The Quest for the Gay Gene

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

July 26, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- In a mini-drama of science run amok, the gay gene is becoming entrenched as a laboratory version of the Loch Ness monster: reportedly glimpsed, eternally elusive, but beyond proof that it isn't there.

An enthusiastic press mines the professional science journals for brow-slapping reports from the frontiers of research. For those who hate a good story to end, uncountable chapters of search tales are yet to come. And for the scientists in this line of research, the gay gene is shaping up as an open draw on the U.S. Treasury.

The latest big news, reverberating in science circles and excitedly echoed in the popular media, is that researchers are closing in on a region of the X chromosome where, they think it possible, resides a gene that may exert ''significant influence'' on male sexual orientation.

Please note: They haven't found the gene. With requisite candor, they concede that they cannot be sure it's there, and even if it is, they speculate its influence may vary; also other genes may be involved in sexual orientation. The findings, reported in the prestigious journal Science, are derived from research on DNA in blood samples drawn from male homosexuals and their blood relatives. Females are considered likely to be under different genetic influences. We can be sure that research on that possibility is limbering up, if not already under way.

The science establishment loudly equates its freedom of choice in the lab with the survival of civilized society and intellectual freedom; an untutored public tends to meek acceptance of any nonsense decked out as scientific inquiry. But the quest for the gay gene raises serious and disturbing questions about the prevalence of good sense in an enterprise that has been given the sweet combination of taxpayers' money and operational independence.

When the leaders of science routinely douse Congress with sorrowful tales of promising, disease-fighting research going undone for lack of money, the quest for the gay gene does invite wonder. The National Institutes of Health, the federal bankroll for medical science, laments that funds are sufficient for about only one out of four research proposals that are deemed meritorious.

The money shortage translates into no-go for thousands of scientists proposing research related to cancer and heart disease, by far the nation's leading killers, as well as for research on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and on down a long list of dreadful ailments.

Given the austere facts of contemporary medical-research economics, one cannot help wonder about the urgency of identifying the gay gene, if such exists. Gay activists are deluding themselves if they think that homophobia will wilt away if homosexuality is shown to be decreed by nature.

Suppose that the gene exists and is located. What next? We can be certain that a seminar circuit occupying many assorted experts will thrive on the innumerable ethical questions that can be raised or invented concerning sexual behavior and genetic destiny.

Will embryos be screened for homosexuality? Will job seekers be screened for sexual orientation? Will the health industry offer gene therapy for persons unhappy with their sexual orientation?

The authors of the report in Science clearly saw that they are playing with social fire, for they stated in their article: ''We believe that it would be fundamentally unethical to use such information to try to assess or alter a person's current or future orientation, either heterosexual or homosexual.''

With rare exceptions, unfortunately, the history of science and technology shows that what can be done, will be done. The prospects of gene therapy and gene modification have been reported just around the corner for many years, and with the gobs of money now commanded by gene researchers, no doubt they will someday arrive. Before this goes any further, the managers of science should be required to take time out from pleading poverty and provide an explanation of why scarce money and talent are pursuing a gay gene.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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