June 26, 2011

Mutant and Proud: Genetics, Environment, and The Fruits of My Research, Part 2

This will be the second part of a two-part post, discussing my amateur genetics enthusiasm as it relates to the "nature versus nurture" argument on homosexuality. This post will look at the propositions of biology and genetics on homosexuality, as well as how my research on the matter went.

In my first post, I discussed the X-Men: First Class movie and it's allegory to LGBT themes (and I'd like to apologize for my error in reporting that Wolverine's adamantium claws were from his mutation). Now in this post, I will discuss some of the research that has been performed to find a genetic, or at least a biological explanation for homosexuality. I will talk also about what I found when I researched this topic.

Many correlative studies have found various biological features to correspond with an increased rate in homosexuality, one being the "birth order hypothesis" in males. This hypothesis states that younger brothers have a 1/3 increased probability of being gay with each older brother in the family. Researchers attribute this possibility not to genetics, but rather the uterine environment and the hormones and antibodies produced during gestation. It is possible that later children of the same mother may receive more or less of a secretion that influences homosexuality. Researchers also point for the uterine environment has one of the main determinants of sexual orientation, since the brain is in development at this time. The hormones, most notably testosterone, secreted for development may "hard-wire" our nerves and brains for an orientation. This may be manifested in a study by Simon LeVay which looks at nuclei of cells from the anterior hypothalamus. LeVay saw that the nuclei of homosexual males were smaller than that of heterosexual males, and similar to those of heterosexual females. Other parts of the brain have been pointed to for correlation as well as the lengths of various body parts and whatnot, but it is very important to note this simple lesson from statistics: correlation does not imply causation. A causal link has yet to be established, which brings up the point of genetics.

Genetics are said to possess the code for our behavior, our adaptations, and our personality. So people started to find specific mutations in the genome that differ between homosexuals and heterosexuals. These variations are called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP, for short), and research led to an SNP on the X chromosome, called Xq28, that may show linkage for homosexuality, and they dubbed this, "the gay gene." Other studies have found this site to not be statistically significant, and point to a few other SNPs on the autosomes as opposed to the sex chromosomes. However, in my opinion, I don't think we can point to one gene and say, "this causes homosexuality." There is a ignorant misunderstanding among Americans as how genes work. While some genetic diseases and traits can be attributed to one gene, and perhaps even one improper nucleotide, most other diseases are caused by an interplay of multiple genes. I believe that homosexuality could potentially be the result of polygenic inheritance, and not just two or three genes, but hundreds of genes. In order for the many biological correlations that are found to be causal, I think that multiple factors have to work together which might, and I'm not a fan of using this word in this context, "cause" homosexuality. In addition, people fail to realize that there are multifactorial phenotypes, not just two or three, and an interplay on these multiple phenotypes may correspond to homosexuality.

So yes, there are some biological and potential genetic markers, but still nothing conclusive. So what about nurturing? An argument against nature is that not all identical twins, who share the same genetic code, do not share the same orientation, and thus, the nurturing of the children is responsible for their orientation and homosexuality cannot be genetic. In response, I point out what is known as the fallacy of genetic determinism, which states that our genes are not the sole indicator of our physiology and behavior. Even the fingerprints of identical twins are not identical. Just because identical twins have the same genes doesn't mean that everything is the same. There's a reason why you can usually discern one twin from another, albeit as tough as it may be. Another argument is that many homosexual males report closer relationships with their mother than their father, which may be a determinant for homosexuality, as the early relationship forms the child's behavior. A study even shows that people who live in urbanized areas as teenagers correlates to higher rates of homosexuality. Many of these observations can possibly correlate and may be causal, and for that, we look at the case for environmental genetics.

Our genes don't just "turn on" because they feel like it. Environmental cues often trigger the activation or repression of genes, I mean, look at puberty. Perhaps there are genes for homosexuality latent in people, but without the proper environmental triggers, be it hormones, pheromones, or neurotransmitters, these genes don't activate. So what, am I saying that the cause of homosexuality is nurture? No, I'm not. But without our environmental conditions, I do not think our natural conditions can be actualized. I attribute this to the different times when people find out they are gay, bi, or trans. If it were truly genetic, maybe we would all discover that we were gay when we were 14 or so. But many people can say they knew before then, and many people don't discover or come out with their homosexuality until they are in their twenties, or even later. Sure, societal pressures may interfere with this, but homosexuality cannot be as cut-and-dry as just our genes, because our genes are not as cut-and-dry as we think they are. From this, I do not subscribe to a "nature versus nurture" argument, but rather a "nature via nurture" belief. Our genetic code cannot operate and make us the unique people we are without the environmental interplay.

So while nature via nurture, in my opinion, is a more valid hypothesis, my research led me to websites where the main court of discussion was either nature or nurture, and not a lot of in-between. Thanks to Google searches and a careful selection of words, I kept pulling up websites by religious organizations, trying to argue the "nature versus nurture" argument using these studies of biology and genetics, and then quoting scripture and the opinions of theologians. Now I'm not one to talk down religion, but many of these sites that weren't from tolerant religious groups were quoting scriptures as a means for understanding the sin and for gays to seek God for a "cure" from their condition. These websites always discussed the biological and genetic studies with a clear bias by stating the evident statistical insignificance of these findings, and how they cannot be true, and that homosexuality is purely a choice. Truly, I was angered that my research kept pulling up these websites, not because of what they said with scripture, but rather because they presented their bias with such force that it made it difficult for me to continue researching. These websites are purely polemic in nature, and for a gay youth who perhaps is not so sure how to balance homosexuality and religion would become alienated by these sites.

So I guess I really haven't answered the question: Are we born this way? Well, I cannot answer that question. But here's a question I can answer: Why should we care? Why should we have to use biology and genetics to certify our orientation? Many people say that a genetic cause for sexual orientation would give us an edge in the battle for equality, but really, will a genetic cause of homosexuality really change the minds of religious extremists and social conservatives?

I guess a better question is, aren't we still human? Don't we still deserve the unalienable rights under the assumption that all men and women are created equal? Why does sexual orientation even matter? Thankfully, New York is the most recent state to answer these questions correctly.

So maybe being gay is caused by a genetic mutation, I don't know. But if it is, I have one thing to say:

I am a mutant, and I am proud of who I am.

1 comment:

  1. This was really thoughtful, well done, and very interesting. I agreed and followed with a lot of what you said until the last few paragraphs in which you questioned whether the discovery for the biological basis of homosexuality would aid in the battle for equality. A prime example portraying that it would, in fact, aid us, is http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thelookout/20110504/us_yblog_thelookout/minnesota-lawmakers-gay-marriage-defense-goes-viral. Just think about how harshly the Church fought Galileo et al until the public began to condemn the Church's actions of surpression. I believe something similar would will happen with the gay rights movement.

    We should strive to understand who were are as a people scientifically, gay or straight, as it gives truth to our lives and allows progression in our society.