For years there has been ongoing debate about whether or not same-sex attraction is genetic, including speculation over the possible existence of a “gay gene.” When a study was released this week by Science magazine, many sources reported that this study has resolved the debate. The problem? Depending on where you look, commentary on this study either claims that the study unequivocally proves that same sex attraction is genetic, or insists that the study forever puts to rest that claim. Who should we believe?
What you should know about the study:
Lead study author Andrea Ganna stated, in light of her findings, that “There is no ‘gay gene.’” The study found genetic patterns that indicate that same-sex attraction has a genetic component, there was no evidence of a single gene that determines a person’s sexuality. The study found that genetics could explain 8-25% of sexual behavior. In other words, genetics do not explain at least 75% of a person’s sexual behavior.
Genetic determinism and the “Born this way” trap:
One thing that this study most certainly did not prove is genetic determinism – that is, the idea that genetics are such that a person cannot help but adhere to a particular lifestyle. Genetic factors play a role in a lot of things. What if we were to apply this attitude of genetic determinism to other situations?
Take Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or eating disorders. There is evidence of genetic factors in both. In fact, in the case of alcoholism, some sources estimate that roughly half of the contributing factors are genetic. (Incidentally, like the “gay gene” studies, search for a single “alcoholism gene” found that there was no one genetic factor at play, but several.)
When it comes to alcoholism or eating disorders, we do not simply sit back and say that the person struggling has no choice and is stuck that way forever. Such a response would be neither compassionate nor truthful. A deterministic approach to genetics paints a very bleak, hopeless picture of the world.
The Presence of Other Factors
In CNN’s coverage on the story, they point out that the authors of the study realize the presence of other, non-genetic factors:
“In the end, genes cannot be used to predict who will be gay or straight. Sexual orientation "is influenced by genes but not determined by genes," said Brendan Zietsch, senior author of the study and a genetic researcher at the University of Queensland. "Non-genetic influences are also important, but we know little about these and our study does not shed light on them."
The purpose of this study was to look at one potential factor – genetics – and how much of a role it plays in whether or not a person will experience and act on same-sex attraction. The authors of the study acknowledged that human sexuality is complex and that there are a number of factors that come into play. Other factors, such as environment, also play a role. What is important to keep in mind is that there is not a single factor, or a single gene, that makes someone gay.
“Stop telling people to change” is not as compassionate as it sounds
An attitude of genetic determinism tells people that they are controlled by factors that they cannot change, and that they simply have to live out the tendencies they are genetically predisposed towards.
One source reporting on this study insisted, “Stop calling it a choice; biological factors drive homosexuality.” But biological factors are not the only factors at play. Those who insist that it is wrong to say that people can make meaningful choices about their sexuality should consider—isn’t it also wrong to say that a genetic predisposition that is found to contribute between 8-25% of the factors determining a person’s sexuality should be treated as if it is the only factor at play? And further, that someone should be encouraged to adopt a homosexual lifestyle even if they do not want to, simply because genetic predispositions are present?
If people were truly immutable—incapable of change—then we would all be in a very bad way. Each of us, regardless of our past, our sexuality, our genetics, or whatever temptations we individually struggle with, would be trapped in our sin and unable to experience grace. Thankfully, the Gospel offers the hope that we do not have to be trapped, unchanging, in our sin.
In a fallen world, brokenness affects everything, including human sexuality. And yet, Scripture tells us that God is making all things new. The brokenness that we experience now is not forever, nor does it exclude us from experiencing the goodness of God’s design for his creation.
Despite any genetic or environmental factors at play, everyone can realize God’s good design for sexuality—celibacy outside of Christian marriage and faithfulness within it. This study does not disprove that, nor does it prove that certain people are excluded in such a way that they can never experience that design.