Politically (in)Correct Epigenetics

I have recently started studying epigenetics, and find it quite fascinating. Once I started looking I found quite a few studies and documentaries online. In addition to the TED talk above, here is a very good Nova episode about it.

So, epi means “above”, so epigenetics means above-genetics. These are chemical markers that control the expression of genes, turning them on or off. This is an added level of complexity to the genetic code, one that may or may not be inherited, can change over time, and is influenced by the environment. Geneticists now believe that mapping the genome has turned out to only be the first step in decoding DNA. Epigenetics adds a whole order of magnitude of complexity to the project.

As far as I can determine there are several ways that we acquire epi-markers. Some are produced as we develop in the womb, as our cells differentiate into the specific kinds for different organs and structures. After we are born our environment, diet and stress levels can cause others to be formed. These explain the differences that emerge between identical twins as they grow older. There are others that we can inherit from our parents. There is evidence that famines during the time that your grandparents developed their reproductive cells and organs can cause you to be more susceptible to diabetes.

The epi-markers that I want to talk about are ones that usually get erased between generations, but sometimes are not, and are passed from parent to child. The way that I understand it these particular ones have not been empirically proven, but have been theorized by mathematical modeling, and are considered to be valid. Research on these particular ones is frowned-upon, not because of scientific or ethical ramifications, but because of politics.

These particular epi-markers may make a person prone to homosexuality.

OK. There it is. I said it. The dangerous H-word. I want to pause right now and make something clear. I do not intend to make this some diatribe against gays. I do have definite opinions on the matter, but that is not what I want this post to be about. I believe that every one of us is created in God’s image and deserves love and respect because of that. Just because I may disagree with another person’s world view or lifestyle does not mean that I think that person has any less worth. There are many things about this research that opens up a can of worms in our ever-increasingly pluralistic society. The ramifications are far-reaching, and I would like to mention a few. I am sure that I will in no way be able to touch on, or realize, all of them.

End of disclaimer, on with the post.

The mechanism.

There are many hormones associated with pregnancy and fetal development. Certain epi-markers are responsible for the way these hormones affects the fetus, causing changes in the body and brain. One of the markers affect the way testosterone is absorbed in the growing brain, influencing psychological gender identity. Sometime the father’s epi-marker is not erased and is passed on to the female offspring, or the mother’s marker to the son, causing a mismatch of physical and psychological traits. It is believed that this might cause a physiological basis for some same-sex attraction tendencies.

The implications.

Taking the above as true, for the sake of argument, raises many issues that could influence critical social issues that are at the forefront of public opinion right now.

How would we classify this if it is determined to be caused by a faulty genetic mechanism? Would it be classified as an impairment, like autism (which may also be a result of developmental epi-markers)?

What if we could find a way to test for this in the womb, and “treat” it if the parents so desired?

What if a same-sex couple would want to produce this trait on purpose?

What if an option is found to either produce this or reverse this trait in people old enough to make up their own minds?

If you plug “epigenetics” and “homosexuality” into a Google search you will find many articles on this subject, from a wide range of viewpoints. Many of them talk about how scientific research is being discouraged in this area. It seems odd that in this age of “enlightenment” people are reluctant to take on politically sensitive research. Science is often praised as the only way to reason and truth, but this goes to show you that imperfect people are still at the bottom of it. People with fears and agendas. People afraid of loosing their funding in these politically correct times.

I want to reiterate that this post is not intended to be about homosexuality per se, but about the political implications involved in this new area of research. The American public seems to have made up their mind on this issue already, so it is no wonder that scientists do not want to upset the apple cart. This has the potential of upsetting a lot of people and groups, but should that matter? Shouldn’t we pursue truth regardless?

It should prove interesting either way.

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