Lady Gaga was a Geneticist: Why “Born this Way” Accurately Interprets the Biology of Homosexuality

Intro:
It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up
‘Cause you were born this way, baby

Test tubes with DNA and canvases with brushstrokes. Einstein and Shakespeare. Science and humanities. These two cultures have been polarized throughout most of history, benefiting little, if anything, from each other.

Though seemingly opposite in their methods, the sciences and humanities can have a symbiotic relationship in which one re-frames questions for the other to answer. Such a process is what biologist E.O. Wilson calls consilience, which can give rise to what scientist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow termed the Third Culture. In this recently bourgeoning Culture, scientists and artists are no longer separated by each other’s jargon and proposed models of the world. They are not mutually incomprehensible. This post is in the spirit of Jonah Lehrer, who’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist draws wonderful parallels between, say, the novelist Marcel Proust and what his work inadvertently reveals about the nature of memory; or, for example, Paul Cezanne’s art and what it reveals about how our visual system works. It is an attempt to build but one bridge between science and modern art.

Modern art can be seen as a backdrop for hanging and interpreting scientific findings. What Lehrer argues is that, often, art elegantly intuits a finding in neuroscience — or, put another way, neuroscientsts often rediscover what art revealed decades ago. This post, though, switches the roles of discoverer and re-discoverer: In her controversial new single “Born this Way,” Lady Gaga has in fact re-discovered what genetics have taught us for the past 20-or-so years about the nature of homosexuality. She begins,

Verse:
My mama told me when I was young
We are all born superstars
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on
In the glass of her boudoir
“There’s nothin wrong with lovin who you are”
She said, “’cause he made you perfect, babe”

Let us make one evidence-driven interpretation: from a scientist’s perspective, “He” and “God” must refer to evolution. It is the known process that got us all here; it is neither prejudice nor random. That aside, we are all born Homo superstarius — as men or women with specific sexual proclivities that greatly reflect our exquisite biology. The fact that you consist of 100 billion human brain cells by default makes you a superstar in the animal kingdom.

That said, the biology of homosexuality involves an interplay of genes, hormones, brain structures, and everything external to these — what people mean when they refer to “environmental” influences. Of course, it also gets a substantial amount of media coverage (exhibit A, B, and, oh boy, C) and is the source of much political tension.

So how much of our sexual preferences are the product of genes, environments, or both? Twin studies provide striking windows into the influences that genes have on our sexual orientation, on why we’re born this way and not that way. One study of twins found  that concordance rates with homosexuality were 52% for genetically identical (monozygotic) brothers and 22% for fraternal (dizygotic) brothers. A bit of subtraction here, and a wave of the mathematical wand there, and one sees about a 30% influence of genes on homosexuality. Additionally, and more specifically, the oft-cited gene Xq28 on the X chromosome shows significantly similar markers (small gene sequences used to identify cells) across gay men relative to heterosexual men. From birth, we are on the right and equal track, gay or straight. Said another way:

Chorus:
I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track baby
I was born this way

Yet many people don’t see this as a type of beauty within and about each individual. To them, if you’re not heterosexual, then you’re not on the right track, and hiding in regret is the least you could do. First, Gaga’s response:

Chorus:
Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track baby
I was born this way

Over at the hyperconservative forum Free Republic, one writer cites a study claiming that there is no genetic basis for homosexuality. The beauty of it all is that, well, I went back and read the study they referred to, and if you continue reading the Free Republic’s cherry-picked quote, it continues by immediately admitting that both genes and environment play profound roles; they do not discount genetic influences for one second, because to do so is to willingly entertain a delusion.

Inevitably, we get comments like these: “They aren’t born that way. But the majority of them are introduced to [homosexual] behavior when they are still young, effectively rewiring their emotional/physical connections. That’s why homosexuality is like a cancer. One cell infects others, which in turn infects others.” Note the use of neurobabble — using terms like “rewiring” and “emotional/physical connections” to mask an empty point with seemingly eye-catching jargon.

When it comes to reality, we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. It’s one thing to be misguided; it’s another to be immune to reason, and to spread that immunity — like a cancer – Free Republic style. Speaking of art, it’s not surprising that this kind of folly motivated the spanish painter Francisco Goya to etch his masterpiece, “The sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” only today’s Monsters are people who denigrate homosexuality and refuse to consult the overwhelming amount of scientific data.

What’s more, much evidence exists that lends credence to the idea that hetero- and homosexual men are wired slightly differently at the level of brain structures — termed dimorphisms. One brain region, the hypothalamus, has been shown to be important in the production and regulation of all sorts of hormones. It also differs in size between men and women, and strikingly, between homosexual and heterosexual men. This was the first finding to suggest that homosexually has strong, measurable, neurological substrates.

More insightful correlations abound. With each son born, the odds of the youngest being gay increases by 33%. One intriguing explanation is that a male fetus induces a maternal immune response that becomes progressively more substantial with each subsequent male fetus. The original fetus produces antigens — molecules which are foreign to the mother — which have been proposed to be involved in sexual differentiation. The mother, in turn, produces antibodies in response to the male antigen. Subsequent male fetuses are exposed to the mother’s antibodies, which may down-regulate the “masculinization” of various brain regions. Rightfully so, this is still a topic of considerable research. Regardless:

Verse:
Give yourself prudence
And love your friends
Subway kid, rejoice your truth
In the religion of the insecure
I must be myself, respect my youth
A different lover is not a sin

To some, having an anything-but-heterosexual lover is a sin. The southern baptist Jerry Falwell pointed to homosexuals as the cause of God’s wrath on 9/11. Too, the naive and and misinformed fluff is in abundance. Hopeless hapless kooks over at the hyper-religiously-motivated True Origins summarize a lot of the twin studies’ data, and then embarrass themselves with bush-league counter-analyses that only reveal how little they know about what the terms “science” and “genes” mean.

Yes, homosexuality in identical twins has a concordance rate of 52%, not 100%, despite their having identical genes. A quick lesson in molecular biology will drive a crucial point home. Every cell in your body has the exact_same_genome. Every cell has the same 23 pairs of chromosomes, one from momma and one from daddy. And yet, brain cells and kidney cells and muscle cells have such striking differences in terms of structure and function.

How can this be? Analogously, how can one identical twin be gay and not the other, given that they have the exact same genomes? Answer: Because it’s the profile of active vs. repressed genes, which are regulated exquisitely and uniquely across cell types, that truly differentiates twins. Same DNA, but born this way, Gaga reminds us. Oh, and LOLz, the True Origins writers have PhD’s too. Trained at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, the point goes to Lady Gaga.

Many people, then, would call homosexually a “biological error.” But as the psychologist Steven Pinker notes,

What is evolutionarily adaptive and what is morally justifiable have little to do with each other. Many laudable activities – being faithful to one’s spouse, turning the other cheek, treating every child as precious, loving thy neighbor as thyself – are ‘biological errors’ and are rare or unknown in the natural world… regardless of where homosexuality resides in the brain, the ethics of homosexuality is a no-brainer: what consenting adults do in private is nobody’s business but their own. And the deterrents to research on homosexuality leave us in ignorance of one of the most fascinating sources of human diversity.

A study from last year drives the point home in its opening lines, which Lady Gaga summarizes for us in uplifting iambic octameter:

Bridge:
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re lebanese, you’re orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
‘Cause baby you were born this way

If you’re a brown-eyed person, you cannot will yourself to have blue eyes. Our biological constituents have made that “choice” for us already; it is not a disability, it just is. Our prerogative is to rejoice in this truth. The same is true for sexual orientation; it just happens to be a human phenotype that is not displayed for all to see like eye color. There ain’t no other way, baby you were born this way. People like Bill O’Reilly simply don’t see the eye color properties of falling in love with the same sex. Gaga’s victory speech continues:

No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to survive

What she said.

A very important question remains. How do “gay genes” continue in the gene pool? In other words, why are they not selected against, given that homosexual couples have significantly fewer offspring than heterosexual couples? There are three possible explanation, all with varying degrees of evidential support, and all of which can be found in a reader-friendly format here.

One is that if a male homozygous for “gay genes” has female relatives in whom the genes are heterozygous, and this heterozygosity confers a reproductive advantage, then the gene will be carried to the next generation in spades. Such a high-impact finding was, well, found, and even was reviewed nicely by Science magazine.  Evidence for this theory is now in abundance, too. Other similar models exist, and all are in agreement that there are genetic underpinnings for homosexuality.

The same is true for females, in this case female mice, in whom alteration of a single gene lead to pronounced male-like sexual behavior (a reader-friendly summary can be found here.) Ditto for flies (with a summary of the landmark paper here.) Indeed, Larry’s daughter in Chuck and Larry had it right when she listed a dozen animals in the wild that display homosexual behavior.

A second theory posits that males who are heterozygous for “gay genes” may indeed have higher success in attracting females or their sperm may have a competitive advantage, though evidence for this is still sparse but forthcoming. Thirdly, and most controversial, is the idea of homosexual kin selection, or that homosexuals help their own family members in ways that increase the fitness of relatives. This, therefore, increases the probability that a gay allele is passed on to the next generation.

Of course, these three theories are not mutually exclusive, and it is likely that they work in concert to propagate any “gay genes.” The point is that evolution isn’t just about one gene giving rise to one trait that is selected against or promoted; it’s about a balance and counterbalance, the costs and benefits, of the various traits to which genes give rise and that natural selection acts on collectively. It is a dynamic process. More intuitively, just think about how many sexual acts don’t result in conception, yet we still do them. They’re what give meaning to the word “pleasure” and were never selected against. Rounding the bases doesn’t mean you’ve hit a home run, but people still do it.

No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made
I’m on the right track baby
I was born to be brave

All in all, Lady Gaga recapitulates what genetics first discovered: you were born to survive, born to be brave, regardless of your ethnic background or sexual preference. It is no mistake to be born a particular race with a particular affinity for members of the same sex. And by making that point sprint home with iambic feet, Lady Gaga ushers in an insightful, biologically-friendly, and much-deserved anthem for the LGBT community, which happens to summarize two decade’s worth of genetics research.

Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with loving who you are, so put your ancestral paws up, because we all have the same DNA — we were born this way.

One response to “Lady Gaga was a Geneticist: Why “Born this Way” Accurately Interprets the Biology of Homosexuality

  1. I appreciate the well-researched post. However, I think your conclusions perpetuate the drive-by interpretation that Lady Gaga is making (and profiting from).

    As you correctly found, genetics only accounts for 30% of homosexuality (at least, today). The rest is defined by some mix of biology and societal interactions.

    The question is, how much of that remaining 70% is nature vs nurture? We don’t know, and it probably is different for each individual.

    I don’t mind Gaga making a cutesy song, but she now has a foundation centered around this notion. People today are, well, stupid. They don’t do research. They hear some non-geneticist like Gaga say something like “born this way” and people accept it as gospel.

    (It also makes it harder to do research in this area, since public opinion leaves the matter settled, when clearly more research is needed… funding it becomes taboo, so the topic stagnates… and the gay marriage debate continues with the same old data, banging its head against a wall).

    I recall one point in time where people accepted homosexuality as a disease as gospel. Oversimplifications, like Gaga’s song/movement/profit-center hurt the dialectic, as cooks on the other side will abuse it just as much as passers-by will misunderstand it.

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