What’s Really On The Line In the Brexit Vote

Obama raised eyebrows with his intervention into the debate about whether the UK should leave the European Union. The thing that struck me the most about this, however, was that he touched on, if only slightly, the thing that has been almost entirely ignored in almost everything else I have read on the debate, even from those who should know better. This strikes me as strange because, as important as issues of immigration, sovereignty and economics may be, there is something far more important: The EU’s role in maintaining peace.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the EU, but if you really think bad monetary policy and the over-subsidization of agriculture, or even forced austerity, are the worst things in the world, I suggest you have a chat with a refugee from Syria, Iraq or the DRC. Alternatively, go and stand in one of the apparently endless fields of crosses marking the war dead from the First World War. Or an unrepaired bombsite from the second. Or Aushwitz. It was a repetition of these things the EU was intended to prevent.


So forgotten is the EU’s purpose that I have had conversations with highly educated Australians who were amazed to discover that peace was even an objective of its founders. Yet how could it not have been? The groundwork was laid in the late 1940s and 1950s by people who had, almost without exception, lost loved ones or limbs in one of the two horrific conflicts that devastated Europe in the first half of the 20th Century. In that era, little was done in diplomatic circles without the awareness of the need to prevent a repetition.

Others acknowledge this was a reason for the EU’s predecessors to come into existence, but see it as an overreaction to a couple of aberrant atrocities in an otherwise largely peaceful history.

This is deeply wrong. When the first stirrings of what became the EEC, and eventually the EU, were founded, the original six members would have struggled to name a period of any length where all of them had been at peace at once. The longest continuous period without war for the six was 43 years, starting in 1871. It didn’t end well. Before that, they were lucky to get a decade in which no armies marched across the plains of one state or another. The history of Eastern Europe was no better. This is the case not just for centuries, but millennia. We now know largescale warfare in Germany goes back more than 3000 years.

The contrast since then is remarkable. For the founding six, it is now 71 years without war on their home soil. Certainly other conflicts have sometimes brought terrorism to their doors, but in terms of homegrown conflicts the worst, even among later arrivals, have been the Northern Ireland troubles and the struggle for Basque independence. Both have brought a terrible toll, but combined have killed fewer people than a single hour on the Somme or during the bombing of Dresden.

Moreover, the EU may be a big part of the reason these smaller conflicts are fast disappearing in our rear view mirror. When a substantial portion of your governance comes from Brussels, people feel less inclined to kill others over whether the remaining portion will be from London or Dublin.

It’s possible of course, that this is coincidence. That the arrival of a completely unprecedented period without war and the creation of an institution carefully crafted to bring peace just happened to occur together. Maybe. But it’s not very likely. Plenty of explanations for Western Europe’s modern peace have been offered. Most are things that are enhanced by the existence of the EU – democracy, trade, economic growth. Others are looking increasingly improbable as explanations – fear of the soviets, nuclear weapons – now that the wall has been down for nearly three decades and France and Germany show no signs of getting back to slaughtering each other.

Amazingly, I’ve even seen people argue the EU doesn’t stop wars because of the dreadful violence in Bosnia, Chechnya and the Ukraine. Umm… that’s what happens when you’re not part of the club. It would be great if the EU could create peace across the entire continent, or maybe keep its members from invading Africa and Asia. But stopping war at home was the primary intent, and success on that alone justifies its existence. It’s not as though all those other wars would have been avoided if the EU hadn’t been there.

Another argument is that we needed the EEC to prevent war, but it did its job, and around the time it became the EU it could have been wound up instead, and eternal peace would still reign. I can’t prove this wrong, but you’d want to be pretty convinced of this dubious theory before you decided to scrap an institution that’s probably the reason no one has dropped a bomb on your bedroom.

The final argument is that it may be terribly important that the French, German and Benelux stay together, and possibly the more recent members, but the UK doesn’t need to be in. True, it is unlikely that Brexit, should it occur, will lead to a revival of the war within the boundaries of Great Britain – Culloden is indeed long ago. An exit might stir renewed violence in Northern Ireland, but some might consider that a few dozen deaths a year a price worth paying.

While this argument is stronger than the rest, that’s a low bar. A UK exit will weaken the EU, placing it in more danger of collapse, and certainly make it harder for it to absorb new members.

Moreover, a UK exit could go two ways: It could lead to the economic catastrophe some have predicted, driving up unemployment and poverty, with all their associated evils. Terrible as that would be for the UK, it’s actually the good outcome for everyone else. Because the alternative is that leaving the EU is seen as a viable option, something every authoritarian leader stymied in his plans to oppress ethnic or religious minorities by the EU can wave in the face of nervous citizens.

Already Hungary is ruled by monsters whose firm desire to commit genocide on vulnerable minorities is stymied only by EU membership. The new government if Poland is possibly worse. EU membership is keeping people alive. How long after a successful Bexit, should it occur, will these countries stay in.

Even if you are entirely indifferent to the survival of Hungary’s Romany, or its few remaining Jews, consider this: If a UK exit sets off a chain reaction, how immune will Britain be from the wars that follow? Even if there is no repeat of the military engagement, no bombs raining on Leicester and Coventry, I doubt things will go well for Britain in such circumstances. If you think the small proportion of Syrian refugees making it across the Channel are a problem, wait until it is millions of French and Belgians, or even Czeck and Slovaks, desperate for somewhere to go.

Maybe such scenarios are unlikely – although the entire weight of history argues otherwise – but if there is even a chance they will occur, what could possibly drive one to want to take the risk?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Are New Yorker’s Deciding? Probably Hilary’s Second Term

New York is about to start voting as I write this, so it is possible that what I write will be proven stupid in very quick time. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Here is my take on what is really at stake.

First up, as noted previously, I think Clinton will almost certainly be the Democrat nominee. For Sanders to beat her he will have to exceed expectations not only today, but over and over again all the way to California. A single slip would be fatal.

I also think the Republican nominee will be either Trump or Cruz. The claims for Kasich or some other white knight riding a dark horse don’t make much sense.

Should I be right about both of these, I think Clinton has a better than 80% chance of winning the election. Trump and Cruz are both terrible general election candidates. Only something really dramatic like a major terrorist attack could see them beat a candidate most Americans don’t like much, but have see as competent and mainstream.

However, which of Trump and Cruz wins could have big implications down the track. If Trump wins, Cruz will be very well positioned to be the Republican candidate in 2020. Much as the establishment might try to stop him, it’s hard to see how they beat him unless he beats himself. Which I think will put Hilary in a very good position to win a second term.

On the other hand, if Cruz wins the nomination, but is beaten by Hilary, he’s unlikely to get another go. Sure his supporters might blame it on disloyalty from Trump or some such, but the pressure for an apparently more moderate candidate, be it Ryan, Kasich or Rubio, will be much stronger. And such a candidate would have a very good chance of beating a weak campaigner in her party’s third successive presidential term.

It’s possible that the demographics favouring the Democrats will save Clinton in such a scenario, and many things could change between now and then, but it would almost certainly be a tough fight.

If I was Hillary I would be more worried by what was happening in the Republic contest than on the Democrat side.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Slow Bern

I’m seeing a lot of posts from Sanders supporters saying he can still win the nomination, and then the presidency. I consider this delusional. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think Sanders can win, provided by winning you mean something much larger. I think Sanders has a good chance of being remembered as a harbinger for a substantial shift left within both the Democrats and wider American politics.

It’s true that most of Clinton’s best states have voted. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sanders managed to win the majority of votes from now on. But to actually win (even if the Superdelegates vote in line with their states, not their preferences) he has to go close to 60% of the remaining votes. That includes states like New York, California and Pennsylvania and New Jersey all of which he will need a miracle even to win. If he scrapes through with 51% in those he needs almost 70% of the rest. Not going to happen.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Sanders’ campaign will disappear. In the long run I think Sanders will be judged ahead of his time, just as he was with his support for many of the issues now widely accepted in the Democrats.

One of the most noticeable features of the Democrat primaries has been how big a difference age makes to voting. I can’t remember ever seeing a losing candidate get more than 80% of the under 30-vote, as Sanders did in Iowa and Nevada.  His win in Michigan was built in large part on young voters being similarly strong for him, and coming out in greater numbers than anticipated. Only in the south is Sanders not dominating the youth vote to an unprecedented extent.

A lot of people looking at this are probably thinking, “sure, but the young always lean left, then they get older.” We’ve all heard the sayings, “Not a socialist at 20, got no heart, still a socialist at forty, got no brain,” “A conservative is a liberal with teenage daughters” etc etc ad nauseum. The perception that it is normal for people to move to the right as they age isn’t entirely untrue, but it is greatly exaggerated.

There is a much longer essay in why people believe this exaggeration, but for the moment I will just say this: The evidence is that generations that start left tend to stay to the left, even if they experience some shift back towards the middle. This applies even for those, such as the people who came of age in the late 60s, who were politicized primarily by an issue that subsequently went away.

Meanwhile, those people who reached voting age under Eisenhower and Reagan started off voting Republican, and have kept on doing so ever since. (more up to date but not as clear graphic here) In fact, while young voters have not stood to the right of the electorate for a long time, there have been a number of elections, such as 1984 and 1992, where they were in line with the overall vote. The youth vote didn’t really become influential until 2008.

Nor is this just about the votes. Numerous studies have been done of the values of different American age cohorts, and they have found that those who came of age in the 80s stand well to the right of those both older and younger than them.

These studies make clear that the millenials backing Sanders are not just caught up in something cool – their values are well to the left of anyone in the last 40 years, and those turning 18 appear to be further left still.

With time, this group is going to become larger and more influential. It’s possible that those who are currently aged around 10, for example, will see the world differently, but it is almost certain that at least those slightly too young to vote now will also be strongly left.

Moreover, while the ending of the Vietnam war cooled the passions of the early Baby Boomers, and ushered in a more conservative era for their younger siblings, millenial politics is being driven by racism, sexism, wealth inequality and global warming. Sadly, none of them are likely to go away.

_88952230_88952229 Those who follow in Sanders’ footsteps may have the same problems the Democrats currently do; turning out their supporters at mid-term elections, and left wing voters being badly distributed for winning control of Congress. However, when it comes to electing future presidents – and probably Congress – in those years, the left will be very well positioned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Senate Voting Reform. Don’t Listen To Me

Most of what you read about Senate reform will be self-interested, or at least biased. That includes anything I could say. Not so much because of benefits to the Greens, although that is part of the story. Mostly, however out of personal self interest.

My expertise has meant that, hard as I try to get out, I have put under a lot of pressure to be involved with preference negotiations, and I find them repulsive and traumatic. Being placed in a situation where you have a choice between taking a deal you find ethically doubtful and throwing away the hard work of thousands of people which which you expect to be sufficient to get a candidate 80% of a quota is horrible. Even more horrible when you know that not taking the deal will likely mean some shonky candidate with a tenth of your candidate’s support will get in because they are happy to take the same deal. I don’t want to be back there, and naturally that biases my view on the reforms.

Therefore I urge everyone to consult the small number of people who both understand these reforms and don’t have any significant self-interest in the outcome: Antony Green, Charles Richardson, William Bowe, Henry SchlectaKevin Bonham and Sarah John of Fairvote.


I think so far the score is five favour with one still to declare. All the criticism I have seen has come from people either with a very significant stake in the fight, or who have made clear they simply don’t understand the way the system works/will work.

That is not to say the proposal is perfect. Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow proved that it is impossible to design a perfect voting system, and the size of the states as electorates and relative disengagement with the Senate mean that even some options that are close to perfect in principal don’t work too well here.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the version that will be voted on this week is about as good as one could get – greatly improved, by the way, by the efforts of the psephologists referred to above to get reform of the below the line voting added in.

The idea of putting more power in the hands of the voters, and less in the hands of party machine men (and just as with psephology, it almost always is men) is pretty much a no-brainer.

Consequently the arguments against have pretty much been:

1) It could give the coalition control

2) It could reduce diversity by extinguishing minor parties

3) The process has been rushed

I agree with 3), but the reason it has been rushed is largely because some of the cross-benchers were threatening to hold the government to ransom, refusing to support legislation they agreed with because they resented the possibility of losing their place in parliament. I can’t think of much better evidence that these individuals (and I note not all the cross-benchers seemed to be part of this) shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Hardly a reason to oppose good legislation just because it happened a bit fast.

On the other two points; as noted, there are others who you should believe rather than me. But the evidence is that these fears are overblown. Yes the coalition could gain control, but they did this under the current system in 2004. The real question is: Is them gaining control more likely under the proposal than the existing system. It’s actually very hard to say. One can construct scenarios where the proposed system helps them, but others where it does not. There is a fair chance that under the proposal they would not have won control in their own right in 2004, and certainly they would not have had the extra vote of Steve Fielding in the cases where they couldn’t get all of their official team to back them.

Nor will all minor parties miss out. The Palmer United Party would easily have won a seat in Queensland at the last election under the proposal, and possibly WA as well. And of course there is Xenophon, who would have a mate there as well under the proposal. If minor parties form coalitions, as Antony Green has suggested, it is likely we will have quite a few of them elected in future, and a good thing too.

There is a long term trend away from the Coalition and Labor, and the factors driving this will continue. As time goes on we will see more votes for independents and minor parties, and more of these people elected.

What will change is that the minor party that will win will be the one with real support, rather than one that flukes it, or gets a lot of preferences because they lie to people about their true positions. Do people seriously think this is a bad thing?


Posted in Psephology, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Hilary Versus Bernie – It’s Supposed To Be Hard

DEM 2016 Debate

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Entertainment value aside, there is not a lot to say in favour of the way the US runs its elections. However, it seems to me that a lot of people are intent on throwing away one of its few good points – that every four years it pretty much forces people to think.

In most countries, in you’re not one of the few signed up to a political party, you really don’t need to do too much hard thinking about politics at all. Choose the party that appeals to you most, and every few years walk into the polling booth and tick the box next to the appropriate candidate. If you live somewhere with preferential voting you might need to think about who gets your subsequent preferences. That aside, the only hard choices may be if the party you vote for alienates you so much you go looking for someone else, or if a new party appears that catches your eye.

Americans can do the same thing come November, should they choose, but millions will also make a choice before then from within their parties. For this, they can’t just rely on past decisions, they have to make the choice all over again, and hopefully that will lead to some serious thinking about what each candidate represents and their respective merits.

People considering voting for Trump or Cruz probably aren’t doing a lot of hard thinking, but things should be different on the Democrat side. Which is why I am disappointed at how many people seem to have just made a choice between Bernie and Hilary and decided that this is where there thinking can stop. They don’t need to acknowledge that there are a lot of different criteria to choose between the candidates, and it is entirely possible that each of them scores better on some. No, no, let’s just pretend that whoever we have picked is better on everything.

It’s all a bit this, really.

How You See Your Candidate.... - Imgur

Except that both candidates are far more intelligent, and three dimensional, than Jar Jar Binks.

I realize that for many Americans who are actively campaigning for one candidate or the other, they may not want to admit that they do see some points where the opposing side would be better. That’s fair enough – it’s not the job of an advocate to make part of the other side’s case.

But I’m a bit disappointed in a lot of my Australian friends on this. True, I’m mostly just going on your Facebook and Twitter posts, maybe there is a lot more subtle thinking offline, and this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but I see a lot of people who enthusiastically posting links that all point to the same conclusion, without a lot of commentary suggesting any nuance. I’m also directing this at people I greatly respect, who will no doubt never read it, who present themselves as commentators rather than campaigners, yet are still spending most of their time on one side.

To be clear here, I’m not doing the classic “I’m so impartial” thinkpiece. I’m hoping Sanders will win, although I don’t think it is likely he will (writing this while Nevada is still voting). But in doing so, I am deeply aware of a lot of reasons to prefer Hilary. You might not agree with me on all of these, but fellow Sanders supporters, do you really agree on none?

The closest I see from most people feeling the Bern to an acknowledgment of complexity is that “they’d like to vote for a woman”. Personally I think that is pretty important. The global signficance of a woman as the most powerful person on Earth would be pretty huge. To pick just one example, would parents in places where female infanticide or sex-selective abortions are popular be quite so keen to be rid of daughters if there was a woman in the Oval office?

But it is far from the only reason. It’s true that current polling shows Sanders doing better against each Republican candidate than Clinton, but if you think that is the last word on electability you haven’t paid much attention to American history. Given how truly awful the Republican field is, I can’t see how anyone who cares about progressive politics could not be a bit worried that choosing Sanders could hand the White House to Trump, Cruz or Rubio. In particular, I’m not impressed with the blithe suggestions that higher turnout will fix any loss of centrist voters. Plenty of people have said that before, they’ve seldom been right. Moreover, while Sanders’ capacity to mobilize youth has been amazing, with Democrat attendance in Iowa and New Hampshire well down on 2008, I’m far from convinced that this vast disenfranchised mass will turn up.

Personally, I am also worried about a lot of the handwaving in Sanders promises. Certainly a campaign that was almost certainly not expecting to be anywhere near as strong as it has turned out to be can be forgiven for not thinking it needed all that much detail, but when you’re making promises this big, it would be good not to rely on magic asterisks to show they can be done. Are there no other Sanders supporters who feel the same?

Turning to the other side, I’m frankly amazed my the number of people saying, “Hilary believes in the same things Bernie does, she’s just more pragmatic.” Really? Because we’ve got quite a long record to indicate what Clinton believes, and that’s not how I see it. It’s not just that she boasts of her friendship with Kissinger and supported the illegal Iraq invasion, even after a lot of Republicans had realised it was a disaster. Someone who would vote against a ban on cluster bombs, a weapon used almost exclusively for killing civilians isn’t taking a pragmatic path to peace, they just don’t value human life very high. Nor was this a case of Sanders versus the Democratic establishment – two thirds of Democrat Senators were for the ban (Sanders was still in the House btw), but not Clinton (or Biden for that matter).

Clinton is running away quite hard from some of her record in other areas as well, such as her previous support for the mass incarceration of, well pretty much anyone the police don’t like, but do you really prefer that to someone who has opposed punitive law enforcement his whole life?

Just as I am disappointed that those posting for Sanders can’t acknowledge his weaknesses, I really wish that some of the people fiercely defending Clinton would admit that the vast amounts of money she is receiving from businesses with appalling human rights records are almost certainly going to influence her decision-making. Is it not at least a little bit inspiring the extent to which Sanders has built his campaign on small donations that couldn’t influence him if they tried?

There may be legitimate questions about the economic competence of Sanders advisers (although Robert Reich’s support should count for something), but at least they’re trying to build a better world. Doesn’t Clinton’s history of surrounding herself with people who spend the rest of their lives sabotaging every struggle for human rights and environmental justice they can bother you at all?

I know this whole post sounds whiny, judgmental and holier than thou. But I’m saying this because I I’m referring to some really smart people, much smarter than me in many cases. Which means I think it’s possible to do better. Support your candidate sure, and if you’re out on the campaign trail bury your doubts. But if you’re far enough away that your posts won’t be changing votes, or you’ve admitted that’s not your job, then take the opportunity this provides, to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and think about what an ideal progressive movement, built out of the best of each, would look like.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Martian Thoughts


I finally saw The Martian this week, thanks to some encouragement from Richard McConachy. I loved it for all the reasons many people have. But I had an additional reason to love one scene, as it reminded me of one of the largely unknown stories of Australian science.

Bit of a spoiler warning.

Towards the end of the film where Watney is lightening the load on the MAV to allow it to go high enough to meet the Hermes craft. He throws (and blasts) various bits of no doubt very expensive equipment off the MAV as if they were worthless junk, which under the circumstances they are.

This reminded me of a story told to me by David Cooke (one of the scientists in my book) who worked at the Parkes observatory for many years, including during the Apollo mission. Parkes was not intended to have a role in the Apollo 13 mission, with NASA choosing to use one of the smaller Australian telescopes. However, when everything went pear-shaped it was realized that Parkes was the only radio telescope in Australia (or indeed our timezones) capable of communicating with the craft in its damaged state.

Naturally NASA commandeered The Dish for saving the astronaut’s lives. The telescope was being used for deep space astronomy at the time and carrying equipment that was unsuited to the new purpose. Time was naturally of the essence, and it took too long to send equipment down in the lifts as well as bringing the new receivers up. So highly expensive antenna and imaging devices were simply taken to the edge of the Dish and dropped off the side. I don’t know if anyone bothered to place mattresses around the bottom in the hope of salvaging something, or if they were just allowed to smash.

Besides being amused by this story, it also serves as a reminder of just how little money matters when an astronaut’s life is in danger. Watching the film I wondered briefly whether the US and Chinese governments really would be willing to spend the vast amounts required to bring a single astronaut home should circumstances such as seen in film occur.

The answer, I think, is yes. Of course the costs involved in The Martian, amusingly parodied in this meme, would be far larger than a few smashed receivers. However, by Cooke’s account, no one blinked an eyelid at the cost. There are many reasons for this, but one is that public pressure demanded it.

Millions of people die each year who could be saved with food or medical supplies that would cost a few dollars, but when we know the individual’s name, let alone have become attached to their personality, no expense is spared. That’s not intended as a criticism. I want people to care more about the starving children they know nothing about, but I don’t think that need be achieved by caring less about the person they see on the nightly news.

We can’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars to save every endangered person on Earth, and maybe that means we shouldn’t spend that much just because someone happens to be prominent, but we should always want to.

The dust storm that kicks The Martian off is many times more powerful than anything the red planet is capable of. But that aside it is largely scientifically accurate.  And I think it also gets the psychology and politics pretty much right as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You May Well Be Born Gay (Or Straight) But Not Everyone Is

Several friends have posted a link to an article titled “No One Is Born Gay (or Straight): Here Are Five Reasons Why“, apparently impressed by what it had to say. I’ve written some short comments on why I think it is badly flawed, and that got enough interest that I thought I would write something more extensive, albeit probably a bit belated.

In the article E Jane Ward takes aim at the gay rights activists who argue that sexuality is innate and therefore society should not discriminate against it, since people can’t help being “born this way”. She’s right that this argument often gets taken too far, such as the example she quotes when Cythia Nixon was told off for saying she had chosen to be a lesbian. But Ward’s argument is really the flip side of the one she is attacking. Some people say they were born with their sexuality, and demand that the same be true of everyone else. Ward thinks her sexuality is a product of environmental factors and her own choices, and insists this must be true of everyone else.1 Neither side allows for human diversity.

The positions not only fail basic logic, they misrepresent the latest science on the issue. I think what the science is revealing is not only far more interesting than either of these approaches, but more liberating as well.

Ward takes aim at some fairly dodgy popular representations of science associating sexuality with exposure to hormones in the womb, as measured by finger length. On the other hand, she entirely ignores multiple pieces of research that indicate a genetic influence on male sexuality. It’s true that these have generally been badly misreported with headlines about “gay genes” burying the subtlety of what has been learned. However, that’s no reason to ignore the actual research.

What seems to be emerging from several different tests is that genes matter for at least male sexuality, but it’s more complex than a “gay gene” in three ways.

1) The correlation isn’t perfect. You can have the “gay gene” and identify as straight or vice versa, but the chances are significantly skewed

2) Sexuality seems to be influenced not by a single gene but by a patch of the genome that is often transmitted together.

3) The best bit: It’s not one but two patches, on entirely separate chromosomes.

Genetics isn’t my strong suit, but unless I am badly mistaken these two patches are entirely independent. Having one has no influence on your chances of having another.

Let’s call the versions of these patches that are associated with identifying as gay G1 and G2, and the other versions S1 and S2

If you’re a cis man and your genome is S1S2 you’ll almost certainly identify as straight. If it’s G1G2 version you’ll probably identify as gay. And if you have one of each…well here is where it really gets interesting.

A giant bisexual flat on an outing at Melbourne's Pride March

A giant bisexual flag on an outing at Melbourne’s Pride March

Should your code be G1S2 or S1G2 the chances you will identify as gay fall somewhere in the middle. But as far as I know, this is all based on studies where men either tell the researchers they are gay or straight. Those who consider themselves bi, pan or whose sexuality has changed with time have been excluded from at least some of these studies, maybe all, as just too tricky to worry about. Which is fine as a starting point, but something that really needs to be addressed as research in the area advances.

I don’t know that the S1G2/G1S2 men are more likely to have fluid sexuality than those with a double up. But would anyone be surprised?

Isn’t it rather likely that all those gay men who say “I was born this way” really were, because their two patches happened to align? Meanwhile others had one of each, giving more room for their sexuality to be shifted by other things, including things that may change with time.

Of course it’s not as simple as G1G2=gay, S1S2=Straight and G1S2/S1G2=bi. If it was there would be a lot more men identifying as bi. Sexuality is a spectrum and there are a lot of people who fall near, but not at the edge, they have some attraction to both men and women, but they’re not equally strong. A combination of circumstances and preferences leads some to take up the bi identity, but many others happily go through life identifying as gay or straight.

I haven’t seen any reliable numbers on the frequency in the population of these two patches, but back of the envelope calculations suggest we’re probably looking at about each patch occurring about one seventh of the time. In which case, around three quarters of men have S1S2 genes, about 2% are G1G2, and around a quarter have one of each.

Ward says that sexuality cannot be genetic because there were lots more gay men in ancient Greece, where it was not only socially acceptable but desirable and our genes could not have changed that fast. But I don’t think there is any evidence that most men of the time were having sex with other men – just lots more than openly do today. The crude model I have suggested could encompass that perfectly well.

Still Not Determinative

I imagine that if Ward bothers to read this piece she will argue that not all G1G2 men identify as gay. This is indeed true. We’re increasingly finding that almost nothing is pure nature or 100% nurture. But even if, for example, 20% of G1G2 men end up preferring women in bed, that shouldn’t overshadow the genetic influence.

For one thing, there could be other genes out there that have additional, more subtle influences.  The ratio of hormones in the womb, the basis of the claims Ward rightly attacks, probably also plays a part, albeit much more subtle than is frequently claimed. And there is almost certainly some effect from what happens to us as we grow up.

Nevertheless, if the combination of genes and environment in utero means you’ve got a 90% chance of eventually identifying as gay as you come down the birth canal then I think saying you were “born this way” is a pretty legitimate call. It’s like saying you were born to be tall – sure exceptional circumstances may prevent it, but those things determined before birth were still more important.

What About The Women?

One of the things that has puzzled scientists and the general public alike since the first announcement of a “gay gene” has been how such genetics could survive. When she first heard about the idea a friend scoffed, “Yes and they’ve found the gene for celibacy too”. Various possibilities have been raised, for example the hypothesis that gay uncles are good for one’s survival chances.

However, leading geneticist Professor Jenny Groves has pointed out that this involves looking at the data all wrong. There is no gay gene, she says. Instead we have genes for sexual attraction to men. There is evidence that women who have these genes are not only no more likely to be lesbians than anyone else, they’re actually particularly fond of getting it on with men. The research is still a bit preliminary, and therefor not conclusive, but it appears that women who have either G1 or G2, or both start having sex with men earlier and have more of it, possibly because they enjoy it more.

These days, with access to advanced contraception, that may have no effect on the birth rate. Indeed it may be that if they like sex that much these women are even less inclined to spend years too tired to do much of it. For most of human evolution, however, such a genetic combination was likely to result in women who had it having more children, easily explaining its continuation in the population even if the men who inherited it had fewer.

Put this way, these “gay genes” could just be an accidental by-product of genetics whose main function was to make women more keen on sex with men. The sound you can hear is gasps of horror from both homophobic bigots and lesbian separatists.

There is one thing Ward and Graves seem to agree on however, which is that male and female sexuality are mirror images. Graves seems to think we haven’t found the lesbian genes because less work has been done researching female sexuality. Ward dismisses the idea that women have more fluid sexuality than men saying, “where have I seen that idea before?  Ah yes, heterosexual pornography.”

They could both be right of course. Certainly, female sexuality has been neglected for research compared to that of men, so it is quite possible there are Sapphic genes out there that, as Graves seems to expect, make men particularly strongly attracted to women.

On the other hand, it’s also just possible that there is no lesbian gene. Or, that there are several. Imagine, just for a moment, if there were three independent genes that encouraged attraction to women and each occurred about one eighth of the time. In that case two thirds of the population would have none of them. Roughly 33% would have one or two, and 0.3% would have all three. If this is true, and remember I am just speculating here, only a tiny number of women would be “born lesbian”. On the other hand, there would be a larger number of women than men born with a some genetic push each way. Depending on a range of factors and experience this could lead them to identify as straight, lesbian or bi. Or to change their identity several times in their life. Which might be where identities like queer come in handy.

I’m not saying the last paragraph is true. It’s entirely possible that the fact that more women identify as bi than men has to do with patriarchal messages that posit female bisexuality as a turn-on for the male gaze, while male bisexuality is denied or condemned. I just think we shouldn’t be too quick to assume this is the only explanation.

What are the implications of all this politically? Well, let’s start with the fact that it doesn’t matter what the cause is, love is love and should be treated the same. If there is legal recognition for marriage, it absolutely must be recognized for any consenting individuals.

On top of that, well maybe we should all just be a bit nicer to each other. The woman who heckled the bi contingent at Melbourne’s Pride March to “get off the fence” might consider that this isn’t as natural a manoeuvre for some as others. Of course that is true even if I am completely wrong and there is no genetic component to sexuality.

But if we start to realise that it is not just that your sexuality might be different from mine, but the causes of your sexuality might be different from mine we might make some progress on acceptance, or at least tolerance. One of us might have a genetic combination that pretty much meant our sexual identity was set from birth, while the other might have been totally up in the air until we encountered the love of our lives at 20 and forever after chased after people who resembled him/her. Each has its own aspects can can make life tough in a society that tries hard to squelch minorities. Let’s start with solidarity, rather than judgement.

From a progressive political viewpoint, this seems to me to allow us a rare example of having our cake and eating it to. One the one hand, evidence that some people’s sexuality is innate makes it much easier to argue against discrimination. On the other hand, those people who don’t want to feel bound by their DNA don’t have to be (at least unless they decide to collapse the wavefunction by getting their genome sequenced).

Super Nerdy Addenda

Pretty obviously, I’ve restricted this discussion to people whose gender identity aligns with their genetics. I’m not meaning to be exclusionary of trans people, I just wanted this to be a blog post, not a book. I doubt we have any data on how the genetics of someone with a Y chromosome who identifies as a women shapes their sexual attraction. Given how much easier this sort of research is becoming, we probably will soon. When we do I’ll be happy to write about it, but until then the possibilities are so vast and numerous I think this post is long enough (although if anyone has links to thoughtful articles I’ll happily add them).

There is however, one additional complexity I didn’t want to include in the main article for length, but thought I would add for those who want to geek out about it.

One of the male gay patches is on the eighth chromosome and therefore exactly the same in men as women. Consequently the whole, “makes women into het sex” idea is straightforward (although even if this idea is right, we don’t actually know if this predisposes these women to be particularly straight, or just increases enthusiasm for sex in general).

However, the original “gay gene” I’m calling G1 lies on the X chromosome. So while men only have one version, be it G1 or G2, women have two. I don’t think we know anything about its recessives or dominance.

The whole idea of dominant/recessive genes turns out to be a bit more complex than the Mendelian simplicity we were taught at high school, but that is a level of nerdy I am not going to go near. So let’s stick to Mendelian thinking for today.

If the male-attraction version is recessive then it wouldn’t affect women much at all. Most women would have at least one S1 version, and this would dominate. So as far as the X-chromosome patch goes the whole idea of male homosexuality being a by-product of genes to make women have more sex would go out of the window.

On the other hand, if S1 is dominant then almost twice as many women as men would be influenced by it. That’s a substantial portion of the female population who would have a gene that strongly inclined them towards attraction to men, and pre-contraception made them more likely to have children.

One more point. For simplicity’s sake I have treated the two patches as equivalent in effect. But we don’t know that. It’s possible one is a stronger predictor than the other, providing a more powerful push. It’s also possible that one is more common in the population than the other (this probably is something that “we” meaning the human race knows, scientists have probably got some grasp on their relative frequency, I just haven’t found it).

But it is also possible that they do something a little different from each other. Maybe, and I am really speculating wildly here, one of them is more about lust and other other is about love. So if you have both male-attraction versions you will both tend to fall in love with men and want to fuck them. Ditto with both female versions. But if you have one of each you may be inclined to want long walks on the beach with one gender and rolls in the hay with the other. Think about THAT everyone who doubts the existence of male bisexuality.

1 I’m very familiar with dashing something off that oversimplifies one’s position because no one is likely to read it, and then being embarrassed when lots of people do. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for Ward.  When the piece became successful she added a clarification, which didn’t address the concerns I raise at all, instead tackling an entirely different criticism, in the process indicating she stood by the aspects I deal with here.

Posted in Genetics | 6 Comments