Wednesday, June 13, 2012

P.U.S.H. Pilipinas

700 Club Asia hosts Kata Inocencio and Peter Kairuz
Right out of the gate, allow me to say that I applaud CBN Asia (Christian Broadcasting Network) and its nightly show, 700 Club Asia, for the many good works that they do, such as Operation Blessing.  There are many decent, caring people involved in the organization, and I do not doubt that they love God.

Every so often, though, like their mother ship network CBN USA and its founder, Pat Robertson, 700 Club Asia chooses to jump on the crazy train.  This is what they did during their June 11, 2012, broadcast which aired on Philippine TV network GMA.

As part of their week-long P.U.S.H. Pilipinas specials (which stands for Pray Until Something Happens, Philippines), the opening salvo was entitled "Pamilyang Pilipino, Gaano Katatag?" (The Filipino Family, How Strong Is It?).

I was saddened, but not surprised, to hear in it the usual conservative evangelical fear of the unknown (in this case of same-sex marriage), which was presented as a "major threat to the country's strong family ties."  They even played ominous sounding music when showing pictures and videos of LGBT Filipinos.  Unfortunately there was also an unhealthy dose of non-factual "science."

I can handle the conservative rhetoric -- it's actually kind of entertaining to listen to them panic over the prospect of gay people being treated equally -- but I cannot abide shoddy information being presented as scientific fact.

One perpetrator of such pseudo-science is Bayani Esguerra, pastor of Word International Ministries.  "[Homosexuality] is not genetic," he said matter of factly in a lengthy interview during the broadcast.  "It is an acquired behavior."  Esguerra also happens to conveniently be Board Chairperson of Bagong Pag-Asa, the Philippines' own reparative "therapy" organization which attempts to have gay men pray their gay away.

Esguerra seems like a nice guy with a nice smile, nice hair, and nice polo shirt.  But his 'science' is just plain wrong.

This is what frustrates me to no end:  when someone who is not an authority in the field of science (in this case a pastor) makes declarations on matters of science as though they are an authority in the field of science. 

Bayani, you're a pastor.  Stick to pastoring.  You clearly haven't spent much time in a genetics laboratory.

Esguerra went on for days about how God made men and women for each other, about Adam and Eve and being fruitful and multiplying, and all the other goodies that conservative Christians like to throw around ad nauseum.  That's his theological belief and that's fine.  But when he treads on science - which is my field - and twists data to make it sound as though science has concluded that there is no genetic component to homosexuality, well, that pisses this biologist off.

What Esguerra stated definitively, and what 700 Club Asia's hosts then repeated blindly, is that studies of twins have found that homosexuality is nothing more than a behavioral lifestyle choice that can (and should) be changed.  It is not, according to Esguerra, genetic.  This, to his mind, is because studies conducted involving identical twins did not find that both twins were gay 100% of the time.  In the slash-and-burn mind of the hardline biblical literalist, the case is therefore closed.

Well, I'm truly sorry, but that's not quite how biology works.

I know the topic of homosexuality and genetics can get incredibly detailed and confusing, and that is precisely why people who are not scientists (people like... ohhh, pastors, for example) ought not skim through medical journal essays and then "report" to others what they think they read.  Sorry to say, but taking a biology class in high school doesn't make a person a geneticist, any more than baking a ready-mix cake makes a person a five star chef.

The very best scientific evidence today points to the environment and genes both playing a role together in homosexuality.  Bear in mind that, in science-speak, "the environment" doesn't necessarily mean the home one was raised in, but rather means biological influences in the womb, e.g. hormones.

To sort this out, scientists often employ studies of twins.  In such a study, identical twins are compared to fraternal twins.  If something happens more often in identical twins, then that something is influenced by genes.  This is because identical twins have the exact same genes, whereas fraternal twins share only as many genes as any brother or sister.

There have been a number of twin studies, and all show similar results.  In one of the largest such studies (conducted by Bailey and Pillard) it was found that if one identical twin is gay, the other is also gay 52% of the time.  If the twins were fraternal, they were both gay 22% of the time.  For non-twin biological siblings the rate dropped to roughly 11%.  All other twin studies have shown the same pattern.  What this shows is that there is a genetic component; there is something in the genes that makes them more likely to be gay.

But genetics alone isn't everything.  If it were, identical twins would both be gay 100% of the time.  And if it were all environment, identical twins would both be gay as often as fraternal twins, which they're not.  This is where our good friend Bayani Esguerra and his allies get confused and start thumping their Bibles.

"See?," they say.  "Homosexuality is a choice because twins only turn out gay 50% of the time.  Yes!  We win!"

Nope, you don't.  Science wins on this one.

At first glance the results seem to suggest that at least some homosexuality must not be genetic.  If identical twins have the same genes, how could one turn out gay and the other not gay as often as 50% of the time?  This is precisely what Bayani Esguerra is thinking.  There are, however, many traits that are not always the same in identical twins, like eye color.  They have the same DNA, but the activity of their genes isn't necessarily the same, and the reason for that is a process called methylation.

Methylation turns off certain sections of genetic code.  So even though we inherit two copies of every gene - one from our mother and one from our father - whether the gene is methylated often determines which of the two genes will be turned on.  Methylation is inherited, just like DNA, but unlike DNA it can change from one generation to the next and may be influenced by things like long-term use of certain medications, smoking, exposure to viruses, or even something as simple as the mother's diet, just to name a few prenatal environmental factors.

Regardless, the concordance rate of identical twins is more than twice that of fraternal twins.  What that means is that neither the social nor prenatal environment alone can explain this significant difference.  The only variable at play is the different genetic code of fraternal twins compared to the identical genetic code of identical twins.  This demonstrates that genes are extremely important factors in determining sexuality.

The principle difference in comparing rates between fraternal twins and non-twin siblings (22% to 11%, respectively) is the prenatal environment.  Fraternal twins share the prenatal environment, they are womb-mates, while non-twin siblings are not.  The fact that the homosexual concordance rate for fraternal twins is more than twice that of non-twin siblings shows that the prenatal environment is also a significant factor in the development of homosexuality.

See, Bayani?  It gets a bit complex.  It is this interplay of prenatal environment and genes that most often results in homosexuality.  (Remember, prenatal environment has to do with how the brain is hardwired very early on.)  In the womb, things happen that affect how we develop.  A surge of hormones here, a viral influence there, and we are not the same as we would be without these environmental factors.

We can look at handedness as a good example here.  Some people have genes that make them more likely to be left-handed.  Not all of these people end up lefties, though.  Something else happens during fetal development.  Science hasn't pinpointed precisely what this something is, but it is crystal clear that the combination of genes and environment makes a person left-handed.

This is not dissimilar from what makes a person gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.  And, of course, since the brain continues to develop after we're born, the postnatal environment can affect how the brain develops even after a child draws its first breath, though to a far lesser degree.

Conservative biblical literalists like Esguerra claim that, because no one single 'gay gene' has been found, homosexuality is unequivocally a learned behavior with no biological basis.  Of course they say that; that's easy to do when you completely dismiss the prenatal environment and the fact that many genetic traits are caused by a series of genes working in concert.

(For further details, I visited the topic of the evangelical assertion that "there is no scientific conclusion that there is a gay gene" in a previous post.)

This insistence of theirs is based on their interpretation of the Bible, not on science.  They're trying to make science fit their theology, rather than allowing modern science to shed light on ancient beliefs that are turning out to be less than spot on.  This non-academic bias then allows them to deny biological causes of homosexuality, fight against gay rights and demonize the LGBT community, all while claiming to be God's mouthpiece of family values and love on earth.

Esguerra takes his cues from the playbook of the so-called "ex-gay" organization Exodus International in the U.S., anti-gay evangelical leader Pat Robertson, as well as James Dobson's Focus on the Family group, all of which continue to foolishly tout that there is no genetic cause for homosexuality.

Take this excerpt from right-wing Christian activist Peter Sprigg's book, Outrage: How Gay Activists and Liberal Judges are Trashing Democracy to Redefine Marriage, as an example.  (Yes, by the way, that's the actual title of his book.)
"If you did a study of identical twins, you would find that one hundred percent of black identical twins would be black, one hundred percent of male identical twins would be male, one hundred percent of redheaded identical twins would be redheads, and one hundred percent of blue-eyed identical twins would have blue eyes.  Remember, identical twins (known to scientists as "dizygotic,' [sic] meaning that they come from the same fertilized egg) have a completely, one hundred percent identical genetic makeup.  Therefore, a study showing that 52 percent of the identical twins of homosexuals are also homosexual proves only one thing - that homosexuality is not genetic." (Outrage, pp. 39-40)

No, what it proves is that Sprigg is no scientist.  He's actually a Baptist minister and Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council who has testified against gay rights and marriage equality in several U.S. courts... And, not surprisingly, his side has lost every time.

His argument (at least what he thinks is an argument) highlights the all-or-nothing mentality for biology held by most evangelical leaders.  It's the black-and-white way in which they see things.  Unfortunately for them, though, human sexuality is anything but black-and-white, and neither is science.  They incorrectly assume that because some of the identical twins had differing sexual orientations, homosexuality is therefore not genetic.

Hopefully now, you, the reader, can identify this not as science but as science fiction.

Oh and by the way, Sprigg's information is wrong in another way, too.  Identical twins are not dizygotic, they are monozygotic, meaning from one (i.e. mono) fertilized egg.  Fraternal twins are dizygotic.

You can argue your theology all you want; it is entirely open to interpretation and debate.  But if you're not a scientist, don't take scientific data and twist it to fit what you think it should say.  In my experience pastors don't make very good scientists.  I don't want them interpreting scientific data any more than I'd want a race car driver diagnosing a complicated medical condition.

So, 700 Club Asia, Pamilyang Pilipino is doing just fine.  Your nation will survive to see tomorrow, even if your government decides it's finally time to recognize all Filipino families.  It might be a better use of time and energy to focus on corruption, drug abuse, and poverty, for those things are far more of a threat to Pamilyang Pilipino than any amount of same-sex couples could ever be.

P.U.S.H. Pilipinas?  Sure, I'll bite.  But I'll be praying for progress to happen in the Pilipinas - not more of the same, blind, inaccurate religious rhetoric.

(For what it's worth, you can watch 700 Club Asia's Pamilyang Pilipino episode here.  It's an hour-long program, but the first 12 minutes or so are the most revealing.)


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