Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Science of Gaydar

There is a very interesting article of this title in the current issue of New York magazine. Author David France was on "The Colbert Report" last night, making a mild case for the tantalizing physical correlates of homosexual orientation. What Colbert focused on were the headline-grabbing findings like the comparative lengths of index and ring fingers (gay men more like women, lesbians more like men), or the fact that later-born brothers are a third more likely to be gay than their next-oldest brother. A new finding is that gay men are significant more likely to have a counter-clockwise swirl to their hair (23% vs. 8%) -- a literal "headline" story.

In the article, France reports more of the detailed work on less visible body features that correlated with homosexuality. He talked to Simon LeVay, who did a pathbreaking study on the size of the hypothalmus, the brain structure most seaped in sex-controlling hormones, in which gay men's brains are more like women's. He reviewed the research on the most probable chromosomal region for a hypothetical gay gene. France talked to researchers working on how hormone sequences in the womb influence all kinds of expressions of masculinity and femininity -- a line of research that I am guessing will prove the most instructive in the end.

France also discusses the inevitable politics of even doing such research. Most of the researchers in this field are homosexual, and they, like France, are looking for an account of their own lives. Some gay activists, though, oppose even asking the question, for fear that suggesting a biological cause will then lead to a search for a biological cure. I am sure, as France is, that how individuals turn out is a complex mix of nature and nurture. I fear no research, because I know good science will yield appropriately complex answers.

In facing the question of where to draw the nature/nurture line in understanding sex differences, I was driven some years ago from the "overwhelmingly nurture" position that most sociologists take, to a more balanced position. I find it best to think that sex and gender are a 50/50 balance of nature and nurture -- recognizing that these are imprecise metaphors for a complex set of causes on both sides of the divide. I believe the science of sexual orientation, like the science of sex itself, will turn out the same way: 50/50.

6 comments:

arturo fernandez said...

Physical correlations with sexual orientation are interesting. More interesting are the psychological characteristics that probably come with sexual orientation, and is there a biological component there also? As you say, some of the findings liken gay men more to women. Are gay men's less aggressive behavior (more like women's, for which they are mocked by more "manly" men..."sissies") also a consequence of biology? Do the physical and psychological go together (it is no accident that men and women are both physically and psychologically different), and is “sexual orientation” simply the manifestation of the whole? In trying to change "sexual orientation" will we affect the whole? Do we really need more aggressive males? Will fear of homosexuality cause parents to genetically, "just in case", hyper sexualize their would-be heterosexual children, boosting male aggression also? Do we really want hyper-heterosexuals among us? It's bad enough that there be no gay people around us. Worse is the heterosexual beasts we'll be creating.

R.K. said...

Arturo, what I've noticed is that, as homosexuality has become more visible and more talked about, the tendency to brand any male who does not act in a hyper-masculine way as "gay" and ridicule them for it has become worse. It's at the point now where any young man who does not boast about his numerous sexual exploits with women, or does not speak in crude vulgarities about women's private parts, etc., is accused of being gay by his peers. It didn't used to be that way, when there were gays around but it was not talked about as much.

arturo fernandez said...

r.k., heterosexual males boast of sexual conquests and speak in crude vulgarities...because they're heterosexual males. It's what they do. I come from a conservative old-fashioned town in Mexico where being gay was less talked about, less thought about, less accepted. Crude hyper-masculinity there was unmatched. This gay "cure", if there will be such a thing, will be a nightmare, quite possible the end of civilized life.

SpragueD said...

William, as a sociologist you surely know that the hallmark of scientific analysis is coming up with a solid operational definition of the phenomenon being researched -- an area that most of these studies elide.

These "biology of homosexuality" studies are very risky. More thoughts here:

http://www.ratdiary.com/2006/07/27/genetic-fundamentalism/

Gruntled said...

I agree, SpragueD, that the cultural variety of homosexualities will always make it difficult to pin down for scientific study. Nonetheless, I have been brought to the conviction that there are biological correlates for at least a central kind of male homosexuality. One of the tasks of the infant science of sexual orientation is to define which kinds of homosexuality have clear physical correlates. Then it will be possible to search for the biological side of the nature/nurture path that turns an orientation into a lifestyle.

R.K. said...

" heterosexual males boast of sexual conquests and speak in crude vulgarities...because they're heterosexual males. It's what they do."

Let's see. "Blacks commit crimes and speak in crude vulgarities....because thy're black. It's what they do."

Again, Arturo....Dean Corll, Jeffrey Dahmer, Patrick Kearney, Fritz Harmann, David Carpenter and Joshua Brown.....you don't want to go there, and neither do I.

Quit going there. Group stereotyping is group stereotyping, even when it is against "oppressive majorities".