Sexuality & Genetics

Science News: Have they found the Bi Gene?

Well, not exactly, I’m afraid. However, biologists at the University of California seem to have been paying attention to some of the unutterable nonsense that certain other scientists have been spouting about sexuality lately, and have been trying to do something more sensible instead. For example, in 2005, researchers at Northwestern University in America confidently stated that there was no such thing as a bisexual man, leading to delightful press headlines such as STRAIGHT, GAY, OR LYING? This was to the great bemusement of bi men (and their partners) all over the world, who didn’t appear to vanish in a puff of smoke overnight.

Up until recently, if you asked an evolutionary biologist ‘What’s the (biological) point of being queer?’, they’d quite likely reply, ‘Search me, guv…’, or the scientific equivalent thereof, which would, however, take a bit longer. This was because evolutionists tend to think of things in terms of how things like eyeballs and livers and walking upright and speech might have come about over the millions of generations it took for us to become human beings. At the same time, they’ve been stuck with the assumption that people are either Straight, and so Have Babies (thereby passing on their genes to the next generation) or Gay, and so Don’t. This made it difficult for the poor daft souls to imagine how on earth doing the dirty with someone of the same gender could provide any sort of evolutionary advantage. A couple of people had suggested that maybe gay people made really, really good uncles and aunts, or something like that, but most of the time the scientific community tended to respond to the existence of homosexuality in much the same way as the rest of society – i.e. with a lot of embarrassed foot-shuffling, and then by basically trying to pretend it didn’t exist.

I’m sure by now most readers of BCN will be frantically thinking, But, but, but, buuut, hello, over heeeere…! Yes, yes, I know, there’s a glaring flaw in all this so–called logic. As we know only too well, just because you find out that you fancy people of the same gender, this doesn’t automatically mean you’ll never look at someone on ‘the other team’ ever again! As well as us bisexuals, many of those who happily identify as ‘exclusively’ gay sometimes have the odd lapse, as it were. Even putting that to one side, the historical existence (remember Oscar Wilde?) and these days, the increasing visibility of queer people building families firmly breaks this lazy assumption.

So anyway, back to the University of California. The eminently sensible people there decided to look again at the ‘problem’ of evolution and Teh Gay, but instead worked on the assumption that queer people can and do reproduce. They then thought of a few scenarios whereby same-sex sexual behaviour could bring an advantage, including the uncle thing, but also by hypothetically linking it to another trait with a definite evolutionary advantage. They then plugged these scenarios into the basic maths that biologists use to model and understand how features like eyeballs and livers and so on might evolve. And whaddaya know? They found that whichever scenario they used, the model predicted a small part of the population would be gay. More dramatically, the model also predicted the widespread existence of bisexuality in the population.

So this research isn’t saying that there is definitely a gene that makes people bi, or gay, or straight. It’s certainly not saying that bisexuality doesn’t exist. Instead, it’s found a way for evolutionary theory to think more constructively about human sexuality. And it even seems to be suggesting that bisexuality might be… well, normal! Sadly, the media coverage of this research never made it past the arcane pages of the Nature news section, probably because it’s all a bit complicated, and runs so counter to mainstream myths about biology and sexuality. However, BCN is happy to bring you this news, and we’ll keep you posted if and when the science develops further.

Further reading: Vincent Savolainen and Laurent Lehmann, ‘Genetics and Homosexuality’ Nature, vol. 445, 11th January 2007
Benedict Carey, ‘Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited’ New York Times, 5th July 2005