LGBTQ advocates have long sought evidence for the claim that same-sex sexual attraction is genetically conditioned. “God made me this way” is a common claim.
If it could be proven that same-sex sexual attraction is inherited, many would find it even easier to liken homosexual persons to racial minorities and castigate those who affirm biblical sexual morality as prejudiced and homophobic.
We should therefore not be surprised by the way a new study of same-sex sexual behavior is being reported. “Research Finds Genetic Links to Same-Sex Behavior” headlines the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times headlines the story a bit differently: “Many Genes Influence Same-Sex Sexuality, Not a Single ‘Gay Gene.’”
If these headlines were all you read, you’d assume that the “God made me this way” claim has finally been proven. The opposite is actually true.
Is homosexuality “part of who we are”?
Researchers studied 408,000 men and women from a large British database and nearly 70,000 customers of the genetic testing service 23andMe. They found that common genetic variants account for between 8 percent and 25 percent of same-sex sexual behavior. They then estimated that another 7 percent might involve genetic effects they could not measure.
These findings are what led the Times and the Journal to make their announcements. We can expect them to be used by others to make the case for genetic causation of same-sex attraction as well.
For instance, Benjamin Neale is a geneticist at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard and one of the lead researchers on the international team that published the new study. He is quoted in the Times: “I hope that the science can be used to educate people a little bit more about how natural and normal same-sex behavior is.” He adds: “It’s written into our genes and it’s part of our environment. This is part of our species and it’s part of who we are.” (Much later in the article, we learn that Dr. Neale is gay.)
Three crucial facts
Three facts related to the study must be considered.
One: The genetics related to human sexuality are far too complex to predict or explain an individual’s sexual orientation. In my role as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health, I have spent years studying genetics in the context of medical and theological ethics. This work has reinforced the complexity of human genetics, especially with regard to predicting an individual’s behavior.
These results, as the Journal notes, make it “practically impossible to predict a person’s sexual orientation or behavior based on their genome.”
For instance, researchers in the genetic study being reported by the Times and the Journal could only account for up to 8 to 25 percent of same-sex behavior. More to the point, when they pooled their markers to create a score for an individual person, the genetic variation explained less than 1 percent. These results, as the Journal notes, make it “practically impossible to predict a person’s sexual orientation or behavior based on their genome.”
Two: Even if up to 32 percent of a person’s same-sex sexual behavior is genetically conditioned, this means that more than two-thirds of their sexual behavior is not.
This fact raises the nature vs. nurture question and demonstrates once more that sexual orientation is the product of a wide range of factors, from family of origin to life experiences, social context, and personal decisions.
Given this reality, the Times or the Journal could more accurately have flipped their headlines and their subheads. The Times‘ subhead included: “social and environmental factors are also key.” The Journal‘s subhead adds: “experts caution that environmental factors also play a role.”
Even their qualifying subheads don’t tell the entire story, however. While the study reported the weighting of factors to be at least two-thirds environmental and social to be one-third genetic, the Journal does not report this fact until the twelfth paragraph of its story. The Times includes this information in the eighteenth paragraph of its article.
Three: Genetic correlation, even if it exists, does not equate to causality with regard to behavior. In other words, a person’s genetic profile does not require them to act in certain ways. A genetic propensity toward attributes or addictions does not require a person to become a professional singer or an alcoholic, for example.
To illustrate: according to the Times, “researchers found that whether someone ever engaged in same-sex sexual behavior showed genetic correlations with mental health issues, like major depressive disorder or schizophrenia, and with traits like risk-taking, cannabis use, openness to experience and loneliness.”
However, the researchers “emphasized that the study does not suggest that same-sex sexual behavior causes or is caused by these conditions or characteristics, and that depression or bipolar disorder could be fueled by prejudicial social experiences.”
In other words, correlation is not causation.
I have known a number of people over the years who told me they were attracted sexually to people of the same sex but did not act on this inclination. Some chose to be celibate; others felt that God liberated them from this attraction. Still others were happily married to a heterosexual partner but resist the temptation of same-sex sexual attraction, just as other married people must resist heterosexual sexual attraction outside of marriage.