead-lesbians) you were supposed to rage against her destruction. They could have still done a reset by offering the character refuge in the Federation, but I think that they meant to pull heart-strings - they wanted viewers to be upset at what her society did to her, especially people who might have (otherwise) been okay with anti-gay conversion therapy.
posted by jb at 9:15 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's an interesting field of study from a Theory of Evolution standpoint. Evolution (at least in my basic layman's understanding) has two major forces:
1. Traits that make survival and/or sexual reproduction more likely will become more prevalent - sometimes universal - in the species.
2. Traits that make survival and/or sexual reproduction less likely will become less prevalent - sometimes extinct - in the species.

From that standpoint, the existence of homosexuality *is* a mystery, and finding an epigenetic cause rather than a genetic cause solves that mystery. Other traits like handedness, favorite color, or distaste for cilantro don't have the same effect on survivability or reproducibility. There will always be opportunity to misuse the results, but I think this strengthens our understanding of how evolution works.
posted by rocket88 at 9:21 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can add me to the list of gay people who think that being gay, or straight, is a choice, and "born this way" is the wrong discussion to be having.

I'd completely believe you if you told me you'd chosen to be gay.

Please believe me, and millions of others, when I tell you that we didn't.

We're really not lying to you.


OK, but I think you misunderstood my point. I don't think I chose to have whatever genetic cocktail might make me find women attractive, BUT, I, and every person ever gay or straight, chooses who to have sex and relationships with, and many people who might have a genetic cocktail that prefers the same sex could very well have that portion "turned off" over time by constant environmental messages that the opposite sex is the "right" one to be attracted to.

The whole point of the FPP is to say that it's epigenetics - a combination of genetic and environmental factors - that determines what we conceive of as orientation. Simply put, I don't think anyone is "born" gay or straight.

And I think the qualifier "I think" is important, because we don't know for sure. So yes, I will believe you if you tell me you THINK you didn't choose to be gay, but not if you tell me as if it is fact.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:33 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Traits that make survival and/or sexual reproduction more likely will become more prevalent . . ."

Perhaps "contentment" is evolutionarily conserved.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 9:39 AM on December 12, 2012


If I made a conscious choice, wouldn't I know about it?
posted by MrVisible at 9:39 AM on December 12, 2012


by casting an actor against Riker who wasn't remotely androgynous

I've heard that Frakes (Riker) wanted there to be a male actor playing his love interest. That wouldn't have been a bunt.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:40 AM on December 12, 2012


it's the word "why" in that sentence that sets off alarms

Yes, precisely. I don't think there's anything unreasonable about non-heterosexual people feeling a vague sense of unease about scientific research into what "causes gayness" no matter how well-intentioned or objective it presents as. I mean, the majority of scientific research that is familiar and visible to the non-science-field-affiliated layperson is research into cures for diseases.
posted by elizardbits at 9:41 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think I chose to have whatever genetic cocktail might make me find women attractive, BUT, I, and every person ever gay or straight, chooses who to have sex and relationships with, and many people who might have a genetic cocktail that prefers the same sex could very well have that portion "turned off" over time by constant environmental messages that the opposite sex is the "right" one to be attracted to...Simply put, I don't think anyone is "born" gay or straight.

But how does that make sense for gay people, then, given that there is no culture on the planet which prefers gay orientation to straight?

If you were saying "there are a lot of people with bi-tendencies who end up being publicly straight because it's easier socially," I would totally believe you - I'm bi, but all of my (very few) relationships have been hetero because that was just easier (even an accepting culture, it's easier to meet people for straight relationships, etc). But there are a lot of people - gay and straight - who have no bi-tendencies whatsoever, and they can't change their orientation.
posted by jb at 9:44 AM on December 12, 2012


many people who might have a genetic cocktail that prefers the same sex could very well have that portion "turned off" over time by constant environmental messages that the opposite sex is the "right" one to be attracted to.

I personally know about 25 men who were married with kids, living a fully heterosexual life, and who finally realized they could not continue living a straight married life and who came out in their late 30s and early 40s (sometimes older than that), with varying degrees of personal and familial success and failure resulting from their coming out process.

Surely these would be ripe candidates for this kind of switching off you postulate. But that switching never happened, because it doesn't exist.

I'm sure you mean well with your arguments here, but I think you're taking something which you feel personally, and which probably applies to you and some others who are like you, but which doesn't actually apply for a great many others who have lived lives of quiet desperation and unhappiness, sometimes even to their grave, knowing that while they are conforming to what the constant environmental messages are about what they SHOULD be doing, it simply felt to them like a denial of their true selves.
posted by hippybear at 9:47 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing about the genetics of queerness that always bothers me is the question, delivered almost invariably with a sort of smartypants "gotcha" vibe, about how something that doesn't generally produce a direct genetic lineage would be passed along. Gays don't have kids (so the line goes), so gay genes would be extinct in a single generation, right? Also, if a social group has gay individuals in it, wouldn't it reproduce less and be less likely to pass along genes?

My contention here, and I'd love to see some science on it, is that we're social animals, not solitary ones, and having members in a social group that do things other than concentrating on producing and rearing young because they're not thus encumbered would benefit the survival chances of the entire group, and therefore promote the survival of that group's collective genetic stock. There has been some sociological research into this, but you never hear about that. You just hear "hey, scientists say they found a genetic [or epigenetic] link to gayness," which is just the same old same old poking the gay bears with a pointed stick.
posted by sonascope at 9:48 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


sonascope, I think your issue there is with the depravity and profound ignorance of science journalism and its inability to properly communicate anything, much less the study of gayness, well rather than the actual scientific study of gayness itself. The gay addendum to the grandmother hypothesis has been part of the consensus and taught to undergrads for a long while. You will hardly ever see an actual scientist deliver anything, well to the public anyhow, with a sort of smartypants "gotcha" vibe - that vibe does however generate page views and so it gets filtered into what the public sees anyway.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:05 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Surely these would be ripe candidates for this kind of switching off you postulate. But that switching never happened, because it doesn't exist.



I'm sure you mean well with your arguments here, but I think you're taking something which you feel personally, and which probably applies to you and some others who are like you, but which doesn't actually apply for a great many others who have lived lives of quiet desperation and unhappiness, sometimes even to their grave, knowing that while they are conforming to what the constant environmental messages are about what they SHOULD be doing, it simply felt to them like a denial of their true selves.


You know, I never claimed that environmental factors were any more/less inescapable or conscious. I think the "switching off" of gay, or straight, tendencies might very well be just as unconscious. But, I think it's dangerous to say "born this way" rather than "born and environmentally shaped this way". I think I could choose to act straight, but be very unhappy, so it's not as if I'm implying that it's easy or that I could do it. I think it's pointless to treat it as an either/or, too - I may be genetically predisposed, but I choose to be gay and in a gay relationship, and I think it's a better framing to say "yes, I choose this joyfully" rather than "I can't help it", but that's a different conversation.


I have been careful to qualify my statements with "I think", but people seem to be accusing me of invalidating their experience (and let me reiterate, I am fine with people believing they didn't choose to be gay, though I personally feel that "born this way" is a problematic narrative) or telling me I Am Wrong, so I don't know if there's a productive conversation to be had here.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:12 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


integrated evolutionary theory with recent advances in the molecular regulation of gene expression and androgen-dependent sexual development to produce a biological and mathematical model that delineates the role of epigenetics in homosexuality

I can't really do this in text but please imagine that instead of this sentence, there is one of those image macro things where you successively zoom in on the word "model" and the final one is just a close-cropped shot of the word "model"'s eyes looking at you all crazy
posted by en forme de poire at 10:12 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have been careful to qualify my statements with "I think", but people seem to be accusing me of invalidating their experience (and let me reiterate, I am fine with people believing they didn't choose to be gay, though I personally feel that "born this way" is a problematic narrative) or telling me I Am Wrong, so I don't know if there's a productive conversation to be had here.

I'm not trying to be contentious, but you really are challenging my account of my experience; I really distinctly remember not choosing my orientation, and struggling for years to come to terms with it.

It's a problematic narrative, but please understand: it's my story. It's my experience. I'm the only one who lived it, and it shouldn't be subject to debate.

And that's my problem with this whole issue; the subtext is "Are gays really just big liars? Are their pants actually on fire? Tune in at 11..."
posted by MrVisible at 10:21 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


sonascope, maybe "spandrels" are what you're looking for? Actual biologist in the thread can tell us how accepted the concept is (Gould seems to have thrown more than a few wild pitches in his career), but "spandrel" sure is a fun word to say.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:25 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


sonoscope: ... but I find it suspect that we're not also doing research on this scale to ask questions like "If homosexuals don't reproduce in most cases, why is the proportion of people with homosexual attraction so consistent across cultures?

That is actually the reason these researchers give for being interested in the question. Quoting from the introduction to the paper:
The common occurance of homosexuality is perplexing from an evolutionary perspective. Simple logic suggests that a fitness-reducing phenotype should be selected against, but homosexuality is nonetheless surprisingly common in human populations .... The poor correspondence between current models and data calls for a new conceptual framework to understand the evolution of homosexuality.
Of course, the news media likes covering this kind of research because it plays into political controversy, which has nothing to do why some people think the question is scientifically interesting.
posted by nangar at 10:30 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


1. I agree that this research is happening in the context of a homophobic culture and so there are various problems with it which others have pointed out.

2. There are real stakes, however. Providers of various bs "ex-gay" therapies base their dangerous nonsense on the premise that sexual orientation can change. And they do a lot of handwaving about how science doesn't know what causes homosexuality which they seem to think means their theory as to what causes homosexuality (a mother's love; a distant father; a lack of sports ability - no seriously) is just as valid as any other theory.

So whatever else I think about this research, I definitely want there to be more knowledge in this area so we can better respond to today's bigoted brainwashers and torturers of desperate youth.
posted by prefpara at 10:32 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not trying to be contentious, but you really are challenging my account of my experience; I really distinctly remember not choosing my orientation, and struggling for years to come to terms with it.

It's a problematic narrative, but please understand: it's my story. It's my experience. I'm the only one who lived it, and it shouldn't be subject to debate.

And that's my problem with this whole issue; the subtext is "Are gays really just big liars? Are their pants actually on fire? Tune in at 11..."


OK, so I truly didn't mean to imply or say that your personal account was wrong. It's easy to get caught up in discussions like these between personal accounts and a wider narrative. I take issue with a wider narrative that being Born This Way is absolute truth and not up for debate by anyone, including other gay people themselves who might not think they were. (I am gay, and would/do choose to be gay, but I don't think I was born gay). But if your personal experience is that you were, I don't mean to invalidate that, any more than I get angry at people who say I'm wrong for believing I was not born gay.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:34 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I also want to point out that "born and environmentally shaped this way" has its own problems as a narrative. If anything after being born can affect a child's orientation, then being gay becomes someone's fault. Either the child's fault, for exposing themselves to the wrong influences, or the parents', or someone the child came in contact with actually played a part in making them gay.

Which would mean that you can bring up your child so that, no matter what their genetics, they'll be straight. All you have to do is avoid the things that would make the kid gay. Some people might take that to mean taking the child to more baseball games; others might insist that children need parents of two different genders to remain straight. Others might decide that they can beat the gay out of kids.

I think it's really important to have people know that some kids are just gay. Whether it's genetics, epigenetics, factors that influence development in the womb, whatever; we're going to be same-sex attracted, and there's nothing that we, or anyone else could do about it. There's no guilt, no blame, and no negative aspects to it, except the ones that come from societal intolerance.

Some people have a choice. Some people don't.

Don't take this to mean I'm unhappy with my lot in life; just last night I was telling my boyfriend that I'm so happy I suspect that at some point I may have had a terrible accident, and I'm now in a coma and fantasizing about what my ideal life could have been like. To which he responded with his usual exasperated, yet loving 'awwww... I think.'

I'm glad I'm gay. But at no point did I choose my orientation.
posted by MrVisible at 10:46 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I favorited your post, and I think it's also worth mentioning that the cultural narrative of gayness is very founded on finding one reason, when in fact I really think it could be a great many. Some people might be born with "gay genes" that are impossible to overturn. Some people might have "gay genes" and unknown environmental factors that push them towards being gay or straight. Some people might have any kind of genes and just plain choose to try a particular sexual or romantic experience that they choose to continue. Mostly, I think I have a problem with people insisting that overall, it has to be only one of those options as "the explanation".

I guess my wish is that the narrative was less on "what makes people gay"? and/or insisting that gay people can't help it, they were born that way, and more on saying no matter how same-sex attraction or behavior comes to be, it's either/both a choice and a trait that should be respected. I understand that the current trend seems to be that if we as a culture can argue that every gay person is "born that way", then bigots can't deny us rights, but I also think it's deeply troublesome to imply that there's some genetic aberration at work.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:03 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


MrVisible: "If I made a conscious choice, wouldn't I know about it?"

yeah, we'd have this whole thing sorted out by now if only you stopped lying about that choice you made!
posted by idiopath at 11:08 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Weird, I have never heard them called "epi-marks" even by friends who work in that field.

I was going to say the same thing. Presumably they're trying to coin a nickname for "epigenetic markers?" But "epi-marks" doesn't make the meaning of the term any clearer, and "epigenetic markers" isn't a phrase of unwieldy length, nor is it difficult to say or spell.

Also, is it just me, or is the study all over the place in terms of logic? The kicker for me was the end of the intro where they defined homosexuality a) in terms of Kinsey scores! and b) including bisexuality, which doesn't even jibe with the opening sentence, which is "The common occurrence of homosexuality is perplexing from an evolutionary perspective. Simple logic suggests that a fitness-reducing phenotype should be selected against."
posted by desuetude at 11:53 AM on December 12, 2012


I also think it's deeply troublesome to imply that there's some genetic aberration at work

That's kind of where I'm at. I know that a lot of folks find the "born this way" explanation to be a sharp, concise way of expressing that their sexual orientation is something integral to their being, and not something so simple as a choice, which is all fine and good.

But lately, I've been hearing members of my family (who are discussing the sexual orientation of other members of my family, natch) make a genetic argument, and then speculate as to which side of the family is responsible for carrying Teh Gay (not ours!), and it squicks me right out. Because while that conversation might be relatively high-minded—It's "scientific"! People are suggesting acceptance!—it also sounds a hell of a lot like people are discussing a debilitating and intractable disease that can't be cured, instead of what appear to be my cousins' perfectly healthy long-term relationships with pretty swell people.

While I see value in scientific studies into the nature of human sexuality and sexual preference, it does kind of suck when those studies are publicized in a way that both treats sexuality as a binary, and homosexuality (read: anything other than strict heterosexuality) as an aberration. For starters, that press release could as easily have been titled, "Study Finds Epigenetics, Not Genetics, Underlies Heterosexuality." I mean, surely, we're just as interested in why some people grow up to be straight, right? How did they end up like that?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:24 PM on December 12, 2012




The idea that homosexuality is a "puzzle" to be "solved" is homophobic bullshit.

This is also bad, overhyped science. There's no single, simple explanation for any complex human behavior, including sexual behavior.
posted by medusa at 4:17 AM on December 12


Thanks. I'm getting really sick of repeating that over, and over, and over, and over again.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:08 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


P = G + E is as important to modern biology and psychology as E = MC2 is to modern physics and astronomy. So the question is, how do we deal with human diversity taking that into account? The same model describes sexual, racial, and linguistic diversity. I didn't choose to be bisexual, white, or speak English, yet all three are both biological and socially constructed to different degrees.

And yes, I've been sharply reminded that "being gay" means different things in different cultures. In fact, it likely means different things for different people in our own culture.

Perhaps I'm a radical here, but I'll take the IDIC position that both the biological and social diversity of human sexuality are inherently valuable. Both the occult neural pathways that trigger my attraction to men, and being a part of a subculture with a history and some interesting things to say about human sexuality are beautiful.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:10 PM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, is it just me, or is the study all over the place in terms of logic? The kicker for me was the end of the intro where they defined homosexuality a) in terms of Kinsey scores! and b) including bisexuality, which doesn't even jibe with the opening sentence, which is "The common occurrence of homosexuality is perplexing from an evolutionary perspective. Simple logic suggests that a fitness-reducing phenotype should be selected against."

I'm of the school of bi which suggests that researchers primarily construct categories of sexual orientation for the purpose of publishing papers, and if they really wanted to understand human sexual diversity they'd be doing ethnography instead.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:23 PM on December 12, 2012


Someone somewhere is going to google the very, very basics of epigenetics and conclude that methane and nail polish remover are causing The Gay. Just you wait, it'll hit the front page of Huffington Post and everything.

On the science side of things, it is an interesting (and suspiciously neat) explanation for why gay men can appear somewhat feminized in appearance while lesbian women can appear 'butch' (I think that's the right word and hopefully not an offensive one). They have the data for both genders, an instruction set telling them to go one way, and a middle manager telling them to do a few things the opposite way.

Also Nthing the 'we're going to see more "disorders" and minority behaviors become spectra of normality as determined by epigenetics in future studies' thing.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:27 PM on December 12, 2012


I think "born this way" evolved as a rejoinder to "stop doing that awful thing you do," but it still has a depressing hint of the noble victim about it.

In the sixties and seventies, we still needed to be the noble victim to assuage the fears of the mainstream, but it's 2012. Wait out the "greatest generation," the "silent" generation, and the earliest of the baby boomers and we'll be able to have sensible discussion of the science behind sex, but for now, "why?" is more often than not the thin edge of the wedge for a thinly-veiled plea for eugenics.

I wasn't born any way. I was born me, then I got all uppity and pretentious, but I'm still me. In the same way that any kind of reasonable discourse about the autism spectrum, learning issues, and ADHD is hamstrung by the interminable persistence of the disease model as the core for evaluating such things, this kind of research is similarly hobbled with notions of "normality" versus abnormality. We're just so hung up in this dying epoch of moral dinosaurs that we almost have to restrain ourselves until we can talk about it without having to wallow through the muck of dead ideas before we actually hit science.
posted by sonascope at 1:29 PM on December 12, 2012


medusa: "The idea that homosexuality is a "puzzle" to be "solved" is homophobic bullshit."

Homosexuality is a biological fact, the causes and mechanics of which are not fully known, but our models for understanding it have been getting better and better precisely because there is now a significant scientific community dedicated to elucidating it. This is a really really good thing, both for the inherently self-justifying drive for us to better understand ourselves as well as for its ability to direct public policy and the safeguarding of human rights with reality instead of bullshit.

medusa: "This is also bad, overhyped science. There's no single, simple explanation for any complex human behavior, including sexual behavior.""

These are brave words for someone who clearly hasn't read the paper or bothered understand the reasoning behind the proposed model.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:29 PM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


"The common occurrence of homosexuality is perplexing from an evolutionary perspective. Simple logic suggests that a fitness-reducing phenotype should be selected against."

That doesn't make sense to me, either, since being homosexual doesn't mean A) you don't want kids and B) can't have kids. Why is it assumed that it's a fitness-reducing phenotype?

(And IANAgeneticist or evolutionary scientist of any kind, but since when is evolution "logical"? It's a good-enough process, not a this-is-perfect process. All kinds of fitness-reducing phenotypes exist because they're not destructive *enough* to the species as a whole, so evolution doesn't "care" about them.)
posted by rtha at 1:47 PM on December 12, 2012


That doesn't make sense to me, either, since being homosexual doesn't mean A) you don't want kids and B) can't have kids. Why is it assumed that it's a fitness-reducing phenotype?

I'm firmly in both column A and column B, but the fact that I'm available as a mentor and supporter in ways different than a parent is available to my nieces and nephews could always have an effect on their future well-being. Gay uncles can be quite influential, even if we don't go the gayby boomer route.
posted by sonascope at 1:57 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh, I think that statement is just a little strawman for the introduction to get the reader's attention. IME things like that are written primarily for people outside of the field so you can convince them that your research is important. Anyway, by the next sentence they're already talking about previous modeling work, including the kin hypothesis (e.g., gay uncles) and sexual antagonism (e.g., genes that raise the probability of gayness in sons also increase female fertility).
posted by en forme de poire at 2:11 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


"That doesn't make sense to me, either, since being homosexual doesn't mean A) you don't want kids and B) can't have kids. Why is it assumed that it's a fitness-reducing phenotype?"

It is the strawman that the authors spend much of the rest of the paper tearing down.

"(And IANAgeneticist or evolutionary scientist of any kind, but since when is evolution "logical"? It's a good-enough process, not a this-is-perfect process. All kinds of fitness-reducing phenotypes exist because they're not destructive *enough* to the species as a whole, so evolution doesn't "care" about them.)"

Evolution is about the only thing in biology that is logical, at least in its own fundamentally alien kind of way. It is the central unifying theory of biological science for a reason, as it is in fact useful for making all sorts of kinds of predictions once you understand its limitations and the caveats its usefulness comes with. In this case reviewing the evolutionary models for understanding homosexuality that have already been thought to death (on preview, sonascope just wonderfully introduced the currently prevailing mechanism) and incorporating them into the authors' larger model does indeed strengthen it.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:17 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


In general when reading a scientific paper, never take the first sentence and sometimes two sentences of the abstract or the first few sentences of an introduction seriously, the author who wrote them didn't. They're supposed to be either hyperbolic, meaninglessly broad, have only the barest of relationship to the rest of the paper, or just plain trolling. Meaninglessly broad is pretty much always best, though a case can be made for hyperbole, but in this case they went with trolling.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:25 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do think the authors are a little glib about asserting that because we haven't found convincing associations between DNA polymorphisms and sexual orientation, that means the cause is non-genetic. It could just as easily mean that there are a variety of genes that can contribute to sexual orientation and there are interactions between them. In fact, Eric Lander's group recently had a pretty interesting paper showing how under certain simple and believable models, we could be drastically underestimating how much of the phenotypic variation in a complex trait is explained by genetic polymorphisms that we've already found.

(OK, I'm going to nerd out a bit here. The basic idea of Lander's paper, at least as I understand it, is that for complex traits, people usually assume that the individual mutations are just adding up linearly to produce the phenotype. Most people know this isn't actually correct but usually conceptualize the "next step" as testing pairs of mutations together, and since we don't have the statistical power to find pairwise interactions we usually just assume independence. This paper takes a different approach and assumes that genes are organized into pathways, and that what matters for a complex trait is maintaining (or not) some threshold level of activity in a particular pathway. It makes a ton of biological sense but is also not overly complicated from a modeling perspective. It also suggests that if this is true we may have found a lot of the important genes and just need to focus on understanding their interactions. The downside is that this model fits equally well to most existing data as the completely additive models, and telling the two apart by just cranking up the sample size is practically or even actually impossible. Still, they rightly point out that we don't necessarily need to get a complete statistical model in order to make a lot of progress understanding a genetically-linked trait, especially after we've ID'd most of the major genotypic players, which can be mostly solved with increased sample size.)
posted by en forme de poire at 2:40 PM on December 12, 2012


I also think it's deeply troublesome to imply that there's some genetic aberration at work.

Did the authors imply that though? I skimmed the paper and found no obvious remarks (or maybe I missed it) concluding that these epigenetic markers are aberrations.

I'm very much not in the field of genetics, but when I think of methylation, histone modifications, acetylation -- these are all part of cell biology. If a certain pattern/combination of these epigenetic features have some kind of influence on homosexuality, then so it is. There should be no value judgement (good vs. bad) placed on the phenotype in any academic paper examining the link between genetics and its observable effects, and I don't see where the authors do this.

It seems that people think that at least a large portion of the scientific community are looking at most things, including homosexuality, as some kind of normal vs abnormal paradigm. Partially, this is true. I'm mostly in cancer research, so there is always a lot of talk about aberrant/overactive signaling, mutations, dysregulation, etc. But I think in some sense, society rather than science is actually the one that makes a lot of judgements when they hear a word like "mutation." I imagine that most people would think a mutation is bad, not normal, and medicine/science needs to fix this.

I feel like the negative response to this paper (or at least the press release) is a bit like this -- scientists study and look for a biological basis for homosexuality, and people are suspicious or question the importance of the study because scientists must be trying to find out why it's wrong and this might lead to interest in a cure for this abnormal condition.

I think that looking into how epigenetics plays a role in human sexuality and general human behavior is important. From a few descriptions in their paper, it becomes obvious that the balance of exogenous factors like hormones and how they influence gene expression is a deeply complex process and, in fact, very beautiful. Look at all these things crashing through you as you are developing in the womb -- cells are dividing, dying, you're bathed in various signals that tell your cells to do this and that -- and now you're here, whether you identify as homosexual, heterosexual or somewhere in between. Why not study how biology might play a role in influencing this identity? I imagine that this is how most scientists who are interested in these questions would view this subject.
posted by extramundane at 2:46 PM on December 12, 2012


WOAH that Lander paper is really interesting and uses some badass statistics.

There is more than just the mentioned twin studies and lack of consistently associated DNA polymorphisms that are awful funny though. From a classical genetic standpoint, the twin studies strongly suggest heritability along with studies that have shown that males born to the immediate female relatives of the mother of a gay male are more likely to produce gay children. However, while this heritability conspicuously does follow a pattern it is not one of the logical classical patterns. If the kind of interaction effect Lander is proposing for things like Crohn's were responsible for a bias towards ending up gay we could expect to see it explain variation not accounted for by epigenetic models like this one, but it shouldn't be able to explain these patterns right?

If only there were more of us it would be a lot easier to generate the kinds of statistical power needed to do Lander's kind of analysis, which, hey could be interesting.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:38 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re the discussion above, I think the question of whether a trait or behavior is genetic and the question of whether people have a 'choice' in expressing it are totally different and separable. The problem is that people seem to believe that anything genetic is non-changeable and anything cultural is changeable by willpower. But that's wrong. I have genetically poor eyesight but I easily correct it by wearing eyeglasses; if I was a genetically slow runner I could still improve my speed by training. Yet the fact that I am fluent in English and no other language is completely culturally/environmentally determined, but at this point in my life I could not easily change that trait and shift to using another language.

It seems to me that gayness probably is to some extent a 'spandrel'. The incredible cultural complexity of romantic and sexual attraction comes from the fact that we are conceptual and language driven creatures who need to pair bond for a long period. The complexity of human romantic attraction means that there is going to be some variability in the object of romantic attraction and it won't simply be an automatic attraction to a particular sex. That variability is probably produced by a combination of genetic and cultural factors. Occasionally it will settle on the same sex instead of the opposite sex. If evolution can take the entire mishmash of romance novels and starry nights and raw lust and married affection and come up with a process where people settle on the opposite sex and reproduce maybe 95+% of the time that's actually pretty impressive and I don't think the 5% or so of exclusively homosexual people necessarily requires an elaborate evolutionary explanation.
posted by zipadee at 4:08 PM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Blasdelb: I know, right? To get at what you were saying, one of the things I thought that was so neat about that Lander analysis is that it could apply to a wide variety of biological processes. So to wildly speculate a bit, I suspect that it could explain the patterns you're talking about if combined with the sexual antagonism hypothesis - for example, if increased activity along some general pathway (having to do with the intrauterine environment, say) both increases female fertility and makes male offspring more likely to be gay or bi. Something analogous could happen in the gender-swapped case as well, though the mechanics would obviously be different. Anyway, I'm definitely not ruling out a role for epigenetics, but my sense is that it's also too soon to rule out a role for regular genetics (though of course, I'm not a human geneticist by any stretch, so who knows).
posted by en forme de poire at 6:18 PM on December 12, 2012


(Sorry, couldn't resist one more Trekkie moment)

I get Frakes' point (and it's awesome that he'd make it) when he said that it would've been a lot braver to cast a man as Riker's love interest. But making the character resemble a very butch woman does make sense, for the point they were trying to make and for the audience they were addressing.

If the actor had been a man, it would've removed any ambiguity that the episode was about homophobia, and it definitely would've turned off any homophobic viewers. By making the character essentially a somewhat masculine woman born into the wrong culture, it actually challenged homophobic viewers to look at their prejudice from a new perspective. The character was very shy, awkward and gentle, she wasn't trying to destroy her society. She was born with what we would consider ambiguous gender, but she leaned female and was just trying to do what most people on Earth would probably consider the proper course of action for a person like her: to live and love as a female. But in her culture she was violating ancient taboos, and she was punished horribly for it, by having the problematic aspects of her personality scrubbed from her brain.

Trek is famous for using the distancing device of sci-fi to examine controversial subjects. They did it constantly on the original series, and somewhat less so on the later shows. This episode was in that tradition, and I think it was quite effective in that context. You'd have to have a heart of stone to think that what happened to that character was a good thing, and it was very clear what the episode was really talking about. That the show was forced to address homosexuality as a taboo topic says more about 20th century America than it does about the people who made the show.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:04 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The American Family Association responds.
posted by sonascope at 8:30 AM on December 13, 2012


> Heh, I think that statement is just a little strawman for the introduction to get the reader's attention. IME things like that are written primarily for people outside of the field so you can convince them that your research is important. Anyway, by the next sentence they're already talking about previous modeling work, including the kin hypothesis (e.g., gay uncles) and sexual antagonism (e.g., genes that raise the probability of gayness in sons also increase female fertility).

I know that the first few sentences are always hyperbolic. Which is doing anyone any favors, but whatever. But it's at the end of the intro, after the "Sexy Headline Bullshit" part, in the "now we're starting to get down to business" transition, where homosexuality is defined as anything >Kinsey 0. They cite previous well-respected models, yes, but their own model seems to conflate a lot of assumptions about what homosexuality means.

Mind you, I know what basic vs translational vs clinical research means. I am totally on board with why basic genetic and epigenetic research in human sexuality is valuable.

But this is not the study that I would cite in making that argument.
posted by desuetude at 11:10 PM on December 13, 2012


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