Monday, June 23, 2008

Canadian study focuses on brain differences among gays and straights, detectable with MRI's

While yesterday, a Washington Times commentary argued that gay freedoms and equality would undermine civilization for everybody, today (June 23 2008) the Washington Post presents a Monday morning science column on p A12 by Rob Stein. The story is called “Brain study shows differences between gays, straights,” link here. The Post also provides an online discussion with Rob Stein today (June 23) at 11 AM on the topic. The print version of the newspaper had pictures of MRI brain-scans in the four possible combinations of gender and sexual orientation. Much of the work had been done at the University of Ontario. The brains of gay men and straight women resemble each other in certain ways, as do straight men and gay women. In the former combination, a region of the brain called the amygdala, linked to processing emotions, connects more to verbal-skill areas of the brain, in the later, more to the motor skills area. This sounds stereotyped. Gay men are more likely to have cognitive skills like those of women—with a lot of emphasis on verbal communication. Men are supposed to be better at math (perhaps a dubious claim) but perhaps gay men process mathematical concepts in a more verbal way (how do we explain Alan Turing’s gifts, which may have made an enormous difference in World War II?) I could wonder if there could be clues in penmanship. I remember one day in high school history class when a boy (not a good student) sitting in front of me looked at my penmanship on one of that teacher's famous (graded) essay tests, and said to me, "real boys write regular."

The article supposes that the development of the amygdale could be influences by prenatal hormones, as well as conventional genetics. There have been some suggestions that non-first-born men may be more likely to be gay. Oprah Winfrey recently presented a large family in which four brothers were all gay.

Even so, many people have always been determined to attribute moral significance to homosexuality, as in yesterday’s column. Why? It seems to be important to share risks and burdens equitably, and to come up with a moral rationalization for outcomes in which some people are better off than others. That happens in any society. “Anti-gay” arguments, like it or not, seem to focus on the idea that “openness” and “permissiveness” about sexuality tends to undermine the ability of marginal straight men (often among the less educated and, in a “class” sense, “exploited”) to make and keep conventional marriages with children.

Update: June 24

Peter Tatchell offers another viewpoint, saying that genes could relate to "predisposition" but not to final adult interests and behavior, in this article offered by the UK Green Party. The article goes on to suggest using genetic or biological arguments alone is not a good strategy for equal rights for gays.

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