Thursday, June 29, 2006

Organic Behavior, No Fault Identities

Warning:  This post has taken on a life of its own and has been linked by some very busy blogs that argue for social justice regarding sexual orientation.  The material in this post will be updated if I come across relevant new findings.  Date of last revision will be in the footer.

[This is a continuation of a lengthy post belaboring a fairly obvious view that homosexuality (and probably a few other specific behavior complexes contradictory to "be fruitful and multiply" dogma ) are natural in the sense of being innate and are, per force, not a fair basis for stigma nor a morally valid cause for any kind of discrimination if they are not associated with antisocial or predatory behavior.]

[since Greta Christina is going to send readers here, I might just as well keep this post up to date as my reading brings me fresh findings. But a word of warning to all: If I find some well done study that indicates sexual orientation is a post natal or socially constructed development, I will report it. Just don't hold your breath!]

UPDATED 2007/04/10: I told you so!

Since this is more a personal than a scholarly or comprehensive tour of the literature I hope you will forgive some rough approximating that follows. I characterize the progress of the research by noting each decade had a dominant tool for its research. Whether that is exactly true is not too important. That the tools have gotten much sharper and their results harder to refute is what matters.

A note about the use of animal study results: while I don't mean to play fast and loose with findings from animal studies, warnings against such extrapolations like this quote from a 2006 PNAS paper from the Karolinska Institute,
Notwithstanding that the higher complexity of human behavior precludes direct extrapolations from the animal data to human biology, the colocalization of circuits processing signals from the two putative pheromones with the regions mediating mating behavior raises the question about a possible involvement of these same circuits in the physiology of human sexuality and sexual orientation.
,do not put my line of argument in any weaker position because all I am trying to convince the reader of is that the variant behaviors are physiologically based, whatever the details of the mechanisms. To argue against this general idea, the anti-gay posse will have to maintain that their own "normal" behavior is entirely the product of consciousness, free will and learned choices. If you want to see how far you can run on that track, just don't get run over by all the egos.

The 70's : genetic causes inferred from heritability.
Before genes could be matched, spliced and sequenced, we already had the theory that they determined our physiology via expression and development. Various ways of studying the heritability of physical and behavioral traits were only inferential tools but the best that could be done in that day. Twin studies done as long ago as the 50's are still quoted. Twin studies would track such things as degree of shared behaviors for identical [MZ] and fraternal [DZ] twins , raised together and, via adoptions, raised apart. The idea, of course is that identical twins would, at a genetic level, be perfect copies and so whatever traits the twins did NOT share must be weakly or not at all affected by genes. That turns out to be a bit simplistic but its not a bad start. But as each study was published it was subjected to a gale of critiques finding weaknesses in sample size, controls, questionnaire bias etc. The critics included a few who wanted sounder science and many who wanted the right answer: "there is no such thing as being born gay". Here is the most up to date of such critics. Updated and retrospective studies published in the early nineties, summarized here, leave a clear, though not cause-and-effect, interpretation that some genetic factor must be involved. It is also a reasonable interpretation to consider the much lower incidence for genetically unrelated (adoptive) compared to MZ siblings as a ball park figure for the general occurrence of homosexuality in the population as a whole. Beside twin studies, other questionnaire based studies found that women with unmarried male relatives were more likely to bear sons who turned out to be homosexual, implying that something in the X chromosome from the mother could be the, or a, "gay gene". Get your studies from someone who hasn't got an ax to grind...if you can find such a party.

The 80's: Child Psychology tries to separate nature from nurture.
The 80's opened up the study to consider sex-atypical play and other behaviors of very young children. The informal science view involved is that what children do before our cultural norms have been beaten into them must be "natural" or innate. Apparently the conservative and folk-wisdom view is more like "as the twig is bent, so grows the tree". NARTH and folks like Dr. Rekers, well intended no doubt, but more informed by the bible than the data, have probably done as much damage as good to some very young patients. If anything the "therapies" designed to "reprogram the deviancy out of your three year old" are ethically questionable experiments. Some deep interviews with the patients, 20 years hence, would be interesting. I recall a mention in a late 80's copy of Science news of a study finding that boys who were more interested in doll play than playing ball as 3 or 4 year olds did have higher chances of growing up to be gay. The most cited results are those from Richard Green's 15 year long study. It is a questionable inconsistency that decades after homosexuality was stricken from the list of recognized psychiatric diagnoses, gender identity disorders are still listed and so can be used to get money out of your insurance company to make sure your boys grow up macho and your girls effeminate.  

The 90's rediscover that sex is all in your head.
Though the 90's saw improvements in method and good retrospective studies published for the results based on older methods, the research took a much more biochemical and anatomic hard science direction. In 91, Simon Levay, at the Salk Institute, published a landmark, though disputed finding that a sexually significant part of the hypothalamus, known to be sexually dimorphic ALSO took on different size in males depending on their sexual orientation. BTW, Dr. LeVay maintains a page of the most succinct and best informed summaries of fact and evenhanded comment on the topic of gender and sexual orientation that I have found anywhere on the web and the most authoritative bibliography. Also, the notion that chromosomal DNA alone was the whole script of our physical development was giving way to a refinement: numerous in utero influences were proposed or suspected of being able to modify the blueprints or get the DNA to perform atypical development. Tools to image the active areas of a working brain multiplied with fMRI in development and PET mature and available though cumbersome. In '93 Dean Hamer reported a candidate "gay gene" on the X chromosome, claiming only "probable influence" and based on linkage studies. An over-simplified and overstated interpretation of that work has been a NARTH target ever since. The 90's also saw several papers by Canadian researcher Anthony Bogaert that hinted at in-the-womb influences where younger males with older brothers stood a greater chance of being gay. Levay's work was also reported in Scientific American where it came to my attention....and revived my curiosity at what would resolve the paradox as seen by my too-simple understanding of Darwinian selection as a competition-driven process. In Bogaert's work, I thought there was big clue: competition among a concentration of males for the available females would waste resources at the tribal or social group is an ensemble measure for any species that lives in ensembles. Was gayness nature's way of defusing internecine competition?

Lately: Making the Case ever more detailed.
Brain imaging studies have become much more common. They have uncovered gender specific differences of function. And they have found in sheep results similar to Levay's original findings that different sexual orientations correspond to different sizes for some brain regions. Bogaert continued to refine and expand his studies and has produced one of the least contradicted results: birth order of brothers is an influence.  By the time 2010 rolled around genetics of neurology was a tool that kept getting sharper...see what Bogaert has done with it lately.

A Swedish study published in PNAS in 2008 finds gay men and heterosexual women have similarly configured brains while lesbians and heterosexual men's brains are more similar to each other than to women's .. An even better write up is at Wired.

A 2004 heritability study based on interviews by U of Padua team led by researcher Camperio-Ciani reported that more gay male children were born to mothers who were particularly fecund. The weakness of interview based studies made this an assailable result but the theory it suggested was appealing:
Italian geneticists may have explained how genes apparently linked to male homosexuality survive, despite gay men seldom having children. Their findings also undermine the theory of a single "gay gene".
Thinking this may resolve the paradox, I wrote Levay to ask about the significance of the paper. He said the results have not been replicated. And I think now that Bogaert's results are relatively solid, whatever mechanism accounts for the "interference" of older male siblings with the sexual orientation of younger brothers will account for any fecundity-correlated result as well.

Bogaert kept looking.  In 2017 he found that some mothers develop an immune response to certain proteins that only come from the brain of a male fetus.  The antibodies would affect development of any male children born subsequently to these mothers.  The work was published in PNAS and a quick summary is in this Medical Express article.

PET scanning to image the brains of males as they sniffed purported human pheromones allowed the Karolinska Institute team lead by I. Savic to show that a low level brain function associated with sexual behavior acted differently for straight vs gay males. This made a bit of a splash in the papers, as well it should. They followed up with a similar study, and similarly positive results, for straight vs lesbian females. LeVay warns that the sample size is too small for the Karolinska results to be used reliably...and humans don't consciously use smells the way most animals do for arousal but the very fact of its unconscious nature makes the results a good argument against the response being a matter of choice.
When Standford's Joan Roughgarden wrote a letter in Science arguing from the observation that homosexuality is actually common in many species, she was generally regarded as having gone overboard and accused by some of having as poor a grasp of Darwin as some of the ID fundamentalists. This exasperated take-down of Roughgarden's contentions was actually written by PZ Myers in 2004. But if you trace back through the links in Jonah Lederer's recent post, you find the dispute is still lively. The important thing to note in all of the Myers vs Roughgarden brouhaha is that for all their differences, it is a given with both parties that homosexual behavior works with the force of is organic behavior even if the mechanisms are in dispute. No sheep or college freshman "decides" they like the same sex.
In the latest edition of MIT's Technology Review, a citation of a PNAS paper on RNAi silencing reports the ability to turn off female sexual response in mice. It really is a rather dramatic result. From the T.R. article:

The study published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uses RNAi to show that one brain region and one gene are completely responsible for the female sexual response in mice.
Let me emphasize something for those who have had other things to read than neuroendocrinology and reams of studies on "knock-out" mice: altering behavior of a living organism as complicated as a mammal without having altered its DNA via genetic engineering and using only RNAi has only one similar precedent I know of and a scary wide open future. This result only strengthens the case that sexual response rests on neural activity of specific clusters of cells in the brain...for some species maybe only one cluster is calling the shots. If, indeed, a single locus and cell type are the origin of a vital sexual response and blocking of a single receptor extinguishes the response, then cases can be made and experiments can be designed to refine and test the "byproduct of necessarily robust feature" hypothesis PZ Myers offered.

There is a 2008 meta-study based on review of 250 primary investigations of the effects of hormone distrupters on physiological development and behavior that should have you worried whatever your sexual orientation.  It turns out there are hundreds of widely disbursed and poorly understood compounds in our air, water and food that are capable of throwing switches in our genes...and their bias is largely to switch toward female:
"Feminisation of the males of numerous vertebrate species is now a widespread occurrence. All vertebrates have similar sex hormone receptors, which have been conserved in evolution. Therefore, observations in one species may serve to highlight pollution issues of concern for other vertebrates, including humans."

So what?
In spite of having gained so much knowledge, science enters this battle with one hand tied behind its back: If you read his "General conclusions", Levay's reticence about absolutes and unqualified pronouncements, you will see the due and respectable restraint that I admire about scientific outlooks but that makes honestly brokered knowledge a kind road kill in a Faux news world .

It was gratifying in a more than nerdly way to rummage the net for all the research links because I found, mostly, the kinds of answers [and reservations and qualifications] I expected. That business of knowing the answer you want is of course a great hazard and particularly in the high voltage topics like sexual preferences. It would have suited me to put much more of the raw data and observations into this post but that would have done more to turn off readers than it could do for my satisfaction. I think good opinions are like snow caps: if you can't support them with a mountain of evidence, they quickly melt away. Still, I'll suggest you trust the conclusions presented if not for the certainty of their claims then for the certain failure of the counterclaims: I found wads and moldy bales of critiques and denials of some of the more famous studies [of which only a few NARTH brick bats are linked] but only in the form of "debunkings" founded on misunderstandings. Peer reffereed publications, in respected mainstream journals like Science, PNAS or Nature, presenting research that finds GID and homosexuality to be a treatable disorder are so rare I found none. Dr. Rekers, a PhD at Leader U. is the only source of such research I encountered. You won't have to take my word for the quality of his work and credentials.

Illogicial and Illiberal are twins
If a person braves all the stigma and persecution to act on attractions they feel toward another person of the same sex, and their behavior meets all the criteria of consideration and responsibility applied to heterosexual attractions: consenting, mature, discreet, non-exploitive and protective of the health of the other, then we simply have no sound basis to deny either the reality of the impulses they report nor the pleasure they derive. The embattled but emerging likelihood that this behavior is organic may be a comfort but the opposing contention that it is a choice is a nonsequitor: nobody "chooses" to be a hunted, hated and marginalized third class citizen. The status of people with the less common variations of gender is about rights more than science. The inner workings of homophobic social schemes are pretty much the same as racial bias: "we militate against you because your genes are not the same as ours". The rationalizations are different but under the hood its ignorance begets fear begets hatred, the age old crap.

When "social relativism" is mentioned by social conservatives, it is often in the same breath as a vivid description of anything-goes depravity. The social progressives who see, and seeth at, the worst of the arbitrary shackles of disadvantage can, and in this blog alliance often do, spell out the instances of the ineradicable "What we really meant was 'All English speaking, white, middle aged, upper and middle class heterosexual men are created equal'" interpretation of our American social contract. When antique anti-miscegenation laws are invoked in the nation's most liberal state to stymie gay marriages, you are witnessing a jarring example of social relativism thrown into revese: A powerful segment of society retargets an unenforcible law against a weaker segment's marriage rights to block a newly emerged and yet weaker minority. Romney might just as well have said "Gay: Its the new black!" Who could call themselves a progressive and sit quietly by while society goes in reverse?

The indefensible root of the error in the anti-gay programs is the preference of some groups to condition their attitude toward another human entirely on receiveded notions of acceptable behavior and to basically ignore the person.

You can't ignore religion if it won't ignore you.
It is a sad fact that most of the organized efforts to criminalize and disenfranchise gay and lesbian lives and lifestyles are powered by particular Christian sects and churches that cling to narrow interpretations of Leviticus 18:22 while glossing over Leviticus 19:17-18. I personally expect to find a significant degree of neurosis, institutional and personal, in organizations that preach and practice intolerance...but I said I wouldn't go there. And yet more than a few churches [and synagogues too] hang out the rainbow flag and are communities of refuge for persons cast out by the larger community. That is in keeping with the most enlightened and loving of the precepts you can read in the bible. I look in on all this disorder from the outside and realize the people inside are just people and are pretty much picking and choosing their precepts to suit their values rather than the other way round.

Reaching for science as a defense against some religion's attempt to butt into your personal life is a poor second to just fixing the climate for personal freedoms. Some of us may never understand the science but all of us have to treat our neighbors with respect. Since fundamentalists have proven completely resistant to the understandings of our world that science provides, even for far more tangible matters than what feelings may bubble within our brains, the best that can be achieved is a coexistance. That coexistance, as the authors of the constitution recognized in the 18th century, depends on the separation of church and state. The ancient semitic tribal prohibitions against homosexuality don't need more debunking, they just need to be left in a history book. If one were permitted to ask questions about why there was a need to canonize long and specific lists of proscribed sexual activities in Leviticus, the most obvious start on an answer would be to observe that those behaviors must have been familiar and frequently observed to figure so prominently in the minds of the ancient authors. Nothing has changed in human nature since the days of that writing. Countries lacking the inertia of religious dictates about homosexuality wind up with very different trends in attitude and treatment of their gay minority.
The fundamentalist religious bigotry against gays has a problem: it HAS to maintain there is no underlying biology, darwinian or otherwise that can effect sexual orientation because choice and sin are the only dimensions that stunted faith conceives. Its whole edifice crumbles if there is any admission that in fact gays are made the way they are: for that the maker would have to answer.

Final Remarks
Whatever the answers that science eventually comes up with, once it is allowed to come up with any, those answers could only be grace notes to the main theme. Given the deep well of oprobrium that convention and some laws hold the less common sexual orientations to be, the gays, and others with variations on the theme of sex, get earlier and deeper lessons in matters of courage and identity than the rest of us are likely to face. Southpaws to some extent and women to a greater extent get a taste of what it is to be "made wrong" in a world where norms of tolerance were drafted by those who hold themselves to be made right. They're queer, they're here. Get over it and get it into your head: there isn't one good reason they can't raise kids, sustain life long committed relationships, pay taxes, defend their country, run companies or government, hold responsible jobs and make sensitive judgments...but plenty of evidence that they can. Difference per se is never inherently wrong, bad or inferior but only made so by frameworks of bias or civic standards and measures of efficacy and benignity. Difference just is and in particular, gay just is. I defy anyone to document the measure by which gays have failed any more than straights when the deck is not stacked against them.

Science has been gaining insight into the genetic basis and other biological determinants of organic sexual behavior in spite of sailing into a steady headwind of biblical bias. The course seems clear if you stand back far enough to view all the tacks it has taken:
Science will probably find enough evidence to convince any educated person that homosexuality is "natural" and "not anyone's fault"...some day. Simple human empathy and an open minded attention to the reports others make from the heart can accept that homosexuality isn't a fault to begin
I dragged all those amateur reviews of decades of scientific work into this post because of what they have done for me. The science is sufficiently unambiguous that it pushed me to and past the point of seeing all the variations as matters completely outside the domain of fault.

I find that once you commit to objectivity, decency just comes about as a matter of course.

Though the subject has been gays or lesbians, this can be said of many others:

How short is the step from "Its not their fault" to "Its not a fault"?

Taking that step leaves no room for complacent quiet about the current status of people with the less common gender identities and sexual orientations. We are ALL of us just trying to be the people god or fate made us.

footnotes, the dates and sources of accumulating additions to the original post

December 12 2008: the retrospective study from Chemtrust was reported in December of 08 in numerous papers.


cul said...

Welcome to the revolution, my friend..that was a brilliant, refreshing and positive example of the otherwise sad observation that; "the best that can be achieved is a coexistance".

You've outdone yourself, sir. That was possibly the best exposition I've encountered on the topic of homosexuality and its place in culture. Kudos. Besides my admiration for your intellect, you are certainly one of the most humane and considerate beings I've had the good fortune to be friends with.

Thank you for all that work.

ps you've got mail

Mr. WD said...

All of your points are way more than well taken. However, I've always been wary about using the empirical data supporting the proposition that people do not choose to be homosexual in arguments in favor of tolerating LGBT people. What such arguments amount to, I think, is "since they can't help it, we should tolerate them." The implication of this is that if they could help it, then tolerance isn't required.

Isn't it better to say to the fundamentalists "even if everything you say about homosexuality is true (it's a chosen lifestyle, homosexual sex is unnatural, etc.) that has absolutely NO bearing on whether we ought to tolerate LGBT people." This strikes me as not only more principled, but it forces the fundamentalists to defend their idiotic views, which they cannot do without recourse to the Bible.

GreenSmile said...

Mr. WD:
I know these were pretty lengthy reads by blogger standards but when I conclude with:
Science will probably find enough evidence to convince any educated person that homosexuality is "natural" and "not anyone's fault"...some day. Simple human empathy and an open minded attention to the reports others make from the heart can accept that homosexuality isn't a fault to begin
...after starting out with:
Just don't be blinded by the science: knowing a widely accepted scientific theory based on uncontroverted data showing that sexual orientation is inborn, organic and largely determined by genes and in-utero conditions is not as important as having an attitude toward each person that respects the reality of their reported feelings.
....haven't you suggested exactly the point I am trying to make?

Mr. WD said...

Apologies, my comment should have been more comprehensive.

I think the difference between what you're saying and what I'm saying comes down a question of identity. Your point seems to be that, regardless of the scientific merits of the claim that homosexuality is somehow innate, LGBT people genuinely FEEL the feelings they have and therefore they should be accorded respect because of their identities as LGBT people. ("Gay is," as you say).

Consider, however, the case of the fundamentalist "gay converter," who insists that homosexual feelings are illusory and not really genuine. They don't accept the possibility of a gay identity (chosen, unchosen, or otherwise). Your answer seems to be "who is in a better position to make such a determination?" Fair enough.

But if we take the fundamentalist at his word -- i.e. that there is no real LGBT identity; homosexual feelings are transitory and mutable, etc. You can still say "so what?" -- even if "gay isn't" tolerance is still required because consensual adult behavior is fine. Period. This is an ethical stance that doesn't turn on the metaphysical status of homosexuality.

GreenSmile said...

Yes, a respect for the person requires no science. I put in the science because there may be a few who need to be nudged toward the respect even though it is, as I believe you are asserting here, more fundamental to our humanity than the scientific understanding.

JahTeh said...

Greensmile, that post comes under the heading of "I wish I could have said that". It puts in great detail what I say every day to try and convince people that gay is okay except I have to say it in very tiny words so they will listen to me. Very nicely done.

GreenSmile said...

Jahteh: Thank you. Thanks for wading through such a long post. Feel free to link or mention or repeat as you see fit...if you wished you'd said it, then I wish whomever you were talking to had heard it.

JahTeh said...

I have printed it out for future reference and will give you credit when I use pieces of it.

donna said...


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