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Genetics and Homosexuality

For years I’ve been carrying around an idea about how homosexuality could be inherited. The news reports that jogged me to post are the ones about the work of Mustanski et al. (Human Genetics, online, Jan 12, 2005). The research is currently being widely reported under titles like: Moms’ Genetics Might Help Produce Gay Sons (By Randy Dotinga, Feb 21, 2006) [link no longer active, article removed]

First a few carps about the reported research, and then some thoughts on my wild(?) ideas.

The Article on genetics and gay sons

Very briefly, this is the gist of Mustanski et al., A genome-wide scan of male sexual orientation (pdf, Jan 2005, Human Genetics). Quoted from the yahoo news article mentioned above:

Women typically inactivate one of their two X chromosomes at random. “It’s like flipping a coin,” Bocklandt [one of the authors] said. “If you look at a woman in any given (bodily) tissue, you’d expect about half of the cells to inactivate one X, and half would inactivate the other.”

“When we looked at women who have gay kids, in those with more than one gay son, we saw a quarter of them inactivate the same X in virtually every cell we checked,” Bocklandt said. “That’s extremely unusual.”

To begin with, what about gay daughters? That wasn’t even part of the study. I’m rather boggled that the researchers expect to say anything meaningful about homosexuality when they ignore one very obvious source of perspective on their findings . (I.e. is the mother’s X-chromosome deactivation as skewed or not when she has gay daughters? In either case, what does that plausibly say about the etiology involved?)

To go on with, how do “gay kids” transform into “gay sons”? The prejudices are showing, and given that the researchers are studying something as ringed with prejudice as homosexuality, that is not reassuring. Also, although the original article shows that the researchers know they are dealing with a possible correlation and not a cause of homosexuality, that’s not stressed enough for the popular press. Note the headline that says Moms’ genetics…”produce” gay sons.

The findings are interesting, but until they reflect a much larger sample size, and more thorough attempt to see what is cause and what is correlation, this is mainly a good start for further research.

The Idea

I was intrigued by the title because I’ve thought for ages that there is an overlooked factor in a constellation of traits which depend on alterations in brain wiring and which are are more common in males than females.

The traits involved are left-handedness (slight excess: about 4:3 male to female), mathematical ability of the kind demonstrated right from the earliest days of childhood, often with associated reduction in verbal ability (I don’t have the statistics handy, but my sense is that this is more common in boys), homosexuality (about 3:2 male to female), and dyslexia (approx 3:1). There are other traits, I’m sure, but those are examples of what I’m talking about.

Hormones play an important role in establishing the “circuitry” of the developing brain, and sex hormones are among the big players. One fact of pregnancy is that the person carrying the fetus is always female. If the fetus is female, her own hormones and those of her mother are more or less in synch, and the brain wiring process is less likely to receive conflicting information even if there is a surge of “strange” hormones. It’s the other way around if the fetus is male.

The placenta is a very effective barrier and generally prevents the passage of huge molecules like maternal sex hormones. However, not all women and fetuses have equally functioning placentas. A “leakier” placenta-uterine interface might, sometimes, let through more of the mother’s sex hormones than usual. With a female fetus, this is less likely to matter. With a male fetus, especially if it comes at a critical time for brain wiring, the surge of female hormones may well alter the process.

It’s important in this context that the placenta is fetal tissue in very close association with specialized maternal tissue on the uterine side. So the genetics of either the fetus or the mother or both could play a role. Clearly, that makes things even more complicated.

The characteristics of the placenta-uterine interface depend on many factors, including nutrition, stress, and so on, but they also depend on genetics. So it may not be homosexuality or mathematical ability, per se, that is heritable. What is heritable may be a placenta or uterus that allows some maternal sex hormones to reach the developing embryo or fetus. This would make the traits in question not inherited, strictly speaking, but congenital. The placental or uterine characteristics are the inherited component.

This does not necessarily mean that, for instance, left-handed people would also tend to be dyslexic. Which trait is manifested depends on individual susceptibility, timing of maternal hormone surges, and exactly which part of the fetal brain is developing right then.

It does mean that any of these charactersitics should cluster in families. In other words, a family with lefties, should also have a higher probability of children with dyslexia, early math ability associated with late verbal ability, and so on. Depending on how big a factor the uterine component is, there might or might not be an association with matrilineal inheritance.

There are several ways to test this idea. Surrogacy, where the egg donor is not the woman carrying the pregnancy, could help to show the relative contribution of each side of the uterus-placenta equation. Genome mapping could identify areas on chromosomes that are associated with more-permeable placenta-uterine interfaces. Then the correlation between those areas and any of the traits in question could be studied. Most directly, if maternal sex hormones could be tagged in some way (not using radioactive elements, obviously) and their possible passage to the fetus tracked, and then if the children could be followed through to adulthood, that would be the most direct way to observe how close the correlation is between stages of brain development, hormonal surges, and subsequent development. The latter research project would be both complex and expensive.

The Big Issues

Whenever the discussion turns to the genetics of homosexuality, a blizzard of issues falls. People imagine future headlines like: “Christian Right Now Favors Abortions . . . In Some Cases.” Ministers who run self-help groups to “cure” homosexuality start to fear a loss of business. Legions of heterosexuals despair when they realize there is no hope for them.

Okay. I’ll admit it. I’m making fun of the whole thing because that, to me, is how ridiculous all the fears are.

Does a genetic component to homosexuality determine whether it’s a choice or a fate? No, not really, because a behavior as complex as sexual orientation is likely to be based on a whole range of causes. In some people it may be a matter of choice, in others it may be cast-iron genetics, and in others it may be anything in between. The genetic or congenital component, as with many complex traits such as intelligence or height, is more of a predisposition than an absolute law.

However, the most important point is that genetics says nothing about how people should live their lives. The most important point is that sexuality is nobody’s business but your own. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a choice or not. The whole debate is useless, because the whole debate is nobody’s business.

Technorati tags: homosexuality, genetics, Human Genetics, Mustanski, Bocklandt, placenta, uterus

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Do you understand quantum computers? Neither do I.

This is the future, and I don’t get it. I am now officially old.

Via Boingboing: Quantum computer solves problem without running program (From eurekalert.org)

Utilizing two coupled optical interferometers, nested within a third, Kwiat’s team succeeded in counterfactually searching a four-element database using Grover’s quantum search algorithm. “By placing our photon in a quantum superposition of running and not running the search algorithm, we obtained information about the answer even when the photon did not run the search algorithm,” said graduate student Onur Hosten, lead author of the Nature paper. “We also showed theoretically how to obtain the answer without ever running the algorithm, by using a ‘chained Zeno’ effect.”

Through clever use of beam splitters and both constructive and destructive interference, the researchers can put each photon in a superposition of taking two paths. Although a photon can occupy multiple places simultaneously, it can only make an actual appearance at one location. Its presence defines its path, and that can, in a very strange way, negate the need for the search algorithm to run.

“In a sense, it is the possibility that the algorithm could run which prevents the algorithm from running,” Kwiat said. “That is at the heart of quantum interrogation schemes, and to my mind, quantum mechanics doesn’t get any more mysterious than this.”

Ain’t that the truth.

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali on THE CARTOONS

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, BBC photo
Why isn’t she running the world? She knows right from wrong, she and Malalai Joya are the two bravest people on the planet, and Ayaan has gone through trial by horror. She made a film with her partner, Theo van Gogh, about women in Islam. He got murdered for it. If anyone understands the price of free speech, it’s Ayaan. This is what she has to say about it:

From the BBC:

Dutch MP backs Muhammad cartoons

The Somali-born Dutch MP who describes herself as a “dissident of Islam” has backed the Danish newspaper that first printed the Prophet Muhammad cartoons.

[She] said it was “correct to publish the cartoons” in Jyllands Posten and “right to republish them”.

Ms Hirsi Ali … said… “today the open society is challenged by Islamism”. … “Within Islam exists a hardline Islamist movement that rejects democratic freedoms and wants to destroy them.”

[She] criticised European leaders for not standing by Denmark and urged politicians [and I could think of a few others!] to stop appeasing fundamentalists.

She also said that although the Prophet Muhammad did a lot of good things, his decree that homosexuals and apostates should be killed was incompatible with democracy. … Ms Hirsi Ali said the furore over the cartoons had exposed the fear among artists and journalists in Europe to “analyse or criticise intolerant aspects of Islam”.

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Free speech, T-shirts, Cartoons, and Everything

What do spam, Islamists, porn, Cindy Sheehan, and cartoons have in common? Free speech. It’s everywhere these days, a constant din. We need to figure out what’s free and what’s just speech before we go deaf.

In the high and far off times, when the Founding Dads were mulling over the liberties essential to the life of a free society, free speech was front and center. They were talking about free political speech, which explains points of view or criticizes them. I doubt there’s any dispute that the free flow of ideas is essential to democracy. People may not feel that democracy is necessary, but if you do want democracy, you can’t have it without free political speech.

So far, so good, but talking to yourself in a closed room isn’t really the point. The free *flow* of ideas means people need to hear as well as speak. That leads to radical conclusion #1: Broadcast information is an important method of delivering ideas, so free airtime has to be available to air different points of view. The time needs to be taxpayer-funded *at cost* because the free flow of ideas is the lifeblood of democracy. I know the broadcast giants would have foaming fits if the public actually had some use of the public airwaves. That’s just too bad.

Illegal takeovers of the kind that have gutted traditional broadcasting are not limited to old media. There is the issue of “pipes” and the internet. In the US, the government and a few large companies own major portions of the backbone, the “pipes,” that allow the broadband internet to function. Some of those companies have started making noises about how they’re going to promote their own “products” on “their” pipes, and start charging others more for the use of the network.

The internet was started by the government, carried forward by the free contributions of countless academics and others, and the basic fiber optic cables were laid down with taxpayer money. The companies who now have responsibility for running parts of these networks received all that immense value for free. The companies need to pay back all that value first, if they think the internet shouldn’t be free. (More on these issues by Christopher Stern at WaPo, Jeffrey Benner at Salon.com, and on “content-based billing” by Feliks Welfeld at CommsDesign.com. Remember, the companies are NOT the ones generating the content. They just want to charge for it, apparently simply because they think they can.)

The whole idea of charging for the network is as antisocial and counterproductive as charging everyone to set foot on the road. The net is a social good and a natural monopoly, like highways. Like them, it needs to be recognized as such, and to be regulated and freely available the same way.

Tangentially, another natural monopoly and essential utility of the internet is the ability to search it. That, too, needs to be freely available and regulated for the good of all. (Yes, Google, I’m looking at you.) Bill Thompson has some more thoughts on that subject.

Religious or philosophical expression is another cornerstone of free speech, and not one subject to much controversy. Without that freedom, the central quest of finding our own place in the universe becomes crippled. The whole point of a free society is that the only limits are not harming others, and it certainly covers the freedom to search for our God in our own way.

Here again, the need to be heard is important, so nobody can have a much bigger megaphone than anyone else. That’s the idea behind insisting that government cannot promote any given religion. If it does, other religions quickly become suppressed mutterings in small rooms. People may not want free societies, but if they do, then separation of church and state is essential to the freedom of religion. Lately, this seems to be turning back into a new concept.

That was the easy part. Now comes the hard part. Cartoons. They’ve been much in the news lately. A Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting Mohammed in the context of a discussion about free speech and whether it was right that Muslims tried to insist that everyone, not just other Muslims, had to refrain from showing images of the Prophet. Four months went by. Nobody really noticed. The Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca by millions of Muslims took place. Once again, there was insufficient planning and organization with the result that several hundred people were trampled to death. This is not the first time that’s happened. There were rumblings that the Saudi government should “do something.” The Saudis started the storm about some four month-old cartoons. (Insight into this affair from the incomparable Religious Policeman, and other posts earlier and later.)

That’s the background on that particular controversy, but there is a real issue at its heart. Is respect for other people’s viewpoints more or less important than free speech? The way I would answer that question is by taking both choices to their potential conclusions. If respect is more important, then any speech that offends someone has to be silenced. If applied to everyone, nobody would have any free speech. On the other hand, if free speech is more important, then some people would have to avert their eyes to avoid offense. So long as they are able to do that, giving free speech priority enables everyone to live according to their own lights.

In the interests of following that principle myself: note that a copy of one of the cartoons appears below. It says it all, as far as I’m concerned. A link to all twelve of the famous cartoons: The Shadow of the Olive Tree . [Update 2013-03-31. A cursory search indicates that the cartoons have been removed at news sites. The only copies I could find are on the Wayback Machine.]

cartoon by Rasmus Sand Hoyer, two Muslim women whose eyes only are visible, looking horrified, and a Muslim man with a black rectangle blinding his vision.

Then there’s Tom Toles’ cartoon that offended the Joint Chiefs of Staff so much. “Beyond tasteless” said the top military brass.

quadruple amputee lying in hospital bed, while Dr. Rumsfeld says, I'm listing your condition as battle-hardened

The cartoon is a real avert-your-eyes piece of work, but not because of Tom Toles. What’s tasteless is a useless war that destroys people, and a country that hardly takes care of the vets afterward. The cartoon points that out. Starkly. The cartoon would be tasteless if Toles thought that was funny. He’s outraged. What’s tasteless is worrying about a cartoon rather than sharing the outrage. This is such an obvious example of free speech being used to air criticism that I’m not sure why the Joint Chiefs, who are presumably in the business of defending those freedoms with their lives, need to have this explained to them. If they don’t like the cartoon, they have it in their hands to make it irrelevant.

Moving right along to the other burning question: t-shirts. In the days when clothes were clothes, you had to carry a placard to make a point. Now, through the miracles of modern technology, we can print slogans on t-shirts and bill caps, which enables Cindy Sheehan and a congressman’s wife to appear at the State of the Union speech wearing t-shirts that support the troops, each in her own way. How far do you take the outlawing of meaningful clothing? If words or numbers are forbidden, how about pictures? One could wear a shirt printed with Picasso’s Guernica painting. Is it art or is it a Statement, and who gets to decide? If a near-Muslim aversion to any representational imagery is enforced, will pink triangles become illegal because they make a statement about gays? How about just the color pink, if triangles are deemed too obvious?

You see where I’m going with this. It wouldn’t take much to end in rules that require everyone to wear identical clothing in sober shades of gray. This is ridiculous. I can understand that on decorous occasions one doesn’t want the visual landscape cluttered with people’s personal billboards. And I can also understand that potentially offensive sexual or religious messages are deprecated, because there is no way to avert your eyes when someone is in your face with their clothing. But editing political statements on people’s clothing during a political occasion is absurd. It’s nothing but shouting down the opposition, and that is suppression of free speech.

What about those other wellsprings of offensiveness, porn and spam? Let’s take them in order. The idea behind free speech is that some of it is essential to a free society, and the rest of it is nobody’s business but your own. If porn had no effects beyond the consumer of it, there would be nothing to regulate. However, porn does have demonstrable effects on people’s minds. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be so worried about children seeing it. It is an infection of the imagination that may or may not cause harmful consequences to others. Whatever else it is, it is definitely not a social good. It’s as gray an area as you could ever hope to find.

That leads to Radical Conclusion #2. Porn as a voluntary, private matter shouldn’t be regulated. It should be invisible to those of us who don’t want to see it, but to those who do, it’s their business. Achieving that would mean separate Internet domains, changes to magazine cover art, and so on through more sad examples than I have space for.

There is, however, another aspect to porn, the aspect of infecting imagination and the addictiveness of it for some people. Most people’s imaginations don’t reach all that far, but broadcasting the slickest, extremest fantasies of a few gives everyone access to the drug in its stronger forms. I think it is a real mistake to allow that. People should be limited to their own imaginations, and the way to do that would be Radical Conclusion #2a: allow non-commercial porn, but not any other kind. Actors, producers, distributors, in short, everyone involved would have to be working for free, purely because they liked what they were doing so much. Nor could they sell advertising or make ads.

[Update 2013-03-31. The amount I know about porn could, obviously, fit on a postage stamp. It has since come to my attention, e.g. 1, 2, that some of the most damaging porn is non-commercial. (A search for "rapes posted online" gave well over ten million results when I tried it today.) So forget the non-commercial distinction. The only real distinction is between harmful versus harmless. And porn has disappeared so far down the sewer that it's not even called porn if nobody is degraded, humiliated, or damaged.]

(I’m purposely avoiding the whole question of art versus pornography. They’re easy to distinguish at the extremes, impossible in the middle. Where to draw the dividing line is a matter of taste, and doesn’t really affect the main argument that volunteer pornography harmless erotica shouldn’t be regulated, except to enable people to avoid it. So much art is produced for a pittance that it would probably fall under that umbrella in any case.)

Hate speech is another form of offensiveness with a big gray area where it shades into political or religious speech. There is one simple distinction that can be made, following the same principle that makes it illegal to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Speech that advocates harm to others is increasingly being considered illegal hate speech in many countries. This is not a radical conclusion. What is radical is the idea that we should apply that measure to entertainment as well. Advocating harm against a person because of their membership in a group is not entertainment. It’s illegal hate speech. For instance, it is not okay to put women through meat grinders any more than it is to lynch blacks, whether it’s for politics, or for religion, or, God help us, for “entertainment.”

Finally, we get back to an easy one: spam. The justification behind spam is something called “commercial free speech.” In plain English, that says that if I have something to sell, I can say as much as I want about it. The idea behind political free speech has been applied to something totally different. It’s as if someone said, “Salt is essential to life. Therefore I’ll pickle you in salt.”

The idea behind free speech–one more time–is the free flow of ideas. Not the free flow of dollars. There is no such thing as commercial free speech. Speech that is not about ideas, but is about making a buck, does not need protection for the good of a free society, and, in fact, cannot have protection for the good of a free society. That’s why we have truth in advertising laws. Radical conclusion #3: We need to get our heads around the fact that telemarketers, spammers, junk mailers, and the whole boiling of pestiferous blots on the body politic are not exercising free speech. They’re trying to sell us stuff. One citizen is not normally allowed to harass another. That comes under the definition of causing harm. So when will some brave politician finally point out that all this garbage is nothing less than harassment and it has to stop?

Interestingly enough, the other side of “commercial” free speech doesn’t get much respect. Individuals who complain about their experiences with a company are being sued for slander or annoyance or who-knows-what-all. The principle in operation seems to be that if you’re a company it’s free speech, not harassment, but if you’re just a wee little individual spending your own time and money, then it’s the other way around. Before this complete travesty gets any further out of hand, individuals’ rights to discuss their experiences on an unpaid, uncompensated basis must be totally protected.

So . . . where are we now? The short form is this: Speech that’s a drug or an amusement or is trying to make a buck is fine so long as it’s not in anyone’s face. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. But speech about ideas, any ideas, that does not advocate hate crimes, should and must be free. Without that, there can be no free society.

Update, March 1, 2006:

Turns out, I’m fiddling at the feet of giants. They’ve weighed in on the cartoon controversy much better than I can. From the BBC report on Writers issue cartoon row warning.
Signed by:
Salman Rushdie – Indian-born British writer with fatwa issued ordering his execution for The Satanic Verses
Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Somali-born Dutch MP [see next post, and link also in link list]
Taslima Nasreen – exiled Bangladeshi writer, with fatwa issued ordering her execution
Bernard-Henri Levy – French philosopher
Chahla Chafiq – Iranian writer exiled in France
Caroline Fourest – French writer
Irshad Manji – Ugandan refugee and writer living in Canada [link]
Mehdi Mozaffari – Iranian academic exiled in Denmark
Maryam Namazie – Iranian writer living in Britain
Antoine Sfeir – director of French review examining Middle East
Ibn Warraq – US academic of Indian/Pakistani origin
Philippe Val – director of Charlie Hebdo

“We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.”

“It is not a clash of civilisations nor an antagonism of West and East that we are witnessing, but a global struggle that confronts democrats and theocrats.”

“Islamism is a reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present,” the writers added, saying it is nurtured by fears and frustrations.

Not just Islamism, I would add. All totalitarian fundamentalisms–Christian, Hindu, all of them–bring ignorance, war, and death in the name of some god made in their own image and likeness.

Technorati tags: free speech, cartoons, Danish cartoons, cartoons of Mohammed, hate speech, protests, regulation

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