If it is it doesn't matter

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Born gay or misbegotten studies: 1 Ill-fitting Genes

Skepticism can be very satisfying. The targets are usually so deserving, and there's a special pleasure in displaying the stupidity, illogic, and con games of the preachers, creationists, psychics, quacks, and charlatans. (And there can't be many greater intellectual/emotional pleasures than demolishing the arguments of the bigoted scum that are holocaust deniers.)

But sometimes you recognize logical fallacies, bad science, and wishful thinking disguised as reasoning, and realize it is coming from one of the 'good guys,' a group you agree with, support, are even a member of. What do you do then? Do you use the familiar tools on them, even though you know some of your hearers will think you're attacking the position rather than the arguments? What if you give a potential weapon to the ‘other side,’ when the other side are frequently bigots? Do you go ahead, or do you turn aside, hope nobody else notices, and write another article on mercury not causing autism, or that exposes John Edward and James Van Pragh yet again?

Well, if we believe in anything, it is that truth matters. (See my post below on Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Truth MATTERS.) So...

I am bisexual, and have been open about this all my adult life. (At one job, when a company VP stopped by and I was being unusually quiet, my boss said "Jim, don't you know everybody in the company knows you’re a pot-smoking bisexual?" I've been a believer in, and in my own small way, a fighter for gay rights since I first heard WBAI reporting on Stonewall. (I haven't been to many marches, but that's mostly been a matter of bad legs, lack of cash, or other commitments.)

And I have another reason for supporting gay rights, and gay pride, and gay love and marriage -- even though I've been in a heterosexual marriage for 15 years now. I was raised in a lesbian household. Yes, they existed even in the 50’s of Ozzie and Harriet, even in suburban New Jersey; and no, this didn't influence my own sexuality. I had realized I was bisexual and had experienced sex with both sexes before I realized what Claire and Billie's actual relationship was. (Precocious and naive, that was me.) Claire died before the marches started and Billie a few years after that. They never had the chance to walk down 5th Avenue, holding hands and celebrating their 30+ years together, never had a chance to consider making their relationship into a marriage. I don't want other couples to be deprived of that chance.

But truth matters, and bad science is bad science even in a good cause. I don't remember the first time I heard talk about 'gay genes' and other 'biological determinants of homosexuality,' when I first heard people saying that being gay is 'something you are born with.' When I heard it, though, I had two immediate responses.

The first was political. "Are they NUTS? We've been marching for years under the banner of Gay PRIDE, and here we have people arguing, no, whining, 'Don't hate us, we CAN'T HELP it.' The argument stinks. It plays right into the bigots' hands. It implies that we are somehow unnatural freaks, genetic abnormalities against the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality. And it plays into all the meek, week, ‘girlish’ -- in the bad and bigoted sense -- stereotypes of gay men." (It was mostly gay men saying it, not lesbians.) I even heard, with disgust, the argument 'With all the persecution we have to suffer, would anybody choose to be gay if he could help it?' (As a bisexual, my answer to that was, “Well, yes.”)

[I have to say that, so far, I seem to have been wrong about this. A lot of people have said publicly that they opposed anti-gay discrimination on the grounds that people who are gay are ‘born that way.’ And it has done wonders in fighting the ‘NARTH-types’ (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals, who think of homosexuality as something that can and should be ‘cured.’ -- As I’ll discuss later, I think that this is simply nonsense on both forks of the statement.) But while most of the homophobes are simply arguing -- sadly, correctly -- that the science is weak, some are arguing that if gayness is genetic, then it can be ‘cured’ through some form of genetic ‘therapy.’ Some -- not all homophobes are radically religious -- have even brought up the idea of eliminating it by prenatal ‘gene testing’ and not having a baby that might turn out to be *shudder* gay. And one prime all-purpose bigot who will appear later in an interesting context, Steve Sailer, has suggested that instead of a ‘gay gene’ there might be a ’gay germ.’]

But I had a bigger problem with the argument. It just didn't make sense to me. I'd see the articles about the studies, glance through them, and shake my head. They went against common sense, my own experience, and the lives of the people I knew. Could these possibly be good science?

So far, the answer is no. Admittedly there have been new studies that I don’t have access to including a couple by the Dean Hamer group -- the guy keeps on trying -- as well as a book BORN GAY? which my library didn‘t have yet. My budget doesn’t let me purchase many new books or pay $10 or more for article reprints. So anyone who can email me copies of the studies will be thanked and I’ll do a follow-up on them.

But the studies I have seen are some of the most astoundingly bad science I have seen this side of the worst alties and woo-woos. Too small samples, self-selected participants, no controls, no use of blind testing, and so far, no replications of results. (And an even more important flaw that I will discuss in considerable detail later. No definition or discussion of what the researchers mean by ‘homosexual.’)

Let's look at the famous study by Simon LeVay, showing a 'difference' in the brains of homosexual men. To quote from his report:
"Specifically, I hypothesized that INAH 2 or INAH 3 is large in individuals sexually oriented toward women (heterosexual men and homosexual women) and small in individuals sexually oriented toward men (heterosexual women and homosexual men)."

(You really should read the whole paper, available here)

Unfortunately, he was unable to obtain brain tissue from homosexual women, so he couldn't test that part of the theory. Or that's how he describes it. You see, he got his tissue from routine autopsies, all 41 different samples. And you can't ask a corpse its sexual orientation. So he followed a simple rule. If he knew a man was gay (19 examples), he classified him as gay. (If the man was known to be bisexual, as one man was, what the hell, call him gay too.) But there were 16 men and six women whose sexual orientation he didn't know. (I have no idea what investigation he did on these people, or if he simply took hospital records. All the gay men died of AIDS -- this was 1993. But so did 6 of the other men and one of the women.)

I can only quote him.
"Two of these subjects (both AIDS patients) had denied homosexual activity. The records of the remaining 14 patients contained no information about their sexual orientation; they are assumed to be heterosexual."

So, given the small size of the sample, and the assumptions, the evidence must be pretty strong to get the amount of publicity. He obviously ruled out the possibility that AIDS could affect the brain, right? Well...

"there is the possibility that the small size of INAH 3 in the homosexual men is the result of AIDS or its complications and is not related to the men's sexual orientation. This does not seem to be the case because (i) the size difference in INAH 3 was apparent even when comparing the homosexual men with heterosexual AIDS patients..." Except that the six 'heterosexual' AIDS patients were only 'presumed' heterosexual -- two of them denied being gay, and of course a homosexual will always admit he is gay when he enters a hospital, right, and there was no information on the other four.

But at least the results were all consistent with the theory. Uh-oh! "The existence of "exceptions" in the present sample (that is, presumed heterosexual men with small INAH 3 nuclei, and homosexual men with large ones) hints at the possibility that sexual orientation, although an important variable, may not be the sole determinant of INAH 3 size. It is also possible, however, that these exceptions are due to technical shortcomings or to misassignment of subjects to their subject groups."

But despite these minor shortcomings, his next sentence reads: "The discovery that the nucleus differs in size between heterosexual and homosexual men illustrates that sexual orientation in humans is amenable to study at the biological level, and this discovery opens the door to studies of neurotransmitters or receptors that might be involved in regulating this aspect of personality."

Okay, now that we have some spare scrap paper, let's look at another study. This is the famous "Gay Gene Study" by Dean Hamer. The study that Carl Zimmer described, in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN as follows: "In 1993, for example, a scientist reported a genetic link to male homosexuality in a region of the X chromosome. The report brought a huge media fanfare, but other scientists who tried to replicate the study failed. The scientist's name was Dean Hamer." (This was in a discussion of Hamer's newest 'sensation,' The "God Gene.")

First, let’s look at Dean Hamer. While he’s done other work on several topics, the studies that have brought him into public notice have been his studies on Behavioral Genetics. The ‘Gay Gene’ was the first to make him well-known, later to be followed by the ‘God Gene’ but he has investigated the possible genetic ‘cause’ of such things as optimism, anxiety, and cigarette smoking. (In fact it was while he was studying cigarette smoking that he ‘discovered’ the ‘God Gene.’)

Hamer seems to be someone who, if there is evidence for a genetic cause for a behavior, By God, he’ll find it. And if there isn’t any evidence, By God, he’ll find it anyway. (The “By God’s” are interjections, not a reference to his religious faith, if any.) Unfortunately, no one else seems to be able to find what he finds.

(I have to mention, in that context, that he was the subject of an investigation by the federal Office of Research Integrity for possible scientific misconduct, because one of the study collaborators alleges that Hamer suppressed data that would have reduced the statistical significance of the reported results. I have been unable to find any final resolution of this investigation, and it seems to have been dropped without a finding either way.)

I am expecting any day now that he will release a study showing genetic causes for the differences between Yankee fans and Mets fans. And that’s not that far-fetched. If anxiety, risk-taking, and optimism, not to mention ‘self-transcendence’ are studiable, then why shouldn’t the ‘dimorphism’ between ‘front-runners’ and ‘underdog-supporters’ be? And anyone who follows baseball could match these with Yankee and Mets fans. All he has to do is to find families with more than one fan of a given team, analyze the relatives of these people to see if they skew more to the paternal or maternal side, and then run an analysis on the relevant Y or X gene. Find one gene marker that is ‘over-represented’ in the group he’s studying -- making sure NOT to study the other group for the marker, and bingo! (Ignoring the fact that, especially if the sample is small enough, pure chance will almost guarantee that one or another marker will be over-represented. If you start by looking at a particular gene marker and find it over-represented, then the argument that this is not attributable to chance is valid, but that‘s different from saying that there is one marker that is skewed of the whole universe of possibilities.)

Sound ridiculous? That is the way he ‘discovered’ the gay gene. And he keeps insisting he did discover it, and redoing his studies every time someone finds flaws in his research.

And flaws there are. To quote the Council for Responsible Genetics -- I have asked for information about the organization but have yet to receive any, so I can only judge them by seeing how the article I am quoting “DO GENES DETERMINE WHETHER WE ARE LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, OR STRAIGHT?” matches other knowledge I have, and so far I have no reason to question them -- “But even more significant for Hamer’s studies is the definition of who is gay. Hamer uses the extremely conservative estimate of two percent for the prevalence of homosexuality among American men. Increasing this value to the usually accepted values of five to ten percent reduces or even eliminates the statistical significance of his results. The reason Hamer gives for his unusually low estimate is that he wants to work only with "real" gay men, that is, men who have essentially never veered from their preference for men in their sexual fantasies or activities.”

However, in his study, he does not seem to have limited his subjects to those who meet this criterion -- particularly in the relatives he studies. That isn’t that surprising. Many of us might know a relative is ‘gay’ without knowing the details of his sexual -- or fantasy -- life. However, the statistical problems become real if this factor is ignored.

In fact, the entire basis of his insistence on the gene being maternally transmitted seems to have come from the following fact. In his study, he found that 2 of 119 paternal uncles were ‘gay’ (I am not sure how he defined the term) and 7 of 96 maternal uncles. THAT -- and that alone, since there were 6 of 103 maternal cousins and 6 of 140 paternal cousins that were gay -- was what convinced him that the gay gene HAD to be maternally transmitted. (If you are wondering about lesbians, he ignored them. To quote a paper from Eric Wethy that discusses the study: “Hamer mailed out letters to members of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), but ended up with too many families that didn't fit into what was considered the "normal" gay family. For example, one family had both gay brothers and lesbian sisters. From what Hamer knew of homosexuality running in families, he knew that it wasn't common for both males and females to be gay. Any family that wasn't typical wouldn't provide valid information to his research. “) (http://www.msu.edu/user/wethyeri/gaygene.htm)

Hamer and researchers associated with him have produced further research on this. So far I am unaware of any study that confirms any of his work.

And one final comment about Hamer. The following is a quote from the abstract of an article produced by his group on the relationship between sexual orientation and ‘handedness:
“As expected from population-based studies, heterosexual men were, on average, more left-handed than heterosexual women. By contrast, gay men were more right-handed than lesbians or heterosexual men, and lesbians were more left-handed than gay men or heterosexual women. This crossover interaction suggests that a common variable influences sex, sexual orientation, and hand preference.”
(A crossover interaction between sex, sexual orientation, and handedness.Pattatucci AM, Patterson C, Benjamin J, Hamer DH. Laterality. 1998 Oct;3(4):331-42.)

On the other hand (sorry about that) RA Lippa reports:
For men and women combined, homosexual participants had 50% greater odds of being non-right-handed than heterosexual participants, a statistically significant difference. Homosexual men had 82% greater odds of being non-right-handed than heterosexual men, a statistically significant difference, whereas homosexual women had 22% greater odds of being non-right-handed than heterosexual women, a nonsignificant difference. … Rates of non-right-handedness were virtually identical for heterosexual men and women, suggesting that sex differences in handedness may result from higher rates of homosexuality in men.
(Handedness, sexual orientation, and gender-related personality traits in men and women. Arch Sex Behav. 2003 Apr;32(2):103-14.)

I won’t quote the abstract here, but a study of the ‘non-delinquent’ subjects of the Kinsey report showed (with over 6500 subjects) NO significant difference between heterosexual and homosexual men as far as ‘non-right-handedness’ went.

I will discuss the third study, the ‘twin studies’ -- and the unexpected return of Steve Sailer -- my reason for claiming that these studies are all useless because they neither describe, define, nor take a realistic view of homosexuality, and finally give my own ideas -- hopefully testable -- about the whole subject in the second part of this article. I’ll end this already lengthy piece with a suggested -- admittedly expensive and still imperfect -- experiment that might answer some of the questions. At least it would be something that seems like ‘real science’ to me, unlike the LeVay and Hamer ‘discoveries.’

There should be somewhere between 1000 and 10,000 subjects, evenly divided between men and women, and selected in such a way that sexual orientation is irrelevant, or reasonably so. (Not at a Church convention or a gay march, for example.) The subjects should be told they will need to discuss their sex lives, which will skew the sample slightly, but probably increase the honesty of the responses.

Each subject should be given a 16 digit number, in four groups of four digits. Each subject would be given four examinations by four independent groups of examiners. Each group would know only one of the four number groups corresponding to the examination.

I: a complete sexual history would be taken. Probably the subject would be encouraged to narrate it, guided to certain aspects by the examiner rather than answering a series of questions. It would include fantasies, early sexual experiences, early ‘crushes,’ time of learning sexual matters, early masturbation, but would go up to the present. The examiners would have to be specially trained at making the subjects comfortable discussing anything and guarantee confidentiality, even in relation to technically illegal events.

II: a life history, stressing the earliest period, would be taken, including as many influences, personal, educational, familial, including early books, tv, movies, etc, neighbors, religious education, etc. Again, probably in narrative form.

III: a complete physical description would be taken, stressing anatomical features. Possibly full-body MRIs could be included. (I am not sure if a full medical history would be needed or desirable, but certainly there should be a listing of STDs and any other even tangential matters -- for example, to mention a personal experience, I once contracted severe poison ivy on my genitals.)

IV: a full DNA work-up should be done.

Once the information was collected, then it could be collated and statistical correlations could be done. (To insure the elimination of bias, the program to create the correlation should be prepared in advance and -- if this wasn’t over-caution -- the inputting could be by a fifth group. Certainly the people inputting any specific data should know only the four digit number corresponding to that examination, and not have any way of putting the groups together to isolate any specific individual.)

That -- am I naïve -- strikes me as being the scientific way of doing such an investigation.

And one final note. I’ll explain more fully in the next part of this, but my argument here should not be taken to imply any belief in the possibility of changing someone from gay to straight, or vice versa. I have a somewhat different way of seeing the situation, but I’ll lay that out, along with -- as I said -- a discussion of the ‘twin study’ and the inherent problem with all these studies. Hopefully that part will be finished very shortly, certainly within the next few weeks.

And if anyone has any further studies or data I am unaware of, please e-mail it to me. It is at least conceivable that some recent work is less absurd than the ‘classic’ studies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across your blog on a blog search for "Gay pride"....very cool....although growing up in a lesbian home in the 50's must have been pretty scary for your mom's.

...they paved the way for the rest of us.....thank you!

5:26 PM  
Blogger Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Surprisingly no, at least not that I perceived. They were so comfortable with their life style and each other -- despite some problems they had -- that they never drew any prejudice. I got some, but I was a fat, arrogant, over-educated and obnoxious kid and can understand it. (Btw, I'm no longer fat.)

I found much the same as far as my own bisexuality. I was always so open about myself that I rarely received any major flak about it. In fact, I think most of the messengers in the company I worked for, who might have tended towards homophobia -- a lot of young black kids -- may have had their mind changed because I was so obviously unashamed and glad to talk about who I was and what I did.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Gadfly said...

I saw your post linked on the lastest Skeptics' Circle. (Reminds me, I haven't contributed in a while.)

But, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. It's my turn to be skeptical about your skepticism expressed in this post.

1. I agree that Hamer and LeVay are discredited; that doesn’t mean that all research on a genetic cause for a tendency toward homosexuality — since good evolutionary psychology knows that tendencies are all that genes code for — has been discredited.
1a. For example, recent studies indicated gays, lesbians and straights have different reactions toward pheromones. While it’s possible this could be entirely stemming from choiced-based sexuality, it seems unlikely.
2. I believe that the genetic situation here is similar to alcoholism. It’s multigenic, and, just as some researchers are talking about alcoholismS in the plural, a few are talking about homoseualitIES in the plural as well. (I’m somewhat with you that, beyond a narrow, sex-act based description, a larger description of what homosexuality is, still may be tenuous.) I do believe the strength of genetic coding for homosexuality is higher than for alcoholism; if it weren’t, folks like NARTH actually would be “healing” many more gays than they actually claim.
2a. This would probably explain bisexuality as well, the idea that there are different “homosexualities.”
3. Five percent gay, instead of two percent in the population, as Hamer claimed? Sure, that’s probably about right. But to claim that 10 percent gays in the population is within the normal range of estimates? You’re fluffing, IMO.
4. Your whole post seems based too much on a dichotomous view of “nature VS. nurture” rather than understanding the best “nature VIA nurture” consensus of modern conservative ev psych thinkers. I heartily recommend Matt Ridley’s “Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human.”

2:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I am not homophobic and I consider someone's sexual preference none of my business, as long as it is not imposed on me.

The only thing I would consider offensive to me or to society would be pedophiles, etc, with sexual preferences to innocent children who they take advantage of and ruin their lives.

Your post really shed some light on me, though on a topic, that I do admit, I do not know much about- but have always wondered what makes a person gay? Is it their genetic makeup? Hormones? Sexual preferences? Sexual abuse by someone from the same sex during childhood? Do people wishing for a transexual operation really feel they were born into the wrong body? Is it just longing for any affection and attention?- (the same questions I ask about what drives a person to sexual permiscuity)

I have always wondered about a homosexual person's genetic or biological/physiological makeup. How does it compare to a heterosexual?

Excuse me for my ignorance though, I do not intend to offend you, I'm just thinking out loud and I certainly am not looking down at you or others.

Blogging is amazing- apart from researching and reading- it takes you into people's minds and thoughts, including what they might not say face to face or in a formal article-on all topics.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's important to live in a world where people take the time to understand and sympathize with people, even if we are different from them, rather than judge and hate. You should only hate a person for their hateful actions.

Sorry for the long comment.

btw... I was promised a certain cat post??? hmm..

3:11 AM  
Blogger Kewenay said...

Fascinating. Thanks for a great read. But I wonder why so much 'science' goes into this. My belief is that homosexuality is a creation of modern society. That's not to say it hasn't always existed - I'm sure it has, but only recently have we started getting bothered about it. I mean who cares what your sexual orientation is? Why should it be anyone's business? And anyway, homosexuality occurs among different species too. It's absolutely natural.
I also believe that no one is either gay or straight. We're all bisexual, but at different places on a sliding scale. Some are more at the gay end, some more towards the straight end, some in the middle, some nearer the middle of the straight end and so on and so on. Me, I'm at the straight end, but that doesn't mean I'm not perhaps a little bit gay. Not that I've tried it. I could try it of course and my position on the scale might move a bit more to the middle. Or not. Depends if I liked it and whether I had any intention of doing it again.
My argument could be illustrated by my reaction to gay porn. It turns me on, but I'm not gay. I like straight porn too, and lesbian porn. So does my wife. The fact is that watching people have sex is a turn on – provided they’re reasonably attractive looking – and we all get turned on by it. That’s normal.
What’s not normal is any disgust I feel about being turned on by gay porn. It means I have two contradictory feelings going on at the same time. But that disgust says something about the values of the society I grew up in, nothing about nature.
So rather than all this scientific research into whether there is or is not a ‘gay gene’ we should just accept that there’s homosexuality in all of us, and it doesn’t matter because it’s natural. And then we can all chill out about it.
Prup – I’d appreciate an answer to a question I have on my blog. Perhaps you could enlighten me.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

is there any evidence to suggest that sexual orientation has absolutely no specific cause? I'm a lesbien, and i'm writing an argumentative essay about "there is no difference between gays and straights." im trying to show that we are everyday, average people who just prefer diffeent things, just like preferring mushrooms or sausage on pizza. If anyone can help me, e-mail me at positive_negative18@hotmail.com, ASAP. And thanks, i'm glad to see that someone sticks up for people like me.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry, i spelled lesbian incorrectly

8:02 PM  
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5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is There a "Gay Gene"?

Many laymen now believe that homosexuality is part of who a person really is ­ from
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No. There is no evidence that shows that homosexuality is simply "genetic." And none
of the research claims there is. Only the press and certain researchers do, when
speaking in sound bites to the public.

How The Public Was Misled

In July of 1993, the prestigious research journal Science published a study by Dean Hamer
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Of course, certain necessary qualifiers were added within those
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meant. The vast majority of readers were urged to believe that homosexuals
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