Friday, July 15, 2011

The Science of "Born This Way"

Scientifically, Gaga got it right
Conservative Christians and Muslims have had their knickers in a bunch (and have pushed themselves into a corner) over their objections to Lady Gaga's song Born This Way.

It goes beyond the immature reactions of censoring the pro-gay lyrics on the radio (as authorities in Malaysia have done), or the clipping out of that same section on the Philippine-based music channel, Channel V.  There have also been the cleverly cheesy "Not Born This Way" op eds, blog pieces, and sermons disseminated by some Evangelical Christians, and certain politicians have even jumped in the mix to assert their view that homosexuality is merely a choice.  They think they're making a good point, but what they're really doing is making themselves look foolish.

The two statements most commonly made are:  "Science is in dispute on homosexuality," and "There's no scientific conclusion that there is a gay gene."

As a biologist this certainly comes as a surprise to me, as well as to my colleagues.  I'm someone who is trained in science and genetics.  This is what I went to school for, including research in hormonal affects on brain development and sexuality.  I hate to burst any bubbles, but science, in fact, is actually not in dispute on this matter.

All major medical professional organizations concur that sexual orientation is not a choice and cannot be changed, from gay to straight or otherwise.  The American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and European Psychological, Psychiatric, and Medical Associations all agree with this, as does the World Health Organization and the medical organizations of Japan, China, and most recently, Thailand.  Furthermore, attempts to change one's sexual orientation (through, for example, "reparative therapy" discussed in question 2 on the FAQ page) can be psychologically damaging, and cause great inner turmoil and depression, especially for Christian gays and lesbians.

Reparative therapy, also called conversion therapy or reorientation therapy, "counsels" LGBT persons to pray fervently and study Bible verses, often utilizing 12-step techniques that are used to treat sexual addictions or trauma.  Such Christian councilors are pathologizing homosexuality, which is not a pathology but is a sexual orientation.  Psychologically, that's very dangerous territory to tread on.  All of the above-mentioned medical professional organizations, in addition to the American and European Counseling Associations, stand strongly opposed to any form of reparative therapy.

In my home country, Norway, reparative therapy is officially considered to be ethical malpractice.  But there are many countries that do not regulate the practice, and many others that remain largely silent and even passively supportive of it (such as the Philippines).  Groups that operate such "therapy" in the Philippines are the Evangelical Bagong Pag-asa, and the Catholic Courage Philippines.

The scientific evidence of the innateness of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism is overwhelming, and more peer-reviewed studies which bolster this fact are being added all the time.  I have already discussed the findings here.  Science has long regarded sexual orientation -- and that's all sexual orientations, including heterosexuality -- as a phenotype.  Simply put, a phenotype is an observable set of properties that varies among individuals and is deeply rooted in biology.  For the scientific community, the role of genetics in sexuality is about as "disputable" as the role of evolution in biology.

On the second point, that there is no conclusion that there is a "gay gene," they are right.  No so-called gay gene has been found, and it's unlikely (but not impossible) that one ever will.  This is where conservative Christians and Muslims quickly say "See, I told you so!  There's no gay gene, so being gay is a choice!"

Take this interesting paragraph I found on an Evangelical website:
"The attempt to prove that homosexuality is determined biologically has been dealt a knockout punch. An American Psychological Association publication includes an admission that there's no homosexual "gene" -- meaning it's not likely that homosexuals are 'born that way.'"
But that's not at all what it means, and it seems Evangelicals are plucking out stand-alone phrases from scientific reports and removing them from their context.  This is known in academia as the fallacy of suppressed evidence.  Interestingly, this is also what they have a habit of doing with verses from the Bible. 

This idea of sexuality being a choice is such a bizarre notion to me as a man of science.  Many of these reparative "therapists" are basing this concept on a random Bible verse or two.  When you hold those up against the mountain of scientific research that has been conducted, peer-reviewed, and then peer-reviewed again, it absolutely holds no water.  A person's sexuality -- whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual -- is a very deep biological piece of who that person is as an individual.

The fact that a so-called "gay gene" has not been discovered does not mean that homosexuality is not genetic in its causation.   This is understandably something that can seem a bit strange to those who have not been educated in fields of science and advanced biology, and it is also why people who are not scientists ought not try to explain the processes in simple black-and-white terms.  There is no gay gene, but there is also no "height gene" or "skin tone gene" or "left-handed gene."  These, like sexuality, have a heritable aspect, but no one dominant gene is responsible for them.

Many genes, working in sync, contribute to the phenotype and therefore do have a role in sexual orientation.  In many animal model systems, for example, the precise genes involved in sexual partner selection have been identified, and their neuro-biochemical pathways have been worked out in great detail.  A great number of these mechanisms have been preserved evolutionarily in humans, just as they are for every other behavioral trait we know (including heterosexuality).

Furthermore, there are many biologic traits which are not specifically genetic but are biologic nonetheless.  These traits are rooted in hormonal influences, contributed especially during the early stages of fetal development.  This too is indisputable and based on extensive peer-reviewed research the world over.  Such prenatal hormonal influences are not genetic per se, but are inborn, natural, and biologic nevertheless.

Having said that, in the realm of legal rights, partnership rights, and anti-discrimination protections, the gay gene vs. choice debate is actually quite irrelevant.  Whether or not something is a choice is not a suitable criterion for whether someone should have equal rights and protections.  Religion is indisputably a choice, but that fact is a not a valid argument for discriminating against a particular faith.

She may not be a scientist, but Lady Gaga is a lot closer to the truth than conservative Christians and Muslims who push for LGBTs to "pray the gay away."

This is not an issue in dispute.  According to modern science:  baby, you were born this way.


aC said... Best Blogger Tips

I am a fan of your writing with all the explanations/facts but not leaning towards siding with any party involved. Keep it up! :)

doc johnson said... Best Blogger Tips

Liking this article. You broke it down very well from a scientific point of view. Makes the religious folks having panic attacks seem really silly. I'm forwarding this to some people I know that need some education on the facts!

Anonymous said... Best Blogger Tips


Anonymous said... Best Blogger Tips

I guess evolution might prove a difficult concept for some, but if "woman was made for man" is ideology more easily swallowed then I'm not sure what to think of the Bible and the Koran anymore.

Erik said... Best Blogger Tips

@ aC and doc johnson: thank you!

@ Anonymous with the monkey comment: I agree with you 100%, man did not come from a monkey. That is not, in fact, what evolution shows, even though it is a common misunderstanding among many creationists.

Humans did not evolve from monkeys, or from modern apes which are our closest relatives, but we did have a common ancestor from which humans, apes, and monkeys evolved on separate lines of lineage some 6-7 million years ago.

I also agree with the anonymous comment above, that "woman was made for man" is an odd and sexist ideology, and is actually not what the book of Genesis says in the first place.

Anonymous said... Best Blogger Tips

Thanks for posting this article. It was really good! And whether homosexuality is a choice or not, whether it is a product of nature or nurture (or the interaction of both), bottom line is that gays are PEOPLE who have the right to be here. Why can't they enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals, especially in terms of marriage?

And regarding the Church's view about homosexuality being a "sin"... The word sin has been widely misused by society. The definition of sin, if stripped away of its cultural baggage, means "to miss the mark" much like an archer misses the target. According to spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, to "sin" means to "miss the mark of human existence by inflicting suffering and pain". Being gay doesn't fit this definition at all. You're just being who you are and loving who you want to love. How can that miss the mark of human existence?

And yeah, Gaga rocks! hehe <3

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