The notion of sexual orientation being a genetically inherited factor is an aspect of science which has had considerable press over recent years. Is it really necessary?
I never planned on this being a topic for a blog post, given the fact that Nessa Carey wrote such a thorough dismissal of the notion of ‘the gay gene’ when the concept was first brought to light. However, since I’ve heard the concept thrown around a bit recently I’ve decided to make a post.
The study itself was an analysis on identical twins, of whom one identified as straight, and the other as gay. The scientists took saliva samples and searched for differences. They claimed to have found five modifications to genes consistent in each pair. This led to the idea that they could predict whether an individual would be gay or not with 67% accuracy.
The issues with this study are essentially the Andrew Wakefield Autism/MMR study all over again. Small sample size? Check! Hazy conclusions at best? Check! Blown out of proportion by the press? Check! I could go on. When the original results were first shared, people should have been quick to point out that 67% is really not that impressive. Two thirds? If a door to door salesperson was to offer you some windows which were 67% likely to cut down your energy bills, would you immediately sign up? Probably not. If you were reading online reviews for a new appliance and saw 67% as the score, would you buy it? I doubt it.
This is the exact same thing. But instead of trading your money for material possessions, you’re trading your trust for a news article. By believing the headlines screaming about ‘the gay gene’ you’ve been scammed.
The problems with the idea of there being genes for sexual orientation are vast. First of all, by suggesting that there is a ‘gay’ gene and a ‘straight’ gene, you are essentially making attraction a methodical prospect. You are potentially erasing people because they don’t fit with your classification. What about those attracted to multiple genders, or none at all? Where do they fit into this genetic model? Often, people who do not identify as heterosexual have a hard enough time. Is basically telling them that they should always have known about this because it is ‘in their genes’ going to help?
Secondly, we live in a world where the press delights upon printing shock stories about gene editing, cloning and designer babies. Having the public read these alongside articles about the ‘gay gene’ can pave a dangerous path towards chosen abortions and foetal screening based upon who a child could grow up to be attracted to. At the end of the day, a parent should love a child unconditionally, no matter what their hair colour, eye colour, height, weight or sexual orientation is.
The main point I want you to take away from this post is very similar to the one I made in my autism blog: Why does the media feel the need to exaggerate these very small, and otherwise overlooked areas of science? The likelihood is because the science has a connection with current politics and emotions. Just as the Autism/MMR story was broken at a time when vaccines were in everyone’s minds, nowadays there is arguably a growing voice for LGBT movements, and so the press know that stories like this one will sell.
I am of the belief that the research into this area should never have been carried out. For years, scientific studies have tried to understand just why people have the sexual orientation they do. For me, I couldn’t care less. Surely geneticists and other professionals could put their talents to use by researching illnesses, rather than really rather irrelevant topics? But then, perhaps this is another example of politics driving science: if it’ll make the news, that’s the subject to choose. Right?