So what if there's a gay gene?

December 17, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- There is a gay gene, and conservatives should learn to capitalize on it. So announces Chandler Burr in the Weekly Standard.

His argument proceeds as follows: Clinical research has discovered the existence of a gene that makes people gay, so conservatives should stop arguing that homosexuality is a chosen behavior or they will look silly. Moreover, the discovery of the gene is not entirely bad news.

Liberals like the idea of a gay gene because it bolsters the argument that homosexuality is a condition, like skin color, rather than a choice. Thus, just as we have ruled race discrimination to be invidious in all circumstances, so should we treat discrimination based upon sexual orientation as mere unreasoning prejudice.

Pro-life logic

But there are reasons for conservatives to embrace the gay gene as well, Mr. Burr argues. It will make liberals squirm to consider that if homosexuality is genetically determined, like cystic fibrosis, then it is but a short step to testing for it in utero. Babies who carry the ''gay gene'' could, in theory, be aborted. How would that bit of eugenics strike homosexual activists and other liberals? Would they suddenly see the logic of the pro-life position?

Moreover, Mr. Burr argues, if genes cause homosexuality, then, in time, gene therapy can cure it. A shot of re-engineered genes in the arm and, presto, a heterosexual.

Conservatives should pause before climbing onto the bandwagon. In the first place, it is far from scientifically settled pTC that there is a gay gene, or even a cluster of genes that ''cause'' homosexuality.

''You have to be extremely cautious when you talk about genes causing complex human behaviors like sexual orientation,'' explains Dr. Harvey Stern, a geneticist at the Genetics and IVF Institute in Virginia. ''That's a severe oversimplification.'' Most human traits, but particularly behavioral ones, he adds, are caused by a multiplicity of factors. There may be some genetic component to homosexuality, but there is ''no one gene,'' and genetic factors combine with environmental factors.

This is often the case in genetics. It is scientifically settled, for example, that there is a genetic component to schizophrenia. But genetics doesn't tell the whole story. Two identical twins will share a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, but one will get the disease and the other won't. The individual's experience -- in other words, the environment -- plays a key role as well.

Scientists with axes to grind are busy looking for genetic keys to behaviors like alcoholism, aggression, risk taking, even happiness. (Though the suggestion that intelligence has a strong genetic component is met with outraged protests from the same people who will assure us that alcoholism is all in the genes.) Find the gene, goes the reasoning, and eliminate personal responsibility.

''We are just in the infancy of understanding what role genes play in determining behavior,'' Dr. Stern warns. ''It is dangerous to assume that you can deduce cause and effect.''

Chandler Burr notwithstanding, the discovery of a genetic component to human traits like homosexuality is actually quite irrelevant to political and social arguments about their status. There are prudential reasons to resist the legitimization of homosexuality -- disease, instability of homosexual unions, and the slippery slope (how do you forbid polygamy?) to name just three.

Moreover, to say genetics plays a role proves less than it seems to. It is widely accepted that we are also genetically predisposed to be promiscuous (especially the men among us). Yet we are expected to resist our natural (genetic) inclinations. Some scientists claim to have found a gene for criminality. Shall we repeal the penal code for individuals who carry it?

Nor is homosexuality a firm and immutable trait. Many people change from homosexual to heterosexual, or vice versa. Some are bisexual. Some men behave as homosexuals while in prison or on board a ship at sea, but revert to heterosexuality when women are available.

In the final analysis, scientific discoveries about genetic predispositions to this or that behavior will always be interesting, but they do not affect our judgment about whether a trait is good or bad. That is determined by religion and morality.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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