Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Is there a gene for empiricism?

Let’s say you are a journalist. You have been tasked with the job of discussing whether or not there is a “gay gene”.

Here’s one option: you could write that the idea there is a “gay gene” is a slightly ridiculous bit of popular genetic reductionism and that genes don’t work like that. That it isn’t as simple as saying there either is or is not a gene for some particular trait. That genes are not like switches but are more like dice rolls in a game of Dungeons and Dragons in that they influence but do not wholly determine phenotypic outcome.

And then go on to say that in spite of these important provisos, there is some evidence that sexual orientation is influenced by genetic factors, pointing to the studies on fraternal birth order and handedness. Then wrap it up by saying that interesting though biology is, it doesn’t explain the complexities of everybody’s sexuality nor does it really change anything about the more politically contested issues.

But, but, you aren’t a scientist, right? Clearly. You are a journalist. Fortunately, there’s a rather good Wikipedia article that summarises the current research on the biological basis of sexual orientation. Does the current research give us a clear compelling answer to the question “what is the cause of homosexuality?”. Probably not. Does it give us enough reason to believe that whatever the answer turns out to be, that there is some important part that was decided in utero? Yeah, that seems reasonable. Does the current weight of evidence give us enough reason to reject the claims of evangelical religious leaders who claim that gay people “chose” to be gay? Well, duh.

I give this basic précis of how one might go about writing an article on the idea of the gay gene, and the research that geneticists and other scientists are doing into the biological basis of homosexuality because there’s another way of writing about this. That would be the way that Julie Bindel and Paul Burston went about it in The Guardian yesterday.

The piece made no reference to the scientific evidence but saw fit to debate the nature of this empirical question on the basis of hunches and personal experience. Bindel argues first:

Saying “I was born gay” is an odd claim to make. Few of us have any memory before the age of two, and babies are not sexual beings. We tend not to fancy the midwife or nursery assistant.

Genetics doesn’t work like that. You can have a genetic trait that is not expressed until certain factors come into play. Our genes give all of us—gay and straight—our sexual and reproductive systems. Are we going to start claiming that menstruating isn’t genetic because people weren’t doing it as babies? A silly comparison perhaps, but no sillier than the argument “x is not genetic if we weren’t doing x as infants”.

“I was born gay” is simply shorthand for “whatever factors made me gay, those things were there at birth”. That is, people didn’t suddenly wake up at age eleven and start thinking “you know, I’ve had it with the opposite sex, I think I’m gonna go gay”.

Bindel rightly argues that the cause of homosexuality ought to be irrelevant to the political struggle for equal rights. This is a point I heartily agree with. Liberal societies ought to tolerate a wide variety of what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living”, and if homosexuality is a choice, that should be something people are allowed to choose without penalty from the state. There are limits, obviously, to the toleration given in liberal societies. Those should be fairly easy to discern based on consent and harm done to others.1

So, yes, politically, the cause of sexual orientation is irrelevant to whether or not gay people ought to be treated equally.

Many gay people want to believe we were “born that way” to provoke sympathy and understanding.

Perhaps they do. I personally believe it because that seems the best reading of the current scientific evidence there is available. And if that changes in the future, and it turns out that non-genetic factors are more important, then okay. Fine. Makes absolutely no difference to my life.

What aggravates me about the discussion between Bindel and Burston is that neither seems to think that scientific evidence is actually relevant compared to personal opinion and anecdote. Burston writes about his early childhood crushes. Okay, well, give me ten minutes on the Internet and I can find you stories from people who didn’t “just know” from early childhood.2 This is why we have a pretty well-honed empirical method that we call science, so we can try and find things out beyond subjective opinions. In spite of the existence of crazy homophobic nutjobs, I can’t see any particularly good reason why science can’t answer questions of the etiology of sexual orientation just as it can the existence of the Higgs boson.

And we should actually listen to science. If there is one thing to learn from both the disastrous Mitt Romney presidential campaign, and the continued failure of environmentalism, it is this: if you want to argue for social change, actually follow the evidence. Denial of fact, avoidance of empiricism, those are bad ideas to change the world. (This, incidentally, is why I’m no big fan of the academic obscurantism that is often called “theory”—feminist, queer, critical or otherwise. I’ll take John Corvino over Judith Butler any day.3)

I agree with Burston: I’m happy to be gay. If you gave me a pill that I could take that would turn me straight, I wouldn’t take it. But being gay is not a good excuse for turning your brain off. Fighting for equal rights isn’t helped by sloppy thinking or ignoring science.

  1. This is why I’m not a big fan of Christian Science. Your right to your religious beliefs stops when it becomes a matter of seeking treatment for your sick children.

  2. That would include me.

  3. Obvious joke is obvious, darlings.