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The Gay Gene?

One potential consequence of accepting a doctrine of genetic determinism relates to the potential link between genetics and sexual orientation. In the summer of 1993, Dean H. Hamer and his research team at the National Cancer Institute announced their discovered evidence of a connection between genetics and some male homosexuality. By constructing family trees in instances where two or more brothers are gay, and performing actual laboratory testing of the supposed homosexual DNA, Hamer located a region near the end of the long arm of the X chromosome that likely contains a gene influencing sexual orientation. Because men receive an X chromosome from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father (women receive two X’s, one from each parent), it is assumed that the possible gay gene is inherited maternally. Mothers can pass on this gene without themselves, nor their daughters, being homosexual. A parallel study of lesbian genetics is as yet incomplete; and the present study of gay men will certainly require replication and confirmation to render indisputable proof. Nevertheless, Hamer was ready to write in the article making the dramatic announcement, “We have now produced evidence that one form of male homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through the maternal side and is genetically linked to chromosome region Xq28."Robert L. Sinsheimer, "Genetic Engineering: Life as a Plaything," Technology Review, 86:14 (1983) 14-70.

What are the implications of this? Time magazine projected an ethical and political forecast: “If homosexuals are deemed to have a foreordained nature, many of the arguments now used to block equal rights would lose force.” Time cited a gay attorney who says, “I can’t imagine rational people, presented with the evidence that homosexuality is biological and not a choice, would continue to discriminate.”Rifkin, Algeny, 17.  If we eventually accept as fact that male homosexuality is genetically inherited, then the ethical logic that follows could go a number of different directions.

To demonstrate this, we might begin with a couple of basic questions: Does the genetic disposition toward homosexuality limit the person's free will in the realm of sexuality? And, if so, what are the ethical implications of this discovery? Two answers are logically possible. On the one hand, a homosexual man could claim that because he inherited this gene and did not choose a gay orientation by his own free will, he should not be discriminated against, or judged, in any way different than another member of society. He could claim this because homosexuality could not be judged immoral, on the grounds that it is natural; or, even if society believes homosexuality to be immoral, he could not help the fact that he has inherited his particular genome.

On the other hand, society could take the opposite road and refuse to accept homosexual behavior, even if it is proven to be genetically determined. Homosexuality could be accepted as a biological fact, but still be rejected socially, on the grounds that it lies outside of a culture's traditional, or preconceived, values and norms. In this way, homosexuality would parallel current societal views of other forms of unacceptable, though often genetically-based, behaviors, such as alcoholism and obesity. The underlying premise of this position is that innate genetic dispositions, though outside of a person's conscious control, do not excuse the behavior, trait, or lifestyle. We are then left with the unanswered question: Does our biological predisposition toward a specific behavior in itself make that behavior moral or immoral? 

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters

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