Of Genes, Studies, and Standards

So new research suggests a genetic component to sexual orientation:

“When we looked at women who have gay kids, in those with more than one gay son, we saw a quarter of them inactivate the same X in virtually every cell we checked,” Bocklandt said. “That’s extremely unusual.”Forty-four of the women had more than one gay son.

In contrast, 4 percent of mothers with no gay sons activated the chromosome and 13 percent of those with just one gay son did.

I have no comment on the research itself, except to offer the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that perhaps the unusual pattern of chromosomal activation connects to some behavioral trait in the mothers themselves, such as “overbearing” or “smothering” behavior.

But I will take this occasion as an excuse to complain about how some people on both sides of this issue can be so selectively scientific in terms of how they assess these studies. Ex-gays and other conservative Christians, for example, see the limitations of this study and those like it from a hundred miles away, and are quick to point them out. Yet somehow, the high standards which make them skeptical of studies like these and what they can be taken to show often suddenly evaporate when they assess studies which support an ex-gay position.

Conversely, some gays who are devout believers in biologically determined homosexual orientation are quick to find flaws and defects which they take to discredit pro-exgay research and arguments, while treating every shred of evidence that suggests a genetic or other biological contribution to sexual orientation as if it proved that sexual orientation was inborn and immutable.

So many people seem to “strain at gnats” in research and claims that support the other side, and “swallow camels” in the research and claims that support their own.

I personally don’t see why ex-gays need to worry about this sort of research. Sure, it hurts theories that insist that sexual orientation is entirely environmentally caused, but I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t be hanging on to those theories anyway. We have no need to argue that there is no biological factor involved.

One thing we should remember is that the two issues of what causes homosexual orientation and the mutability of homosexual orientation are separate issues. Even if homosexual orientation were caused entirely by environmental factors like parenting and childhood experiences, it might still be unchangeable. Not everything that happens to us in life can have its effects undone, even with therapy and effort. The flip side is that even if it were determined that genetic or other biological factors completely determined which sexual orientation one grew into “naturally”, it would still be an open question whether or not capacities to enjoy sexual/romantic relating to the opposite sex could be developed, and whether or not homosexual attractions could diminish.  In any case, these questions of causation and mutability are also both distinct from the moral question of whether or not homosexual sex and relationships are sin.

I’m not saying that I believe that the causes are strictly innately biological. I don’t. I’m just saying that even if they were, that need not have any bearing on the validity of ex-gay testimonies or  conservative Christian moral beliefs.

4 Responses to Of Genes, Studies, and Standards

  1. Robis says:

    Let me take this moment to compliment your blog. It is highly intelligent and thoughtful, and shows respect–for everyone–where often it is lacking. One question I have, though. You refer to “pro-exgay reserach and arguments:. I was wondering if you could give examples of pro-exgay research that you feel has been unduly or inappropriately discredited. Aside from Spitzer’s study, I’m not aware of much exgay research and would be quite interested in checking some out.

  2. Robis,

    Thanks for the compliment!

    In answer to your question, in terms of research, Spitzer was what I primarily had in mind. The best summary of research that I’m aware of relating to this issue is at http://www.newdirection.ca/research/index.html .

  3. Robis says:

    Thank you very much for the link! I’ll dig right into it. I must admit, though, that while I’m not quick to find fault for the purpose of discrediting, I am not inclined to give much benefit of the doubt. I wonder how far one has to go in either direction before they are unreasonably picky?

  4. Hi Robis,

    I'm a natural skeptic about most things, so I'm not sure there's any such thing as unreasonably picky. :)

    I just think, if you're gonna be picky, you better be picky across the board, picky about the stuff with conclusions you like in addition to the stuff with conclusions you don't like. What gets my goat, what I was objecting to in my post, was selective scrutiny.

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