During the aftermath of the Jason Richwine silliness, Andrew linked to this post by Freddie deBoer, who analogizes the kinds of people who discuss race and IQ to those who make the gay germ argument, in that the proponents of both are draw to these arguments because they confirm bigoted a priori assumptions (and thus their less-than-pure motives are reason enough to dismiss the arguments without considering the facts):
I’ve seen this blog post get passed around a few times. It’s about the origins of homosexuality. The post argues that there are good reasons to doubt the straightforward genetic theory, that gay men and women possess a specific gene or genes that cause them to feel sexual and romantic attraction to members of their same sex. I possess nothing resembling the expertise to make that determination. In my own limited way, though, I’m sympathetic to questioning the purely genetic hypothesis, as it’s always seemed overly simplistic…
Yet when I read an argument that homosexuality is caused by a pathogen, it gives me pause. I read it with defensive skepticism. Why? Because, of course, the notion of “homosexuality as disease” is old, and has been used for a long, long time in the oppression of gay people. I read the post, and it has superficial plausibility to me. But there’s no proof, yet. And when I read the comments, or find blogs that have linked to the post, my worst fears are confirmed: the commenters are repeatedly and explicitly comparing homosexuality to pedophilia, they are talking about gay sex as “wanton sex,” they are using the language of deviance and disorder. The author of the blog post himself says: “Of course it’s a mental disease: a Darwinian disease, which is the only reasonable definition of disease. Curable? Who knows? Preventable? Likely.” Whatever the truth of the origins of homosexuality, I want nothing to do with the people who are arguing that the origins are pathogenic.
It turns out that people who are inclined to see homosexuality as caused by a pathogen are also people who are inclined to see homosexuality as disordered, deviant, and wrong. Could any functioning human intelligence be surprised by this? And yet if I apply the kind of thinking Andrew endorses when it comes to race and IQ, I would have to ignore this connection and suspend skepticism, as though doing so is somehow in service to science.
This is bullshit. Factual arguments should be able to stand on their own, independent of the repute of those who put them forward. What more, this censoriousness only abets the bigots, as deBoer himself aptly noted only a couple days prior:
Racism thrives on conspiratorial thinking and the self-definition of racists as an oppressed group. When you say things that are true aren’t, and especially when you do so in a way that treats the other point of view as forbidden, you play directly into their hands. I cannot imagine an easier way to give them fuel for their argument than to say that certain test results don’t exist when they do. Perhaps it’s easier to argue that way, and perhaps it’s more emotionally satisfying, but it hurts the antiracist effort in the long run. More to the point: what are you so scared of? It amazes me how often I interact with white liberals who, despite being perfectly correct on the merits, talk about race in a state of absolute panic. I hate to cast aspersions but I sometimes suspect people I know secretly find the case against racism to be weak, and are afraid that if they have to argue, somehow, the racists will win.
Bullshit. The case against inherent racial inferiority is correct. The moral and analytic argument is on our side. You have to have the guts to confront the facts and make the case. Just as no one supposes that the racial achievement gap in grades, graduation rate, and college are somehow proof of racial inferiority, no one should mistake the perceived IQ gap as meaning something when it doesn’t. Don’t be afraid, and don’t play their game. Stop getting panicky about race talk and engage. It’s your moral responsibility.
I endorse this iteration of deBoer wholeheartedly and I hope to take up his challenge to rebut the previous deBoer. I know we’ve been down this road before here, but I want to state the case as clearly and as jargon-free as possible, so that future deBoers need not discuss the issue “in a state of absolute panic.”
The gay germ theory is wrong. It has no truth to it and its transparent falsity should be what causes one to cast aspersions about its defenders’ motives, not the other way around. One suspects its proponents recognize this too: for instance, if you read the argument laid out by Greg Cochran that deBoer linked to or the Cochran’s article we cited earlier, you note that he avoids making a positive case for his own preferred explanation. Instead, both articles spend most of their ink attacking various genetic or sociological explanations only to slot in “some virus probably caused it” at the end. It is simply a germ of the gaps, a raft of magical thinking and hand-waving that avoids scrutiny based on the flaws of its competitors. As with the Discovery Institute‘s intelligent design sham, when the argument is shorn of its critique of the mainstream explanations and judged on its own merits, it collapses. In particular, the gay-germ theory betrays an ignorance about how viruses actually operate and how our bodies act in response to them.
First, though, what is the gay germ theory exactly? It theorizes that (male) homosexuality is caused by a surreptitious pathogen that early in childhood slips the blood-brain barrier, attacks a specific nerve cluster, and by so doing alters the behavior of the host beginning about ten years into the future (by making them gay). What would a gay-germ look like? According to Cochran:
My guess at a candidate virus would be a common viral infection that usually hits in childhood. Something like herpes I, or Epstein Barr, or chickenpox, or RSV, human herpesvirus six, human herpesvirus seven, or any one of hundreds of rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. Really, hard to guess. It might hit before birth, but wouldn’t have to. It could well be an undiscovered virus: we find a new one infecting humans every few years. Last one I remember was human metapneumonia virus, discovered in 2001.
Of course, none of the random assortment of common viruses Cochran lists actually infects the brain (probably the only thing they have in common).
This points to the biggest weakness of the gay germ theory: it fundamentally misunderstands why pathogens exists. When non-biologists consider pathogens (fun fact: most of the vocal gay-germ theorists are non-biologists), the temptation is to focus on the symptoms rather than on the pathogen itself. Thus viruses are simply bad things that happen to people. But pathogens are fairly indifferent to their host’s status. The only metric selection judges them on are their ability to reproduce and to find new hosts. The cost to the host comes as a service towards one of those two ends. For instance, the open sores and blisters caused by herpes are in part the result of the virus hijacking skin cells to produce so much protein components for future herpes viruses that the cell ruptures (the body’s own response to the infection also plays a role). These sores also aid the herpes virus in infecting new hosts, as the virus requires skin-to-skin contact with the sores to transmit. Indeed, there is a relationship between the parts of the body a pathogen typically infects and the mode of transmission: airborne pathogens typically infect the respiratory system, water-borne pathogens the GI tract, STDs genitalia and their related emissions. Biologists have also postulated a similar positive relationship between a germ’s virulence and its ease of transmission: the more a pathogen requires of its host to find a new host the less it can afford to impair its function. For instance, even though HIV and ebola viruses attack similar cells and transmit through contact with body fluid, Ebolaviruses transmit much much more easily (and produce copious bodily fluids externally) and thus can afford to kill their hosts within a matter of days rather than the years an HIV infection takes.
The hypothetical gay germ violates all of these principles. Rather than maximize its short-term viability, its plan seems to be:
- Burrow down into the inner portion of the brain, probably the hardest place for an external pathogen to reach
- Infect a small batch of neurons that control sexual orientation (but little, if anything, else), which, if the germs hits shortly after birth, will have no effect on the host’s behavior for at least a decade
I actually cannot fathom the endgame scenario for the gay germ. After infecting the targeted cluster of neurons, does it begin to reproduce inside the brain? Where do these newly created invaders go, if no other portion of the brain is affected? And how do they get from where they are to someplace where they can disperse to new hosts without having any other side effect? It is possible that the virus goes into hibernation after infection, but these same problems will inevitably arise whenever the virus reactivates. Its not as if the behavior change induced redounds so obviously to its benefit that it would be worth the wait either. Moreover, any gay germ would completely violate the relationship between virulence and transmission. Given the ubiquity and rarity of homosexuality and the tender age of putative transmission, a gay germ would require a very passive method of transmission (Cochran himself admits it would need to be at minimum airborne). Despite this, its effect on the host’s fitness is exceptionally innocuous: pseudo-sterility many years down the line. One would expect that a pathogen with the gay germ’s ease of transmission would rapidly devastate its host producing more copies of itself rather than bother with the whole “infect the brain and wait for sodomy” plan. The gay germ proponents love to pick at the evolutionary defenses of a genetic explanation for homosexuality, but I cannot fathom how in Darwin’s name they can possibly defend the evolutionary soundness of a gay germ.
The problems with the gay germ do not end with the parasite either. Proponents of the gay germ thesis also seem to assume the host’s immune system has some convenient blind spots as well. As a way of explaining, let me offer an anecdote. When he was only a month or two old, my brother came down with viral meningitis. This situation is quite similar to Cochran’s hypothesized gay-inducing infection (except in two respects: one, viruses that cause viral meningitis don’t infect brain cells, just the outer layer that sheathes the brain, and two, these viruses actually exist). But unlike the imaginary gay germ, whose touch is so dainty that it operation has gone unnoticed for centuries, my brother’s bout with meningitis was almost fatal. He had a triple digit fever for weeks on end. The swelling from the immune response to the virus screwed with his behavior and conked him out for a good portion of the infection. He was hospitalized for over a month and still suffers from the repercussions of the infection to this day. Why would the body respond in such an ultimately damaging fashion to an infection like this? Because an infection of the brain by any pathogen is an incredibly serious matter, which the body’s immune system has evolved a willingness to risk serious impairment or even death to prevent (this is also the cause of septic shock). Yet the gay germ passes freely into the brain, without inducing anything like the trauma my brother underwent. Perhaps it has developed sufficient evasive capabilities to travel the bloodstream and pass through the blood-brain barrier without inducing an immune-response. However, if that were the case, the host would be under massive selective pressure to develop the capabilities to detect such an intruder and, conversely, any virus with this capability would be likely selected towards doing something more worthwhile for its own interests than turning people gay. Thus, for neither the host nor the parasite does the gay germ have a modicum of evolutionary logic.
Curiously, the gay germ theorists also seem uninterested in the epidemiology of their purported disease. Because of the limits on transmission discussed earlier, the incidence of pathogenic disorders is highly irregular, with clusters both geographic and chronological. However, the incidence of homosexuality (at least in areas where cultural norms permit openness about it) is fairly uniform, with no discernible trends in terms of location or time of birth that I am aware of. Of course, this is something that an enterprising gay germ empiricist could test to add at least some factual heft to their arguments (with the caveat that a certain degree of clustering is expected in randomly distributed data). But since the theory’s proponents seem uninterested in substantiating their position (perhaps because they sense there is nothing there to substantiate), this opportunity goes unused.
But wait, you might think, the gay germ theorists do attempt to defend their position with reference to certain other diseases that at least validate the plausibility of their claim. The examples though, if you give them more than a cursory review, prove entirely irrelevant. Cochran, for instance, repeatedly refers to narcolepsy as way of backstopping the gay germ hypothesis:
My model – not the only possible model based on a pathogen, but reasonable – leans on a couple of natural examples. One is narcolepsy. We now know that narcolepsy happens when a particular kind of neuron, concentrated in a little region in the hypothalamus, somehow gets zapped. 99% of narcolepsy cases happen in the 25% of the population that has a particular HLA type – which suggests that something, probably a virus, triggers an overenthusiastic immune response that zaps a neuron subpopulation that produce a particular neurotransmitter (called hypocretin or orexin) that regulates appetite and sleep patterns. And it doesn’t do anything else: narcoleptics aren’t stupid.
If you read closely, though, you realize that there is no evidence for the narcoleptic germ either; its just another germ of the gaps for another somewhat vexing neurological disorder (for those curious, most actual scientists believe narcolepsy is caused by an auto-immune reaction with a genetic component). It is also worth noting that Cochran used to point to autism as the third neurological condition, along with homosexuality and narcolepsy, as likely candidates for a pathogenic cause. However, one presumes that as scientists filled in the gaps and worked out a coherent explanation for autism (which resembles the going mainstream explanations for the other two), Cochran’s alternative lost its only leg to stand on and was quietly excised. As for the rest (which demonstrate pathogen-induced behavior changes in non-humans) that their irrelevance was not immediately obvious to Cochran only further demonstrates the points I made above. Toxoplasma gondii, for instance, is speculated to induce infected mice to become more liable to cat predation (T. gondii is a protozoan that can only reproduce sexually in the small intestines of cats). Unlike the hypothetical gay germ, though, this change is immediately beneficial to the parasite, is intimately tied to its mode of transmission, comes with a suite of obvious neurological and physiological symptoms (which, in rodents and human infants/small child can lead to serious complications, including death), and produces a concomitant obvious immune-response. There are also no permanent behavioral changes induced by toxoplasmosis after the parasite is suppressed.
Thus, gay germ proponents have no evidence to substantiate their claim. At their most honest moments, they even admit it too. Here’s how Cochran responded when asked directly to validate his position:
Is there positive evidence for your theory?
There is no positive evidence. There is no positive evidence for any explanation, really. The high discordance in identical twins says that for sure, some environmental agent is important. People have approached this in a silly way since time immemorial: Freudian explanations were among the silliest.
An admission of the truth, followed by a faux-Popperian dodge, and more attacks on alternative explanations for good measure.
As best we can tell, there is no gay germ. The theory has no evidence to back it up, violates evolutionary logic, and is contradicted by the most current epidemiological data. I encourage deBoer and others to push back with these facts whenever confronted with it (or any other baseless supposition that violates their preferred worldview) rather than insinuate darkly about people’s motives. Once you have done this, though, and your interlocutor neither accedes to or attempts to rebut your argument, then you have grounds to question the “why” rather than the “what.”