Science attempts to determine our sexuality

The search continues for the ‘gay gene’, but should it?

Science has in the past tried to explain in biological and sociological terms the reasons for homosexuality. It has long been recognised that sexuality is not a choice, both by scientists and LGBT rights activists, but the root cause of it is a mystery.

In evolutionary terms, the survival of the species depends on male/female pairings to create offspring. Aside from certain asexual creatures that can reproduce without a partner, you’d think that nature would only need heterosexual reproductive couples, however it has been noted that lions, chimpanzees, bison and dolphins, as well as 130 species of birds, have been spotted in same sex pairings. You may have heard stories in the news in recent years of same-sex penguin partners in Kent Zoo adopting a chick that had been abandoned by its biological parents. Is it reasonable to believe that homosexual partners are actually valuable to the survival of the species by acting as surrogate parents to abandoned or orphaned babies?

A recent study has flooded the media this past week, claiming to have found that homosexuality may be caused by chemical modifications to DNA. Researchers from the University of California studied 47 pairs of identical twins – 37 twin pairs where they were both gay, and 10 where they differed in sexuality. They found that sexuality may be determined by epigenetic changes to DNA: chemical modifications that alter DNA activity without changing the DNA sequence. With identical twins, they will have the same genetic sequence, but may have epigenetic differences. Researchers looked at methylation of the DNA, a process that has been compared to a switch in the DNA making the effect of it stronger or weaker. Distinct patterns were found that seemed to be linked to sexuality.

Dr Tuck Ngun, a member of the research team, said ‘sexual attraction is such a fundamental part of life, but it’s not something we know a lot about at the genetic and molecular level.’

There are, however, some things to note about this experiment before making any real conclusions. The study was very small – too small to be reliable on its own. The research only considered male twins and not female, and ignores the fact that sexuality is not divided into just two groups, gay or straight. Despite these facts, popular media has latched on to the findings. “DNA test that reveals if you’re gay” claims The Daily Mail, when in fact the already very small study correctly classified the sexuality of the individuals only 67% of the time. Other articles take the ‘test’ element to twist the study how they like. Healthline, a website supposedly dedicated to health news, call it a ‘real-life gaydar’ as if you’re going to make people take a blood test in Live Lounge before you start flirting with them.

The nature vs. nurture debate is ongoing and long-lasting. Popular culture likes to believe that mother or father figures in early life can influence sexuality in later life. Some scientists like to think that there’s some kind of genetic pattern to be found. Even with the new evidence found by the University of California, there is still no definitive answer.

In the 1990s, a study by American geneticist Dean Hamer had people convinced that homosexuality was genetic and was passed down by a certain ‘gay gene’. This study has since tried to be replicated by different sources with hardly any luck in finding the same results. Research never seems to take into account that sexuality isn’t just a binary of gay or straight, and I doubt they’d be able to apply any such findings to explain bisexuality or asexuality for example.

In 2013, there was a study that found that having more older brothers increases the likelihood of the next male child being gay. The study involved nearly 1,000 participants and researchers examined how many biological brothers each man had. The theory is that while carrying sons, an immune response is triggered in the mother that increases with each boy she carries. This is probably the most convincing piece of evidence to date to suggest nature over nurture, but yet again it ignores homosexual women and sexualities other than gay or straight. If they can’t prove it for other sexualities, then as interesting as the evidence may be, it still doesn’t give the whole picture.

Sexuality is a difficult matter to discuss due to its extremely personal nature. Despite the matter being scientifically interesting, finding a true reason behind sexuality would be bad news for society. There are prejudiced individuals out there who might want to use the ‘DNA test’ for negative purposes. History is littered with horrific acts committed with homophobic intentions to ‘cure’ homosexuality, and if an actual test for homosexuality fell into the wrong hands it could be catastrophic. What if parents wanted to test their children? Or worse, what if they wanted to test their unborn children to see if they have the markers. It’s only been around 40 years since homosexuality was removed from the list of recognised mental disorders. Dr Ngun himself is worried about what the findings of the new study could bring, so much so that he abandoned his research in the field completely. He says, “I don’t believe in the censoring of knowledge, but given the potential for misuse of the information, it just didn’t sit well with me.”

From a scientific perspective, there is no ‘cure’, however researchers still persist to look for a ‘cause’. Julie Bindel, writing for The Guardian says ‘why is so much effort put into locating a gay gene and not a paedophile gene?’. As soon as any research possibly indicating that sexuality could be genetic, it sends the media into a frenzy.

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