Actually, the whole genome can be mapped for less than $10 million if you are willing to forfeit the high degree of resolution Bocklandt is after. Alan Sanders, an associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern, will be looking at the whole genome of about 1,000 gay brothers using the genetic marker technique that Hamer used. A sample that big should eliminate the statistical weaknesses that plagued Hamer. “There are a number of things that go into trying to figure out how much statistical power you have, but the only one that’s in your control is sample size—the bigger the better,” says Sanders. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
For several years Sanders has been collecting DNA from blood or saliva samples from families with two or more gay brothers. In addition to requesting their spit, Sanders’s team asks each individual a set of questions similar to those Hamer used in his study. Then he begins looking at the men’s chromosomal markers to see if the brothers are more similar than what chance would predict. Wherever there is a significant increase in sharing, Sanders plans to look at the genes that can be found near that particular marker. (When two brothers come from the same mother and father, about 50 percent of their genes should be identical.) Not only is the sample size bigger than Hamer’s, but there are now far more genetic markers available, allowing Sanders to zero in on specific genes much faster.
By setting up a stand at Gay Pride parades and approaching “gay friendly” groups like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), Sanders has found more than 4,000 gay men with a brother who are interested in participating. He has already started mapping the first 500 and estimates that by mid-2008 the world will know where—if anywhere—to find the gay gene.
“We definitely should be able to put to rest one way or another whether the Xq28 finding is replicable,” says Sanders. “We should be able to address that to anyone’s satisfaction.”
The question of whether there is a gay gene—and if so, where it resides—is hardly the only question about sexual orientation that remains unanswered. If either Bocklandt or Sanders is lucky enough to spot the genes responsible for homosexuality, there will most likely be more questions raised than answered. “Frankly, the biggest problem of the genetic possibilities is the evolutionary problem,” says Michael Bailey, the researcher who found that women get turned on by anything, who is now working with Sanders. “And I don’t think that Dean [Hamer] has taken that problem seriously enough.” Men who like men are obviously less likely to procreate. Even if social pressures through the ages led some gay men to have some children, the significantly lower rate of reproduction would eventually lead to the disappearance of the gene (as Hamer does note in his book, The Science of Desire: The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior).
Possible explanations abound, but an ingenious one was recently put to the test. Perhaps, the theory goes, some genes, when found in men, make them more likely to be gay and when found in women make them more likely to have children. (“Fecund” is the word the researchers use.) The increased number of grandchildren that a parent might have through such a superfertile daughter would offset whatever loss of genetic posterity comes from having a gay son.
How such a gene might work is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the gene simply increases attraction to men, so a male with the gene comes out liking men, and a female with the gene comes out really liking men. Whatever the mechanism, it turns out that an Italian study found that women with gay family members have more children than women with all straight relatives. Andrea Camperio-Ciani, a professor of ethology and evolutionary psychology at the University of Padua, interviewed 98 gay men and 100 straight men and found that the mothers of gay men had an average of 2.7 children, while the mothers of straight men averaged 2.3.
That study has been criticized in some circles for the same old reason: The sample size was not big enough. But the man with the generous sample size hopes to answer that question too. “We’ll look at the offspring of female relatives of gay men—especially of sisters. How many do they have compared to the relatives of straight men?” asks Sanders. “We’re also trying to replicate that.”
Another way to pass on the seemingly nonreproducing gay gene would be for a nonreproducing gay man to have an extra interest in seeing that the offspring of his siblings survive. Biologist E. O. Wilson first put forward this idea of kin selection as an explanation for homosexuality in 1978, but for some time now it has been considered an unlikely scenario.
Michael Bailey conducted a study in 2001 to find out if gay uncles treat their nephews and nieces any better than straight uncles treat theirs. They did not. Thinking that Bailey did not control for the income level of the uncles surveyed—richer uncles tend to be more generous—Qazi Rahman, a professor of psychobiology at the University of East London, tried to replicate the study in England. In addition to looking at how they spent their money, Rahman tried to see if gay men had some kind of extra psychological generosity by asking questions like, “Assuming you had a million pounds, would you buy gifts for your family?” Again, Rahman found no difference between straight and gay men. He admits that looking at “presents and stuff” might seem a crude measure for an adaptation that was selected for thousands of years ago, but he sees no other way that such an impulse would manifest itself today.
But 21st-century Western society, and the homosexuals therein, could be something of an anomaly in human history, according to Paul Vasey, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. “Do I think the social contexts are less representative of our evolutionary past? I’d say yes,” Vasey says. “The kind of gay men and lesbian women we are familiar with in Western culture express their homosexuality as egalitarian—they’re not differentiated as far as gender.” In other times and other places, one partner typically adopts a masculine role, while the other adopts the feminine. Another problem with kinship selection studies that look only in England and, in particular, the United States, is that kinship ties for homosexuals might not be as strong as they would be elsewhere. “The United States is profoundly homophobic,” says Vasey, “so you can’t be directing altruism at your family members if they’ve kicked you out and you’ve moved to the other side of the country.”
Vasey has therefore been studying a group of Samoans called fa’afafine, whom he describes as more of a third sex than homosexual as commonly construed. These men, who grow up to dress and act like women and are extremely integrated into their society, would be offended to find themselves described as homosexual. They don’t have sex with each other, and because their appearance isn’t masculine, they don’t consider themselves men who sleep with other men. In an initial study, Vasey found that the fa’afafine do exhibit heightened avuncular tendencies with their nieces and nephews. “They babysit, they teach them about the culture, they give them money,” he says. To make sure that these traits do not merely reflect a more general fondness for all children, Vasey will soon head back to Samoa to refine and, with luck, replicate the study.
To put the kibosh on the idea that the evolution of a gay gene presents an unsolvable conundrum, Sergey Gavrilets, a theoretical evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee, developed a mathematical model of how a set of what he calls “sexually antagonistic” genes might evolve. “Sexuality can be explained as one example of sexual conflict—there may be genes that are beneficial for one sex but detrimental for the other,” he says. He didn’t put kin selection into the equation. (“I don’t think it works, because if you have zero children and compensate for the loss by helping someone else, that help would have to be extremely efficient.”) But he did include Camperio-Ciani’s results and also assumed that gay genes would be passed down on the mother’s side, on the X chromosome, as indicated by Hamer.
The model shows that over centuries an effect you might call the homophobe’s paradox has been at work on the human genome: The more intolerant the society, the more likely it is to maintain gay genes. If a society’s conventions keep homosexuals in the closet, then they will be more likely to conform, get married, and have children. This is especially true if gay genes are also responsible for making women more fecund. Imagine, for instance, that for every extra child that such a gay gene–carrying woman has, a gay man can have one fewer and the balance necessary for the survival of the gene is still maintained. The more children he has, thanks to what his contemporaries demand of him, the less evolutionary pressure there is for his female counterpart to have more. “As a society becomes more intolerant, there’s more pressure to have offspring,” says Gavrilets. “The real [evolutionary] cost of being homosexual isn’t too big if you’re forced to have kids.” On the other hand, the more tolerant the society, the more gay men can be free to be who they are, so the more likely they will be childless—and the more difficult it will be for any female in the family to make up for the loss.
“Bullshit,” says Bocklandt. “A mathematical model is a nice exercise, a mental masturbation about how these things could work, but it makes better sense to do that once we know a bit more. One of the problems that none of the mathematical models take into account is that we have no idea what it meant to be gay 10,000 years ago. We have some idea what it meant 200 years ago but not 10,000.”
It is also becoming increasingly clear that gay genes are not the only biological factor that influences homosexuality. Some homosexual men appear to have their sexuality oriented not by their DNA but by the environment they experienced in the womb. Ray Blanchard, a psychiatric researcher at the University of Toronto, found in 1996 that men with older brothers were more likely to be gay than those without. His study showed that for every older brother a man has, his odds of being gay go up by 33 percent. If the likelihood that a couple’s first son will be gay is 2 percent (a reasonable guess), Blanchard says, the probability that the 5th son will be gay is only 6 percent. But if some poor woman has 14 sons, the 15th would have a 50 percent chance of being gay.
The more intolerant the society, the more likely it is to maintain gay genes. The real evolutionary cost of being homosexual isn’t too big if you’re forced to have kids.
Blanchard’s discovery has been replicated more than 20 times. Most recently, in 2006, psychologist Tony Bogaert of Brock University in Ontario quashed the possibility that the older-brother effect results from boys having been teased, beaten, or otherwise affected by their older brothers. Bogaert collected data from gay and heterosexual men who grew up in nonbiological families—in most cases, either adopted or raised in “blended” families. “This allowed me to really pit biological versus nonbiological explanations against each other,” Bogaert says. The statistics came back the same as they had in previous studies. “It’s not the brother you lived with; it’s the environment within the same womb—sharing the same mom.”
The older-brother effect accounts for about 15 to 30 percent of gay men, Blanchard estimates. How sharing a biological mother could induce homosexuality in men remains pure guesswork, however. Bogaert and Blanchard hypothesize that with each male child the mother develops an immunity to certain male-specific proteins, like molecules relating to the Y chromosome. Perhaps her body sees them as foreign and mounts an immune attack, which might alter certain structures of the male brain.
Whatever the cause of homosexuality, be it genetic, hormonal, or even sociological, the result is a change somewhere in the brain. Simon LeVay, once a neurobiologist at the Salk Institute, thought he found that part of the brain in 1991. Comparing the gray matter in the cadavers of gay and straight men, he found that an area in the anterior hypothalamus known as INAH-3 was smaller in gay men, about the size it is in women. A study by William Byne of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City turned up similar results.
Michael Baum, a biologist at Boston University, got a more detailed look by studying ferrets, whose biology is well understood. He has shown that the anterior hypothalamuses of gay and straight ferrets—as well as of male and female ferrets—are also of different sizes. The structural distinctions have clear behavioral consequences. Ferrets find their mates primarily by odor. Using a “reporter gene,” Baum proved that a receptor in the anterior hypothalamus responds differently to the same odor depending on the sex of the ferret. Creating a lesion in that part of the brain can make a male ferret approach other males. Baum also finds that administering the right steroids early in life can reverse the animals’ sex response: Female ferrets dosed with testosterone early in life act masculine.
Odor does not affect us as much as it does ferrets, but that is not to say that odor doesn’t influence our sexual response. Ivanka Savic Berglund, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, put gay men, straight men, and women in a PET scanner (not all at the same time) and watched how their anterior hypothalamus lit up when presented with an odor similar to one found in men’s sweat and one similar to a scent found in women’s urine. The gay men’s brains responded the way the women’s brains did. “I was so pleased when I saw the paper—it kind of made my day,” says Baum. “But I think it would have been great if she had used real sweat.”
So is brain development the final frontier for seeking the source of homosexuality? “At first blush you might think, ‘Well, gosh, maybe gay men didn’t get enough testosterone early in life,” says Marc Breedlove, a neuroscience professor at Michigan State University. “But as we find markers that should tell us about prenatal testosterone, they haven’t shown a consistent pattern.” Such studies are puzzling for Breedlove, who has spent much of his career proving that for animals things really are that simple. Castrated male rats given ovarian steroids as adults go straight for other male rats, while others given testosterone still flirt with females (however futile their propositions). “We can cause animals to be as masculine or feminine as we want by manipulating their exposure to testosterone,” he says. “If I take a female rat pup and I give her just one dose of testosterone, in a few hours that testosterone is gone, and yet for the rest of her life she’s masculine.”
Lab rats are easier to manipulate than people, however. “I love my rats,” says Breedlove, “but they’re not very complicated.” Apparently, humans are unlike the rest of the animal kingdom. Still, low testosterone or high testosterone could up the chance that a boy would grow up to be gay. No experiment has yet ruled that out.
If researchers do prove that testosterone can alter human sexual orientation—gay gene or no gay gene—the possibility of preventing homosexuality will become a reality. Even a hint of that option is enough to provoke an outcry among activists. Recently word got out that Charles Roselli, a physiologist at Oregon Health and Science University, was trying to find out how hormones affect the brains of gay sheep. PETA roped tennis star and lesbian activist Martina Navratilova into writing a letter to the university, calling the research homophobic and cruel. She accused the researchers of trying to find a “prenatal treatment for various sexual conditions.”
What drives the sex researchers (some of whom are openly gay) is most often pure curiosity. They just want to know. “People whose motivations are political don’t comprehend that anyone could be interested in why,” says Ray Blanchard. And that why isn’t just a why for homosexuality but a why for sexuality, period.
“I can’t focus enough on how these are not gay genes—these are straight genes,” Bocklandt says. “If you want to find a gene that makes you see colors, you compare the genes of people who see colors with the genes of people who are color-blind. They’re not genes for color blindness. What we’re talking about here is the most basic thing, the most basic question. Why does a crocodile recognize the opposite sex and want to f**k?”