The Short-Lived “Gay Gene”
GENETIC DETERMINISM OR PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY?
In the 21st century, the human genetic code is bearing a great burden. Just as the Israelites of the Old Testament sometimes fell upon false idols to worship and explain away their disobedience to God, today we find consolation in the belief that the composition of the human genetic code can be tied directly to our actions. One of the most powerful of such pretexts has been the portrayal of homosexual behavior and orientation as driven by DNA — the so-called gay gene. It is commonly held that homosexuals are “born this way,” and, therefore, the Church’s moral teachings on the sinfulness of homosexual activity are motivated by antiquated, pre-scientific biases. An oft-heard refrain is that, in order to love homosexual persons, a mandate most Christians embrace with charity, we must also celebrate their assumedly natural, unchosen sexual identities in both the private and public spheres.
A recently published study has sent this “gay gene theory” into turmoil (“Large-Scale GWAS [Genome-Wide Association Study] Reveals Insights into the Genetic Architecture of Same-Sex Sexual Behavior,” Science, Aug. 30). Verifying the findings from decades of smaller studies through a genome-wide analysis of nearly 500,000 participants, the new study demonstrates that any genetic component of a homosexual orientation is negligible. According to the study, somewhere between eight and 25 percent of the same-sex inclination correlates not to a “gay gene” but to a highly complex array of genetic characteristics that also have thousands of other effects on the human body; the top five “responsible” genes are barely influential in themselves. Furthermore, correlation is not necessarily causation, for any interpretation of such an association as a causal or determining relationship has been problematic at least since David Hume’s writings in the 18th century.
The implications of the recent study go far beyond political and societal debates over the interests of the homosexual lobby. Indeed, they call into question our society’s appeal to genetic science as a ready source of justifications for a wide variety of (often immoral) behaviors and for an abdication of personal responsibility. While the 20th century was dominated by the scourge of eugenics and racial-purification projects, recent acceleration of genetic researchers’ capabilities to rapidly and inexpensively identify, evaluate, and manipulate the DNA of organisms has led to a torrent of simplistic yet sensational claims about the role of genes in human nature.
Unrefined and incautious proclamations about the power of genetics have important social consequences. The widespread tendency toward insistence on a genetic basis for homosexual behavior and orientation, for example, has led to rhetorical and legal attacks on psychologists, priests, and other Christians who counsel individuals to reject homosexual activity. The Catholic Church is regularly demonized for teaching that homosexual activity is sinful and that persons inclined toward homosexual activity need and deserve, by virtue of our shared human dignity, compassionate assistance in striving for holiness and forming their conscience in the light of truth. What is often overlooked is the Church’s insistence that persons with homosexual inclinations be counted among God’s creatures who are dignified by the gift of free will.
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