The scientist who led the research into a genetic indicator of sexuality has told Gay Star News that he feared that he may have been contributing to work that might ultimately lead to the development of biological tests for sexual orientation.
Tuck C. Ngun is a postdoctoral scholar at the University College Los Angeles’ Center for Gender-Based Biology. He and colleagues have been studying the genetics of human sexuality through the study of male twins.
Their findings were revealed yesterday at the 2015 meeting of American Society of Human Genetics in Maryland. They included the fact that they had created a saliva test that could predict, with 67% accuracy, the sexuality of subjects in the test study.
The study has yet to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal and has been met with caution by others in the science community.
Ngun, who is gay, has himself decided to withdraw from the research. He says that part of the reason for this is the ramifications of the results. He left the project last week.
‘There are many reasons why I decided to pursue other things professionally but the implications of this type of research was a large part,’ he said in an email statement to Gay Star News.
‘Any practical outcomes (tests, screens, etc.) may be many years/decades in the future but the idea that I was contributing to that, even in a tiny way, didn’t sit right with me anymore. I want to make clear that I don’t believe in the censorship of information but on a personal level, I could not continue down this path.’
Asked if he believed that there might be pre-natal testing of sexuality at some point in the future, or tests developed that could be carried out on the DNA of adults to determine their sexuality, he said, ‘I think we are a long ways off from a pre-natal test or one that can be used on adults.
‘However, I do think they are possibilities and I hope that by talking about such things now, long before they are reality, we will know how to deal with any such tests.’
One of the critics of his research has suggested that genes cannot be the only factor of influence, as some identical twins include both homosexual and heterosexual siblings.
Addressing this particular point, Ngun said, ‘I would agree that the phenomenon of identical twins who are discordant for sexual orientation shows that genes aren’t everything. This finding has been around for a long time and is not mine.’
However, he went on to say that although identical twins can have differing sexual orientations, that wasn’t necessarily proof of nurture over nature.
‘What it doesn’t say is that sexual orientation is a choice. Identical twins can experience differences in the womb. It is unlikely that social environment – the usual alternative to genes – plays a role since sexual orientation seems to be determined very early in life.’
News of the research has met a mixed response. Many in the scientific community have said the research appears interesting but needs to be properly peer reviewed. It must also be noted that the saliva test created by Ngun and his colleagues was used on an unrepresentative sample of the public; male twins only.
Others have been more concerned about the moral aspect of the studies. Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the Daily Mail, ‘This research claims to be able to predict sexual orientation with “up to” 70 per cent accuracy. This doesn’t sound entirely convincing or reliable.
‘Some people fear the research might be abused by homophobic parents or regimes to test and abort fetuses that have genetic markers for homosexuality.
‘Even if the tests achieved the maximum 70 per cent detection rate, it would still leave 30 per cent undetected.
‘Any bid to exploit this research for homophobic ends is doomed to fail. Homosexuality has existed in all societies and all eras. It is part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality.’
Ngun said he was very aware of the potential moral and practical implications of his work.
Asked if he thought research into a genetic basis for sexuality might help society become more tolerant to those it viewed as ‘different’ or if he feared that it would lead to people to want to try and find a ‘cure’, Ngun said: ‘I think both of those outcomes are definite possibilities and we have to be vigilant that the work isn’t misused to find a ‘cure’.
‘The “born this way” argument has clearly been very effective but I don’t believe in the idea of moral acceptability based on biology.
‘I think we should accept people, whatever their identity, as long as they aren’t harming anyone through their actions. The transgender movement has been very good at building support using this argument and while it may be slower than “born this way” I think it is the better approach.’