Stephen Measure

On Genetics
November 29, 2014

It's amusing to watch the timeline of scientific studies on whether or not a particular food is healthy. One day it's great for you, then a new study comes out and says it's horrible, then another comes out and says it's not so bad, then yet another comes out and suddenly it's great again, then horrible, then great, then …

Isn't science wonderful? Actually, it is. Science is great. There's nothing wrong with recording our observations, sharing them with others, and building upon them. The problem comes with “therefore”. That's the word that gets science into trouble. The more cautious and conservative the “therefore”, the less problematic it will be. Unfortunately, a cautious “therefore” is unlikely to help a scientist win a research grant, capture the public's attention, or help the scientist further their agenda; so don't be surprised to hear wild and crazy scientific “therefore”s that push far beyond the limits of what the observations actually show.

On that note, let's turn to the topic of same-sex attraction and genetics. From time to time, the media will breathlessly report about a new study “proving” that same-sex attraction is genetic. Hopefully they won't actually use the word “proving” in their headlines since the studies never go near as far as that, but someone who only reads headlines could be forgiven for thinking that science has found a stronger link between genetics and attraction than it actually has. However, once you dig into the stories and look at the details, suddenly the situation is very different from what the headlines lead you to believe.

Let me suggest two questions you should ask whenever weighing evidence of a genetic cause for same-sex attraction. Assume we are talking about a supposed “gay gene”. Here are the questions: First, does everyone who self-identifies as gay have this “gay gene”? Second, does everyone who self-identifies as straight not have this “gay gene”?

The answer to one of those questions, if not both, is going to be no. There will be some people who self-identify as straight despite having the “gay gene”, and some who self-identify as gay despite the lack of it. And what does that tell you? Obviously same-sex attraction is not genetic like hair or skin color. It's just a desire like any other desire. There's nothing special about it. Are your other wants and desires genetic? Do you like Pepsi because of your genes, or were you born to like Coke instead? That's silly of course. But why then do we expect attraction to be mandated by our genes when so many other things about us are not?

Now let me minimize the size of my “therefore”. It's reasonable that certain genetic characteristics could make one more likely to develop attractions or wants or desires or tastes—all depending on one's environment. But note carefully the latter part of that sentence. I'm not worried about genes; I'm worried about environment. Why? Because had I been raised in a different environment, I might have decided I was gay—and I'm not unusual in that regard. How many who today consider themselves gay would think otherwise had they lived a different life instead? And what of the future? We are changing the environment of our society. The recognition of same-sex marriage, the celebration of same-sex couples, the normalization of same-sex sex—all those things will have an effect. What sort of effect do you think they will have?

Of course, it won't be the end of the world if more people develop same-sex attraction. All of us already feel improper desires we should resist, what's one more? The problem, however, is that society currently tells those who feel same-sex attraction that they are something, that they have to do something. And that's what's troubling about the change in our environment. It's not that more will feel same-sex attraction; it's that more will decide they are gay and live accordingly.

And the conversations around these studies prove that point. At most the studies show a relationship between genetics and same-sex attraction, yet they are often described as showing a relationship between genetics and “being gay”. That's wrong. Same-sex attraction is just an attraction; it's not “being” anything. It's a desire like any other desire, and we get to choose which desires we indulge and which desires we reject. We aren't meat robots. We're humans. We have free will. We can and should choose to reject improper desires. And same-sex attraction, regardless of genetics, is something that everyone should reject.

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