New Scientific Evidence on Origins of Sexual Orientation

Two new studies provide new evidence of the biological origins of sexual orientation,. The first study examined brian differences relevant to sexual orientation:

Researchers using brain scans have found new evidence that biology—and not environment—is at the core of sexual orientation. Scientists at the Stockholm Brain Institute in Sweden report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that gay men and straight women share similar traits—most notably in the size of their brains and the activity of the amygdala—an area of the brain tied to emotion, anxiety and aggression. The same is true for heterosexual men and lesbians.

Study author, neurologist Ivanka Savic–Berglund, says such characteristics would develop in the womb or in early infancy, meaning that psychological or environmental factors played little or no role.

"This is yet another in a long series of observations showing there's a biological reason for sexual orientation," says Dean Hamer, a molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who was not involved in the study. "It's not just a reflection of people's behavior, nor is it a choice, nor is it something in their rearing environment. [The study] shows that it's something that people are born with."

Previous studies have examined brain differences between gay and straight people on the basis of their responses to various tasks, such as rating the attractiveness of other people. The problem was that there was no way to determine whether their responses were colored by learned social cues.

To get around this, Savic-Berglund focused on the structure and function of brain regions that develop during fetal development or early infancy—without using any cognitive tasks or rating systems.

The researchers used MRIs to determine the volume and shapes of the brains of 90 volunteers—25 straight and 20 gay members of each sex. They found that the straight men and gay women had asymmetrical brains; that is, the cerebrum (the largest part of the brain, which is responsible for thought, sensory processing, movement and planning) was larger on the right hemisphere of the brain than on the left. In contrast, they found that women and gay men had symmetrical cerebrums.

The team next used PET (positron emission tomography) scans to measure the blood flow to the amygdala, that part of the brain controlling emotion, fear and aggression. The images showed how the amygdala connects to other parts of the brain, giving them clues as to how this might influence behavior. They scanned subjects' brains when they at rest and did not show them photos or introduce other behavior that might have been learned.

They found that in gay men and women, the blood flowed to areas involved in fear and anxiety, whereas in straight men and lesbians it tended to flow to pockets linked to aggression.

Robert Epstein, emeritus director of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Concord, Mass., agrees that the study offers compelling evidence that sexual orientation is a biologically fixed characteristic. But he cautions that these findings may vary in different people whose sexual orientation is not that clear-cut, which his own research shows includes a majority of the population.

Read it all here.

The second study examined the relative importance of genetics and the environment:

The study is the largest in the world so far and was performed in collaboration with the Queen Mary University of London. More than 7,600 Swedish twins (men and women) aged 20-47 years responded to a 2005 - 2006 survey of health, behaviour, and sexuality. Seven percent of the twins had ever had a same-sex sexual partner.

"The results show, that familial and public attitudes might be less important for our sexual behaviour than previously suggested", says Associate Professor Niklas Långström, one of the involved researchers. "Instead, genetic factors and the individual's unique biological and social environments play the biggest role. Studies like this are needed to improve our basic understanding of sexuality and to inform the public debate."

The conclusions apply equally well to why people only have sex with persons of the opposite sex as to why we have sex with same-sex partners. However, the conclusions are more difficult to transfer to countries where non-heterosexual behaviour remains prohibited.

Overall, the environment shared by twins (including familial and societal attitudes) explained 0-17% of the choice of sexual partner, genetic factors 18-39% and the unique environment 61-66%. The individual's unique environment includes, for example, circumstances during pregnancy and childbirth, physical and psychological trauma (e.g., accidents, violence, and disease), peer groups, and sexual experiences.

Read it all here. Razib of Gene Expression offers this observation of the second study:

In plain language these results suggest that the largest proportion of the variance within the population for this trait (same sex orientation) can not be accounted for by variation in genes or shared family outlook/experiences. They also shouldn't be surprising, Judith Rich Harris has written two books, The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, attempting to explain the "non-shared environmental" aspect of variance which pops up in behavior genetic studies (the breakdown is often on the order of 50% genetic, 10% shared environment, and 40% non-shared environment). Do note that that component of variance may still have biological underpinnings; e.g., an environmental shock during the prenatal stage which changes the path of development. Finally, I do think it is intriguing that females show a much larger contribution of shared environment. To me this dovetails with the anecdotal observation that facultative homosexual behavior is more common among females than males, especially when you exclude extreme situations such as imprisonment or living in Saudi Arabia.

Read it all here.


Anonymous said…
This is a fascinating study. It should be remembered, however, that other studies suggest that a person's physiological and genetic makeup can be modified by behavior or externalities. See e.g. (discussing study suggesting that abuse caused changes in the ribosomal RNA of the victim); (discussing study suggesting that diet and exercise habits can change a person's genetic makeup).

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