3 min

Unpacking the ‘gay gene’

Reporting on a recent study about human behaviour revealed some of the challenges of science journalism

The study of whether human behaviour in general is mostly hereditary or learned is more than a century old and begins with Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin infamously known as the father of eugenics. Credit: ThinkStock

Is there a greater challenge in journalism than that of the science correspondent, faced with the delicate task of balancing the conflicting demands of imparting information to a lay audience without oversimplifying?

That challenge was on display recently in coverage of a Northwestern University study that appears to reinforce notions that male sexuality is, at least partially, genetically determined.

Where many in the media failed on this story was in the use of the term “gay gene.”

“Being homosexual is only partly due to gay gene, research finds,” The Telegraph proclaimed.

Salon asked, “Why does the search for a gay gene freak everyone out?” Even The Guardian, which published a relatively nuanced piece under the headline “Male sexual orientation influenced by genes, study shows,” buried an important quote: “When people say there’s a gay gene, it’s an oversimplification.”

Dennis Bulman, a senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute and associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s pediatrics department, agrees that the question of just how much genetics influences human sexuality, gay or straight, remains an open question. So, how is this strictly a gay male thing? With that in mind, one can’t help but think those headlines reek of heteronormativity; they seem to say being straight is the norm by which everything else is to be measured.

Australian MP Malcolm Turnbull famously said that the 24-hour news cycle has given way to a 60-second one. He wasn’t addressing science journalism in particular, but it’s difficult to imagine such an environment being positive for the process of parsing scientific data properly. Science, perhaps more so than any other journalistic field, demands reflection.

“For some groups this is a trigger issue, and making overly simplistic statements will generate a knee-jerk response,” Bulman says. So, while various parties cited the science as supporting their particular view of homosexuality, the key point missed on all sides is that the Northwestern study, and the earlier work of Dean Hamer it is built on, represent only very small iterations toward a better understanding of genetics. These are not definitive findings but have been treated as such.

The study of whether human behaviour in general is mostly hereditary or learned is more than a century old and begins with Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin infamously known as the father of eugenics. That horror aside, a 2008 academic paper notes that today’s researchers “have the same basic goal as Galton: to understand the genetic and environmental contributions to individual variations in behavior.” In other words, we still don’t understand very much about it at all.

Researchers launched the Human Genome Project with the specific goal of providing a better understanding of the genetic factors behind disease. It’s illuminating to realize just how many mysteries remain more than a decade beyond its completion.

The US National Institute of Health, a partner in the project, explains the outcome like this (science writers: note the effective analogy): “Having the complete sequence of the human genome is similar to having all the pages of a manual needed to make the human body. The challenge now is to determine how to read the contents of these pages and understand how all of these many, complex parts work together in human health and disease.”

Whatever flaws exist in media-researcher communications, CHEO scientist Bulman says it is important to keep the information flowing. “A balance between the presentation of scientific statements [and the use of] general terms can be reached. Education is key, so teach while you report; at the very least be truthful.

“The fact is that genetics and environmental influences on the human condition will be determined,” he adds. “It is important for the work to be performed and vetted in a peer review system, and it will be very important for the scientific community to step up and explain their findings within the proper context. It will be up to the ethicists, social and political leaders to help prevent the pitfalls.”