That's the head that the New Scientist chose for the print version (in the 21 June issue) of its story (by Andy Coghlan) on the Savic/Lindström studies that Mark Liberman reported on here on Language Log (with a link to the New Scientist's 16 June on-line version, which had a different head: "Gay brains structured like those of the opposite sex"). Mark noted that different publications headed their stories in different ways: as the discovery of a similarity between gay people and straight people of the opposite sex; as a discovery about homosexuals; or (mostly) as the discovery of a similarity between homosexual men and heterosexual women. Now the New Scientist has promoted the "decided at birth" or "born that way" interpretation of the experiments from the story's lead paragraph to its head.
And it featured the story in an editorial
It's a queer life
We need to ditch the idea that homosexuality is unnatural
First, the main story. The two versions begin in slightly different ways, with "biologically fixed trait" on-line and "biology rather than choice" in print, and with "aggressiveness" on-line and "aggression" in print. On-line:
Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.
The scans reveal that in gay people, key structures of the brain governing emotion, mood, anxiety and aggressiveness resemble those in straight people of the opposite sex.
Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is down to biology rather than choice.
Tantalisingly, the scans reveal that in gay people, key structures of the brain governing emotion, mood, anxiety and aggression resemble those in straight people of the opposite sex.
There were two sets of findings, one concerning asymmetry vs. symmetry of the two hemispheres of the brain and one concerning patterns of connection between the amygdalas and other parts of the brain. In each substudy, gay subjects of one sex and straight subjects of the other sex resembled each other. As Mark argued at length in his earlier posting, the straight-gay differences in the first substudy were very small (unable to support "essentialist" claims that gay and straight are categorically different), and that such differences in the second substudy couldn't be evaluated from the information in the published report (though Mark suspected that the differences there would turn out to be equally unimpressive).
In the New Scientist, these second differences were communicated by images of amygdalas, with areas said to be strongly connected to other parts of the brain indicated in red. This picture is labeled:
HOW GAY EMOTIONAL CONNECTIONS CROSS THE GENDER DIVIDE
Brain connections from emotional centres, the amygdalas, clearly show that "gay" patterns match those in "straight" people of the opposite gender
These patterns of connectivity are described as follows:
In straight women and gay men, the signals from the amygdala ran mainly into the regions of the brain that mediate mood and anxiety [in the on-line version: "that manifest fear as intense anxiety"].
In straight men and lesbians, the amygdala fed their their signals mainly into the sensorimotor cortex and the striatum, regions of the brain that trigger "fright or flight" [a typo for "fight or flight"; this was correct on-line] in response to fear. "It's a more action-related response than in straight women," says Savic.
(Side point of interest to linguists: the occurrence of both the regular plural amygdalas and the zero plural amygdala in the article.)
First we get an (unsupportable) essentialist interpretation of the statistics, and then this feeds into some vulgar phrenology, in which the areas of the brain are seen as serving particular high-level functions: the amygdalas are the seat of emotion, other regions of the brain regulate mood and anxiety, and still others are action-oriented. What's communicated as a result reproduces folk theories of sex differences, with moody, passive, anxious women opposed to active, aggressive men. And it reproduces one folk theory of sexuality (there are several) — that gay men are feminine in nature, lesbians masculine. Indeed, it appears to support this folk theory by providing evidence that this cross-identification is anatomical, not cultural.
Not just anatomical, but probably present at birth. As Coghlan notes in the printed story:
Savic and her colleague, Per Lindström, chose to measure brain parameters that are probably [on-line: "are likely to have been"] fixed at birth.
That is, brain parameters that probably are either genetic or determined in utero (or, of course, some of each).
Two comments here. First, I know absolutely nothing about the development of brain structures in childhood, but someone ought to be looking at these two parameters, to see if they are indeed fixed at birth and not affected by experience (or processes of maturation).
Second, I wonder about the selection of these two parameters, from among the great many aspects of brain structure that the investigators might have looked at. In particular, I wonder if they (or associates of theirs) looked at some other parameters in pilot studies but came up short, so that what we're seeing now is their two lucky shots, with everything else languishing in that famous file drawer.
In any case, the studies are now being taken as showing that sexuality is determined at birth, though this conclusion doesn't follow at all from the results. Nor do the studies shed any light on the causes of homosexuality. In fact, they make the whole topic more mysterious than ever: how could these particular very small (and non-categorical) differences in brain anatomy work themselves out as sexual desire for persons of the same sex?
(Topic for a future posting: the bewilderingly large number of ways in which people use the term gay and related terms.)
Now to the editorial, which was set off by a radio interview:
Iris Robinson held nothing back this month when interviewed on BBC radio. "Homosexuality is disgusting, nauseating, shameful, wicked and vile". Her Christian belief told her it is "an abomination" and she advised homosexuals to seek psychiatric help. Such intolerance may be bread and butter for preachers of the fire-and-brimstone variety but it is rare in UK politics. Robinson is a Member of Parliament and of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The editorial goes on to argue that homosexuality is neither "unnatural" nor a mental disorder, concluding:
Does it matter that a high-profile politician is peddling ideas not backed by scientific or medical evidence? For one particular reason, yes. Robinson is chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly's health committee. One can't help wondering about the quality of healthcare the people of Northern Ireland can expect.