12 December 2012

Scientists Figure Out Gayness! Nevermind...

The other day I saw a press release stating, "Study finds epigenetics, not genetics, underlies homosexuality." This has now gone on to make it around some news agencies and onto the Queer Blogosphere. I'm getting frustrated by the discussion that I am seeing on it, so I am going to discuss this briefly.

First, let's address the issue being discussed. Same-sex sexual behavior is seen in a number of organisms, and is so prevalent and well-known I don't think I need to go into that. Evolutionary biologists often ask questions about why certain traits came to be and how they can be maintained. Trust me, I spent the previous two weeks discussing the evolution and maintenance of sex - evolutionary biologists love to argue these kinds of things. While this is pure science, it does help us understand quite a bit about biology and how living organisms works (so for the question of "why study it," it really is a legit and worthwhile thing to study).  Obviously, same-sex behavior is a bit of a puzzle, and so some people want to think about how it may arise. This has nothing to do with wanting to "cure" Queer people, but it is an interest of how a trait that lowers reproductive output of an individual could be so prevalent in so many organisms.

Judging by the press release, the study seeks to address this question (a question that could be generalized to traits other than same-sex attraction) by using a common technique - making a mathematical model. These models are interacting equations. We can modify what goes into the equations, based on assumptions or actual measurements we make, and change the numbers we used, based on assumptions or actual measurements we make. These models are to try to understand a complex world, and so they rely on us making assumptions. Often times, these models give us something to compare against, are thought exercises, or allow us to try to find the simplest model that has some actual explanation power.

This study was a model. They made some assumptions and tried to see if same-sex attraction being so common would be feasible, mathematically, under these assumptions. Based on their model and the assumption the authors made, they have seen that it is possible that epigenetics (markers on genes that help turn them on/off) could work.

Remember that the study relies on assumptions - assumptions that are often cultural in nature. The headline is misleading. It would be much more accurate to say "Study shows epigenetic cause of sexuality is feasible."

Many people study sexual behavior in biology. A lot of biology is influenced by sex, and it is quite complex. This doesn't mean that the scientists are seeking out a "cure" for being queer. It means they are doing what people do - asking questions and trying to find possible explanations. It is completely legitimate to ask these kinds of questions. It is also completely legitimate to question these studies. What assumptions are made? Are those assumptions based on cultural biases and not biological realities?

As an additional note, nature and nurture don't have to be mutually exclusive with sexuality. Regardless of what this study means, or the many other explanations for why Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual human and non-human animals exist, we should still demand our rights. It doesn't reduce who we are to know why we have the feelings we do, but the feelings we do certainly have a cultural component in addition to any biological component.

So yeah, just don't freak out about this study either way, okay? That's really all I'm asking for. Recognize it is a model. It makes assumptions. It is checking if an idea is feasible, and it certainly isn't looking to change people's sexual attractions and behaviors.


  1. I think this is an awesome post for what I imagine to be your audience. And me!

    1. Thank you :) I just couldn't believe how people were reacting to this study! Glad you like it.