Friday, February 14, 2014

Model Dressed as Scientist Inappropriately Touching DNA Molecule
One reason I've been feeling blocked lately is that so much of what I see these days is stuff I've written about before.  When I think I should write about it, I remember I've written about it before, so why bother?  But I know that's no excuse, if only because it's normal practice; and if the same themes keep turning up in the media, they also need to be addressed anew.  (Another possibility is that I should try harder to read about different things.)

Anyway, a friend of mine linked today to an article that The Raw Story recycled from The Guardian, about allegedly new research allegedly showing a genetic factor in homosexuality.  Her comment was "Who cares?"  Many people do, alas.  And, as noted, I've written about this subject before, in posts that I think hold up quite well.

Perhaps because of this, I did a bad thing: I reacted to the article in comments to my friend's link before I'd actually read it.  Then I began reading the article and added some postscripts to my first reaction.  On the other hand, the comments to the article at Raw Story are even less well-informed than mine on Facebook.  The comments at the Guardian are not much better.  But let me say some things about the article itself.

The study in question is a followup to Dean Hamer's research from the 1990s, as the article mentions.  The relationship of Michael Bailey (who did the presentation) to this new study is not made clear.  And it manages to get some things right about Hamer's work.  Among other things:
The gene or genes in the Xq28 region that influence sexual orientation have a limited and variable impact. Not all of the gay men in Bailey’s study inherited the same Xq28 region. The genes were neither sufficient, nor necessary, to make any of the men gay.
This was true of Hamer's original work too.  What it means is that some straight men had this genetic marker, and some gay men did not.  Nor did the work establish how many gay men had the marker, or how this "gene or genes ... influence sexual orientation."  Until those questions, among others, are answered, it seems to me extremely premature to trumpet research like this as establishing anything at all -- especially since, as the article notes, it raises
the more dubious prospect of a prenatal test for sexual orientation. The Daily Mail headlined the story “Abortion hope after ‘gay genes findings’ ”. Hamer warned that any attempt to develop a test for homosexuality would be “wrong, unethical and a terrible abuse of research”.
I'm going to be harsh but not, I think, unfair: this was a tremendously stupid thing for Hamer to say.  Scientists like to claim that they're not responsible for the uses to which their work may be put, and perhaps they aren't.  But to whine, when confronted with a very likely consequence of one's work, that it would be "a terrible abuse of research," to be shocked! shocked! that it could be so used, is to reveal a detachment from reality that deserves derision at best.  Knowing what we know about the consequences of detecting a fetus's sex for sex-selective abortion, it's naive to think that being able to detect a fetus's sexual orientation would have no consequences.  (On the other hand, even on the most charitable evaluation of Hamer's research, it doesn't promise to determine sexual orientation at all, before or after birth.)  It would be less embarrassing if Hamer had simply tried to maintain a pose of Olympian detachment.  I believe (I'll try to find some citations) that Hamer has even hoped piously that born-gay research would somehow help the quest for gay and lesbian equality, probably because it would show that we didn't choose to be this way, as if that made a difference.  As I've also argued before, the moral acceptability of homosexuality, or its legal status, has little or nothing to do with its etiology, and numerous 'lifestyle choices' are protected explicitly by American civil rights law.  Hamer is evidently a very good geneticist, but when it comes to interpreting his data or thinking about social dimensions of human sexuality, he's a bit slow.

The article goes on to quote some other researchers on "the biology of sexual orientation."
Qazi Rahman, a psychologist at King’s College London, said the results were valuable for further understanding the biology of sexual orientation. “This is not controversial or surprising and is nothing people should worry about. All human psychological traits are heritable, that is, they have a genetic component,” he said. “Genetic factors explain 30 to 40% of the variation between people’s sexual orientation. However, we don’t know where these genetic factors are located in the genome. So we need to do ‘gene finding’ studies, like this one by Sanders, Bailey and others, to have a better idea where potential genes for sexual orientation may lie.”
I don't doubt that sexual orientation has a biology, just as language does.  But while biology can shed some light on the mechanisms that govern the production of language in general, it has nothing to do with languages: that I speak English instead of French or Japanese is not the result of biological differences between English speakers and Japanese speakers, but of historical and cultural differences.  One could point to some meaningless correlations, such as that Japanese speakers are more likely to have black hair and brown eyes than English speakers (though the percentages are changing as English has become a world language), but these do not indicate that black hair and brown eyes somehow produce the Japanese language.  Analogously, it's clear that human beings form preferences for sexual partners and sexual practices, but so far I have not seen any reason to believe that these preferences have any basis in biological variation.  As you can see if you read this article or most writing on "the biology of sexual orientation," these scientists have not been able to discover how these genetic markers or other factors produce a partiality for male or female partners -- because they are generally unaware of such partiality as a psychological factor, and assume that biological femaleness (for example) automatically produces a desire to be penetrated in both males and females.

Rahman also makes a very elementary mistake in his quoted remarks: the degree of "heritability" of a trait does not necessarily say anything about the mechanism of heritability involved.  Heritability is a complex factor that I don't pretend to understand, but then it's not my profession to understand it.  Different scientists differ on what the concept even means, and the terminology itself leads to confusion, as numerous scientists have pointed out -- Richard C. Lewontin, for instance, in his review of Evelyn Keller's The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture:
A major problem in understanding what geneticists have found out about the relation between genes and manifest characteristics of organisms is an overly flexible use of language that creates ambiguities of meaning. In particular, their use of the terms “heritable” and “heritability” is so confusing that an attempt at its clarification occupies the last two chapters of The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture. When a biological characteristic is said to be “heritable,” it means that it is capable of being transmitted from parents to offspring, just as money may be inherited, although neither is inevitable. In contrast, “heritability” is a statistical concept, the proportion of variation of a characteristic in a population that is attributable to genetic variation among individuals. The implication of “heritability” is that some proportion of the next generation will possess it.
 Back at the Guardian, Qazi Rahman continues:
Rahman rejected the idea that genetics research could be used to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. “I don’t see how genetics would contribute more to the persecution, discrimination and stigmatisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people any more than social, cultural or learning explanations. Historically, the persecution and awful treatment of LGBT groups has been because politicians, religious leaders and societies have viewed sexual orientation as ‘choice’ or due to poor upbringing.”
Rahman is even more embarrassing than Hamer.  Of course genetics research could be used to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.  Such research has already been used to justify discrimination against people on the basis of their sex, skin color, class, level of intelligence, and other traits; why should sexual orientation be any different?  Rahman is historically ignorant, and probably dishonest to boot -- it's hard to believe that any educated person nowadays could be completely unaware of the twentieth-century history that belies his claim.  But hey, The Two Cultures and all.  His second quoted sentence supports my suspicion of dishonesty, in the way that scientists often try to pretend that their work has no social consequences because they're ignorant of those consequences and prefer not to think about them.  This reminds me of Noam Chomsky's criticism of scientists who try to brush aside questions about the social consequences of their research:
Similarly, imagine a psychologist in Hitler's Germany who thought he could show that Jews had a genetically determined tendency towards usury (like squirrels bred to collect too many nuts) or a drive towards antisocial conspiracy and domination, and so on. If he were criticized for even undertaking these studies, could he merely respond that “a neutral commentator ... would have to say that the case is simply not settled” and that the “fundamental issue” is “whether inquiry shall (again) be shut off because someone thinks society is best left in ignorance”? I think not. Rather, I think that such a response would have been met with justifiable contempt. At best, he could claim that he is faced with a conflict of values. On the one hand, there is the alleged scientific importance of determining whether in fact Jews have a genetically determined tendency towards usury and domination (an empirical question, no doubt). On the other, there is the likelihood that even opening this question and regarding it as a subject for scientific inquiry would provide ammunition for Goebbels and Rosenberg and their henchmen. Were this hypothetical psychologist to disregard the likely social consequences of his research (or even his undertaking of research) under existing social conditions, he would fully deserve the contempt of decent people. Of course, scientific curiosity should be encouraged (though fallacious argument and investigation of silly questions should not), but it is not an absolute value ["Psychology and Ideology", in For Reasons of State (Random House, 1973), 360].
So what is the scientific significance of discovering that homosexuality is correlated with finger length?  As Chomsky says of racial science, one would like to see an argument.

One other thing I should point out: the study mentioned in the Guardian/Raw Story article has not yet been published, which I take to mean it has not even passed peer review yet.  Why should it be touted in major media at all, when it's not even certain that it will stand up to this most basic scrutiny?  This is an unfortunately common tendency in mass-media science reporting, where the presentation (in this case by a notoriously publicity-hungry academic of doubtful ethics, Michael Bailey) makes grandiose claims that mysteriously vanish by the time the study sees print -- if it ever does.  But it's the initial headline that will be remembered and passed along, not the later correction.