The nation’s press is trying to atone today for the sins of its past:
A few years ago a research team conducted a small study that located a few epigenetic markers that seemed to be associated with being gay. Not a single working geneticist—and I say this advisedly—not a single one suggested this was the discovery of a “gay gene.” Even the study’s own team didn’t say that. In fact, mostly the study was criticized for being too underpowered to really say much of anything at all.
But it got played as a gay gene anyway. Today, however, the results of a new, very high-powered study were published, and they showed what everyone knew all along: there are a whole bunch of genetic variations that each have a tiny effect but, taken together, probably account for a propensity toward same-sex attraction. The study suggests that genetic variation might account for about a third of that propensity, with environmental and social factors accounting for the other two-thirds.
How did we know this all along? Because this is the case for literally every complex personality trait, something we’ve been aware of for years. Whether it’s IQ or artistic ability or extroversion or anything else, the contribution of the genome—whether it’s 10 percent or 90 percent—depends on the combined effects of hundred or thousands of tiny genetic variations. Not only isn’t there a gay gene, there isn’t an anything gene.
That said, this attitude dismays me:
One concern is that evidence that genes influence same-sex behavior could cause anti-gay activists to call for gene editing or embryo selection, even if that would be technically impossible. Another fear is that evidence that genes play only a partial role could embolden people who insist being gay is a choice and who advocate tactics like conversion therapy. “I deeply disagree about publishing this,” said Steven Reilly, a geneticist and postdoctoral researcher who is on the steering committee of the institute’s L.G.B.T.Q. affinity group, Out@Broad. “It seems like something that could easily be misconstrued,” he said, adding, “In a world without any discrimination, understanding human behavior is a noble goal, but we don’t live in that world.”
We should all be sympathetic to Reilly’s concerns, but repressing the truth is never a good way to deal with bigotry. It won’t change the minds of the bigots but it might very well damage our ability to deal with them. It also damages our ability to conduct further research. One way or another these results are going to end up in the public sphere, and we’re better off if it’s done by careful researchers who earn the public’s trust by being open and honest about their results.