Is epigenetics totally gay?

… epigenetics is why I love you? (Photos from the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archive.)

In the light of much of what we know about evolution, human homosexuality doesn’t make a lot of sense. Available data suggests that sexual orientation has some inborn, probably genetic, basis. But it’s hard to reconcile that with the fact that gay men and lesbians aren’t, by definition, particularly interested in doing what it takes to pass on any genes that might have contributed to creating their orientation. Natural selection is, all things being equal, pretty good at eliminating genes that make people less likely to make babies.

I’m gay. I’m also an evolutionary biologist. You could say this particular puzzle is tailor-made to attract my interest.

It turns out that there are a number of ways that human populations might accommodate gene variants for same-sex attraction without suspending the rules of natural selection. But it’s also possible that human sexual orientation has a biological basis without being genetic. Natural selection can’t do anything about a trait if variation in that trait isn’t linked to variation at the genetic level. So I was immediately interested by the recent announcement that a team of biologists at NIMBioS, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, had found that human homosexuality is due not to genetics, but to epigenetics.

However, as soon as I secured a copy of the study itself (available in PDF format here), I was disappointed to find out that the reports of a solution to this particular evolutionary enigma are somewhat exaggerated. The paper doesn’t present any new data that directly links a specific developmental process to human sexual orientation — it’s a review article, gathering existing results in support of a hypothesis that isn’t, at its most basic level, entirely new. But it’s not the job of a review article to present new data; reviews are supposed to gather up what is already known on a topic and identify what new research could do to better answer the questions that remain. And that’s exactly what the new study does.

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