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“Super Uncle” theory gets support from study

Timothy Kincaid

February 4th, 2010

Those who study the etiology of sexual orientation know that genetics is not fully responsible for whether or not a man is gay. Other factors which are hypothesized to play a roll including either biological conditions (e.g. in utero hormone levels), natural environmental influences (early childhood infections), psychological influences, and many others.

But the results of twin studies have long since indicated that for at least some gay men, part of the causation of their orientation is due to genetics.

However, evolutionary biologists have been uncertain as to why this would be. Knowing that men who are primarily same-sex attracted and not opposite-sex attracted are less likely to reproduce, what evolutionary advantage would these genes have and how would they have carried for millions of generations without dying out?

One theory is that the advantages of having a small number of men without children of their own would be adequate to advantage the shared genes of their siblings, “super uncles” as it were. Now it appears that at least one study provides some credibility to that idea. (Montreal Gazette)

Interestingly, the study was conducted by someone who set out to prove it wrong. Paul Vasey, associate professor in the University of Lethbridge’s department of psychology, went to Samoa to study the fa’afafine [men who were raised female] to provide the conclusive evidence that the “super uncle” theory could be discarded. He found the opposite.

Researchers conducting similar studies in the U.S. and England did not find any supporting evidence for the theory, said Vasey. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do it in a non-Western culture and chances are I’m going to find exactly the same results and it’ll be the nail in the coffin for this hypothesis,'” he said.

Vasey found that the fa’afafine said they were significantly more willing to help kin, yet much less interested in helping children who aren’t family — providing the first evidence to support the “kin selection hypothesis.”

It would be ill advised to draw too many conclusions based on this one study. And directly equating of fa’afafine to gay men in the West is a rather large leap.

However, this does provide additional data to inform the ongoing question as to why some people find themselves attracted to the same sex and others do not.

Comments

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sameom
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

Just because there is a genetic link/cause doesn’t mean there has to be an associated evolutionary advantage.

Burr
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

What about super aunts?

Mark F.
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

“Just because there is a genetic link/cause doesn’t mean there has to be an associated evolutionary advantage.”

True, but genetic traits that reduce the ability to reproduce tend not to be widespread. About 5% of the male population is gay, so this strongly suggests a non-genetic explanation.

Ben in Oakland
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

fa’afafine (I think fafine means woman; cognate in Haw’n is wahine) is the cultural cognate of the Hawaiian word mahu, sometimes erroneously translated gay or homosexual, but actually neither– closer to our transgender but without the trans, though mahu today do get sex changes. Na mahu have always held a special place in native Hawaiian society even today, though ‘aikane, which we would translate as one’s gay lover– many of the kings and royalty (ali’i) had aikane– no longer hold that place, thanks to the influence of you-know-who. Very similar to native american berdache.

So it is a bit difficult to make the logical jump in terms of our culture, since we’re not really talking about the same thing. My memory isn’t working so well right now, so i can’t remember the exact word– bio-something–but that theory of evolutionary value for homosexuality has been around for some time in that field.

Ray
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

My husband and I have been “Super Uncle” forever. We’ve bankrolled college, stated businesses and done quite a bit of bailing when a parent, sibling or niece/nephew needed a quick financial fix. We paid for our collective four parent’s funerals (complete with head stone) and done assorted emergency medical expense gifts for our family and for charitable causes. Finally, we already distributed the financial assets we set aside in our Will, all to our siblings and their children in addition to the siblings (and children) of my husband’s previous partner of 32 years. I’m the second man in my husband’s life and we’re into our 27 year.

The Super Uncle idea is pretty potent in my house.

WMDKitty
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

So… I’m not planning on having kids of my own (not parent material), but I love spoiling my nieces and nephews, and even friends’ kids. What does that maek me? (I second the idea of the “super aunt”, as well.)

Swampfox
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

Maybe that is why I am know by the honored nickname of just “Uncle” by both my nieces and nephews. I’m interested in this theory.

Patrick
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

People who argue about homosexuality “dying out” if it weren’t advantageous are simply in error. Hemophilia has not died out. Albinism has not died out. The reason is they are recessive traits. Natural selection does not work on recessive alleles unless the individual is homozygous recessive. In other words, recessive alleles can persist without “dying out” if they are not harmful in the heterozygous state. Furthermore, this scenario applies to monogenic traits.

But no serious scientist is arguing homosexuality is monogenic (although that is a strawman regularly presented by the Religious Right). Furthermore, if homosexuality is polygenic and influenced by the prenatal environment, then the genes that (help) code for it can persist forever in the genetic pool.

Biology is so much more complicated than even Darwin realized.

Burr
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

Absolutely right Patrick and I remember bringing that up the last time genetics was mentioned..

Lynn David
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

His reasoning sounds lame, and I’ve alwasys considered the theory is intuitively lame. How does a gene know what a person thinks? But then I’m not an uncle. Though I have helped out the children of cousins. Still seems lame.

Lucrece
February 4th, 2010 | LINK

What other commenter have said. Too many people get hung up on the concept of evolution as a mechanism organisms seek to achieve all the time.

Evolution is purely coincidental. It is not a reaction. It is not an adaptation to a current adversity.

Hunter
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

Edward O. Wilson advanced a similar idea years ago in The Insect Societies and refined it in Sociobiology. He also found in that idea the seeds of a genetic basis for altruism.

As I remember (haven’t read either book in years), he based his idea on the economics of evolution, as exemplified in the social insects: workers do not breed, but they devote their efforts to the successful breeding of their queens, who share their genetic inheritance, thus insuring that at least part of their genetic heritage is passed on. Wilson found correlates in social predators — wolves, in which the alpha pair breeds and the others help raise and provide for the pups. Ditto the great apes: the alpha male breeds, others contribute to the successful rearing of the offspring.

It’s not such a far leap to the idea that same-sex attraction is at least one component of that behavioral pattern — if the imperative for breeding and child-rearing in a particular individual are redirected to the support of siblings’ offspring, there is an obvious advantage for the group.

andrew
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

Hunter, great comment… I was just going to say “bees”, not to mention “Sparta”. Having a sector of the population with bonds that are less likely to include offspring and more likely to be focussed on extended family or the clan has powerful organizing advantages for both gays and lesbians, for those societies best able to capitalize on them.

If true, logically, one might be able to point out evolutionarily advantaged societies based on the utility they make from gays and lesbians… assuming, of course, that the role of LGBT individuals can compete with the plethora of other factors contributing to societal success to the point that it matters. Are gayer societies more succesful than straighter ones? Or merely better dressed?

Désirée
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

another simple fact often forgotten in regard to genetics is that something doesn’t need to be beneficial to not be bred out, it just needs to not be harmful. Men have nipples. Why? The simple answer is because women do. There is no advantage to not having them, so all mammals of both sexes have them.

Homosexuality is not disadvantageous and since any genetic factor is likely recessive it’s not going to easily be selected out.

Embarcadero
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

Please stop bestowing dignity on these twin studies and these reports of the pseudo-science of intra-uterine conditions that “play a role” (or whatever other hazy causal relationship) in being gay. They are the hillbilly, redneck backwater cousins of real science.

Gayness, queerness or whatever you’d like to call it – these are cultural states. That we have people busily trying to find biological causes for these cultural states speaks more to our social fixation on biology as ontological destiny than anything else.

Citing twin studies is especially egregious. Please, some of us in your audience are actually scientists, and this kind of nonsense is like nails on a chalkboard.

Enough with the fantasy that gayness has a biological or genetic “cause”. The only “cause” I have is that of obtaining equality under the law.

There is no evidence that intra-uterine conditions impact spatial reckoning, mathematical reasoning or sexual orientation. The genetics studies are flights of fantasy loosely based on probability theory and the belief that there must be a biological basis for everything.

Can we please ditch this issue and move on? Otherwise, I’ll expect to see reports accounting for the “genetic” and “biological” causes of other cultural conditions I think are more in need of analysis, such as becoming a tea-bagger, being a rightwing born-again christian nut, or being pathologically obsessed with the legal, consensual behavior of others around you.

Timothy (TRiG)
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

There is excellent evidence from numerous studies that sexuality is fixed before birth. I’ve just finished reading an excellent layman’s introduction to the subject: Born Gay? The psychobiology of sex orientation. ISBN: 0-7206-1223-3.

TRiG.

Ephilei
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

@Embarcadero

Bailey’s twin study isn’t controversial and universally accepted about researchers. In utero is less accepted but is still very strong and by no means pseudo science. Critical analysis is healthy and helpful, but only if you provide rationale. Simply stating they’re “hillbilly” isn’t productive.

Anyway, what is the sexual orientation of fafafine? They’re gender variant but that doesn’t make them gay or even asexual. If anything, this serves to tell us more about transgender etiology than homosexual.

paul j stein
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

As far as twins go, one pair I knew very well (from age 15yo) I now find 20 years later that both were gay but one was trying to live a hetero lifestyle. He is now very happy with his male spouse and daughter. The superuncle is a reality because of necessity, he fills way too many needs in the family unit. My spouse and I seem to be the only ones in the group of families that can “get it done”. So we do and I guess that is our legacy.

Jason D
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

I’m inclined to agree with embarcadero.

I’m left handed. Dunno why. Don’t really care.

There used to be a social stigma with lefties and all sorts of myths and stereotypes to go with it.

It changed.

But not because we don’t know what makes a person left or right-handed. Because people hung out with lefties and learned that is is a pretty unimportant fact unless you’re picking seats at a table or certain sports equipment or other manual equipment (scissors, etc).

What people don’t realize is that the faster we prove where homosexuality comes from, the faster someone’s going to get started on a “cure”.

This ain’t the magic trump card that’s going to shut people up. It’s just going to open a whole new can of stupid.

grantdale
February 5th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero — as a scientist… you know what your post was missing?

Such firmly held opinions are surely backed up by something we can all be referred to? Or maybe not.

I don’t think anyone here will bother debating whether being openly gay with your partner of 27 years and a welcomed member of the extended family is indeed a “cultural state” compared to living in terror in Uganda. I assume we’d all agree on that, or risk public derision.

But we’re not talking about how a trait is viewed by a society, or how a society reacts to individuals showing the trait.

We’re talking about the trait itself. In this case, the underlying homosexual and heterosexual attractions.

I’m hard pressed to even see why you’d want to conflate that with a list of things that are plainly socially influenced.

Moving from San Francisco to Baptistville Mississippi might cause you to go and get yourself born again, or start tapping your feet in airport toilets. But I seriously doubt it would have any impact on your underlying sexual attractions. I for one haven’t seen any evidence that it would.

(And if you actually do think that “intra-uterine conditions” have no impact on spatial reckoning or mathematical reasoning… you perhaps need to hang out in a support group for mothers who drank heavily or took street drugs while pregnant. I assume you really didn’t think before you wrote that.)

Jason D: we don’t hold the same concerns. For one, because IMO all sexual attractions are tied up with a raft of biologically influenced traits that are worth keeping and not worth risking (ergh, I don’t know: socialability or altruism?). For two, IMO because by the time we have the knowledge to actually do it the very process of gaining the knowledge will have removed the incentive for doing it. Like, left-handedness. Of course, we also don’t underestimate just how many cans of stupid are out there… hoo boy no :)

Hunter
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero —

You may be, at least in part, correct, but the substance of your comment is way off. We need a little more precision here.

Sexual orientation is not a culturally determined trait. If you can explain to me the “cultural” forces that cause two male penguins to bond together long enough to hatch an egg and raise a chick, I’m willing to listen. The incidence of same-sex bonding is too widespread among vertebrates to fall back on cultural arguments.

The identity of “queer” or “gay” is, arguably, a cultural identity. Most of our identity is culturally determined (an opinion, but not one I think is completely unfounded) — think about all the different facets of your own identity and tell me that there are no cultural definitions involved. It’s worth noting that before the great age of classification in the 19th century, there was no such thing as a “homosexual.” There was only homosexual behavior. It took psychologists to “discover” a “homosexual” personality type, and it’s taking us well over a century to dispense with that particular idiocy.

There are many studies that have pointed to a biological basis for sexual orientation, but don’t bother looking for a “gay gene” — you won’t find one. (Which to those who are worried about a “cure” should be some solace.) Nor is same-sex attraction an either/or kind of thing — human sexuality seems to be much more fluid than that — although the expression of orientation is likely to be either/or, largely because of those cultural factors that enter into establishing “identity”.

Like most human behaviors, same-sex attraction is complex, subject to many influences both biological and environmental, and depends on the interaction of components that we can’t even completely identify, much less understand. For purposes of discussion, we tend to simplify, but we have to keep in mind that we are simplifying, otherwise we’re going to argue ourselves into some fairly claustrophobic corners.

The whole question of biological origins should be, for purposes of equality under the law, irrelevant. Regrettably, it’s a necessary counter to those who insist that same-sex attraction is a “choice”. (The irony, of course, is that it’s much less of a choice than being an evangelical Christian, which is protected by law.) The answer, of course, is to abandon those religiously based laws that seek to regulate individual behavior that harms no one and that exclude certain classes from equal treatment for traits that are, when all is said and done, irrelevant to the purpose of the law in general. (Oddly enough, I find myself a staunch conservative on those issues, to the tune of telling the government to get out of my bedroom and stay out — but that’s a classical conservative position, not something you’re going to find in that sick, inbred mess that passes for conservatism these days.)

Jason D
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

Grantdale, I perhaps wasn’t as clear as I could’ve been, especially since I wrote something wrong.

I don’t know why I’m left handed. Neither does anyone else. It’s all just theory, still. Is there even much interest in finding out the “why” anymore? Probably some, but we’re at a point where finding out would , at most, end up in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Not so with sexuality.

We’re still at a point where if they isolated the gay genes, or discovered the origins of sexuality — some wingnut scientist would get busy on a cure. Perhaps if it takes a hundred years from today to find the link, to answer the “why” of differing sexual orientations, it would also be a Trivial Pursuit answer and nothing more.

I see a lot of gay people putting a lot of stock in finding that answer,today, when it’s too soon for the optimistic scenario you paint.

These people think we’re sick, finding out the biological causes for our sexuality will only further that belief. They start from a negative, so any discoveries will simply be twisted to support that negative.

I just see far too many gay people with their hopes vested in this, as I said, “Magical Trump Card” that they presume will end the debate, or at least just this “choice” part of the date.

The wingnuts do have a minor point, though they are horrible at presenting it. Sexual Orientation isn’t a choice, even the Catholics concede that point — but what we do with that orientation is a choice. We go on dates, or not by choice (and opportunity). We have sex, or not by choice (and opportunity). At the end of the day the Ex-Gays have absolutely made a choice, they choose denial, self-delusion, celibacy, and or awkward and complicated “heterosexual functioning” — but again, it’s a choice.

Whether something is biological or not and whether it is a choice or not is irrelevant. What makes something good, bad, or neutral is it’s results. It’s affect. Homosexuality, the attraction, is harmless. Gay couples are no more dangerous than straight couples. Homosexuality does not impair someone’s ability to function within society, it does not decrease motor functions or problem-solving skills, it does not impair sleep or cause someone to harm others. It is no more dangerous than heterosexuality. Paraphrasing Dan Savage, HIV isn’t fire, and gay men aren’t twigs, it’s not going to magically appear if you rub them together.

We would do far better to focus on the reality than to chase miracles of science fighting our battles for us. As you said, there are plenty of unopened cans of stupid.

Priya Lynn
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

Jason said “These people think we’re sick, finding out the biological causes for our sexuality will only further that belief.”.

I disagree. They put forth the idea that gays are sick now due to bad parenting, molestation, etc. They’re going to claim gays are sick regardless of the reason people are gay, one reason or another isn’t going to make the belief any stronger.

Richard Rush
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

Jason D, you made some really good points, including this one: “We’re still at a point where if they isolated the gay genes, or discovered the origins of sexuality — some wingnut scientist would get busy on a cure.”

This could create a dilemma for wingnuts. Suppose a biological cause is found that can be detected early in the womb, but can not be “cured” either before or after birth. Would the wingnuts advocate abortion?

Or suppose prospective couples could be tested for a genetic “defect” that is likely to be passed on. Would the wingnuts propose laws to prevent them from marrying, just as siblings cannot marry.

cowboy
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

Jason D:

Sexual Orientation isn’t a choice, even the Catholics concede that point — but what we do with that orientation is a choice.

And so do Mormons.

At recent “Fireside Chats” with Mormons at various LDS chapels in the Oakland, California area it was revealed the same “Sexual Orientation isn’t a choice” meme. Their response was: The cause of homosexuality is immaterial anyway because you must not act on homosexual urges.

So, finding biological or a complex set of causes will not end the debate or the bigotry.

Thanks Jason D.

Embarcadero
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

The idea that sexual orientation is a “trait” is a matter of faith, not a matter of science.

As a scientist, I cringe when I hear the words “twin study” because they are almost invariably followed by some wacky assertion that a complex, adult constellation of behavior, thought and symbolic interaction might be “genetically linked”.

These theories lack any defensible notion of causality. Twin studies

I don’t worry about people “discovering” the genetic links to gayness for one very simple reason: there is no way to discover a gene for a cultural fantasy. There will be no “cure” worse than the ones we’ve already seen, which include the literal and symbolic erasure of gay people from the planet. These did not depend on elaborate biological theories, though they were sometimes mobilized as evidence to support the homophobia that was their goal.

I wish we would just move on from this pointless discussion, and stop bestowing dignity upon those who busy themselves trying to find the biological roots of a cultural state. Sexual orientation is much more like handedness or personality. These are well patterned, mostly stable states that are in many ways constitutive of identity. They are not manifestations of a gene other than those genes that allow human to grow into complex, symbolically sophisticated beings. They are not “traits” like the colors of flowers or the number of leaves on petals. That people continue to obsess about this topic is revealing, but does nothing to advance scientific knowledge (at least not about genetics or queerness)

@Hunter, there is a classic text that has yet to be surpassed, basically trashing all the alleged “science” about hormones, the intrauterine environment and sexual orientation: Ruth Bleir’s 1980s “Lab Coat: Robe of Innocence or Klansmen’s Sheet”. It’s in an edited volume by Teresa de Lauretis.

Anyone being misled into believing that twin studies of sexual orientation are uncontroversial should seek to read a bit more widely. I’d start here: Cartney, K., Harris, M., & Bernieri, F., (1990). Growing up and growing apart: A developmental meta-analysis of twin studies. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 226-237.

Twin studies of sexual orientation indulge a fantasy that ignores both genetics and psychology. Odd fixation, if you ask me.

Priya Lynn
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero said “The idea that sexual orientation is a “trait” is a matter of faith, not a matter of science.”.

From your angry rants it sounds like its more a matter of faith for you that it isn’t a trait. While there is no perfect proof that it is a trait all manner of studies suggest it is. While any one of them is not conclusive on its own, the whole of the work taken together provides pretty solid evidence that gayness is biological

Embarcadero said “As a scientist…”.

I know scientists, you are no scientist.

grantdale
February 6th, 2010 | LINK

@Embarcadero — that’s Ruth Bleier by the way. I was required to read her, and like-minded others, as an engineering undergrad*. Which shows how elderly I am.

Ruth Bleier didn’t address sexual orientation, frankly. As a (capital F)eminist writer she concerned herself with the gross assumptions made about differences between men and women; assumptions that claimed to be based on biological differences but which were rather based on differences in education and gender-based stereotyping. Claims like “You can’t do maths because you’re a girl.” Variability within one sex or the other is far more significant than differences between the sexes.

I haven’t read it in years but “Lab Coat” itself is a rather tiresome piece about the ethics and politics of scientific research, again not about sexual attractions. All good stuff of itself way back in the day of bra-burning etc, but there’s only so much of a point one can made based on the supposed corrupting influence of the masculine aura of white lab coats. Containing herself to a (capital F)eminst framework makes for a limited and weak overall viewpoint.

She’s also been dead since 1988. (That I did need to check). Therefore I have no idea what she’d make of the past 20 years of biology, genetic research or dual-core desktop computers. Or a black President and a female Secretary of State.

Also, that’s McCartney Harris & Bernieri.

Again, another 20 year old reference (and based on literature from 1967 to 1985). And again it doesn’t do what you claim it does.

Apart from not being biological researchers, the authors categorically do NOT reject twin-studies. The paper’s conclusion is that the relative influence on behaviour of genetics and environment can vary across the life of a subject; and that this may be an important consideration when considering any particular trait.

The paper doesn’t answer anything about sexual orientation. It does draw attention to setting up studies so that the influences of biology, shared environment and non-shared environment can be teased apart: which is exactly what all properly designed twin-studies in fact do. That is something demanded of both biological and behavioural studies.

Two swings and two strikes, if I can count correctly.

Any claim you make apparently needs to be thoroughly checked by the reader. And that’s really boring.

—————-

@Jason D: we don’t disagree. But as sexuality is a key interest for most people, the research is going to continue. It just will. What we do with it… that’s another matter.

Hunter
February 7th, 2010 | LINK

@Embarcadero: “The idea that sexual orientation is a “trait” is a matter of faith, not a matter of science.”

By every definition I’ve ever heard of the word, sexual orientation is certainly a “trait,” at least as expressed in the here and now. You’re going to have to be a bit more precise before I can accept that statement at all — are you referring to sexual orientation as a latency, or as a developed behavioral pattern? And is a latent condition a trait, or not? I think a given set of behaviors certainly qualifies.

You seem to have missed the point of my post, which is simply that we are not dealing with an either/or phenomenon — it’s way too soon to say that sexual orientation and its expression are biological or cultural. My point is that I suspect, as seems to be the case for so much human behavior, that there is a synergetic relationship between nature and nurture. One can posit a genetic predisposition, but I suspect there’s a pinball effect — if the ball goes through this chute and hits that flipper at this angle, then there is a probability of this score. At this point, claiming causality is a fool’s game, and I don’t think the twin studies or any other studies have claimed that. How could they? It seems correlation is the best we can do so far, but I think the correlations are strong enough that we can accept the idea of a biological factor at the base of sexual orientation. (I express no opinion on what those who are commenting or reporting on those studies might claim, except to note that the state of science reporting in this country is pathetic, as is the clarity of discourse. Caveat emptor.)

As for continued research into the “causes” of sexual orientation, there are two main motivations: human curiosity, which happily seems unquenchable; and politics, which makes funding possible. It’s going to happen. As for “cures,” we’ve seen how successful the anti-gay right has been with that trope. Even they don’t claim cures any more — at least, not in the fine print. As for the mad scientist scenario, you forget that the people who are likely to push for that sort of thing don’t really believe in science — all you have to do to see that is note their reliance on such as Paul Cameron and on decades old and thoroughly debunked psychotherapeutic “theories” — which sort of hampers their research efforts right off the bat.

So finding a biological basis for sexual orientation may not be a scientific necessity, or even a legal one, but at this point it’s self-defense.

Embarcadero
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

@Grantdale,
I’m sorry, but you can’t simply dismiss scholarship because it was done 30 years ago or because you associate it with “bra burning”. Bleier’s work is not about ethics, it’s about causality, rhetoric and masculinist fixations in science. She quite elegantly lays out the causal theory in studies of the “relationship” between exposure to hormones in utero and outcomes related to differences between males and females on spatial reckoning and math. I suggest you re-read it. Her reasoning stands up to this day. There is a fellowship in the natural sciences named in her honor.

Even more risible is your attempt to dismiss the review of twin studies because it doesn’t address same-sex studies specifically and because neither of the authors is a biological scientist. This is a review of method, not an assessment of the question. What do the authors conclude? That studies focusing on complex behaviors tend to assume that they function as stable traits over time; this ignores both the science of genetics (which takes into account that environmental influences may change) and everything we know about such behaviors from the disciplines that study them.

That they’re not biological scientists makes me take them more seriously. The idea that only biological scientists can assess what is or is not the proper domain of biology is, to be charitable to you, circular logic. The complex behavior in question here – sexual attraction and behavior – is probably best described by psychology, sociology and anthropology. Biology has made, in the past 100 years, virtually no contribution whatsoever.

Your insistence that homosexuality is a “trait” is telling. I’m sure it’s easier to assume that it’s like the color of a flower or the shape of an earlobe. In fact, the evidence shows quite the opposite, that it is a state, akin to handedness or personality. In some cultures, it’s taken to be constitutive of identity and is experienced in a highly subjective manner; in others, it’s an aspect of a collective identity and is not considered an individual matter. The way the state is interpreted and experience is entirely a matter of culture.

Simply put, the idea that homosexuality is a trait is, in itself, an identifier of a person’s belonging to the group of people who believe in, and may be looking for a “genetic link”. Lots of circular logic here. Your presumptions generate their own theory of causality.

@Priya: fortunately, you’re not in a position to exclude me or anyone else from a scientific community. The only angry ranting here is yours, and doesn’t speak well for you.

grantdale
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero, you are plainly some sort of crank. I will not argue with cranks.

Also, please don’t come to my house hoping to convince me otherwise. I’ll call the cops.

It takes all sorts, as the expression goes…

Jarred
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

I find it strange that a “scientist” would do either of the following:

1. Use the phrase “biological scientist” rather than “biologist.”

2. Refer to themselves as a “scientist” rather than by a title more appropriate to their field of research (e.g. biologist, biochemist, quantum physicist, etc.)

As such, I find myself wondering if it might be time to ask Embarcadero to explicitly state their credentials.

Embarcadero
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

I earned my Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago. I’ve taught and published about the history of science, the concept of the body in medicine and a host of other topics relevant to this question.

I love how my credentials are questioned, even as the topic at hand – genetics and homosexuality – is on the fringes of mainstream science. I’m not endorsing the view that outsider science isn’t interesting or worthy, just remarking on the unusual-ness of having my credentials questioned by the very people who are ordinarily dismissed by others as asking questions too peripheral to science to bother with.

Oh, and I love the idea that a crank is someone who simply knows the literature better than others. Or someone who calls out the circular, solipsistic logic of others. I guess I’ve often been a crank, at least as defined here.

And Jarred, BTW, there are many branches of biological sciences whose practitioners the term “biologist” would not include. These include subjects as diverse as biochemistry, neuroanatomy and paleontology. Hope this helps broaden your understanding of the sciences.

I can’t help but wonder: Ruth Bleier has a fellowship named in her honor. Do you suppose that Simon Levay will have a fellowship named in his honor? Do you suppose that he will be anything more than a footnote in 10 years? Is he more than that now?

Priya Lynn
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero, you may be an anthropologist but you’re no scientist. Grantdale ate your supper. Anyone saying that when someone’s not a biologist that makes you take them more seriously is just reaffirming he’s a crank.

Priya Lynn
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

And I should add that Embarcadero began by listing two studies and claiming they showed sexual orientation was not biologically based. That they didn’t address sexual orienation at all was the height of dishonesty. That you’d pull a stunt like that and count on no one knowing the truth about these studies or being able to look them up is incredibly sleazy – a typical anti-gay tactic.

Jason D
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Grantdale said “@Jason D: we don’t disagree. But as sexuality is a key interest for most people, the research is going to continue. It just will. What we do with it… that’s another matter.”

I agree completely. Of course the research will continue, but I’m just simply stating that people stop putting their eggs in this basket, there’s a hole in the bottom of it.

Embarcadero
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Whoa. Priya, I’ve been a queer activist longer than you’ve likely been alive.

You make a fundamental mistake in equating the idea that gayness has no biological link with being anti-gay. I suggest you learn a bit about the terms of this debate. There are plenty of people who find the search for biological “causes” of homosexuality to be fundamentally homophobic. While I mostly agree, it seems that those who look for such links do so not out of hatred of queer people, but out of simple misunderstandings about biology, sexual orientation and causality.

My initial assertion: search for the biological “causes” of homosexuality is pseudoscience. The references I gave speak to two of the primary types of reasoning – bad twin studies and a make-believe connection between in-utero exposure to hormones and observed differences between men and women. You’d do well to actually read the references I gave.

You’d do well to learn a bit more about this Priya. I’m guessing you’re in high school? You should make the most of your educational opportunities while you can.

Again – any bets on whether there will be a Simon Levay fellowship? Will he be more than footnote in the history of the social organization of science?

Timothy Kincaid
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero,

It is clear that you are impassioned on this subject and are a firm believer that sexual orientation has no biological bases.

You have presented your somewhat dated evidence and your disbelief in twin studies. You have declared to the world that those who are not biological scientists are more credible than those who are. You “mostly agree” that even looking for biological contributors to orientation is “homophobic”. You have stated your case.

Others here have found it wanting. Your opinion, though cherished, is out of the mainstream. In fact, in the light of a large number of studies observing characteristics as diverse as x-chromosome activation in mothers, blood rH factors, spacial orientation, and even things like hair whorls, an argument that there are no biological factors that contribute to orientation begins to sound more like zeal than science.

You are welcome to present any additional evidence to support your conclusions (preferably from within the past few decades), but arguing over whether there will be a Simon LeVay fellowship is far off point and not really an appropriate or beneficial contribution to the conversation.

Chris McCoy
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Jason D said:

Of course the research will continue, but I’m just simply stating that people stop putting their eggs in this basket, there’s a hole in the bottom of it.

I agree.

I am concerned for our community that there is a drive to look for a cause for homosexuality.

I think we’ve bought into the anti-gay rhetoric – that homosexuality can be, or needs to be, explained.

Do we only merit equality if homosexuality is biological?

If your answer is yes, then they have already won.

Embarcadero
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

I’m sorry Timothy. I’m generally an admirer of the BTB, but once in a while you veer off course. With all due respect, this is one of those times.

The fascination with the biological bases of homosexuality reached its peak most recently in the mid 1990s, a period that saw a flurry of publications with this theme. In the interest of brevity, I’ll cite a couple of works that I’ve used in courses. I’m drawing on memory here, so cut me some slack if I’m off on dates or spelling of names:

James de Cecco and David Parker – Sex, Cells and Same Sex Desire, the biology of sexual preference. This volume, published in 1995 as a book and previously as a special edition of the Journal of Homosexuality, offers a nice variety of above -average scholarship on the search for biological origins of homosexuality. There are a couple of initial chapters that locate sex, gender and sexual preference in the context of science and increasing medicalization of Western society. There are also a couple of pieces that refer to the previous peak of interest in this theme, in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

For an accessible (read: undergraduate friendly) account of the social history of queerness and science, see Vernon Rosario (editor): Science and Homosexualities, a guide to the debate (I think this is from around 2000). It’s an uneven compendium, but does what the title promises and is a fairly easy read.

It’s ironic that you attempt to marginalize my views by claiming that my opinions are out of the mainstream. First, I don’t deny that they are – although my opinions on science and homosexuality are really rather pedestrian, at least now. What I find ironic is that this assertion is an attempt to marginalize a point of view that exists in opposition to an idea you imagine to be mainstream science.

Your own opinions on other matters are clearly not part of mainstream journalism and are for that very reason interesting and provocative. In fact, were your ideas more mainstream, I’d probably skip BTB.

I encourage you to consider the idea that the links between biology and gayness are but a passing fad, and that your convictions may rest on very faulty assumptions. In historical terms, it wouldn’t be the first time – as is amply documented in the two works I reference above.

I believe I’ve made my point here. My question about Simon Levay isn’t just meant as a dig at him (though it’s that too). I mean to place his work and the questions that inform it into a historical context. And I believe that light is a tad unflattering.

Timothy Kincaid
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero,

I am open to evidence that that the links between biology and gayness are but a passing fad. I am not open to opinion that this is so.

If you are a regular reader, you’ll know that the etiology of sexual orientation is a subject matter that we follow (though some commenters never fail to tell us that we are wrong to do so). So if evidence arises that disproves any connections between biology and orientation, I’m sure we will review it.

Perhaps at that time I’ll change my assumptions.

Priya Lynn
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero you’ve got nothing to back up your opinion. Insisting something is so just because you dearly want it to be so is rather childish. Whether or not you claim to be a “queer” activist is quite besides the point. What’s pertinent is that you’ve used the same tactics the anti-gays use in their pursuit of deceiving people – claiming studies support your viewpoint when they do no such thing.

Your dishonesty has been exposed and no amount of playing holier-than-thou is going to salvage your reputation after a stunt like that.

Embarcadero
February 8th, 2010 | LINK

Timothy, could you elaborate on the difference between “evidence” and “opinion”? I’m especially keen to understand how this applies to the suggestion that “hair whorls”, RH blood factor and intrauterine exposure to hormones might be causally linked to sexual orientation. I’m presuming you take this as “evidence,” and consider the alternative views I’ve suggested, backed up by research to be “opinion”. Is this the case?

I’d love to hear an explanation. This might also help me understand why Gina Kolata hasn’t run out and written a popular account of how this debate has been settled.

Just for the record, it’s a fool’s errand to try to disprove a matter of faith. I’m presuming that’s why you believe that the causal link between biology and homosexuality has to be “disproved”; for me, it has yet to be established. What we have is a better than a hundred years of hazy theories of causal chains, linking homosexuality (but also transvestism and other unusual expressions of gender and sexual identity) to biology.

Obviously, you’re welcome to take any position you like on this topic, but you’d do well to keep in mind that you’re digging yourself into quite an unusual corner of scientific opinion. You refer to sexual orientations as having and “etiology” and assert that its biological nature is so well established that any ideas to the contrary must first disprove this truth. Good luck getting any but the most die-hard believers to back you up on that one.

I’ve noticed BTB’s interest in what you term the “etiology” of homosexuality (not really sexual orientation, as I’ve never seen studies that attempt to account for straightness). Up until now, I’ve simply ignored them. I now realize how wise that strategy was.

Priya Lynn
February 9th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero studies show that males are more likely to be gay the more older brothers they have regardless of whether they were raised with those brothers, women with same chromosone deactivation are more likely to have gay sons, gayness is correlated with hair whorls, finger length, finger print patterns, eye blink rates, handedness, startle response, gay men respond to pheremones like straight women, gay men and straight women have similar mental abilities while lesbians and straight men have similar mental abilities, brain structures related to sexuality are similar in size in gay men and straight women and similar in lesbians and straight men. These and probably a dozen other studies I’ve forgotten suggest that gayness is biological. Any one study on its own may not be conclusive but taken as a whole provide evidence that makes it virtually certain gayness is biological.

You started off trying to deceive people here and may have gotten away with it if it weren’t for grantdale. Now everything you say has a question mark on it. If you want to re-establish your credibility you need to acknowledge your dishonesty, apologize for it and spend years being scrupulously honest before you can begin bit by bit to repair your credibility. Until such time you do that you’re just so much lying hot air.

Timothy Kincaid
February 9th, 2010 | LINK

Embarcadero,

At present it does appear that there are correlations with sexual orientation that are biologically based. This does not prove any specific biological causation, but the preponderance of evidence does strongly suggest that biology plays a part in the etiology of the orientation of at least some gay men.

You disagree. You state that my understanding is based on hazy theories and yours on research.

But as best I can tell, your position is taken not from research at all but rather from the dismissal of other research. In other words, it appears to me that you (and those with whom you agree) simply object to the research of others rather than present original studies of your own.

You dismiss the work that has been done, declare there to be an absence of evidence, and demand that this proves your point. To me, that argument is opinion rather than evidence.

Now should further studies be performed that illuminate that these observed correlations are nothing more than coincidence or faulty science, I’ll be ready to set them aside. Just as I have noted that the study of genetic marker Xq28 has not been replicated and thus does not inform my opinion.

I invite you to be equally open to new discovery. I welcome criticism that looks at studies and results and seeks to find the truth along with the error and determine whether, and to what extent, anything can be gleaned.

But simply dismissing that with which you disagree is not of any value to me or to any other readers here. So I hope you will resist that temptation.

Bio-Curious
February 11th, 2010 | LINK

“Now should further studies be performed that illuminate that these observed correlations are nothing more than coincidence…”

Okay, we’ve come to a conclusion here. Correlations are by definition co-incidence. That’s what correlation means. Correlation does not mean causality.

Was this all just a mathematical misunderstanding?

Tim, I love your reporting, but you should know this stuff before you write about science. You can amass all the correlational data you want, but it’s still not evidence of causality. How can you disprove something that’s never been proven? It’s like asking someone to prove that drinking coffee doesn’t make you better looking.

Thank you for the reporting on Uganda.

Timothy Kincaid
February 11th, 2010 | LINK

It appears from the IP address that Bio-Curious is the same commenter as Embarcadero.

While a discussion about the merits of looking for causation where correlation occurs may be a worthy pursuit, using multiple personalities can provide doubt as to the integrity of the debate.

So, thank you Bio-Curious for your kind words, but I am disappointed by your tactics.

Bio-Curious
February 11th, 2010 | LINK

Hahahah.

I’d be very curious to meet my e-double. Sorry if I offended Tim, but thats’ no reason to claim that the world is conspiring against you!

Please, share the IP address . Ya never know – maybe I’ll get lucky!

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