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Friday, February 22, 2013
Brain / Mind ... Politics ... Society ...

Over the past few decades, America seems to be getting less homophobic and more accepting of gay life-styles. And that’s a good thing, obviously (well, I HOPE this is obvious!). Between 2001 and 2012, Gallup reports that the percentage of Americans who feel that homosexual relationships are moral increased from 40% to 54%. I did not see any data before 2000, but I would have to imagine that this percentage down in the 30’s or upper 20’s back in the 1950’s. Some other gay acceptance factoids: Public acceptance of gays in the military grew from 51% in a 1977 Gallup Poll to 80% in 2003; and approval of gays as elementary school teachers grew from 27% in 1977 to 61% in 2003.

One of the key factors to increasing acceptance of homosexuality appears to be the notion that gayness is more a matter of nature than nurture. Over the past 25 years, there have been many articles citing scientific research showing links between intra-family traits, genes and homosexuality. The Gallup report cited above said that in 1977, 56% of people polled believed that being gay was caused by their upbringing and environment, while 13% said it was something that people are born with. In 2012, those numbers are 35% environment and 40% born-with.

Obviously, there is still some resistance to fully accepting gay people; again, about one-third still feel that gayness is caused by one’s life experiences, and 42% still feel that gay relationships are immoral. Still, there is a clear trend favoring gay acceptance. The “gene meme” seems to have helped this cause. This is not to minimize the importance of gay liberation movements and gay political activism (along with growing corporate awareness of the discretionary income and buying power of a group that usually does not raise children). But the argument that “it’s the way they’re born, it’s not their fault” certainly has been a first step for many people who grew up in less understanding times and places.

But what if this gene story were to change with increasing scientific understanding of human DNA and gene expression? Over the past decade or so, a new wrinkle to the overall gene story has evolved, in the growing scientific recognition of gene regulation mechanisms within DNA chains, along with epigenetics. Scientists have known for some time that only a small portion of the body’s DNA chains, perhaps less than 5%, actually are used to build the proteins that are assembled within and make up our bodies. At first the other 95% were just considered “junk”. But within recent years, more and more experiments show that this other 95% plays a very important role in determining how and when the active protein-building genes will do their work. As such, the body that our genes build and maintain is very sensitive to our environment. Put two people with the exact same genes in different environments, and you will see significant changes in their physical features and behaviors (this helps explain why identical twins can have such surprising differences).

Epigenetics puts another layer of environmental response to gene activity, one that is more short-run. The “junk gene” areas still represent a fairly stable “computer program” that only changes according to evolutionary selection processes over many generations. Epigenetics are more responsive to actual environmental conditions within one’s own lifetime. Their “computer code” can and will change if, for example, a person moves from a warm environment with lots of food to a cold environment where food becomes occasionally scarce. There is much debate as to whether and how much influence a parent’s epigenetic programming will influence their children. Most articles I’ve read say that in some cases epigenetically developed traits at the time of conception are passed from parents to children, but for the most part, children get an epigenetically clean slate.

So . . . what if the genetic influences on brain chemistry and mental operations that cause someone to “turn on” to others of their own sex are in fact triggered by discretionary environmental factors? In that case, the “born with it and can’t do anything about it anyway” argument would change. The idea that homosexuality can be “treated” and sexuality reformed is generally discredited today in the psychological profession . . . although there are instances of people who claim they successfully converted from homosexuality to heterosexual orientation because of some intervention. And what about all the bi-sexuals out there who appear to have their gay decades and their straight decades?

There probably is no one “gay gene”, as there are for certain human conditions (e.g. Huntington disease, muscular dystrophy, and wet versus dry earwax). For most human traits (including intelligence, heart disease, autism and artistic talent), a large number of genes interact among themselves and the environment to determine how a person’s body and brain will respond. Still, there could be a spectrum here; some conditions are mostly locked-in by genes, others are mostly triggered by specific environmental factors, and most are a mix somewhere in between. Where would gayness fit on that spectrum?

Right now, we have no idea. But some initial observations tend to suggest that homosexuality is clearly NOT on the far side of strict genetic determination. For example, even though homosexuality does seem to run in certain families, only 20 percent of identical twins are both gay. And then there are all those bi-sexuals who back and forth sexually according to the tides in their lives. It is also arguable that many “solid heterosexuals” experience a few gay twinges in life. And there are plenty of stories of gay men who marry heterosexual women — was that entirely because of oppression? I’ve heard that most gay men who marry women feel some sexual attraction at some point; it seems unlikely that so many homosexuals could fake it long enough to get so many woman to the altar.

So, waiting for some scientist to discuss epigenetics and homosexuality is like waiting for a second shoe to drop. Not long ago, an international team of genetic researchers published a paper in the Quarterly Review of Biology suggesting a possible mechanism (POSSIBLE — they offered no empirical proof) by which epigenetic processes inherited from parents might act on a developing brain in a fetus so as to bias the child’s sexual responses towards homosexuality. So, perhaps that “second shoe drop” is now being heard.

Actually, this paper is a rather timid “second shoe”. It tries to maintain political correctness by focusing only on fetal development — thus, it does not challenge the notion that by the time of birth, a person’s sexual orientation is locked-in. Even if the epigenetic process being proposed for further research were to exist, gays who are fighting for full political acceptance could still assert that “this is the way we are and always were, it can’t be changed” (recall that 40% or so that still think homosexuality is immoral and possibly a matter of choice).

However, the mechanisms and degree to which epigenetics would occur at the fetal stage based on chemistry inherited from parents is still somewhat uncertain. Epigenetic influences more often manifest themselves during a person’s lifetime in response to external factors. The new gay epigenetics paper does not even touch the question of whether the more likely environmental epigenetic influences and “former junk gene” responses to one’s experiences could change the brain and minds’ sexual urges, during childhood and even adulthood. Given all the recent research regarding the incompleteness of brain development at birth and the plasticity of the adult brain, I would opine (as an interested non-professional) that environmental influences on sexual preference during childhood and even adulthood are reasonable candidates for discussion.

But perhaps this timid first step towards a more nuanced notion of gay genetic determination would open the door to further scientific discussion. And that possibility appears to upset certain academics. For example, Margaret McCarthy, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, commented that this new theory

“is not supported by any data.” “Should we test this? Is it important for us to know?” asked McCarthy. “Homosexuality is not a disease, it’s part of natural human variation. I’m not sure there’s a good reason to delve this deeply into it. I think we’ve reached the point that we have enough evidence that there’s a biological basis for sexual orientation.” It would be more helpful to people to get a better handle on the epigenetics of cancer or mental illness, she added.

Oh dear . . . scientists who are not willing to rock the political boat. Yes, gays have won deserved political power in recent years, and no person of good faith should wish that to be threatened. Unfortunately, this study, and any studies further delving into the environmental drivers of gay genetic manifestation will be twisted and distorted by the rabid conservative political factions, as to be used as ammo against those like President Obama who support progressive agendas. But to the degree that this fear keeps scientists from asking legitimate questions and pursing legitimate research . . . that is also VERY troubling.

Perhaps one way for the scientists brave enough to proceed with this interesting and important topic would be to focus not on homosexuality in their public relations, but instead say that they want to test the “sexual plasticity” of all people under varying circumstances. Even if science shows that we all, to some degree, have some choices in our sexual feelings, genetics still make it easier for most to be heterosexual (we can depend on the evolutionary selection process to maintain that), but allows and encourages some people to express themselves homosexually in most circumstances. And as to the seldom discussed but certainly prevalent “confused middle” (i.e., bi-sexuals), perhaps science would offer them understanding and help in determining their own best pathways in life.

Therefore, I would say that scientists should pursue the matter without regard to the political implications. Those interested in advocating for gay rights should not discourage this research, but should “stay close” to it and learn how to use it to best advantage. Ultimately, science cannot be suppressed; the choice is between good science and bad science, between being ready to understand and use good science for greater enlightenment, versus ceding a mostly bad science to the forces promoting oppression and regression.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:08 pm      

  1. Jim, Nice exposition of the possibility of how the switching on and off of genes may change a person’s sexual orientation and of where science is currently at in learning about this process.

    I have to admit, though, that I can’t get myself too worked up over it all. While I do have some notion that likely there is a genetic inheritance of some kind when it comes to sexual orientation (or specifically homosexuality in this case) and while it may be possible that there is some “on/off” switch that accounts for some individuals’ movement from heterosexuality to homosexuality, when it gets right down to “brass tacks”, I find myself thinking that it seems that the human race always has to have some group that’s considered on the bottom rung of society. It seems there always has to be some group on whom the rest of humanity can look and say, we’re better than you. (And here I am definitely *not* making even a slight “attack” on you in any way, shape, or form. I’m simply pointing out a fact of society as it seems to me.)

    Then too, there’s no accounting in the scientific approach to this topic for an emotional or psychological component to the whole aspect of sexual orientation – a *big* area left out of the discussion (although I realize that you are interested here only in the scientific components). I tend to think that there is a whole area of emotional and psychological components that plays a part in all this.

    For instance, I find myself watching so many individuals on TV (Oscars coming up in a few days, for instance) and wonder just what part the wish to participate “just a little” in the other gender plays a part. I know a male individual who sometimes dresses as a woman (it seems he has many personalities within himself and more than one is a woman) who told me that dressing as a woman is “relaxing” for him. I find this interesting, yet somehow strange, as I am a woman and I have *never* found dressing as a woman particularly comfortable, much less “relaxing.” (In fact I’ve always tho’t men had the benefit of dressing as men, whereas women are either walking on stilts that are unbelievably uncomfortable or hemmed in by clothing that causes inability to actually breathe at times. “Relaxing”? I think not; yet. . . this person says dressing as a woman is “relaxing”. I say, Okaaaay!) Clearly, some psychological and/or emotional component is operating in this situation. And admittedly, this person of whom I am speaking is not homosexual but rather has many different people within himself, some of whom are women; so his might be a different case. With all due respect: Epigenetics? I don’t think so. But who is to say that bi-sexuals may have another personality within him/herself (perhaps unrecognized unconsciously or subconsciously) who comes out at various times. I have to say I don’t know. I’m just considering the possibility. (I haven’t even touched on the topic of transgendered individuals.)

    Furthermore, I find myself wondering, while all the scientific concern about epigenetics is admirable, just why it is that society cannot simply accept individuals the way they are and let it go at that. I am a firm believer that, while we all share some overlap in how we perceive the reality of this world, there is an area in each of us that simply is separate from that of everybody else. Some may have a larger “separate area” than others. While often we perceive a person as one way, there simply is no way of knowing another individual totally; and there almost always comes a time in knowing another person where one is surprised, shocked, and/or disappointed in an aspect of that person.

    Right at that point one has to accept the person as he/she is rather than as one would *wish* the person to be or as one has tho’t the person to be.

    In the end I think that the whole business of sexuality is a much more complex topic than that of epigenetics. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 23, 2013 @ 12:32 am

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Jim. Most of my closest friends dating back from my youth are gay men. I am of the view that it is more a predisposition than a lifestyle choice, since these friends of mine already identified themselves as homosexual from a very young age, puberty, that is. Life on the ‘fringes’ of a hardline narrow minded society is never easy, but I am not sure about the real benefits of genetic engineering – again, the whole idea is so linked to all other kinds of idiosyncrasies, seeking a way to genetically ‘cure’ anything that is different from the majority may spare some a lot of agony, but we might end up with a very dull and not at all progressive world as a result, which runs contrary to the whole purpose of scientific research in the first place, i.e. progress. A difficult issue indeed. And worthy of more thought. I do agree, however, that science must advance, regardless – though I am at the same time shuddering at the thought that some day, some people in power may use science to do some very very bad things. Conundrum.

    Comment by spunkykitty — February 26, 2013 @ 12:40 am

  3. Jim, What causes people to be gay? Who knows? My best guess is multiple reasons – just as there are multiple reasons why my car might not start in the morning.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t really care why some people are gay. if we think hard enough,we can probably think of a reason why it is important to understand why some people prefer barbecue potato chips more than plain potato chips. But I don’t see any harm coming out such a study. On the other hand, If we do more research on what makes people gay, then you can bet it will be used against gay people in some way. If it is partially genetic, you can bet that scientists will work to correct that biological flaw. And perhaps more fetuses will be aborted if is determined that they are at risk. if it is behavioral in some way, you can bet that parents will do what they must to prevent their children from being gay.

    I don’t think you gave a good reason why such research is needed, and is it really worth the risk? Is the fact that you are straight, perhaps make you more likely to take that risk?

    [[Hi, Steve. Hope all is well. I was wondering what your thoughts might be on the ‘epi-gene’ idea. Thanks for checking in. Namaste, Jim G]]

    Comment by Zreebs — April 12, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

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