My response to my Wikipedia biography

The article about me on the Wikipedia site contains numerous criticisms of my research on the brain and sexual orientation. Most of these negative comments were inserted by Andrea James (aka “Jokestress”). James has participated in a hate campaign against psychologist J. Michael Bailey of Northwestern University, mostly on account of a book of his that she didn’t like (The Man Who Would be Queen). Because a positive comment by me appeared on the front cover of Bailey’s book, James added me to her enemies list and the result is the Wikipedia article.  On her user page James recently wrote: “I used to enjoy working on controversial biographies of living people that require detailed attribution, but I have decided that's a waste of time…” Her decision will be applauded by many.

I don’t believe in editing one’s own Wikipedia biography, and I therefore present my response here. The following is the relevant portion of the Wikipedia biography (as of December 22, 2007), with my comments in italics. Although the biography gives detailed source references, most of these appear to have been lifted bodily from an article published by Apologetics Press, a Creationist anti-science organization. I question whether Andrea James has actually read the original sources on which the citations are based. If she had, even James might have realized how biased, out-of-date, or confusingly selective the citations are.

LeVay's work and statements regarding biology and sexual orientation have been controversial. In 1991 LeVay published an article suggesting a structural difference in the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men. This size difference was reported for the third interstitial nuclei of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH-3). The finding was widely reported in the media. The interstitial nuclei of the human anterior hypothalamus: an investigation of variation with sex, sexual orientation, and HIV status.

This sentence seems to have been placed here in error. It is not the title of my article as the sense of the paragraph suggests.

LeVay has acknowledged that samples of gay men's brain tissue were readily available to him because they had died of AIDS-related illnesses. Contemporaries of LeVay have questioned his measurements, noting the structures themselves are difficult to see in tissue slices, and LeVay measured in volume, where others state cell count is more accurate.

Volume and cell count measure different things. My article was about the size of INAH3, so volume was the appropriate measure.

Nancy Ordover notes "he has also been criticized for his small sample size and for compiling inadequate sexual histories." Several of his colleagues have noted that the size of the nuclei could be impacted by AIDS, since INAH-3 is dependent on testosterone levels. [the article cites Byne 1993].

It is true that Byne made this criticism in 1993. But Byne retracted it later on the basis of his own study’s results (Byne et al., 2001). The fact that the Wikipedia author ignores this change of view suggests bias.

Hubbard and Wald note, "Though, on average, the size of the hypothalamic nucleus LeVay considered significant was indeed smaller in the men he identified as homosexual, his published data show that the range of sizes of the individual samples was virtually the same as for the heterosexual men. That is, the area was larger in some of the homosexuals than in many of the heterosexual men, and smaller in some of the heterosexual men than in many of the homosexuals. This means that, though the groups showed some difference as groups, there was no way to tell anything about an individual’s sexual orientation by looking at his hypothalamus."

Very often, two distributions can have similar ranges (that is, the lowest and highest values are similar) but very different means (average values). The differences in INAH3 volume between the gay and straight men in my study were very significant (1 in 1000 chance of having occurred by chance alone) and should be obvious to anyone who looks at the data in my original paper. I have never claimed that one can tell a person’s sexual orientation by measuring the volume of their INAH3, but the significant difference between the two groups demands some biological explanation.

Countering LeVay's claims suggesting homosexuality is a genetic predisposition (e.g. a "gay gene"), Brannon points out that "gender identity is a complex concept relating to feelings [...] that are not limited to or congruent with sexual behaviour."

Although there is other evidence pointing to a genetic influence on sexual orientation, I have never claimed that my own findings on INAH3 demonstrate a genetic influence. Brannon’s comment is vague and irrelevant.

Brannon concludes that we simply do not know what this structure does or how it works in humans.

That could be said about most parts of the brain, since most of the relevant research has been done in animals. From animal research, it is known that the region of the hypothalamus within which INAH3 lies (the “medial preoptic area”) participates in the generation of male-specific sexual behavior.

Byne noted "LeVay’s work has not been replicated, and human neuroanatomical studies of this kind have a very poor track record for reproducibility. Indeed, procedures similar to those LeVay used to identify nuclei have previously led researchers astray."

Again, the Wikipedia author demonstrates bias by citing an out-of-date comment by Byne. His more recent work, based on his own studies, expresses a completely different point of view (Byne et al., 2001).

Biologist Joan Roughgarden notes that this is the tiniest of four "rice-grain" sized parts of the brain, and that sex and sexual orientation do not uniformly correspond to the hypothesis that "gay" brains are similar to "female" brains. [14]

It’s typical of the hypothalamus that very small clusters of neurons participate in the regulation of motivated behaviors.

Gay male brains cannot be identical to female brains, otherwise gay men would identify as women. Nevertheless, many biological and cognitive psychological studies suggest that gay people possess a patchwork of traits, some more typical for their anatomical sex and some more typical of the other sex. This topic is reviewed in the article on the biology of sexual orientation on my website.

[edit] Controversy

Criticism has also come from contemporaries, some of whom have questioned LeVay's measurements, noting the structures themselves are difficult to see in tissue slices, and LeVay measured in volume, where others state cell count is more accurate. [8] Nancy Ordover notes "he has also been criticized for his small sample size and for compiling inadequate sexual histories."[9] Several of his colleagues have noted that the size of the nuclei could be impacted by AIDS, since INAH-3 is dependent on testosterone levels. [10]

This is repeat of  a paragraph in the previous section—see my comments there.

Ruth Hubbard (author of numerous articles and one book highly critical of explaining human behavior through genetics) and her son Elijah Wald noted in their co-authored book, "Though, on average, the size of the hypothalamic nucleus LeVay considered significant was indeed smaller in the men he identified as homosexual, his published data show that the range of sizes of the individual samples was virtually the same as for the heterosexual men. That is, the area was larger in some of the homosexuals than in many of the heterosexual men, and smaller in some of the heterosexual men than in many of the homosexuals. This means that, though the groups showed some difference as groups, there was no way to tell anything about an individual’s sexual orientation by looking at his hypothalamus."

This is making the same criticism as in the previous section—see my comments there.

Byne noted "LeVay’s work has not been replicated, and human neuroanatomical studies of this kind have a very poor track record for reproducibility. Indeed, procedures similar to those LeVay used to identify nuclei have previously led researchers astray." [13] Biologist Joan Roughgarden notes that this is the tiniest of four "rice-grain" sized parts of the brain, and that sex and sexual orientation do not uniformly correspond to the hypothesis that "gay" brains are similar to "female" brains. [14]

This is a repeat of material from the previous section—see my comments there.

LeVay cautions against misinterpreting his findings: "It’s important to stress what I didn’t find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn’t show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain."

This is an accurate quote, but it relates to what I showed (or didn’t show) on the basis of that one study. If one looks at the totality of research now available, including my study, the evidence points strongly to the idea that genes and non-genetic biological factors strongly influence a person’s sexual orientation, as discussed in the review article on my website.

 He has also stated in a Newsweek interview "if I didn’t find anything, I would give up a scientific career altogether," a comment critics claim is evidence of bias.

 My comment to Newsweek simply indicated that in 1990 I was ready to give up laboratory science in favor of other pursuits. This I in fact did after my 1991 research study was published—even though I did in fact “find something”.

LeVay has been criticized for advocating fetal screening for traits like homosexuality in order to abort fetuses with unwanted traits. A New York Times book review noted, "Indeed, he cheerfully looks forward to the day when the 'new eugenics' born of the human genome project will enable women to abort fetuses likely to be carrying any traits they don't much care for, including homosexuality." [22]

This is an accurate quote from the New York Times review. But that review does not reflect my views or what I wrote in the book under review (Queer Science). I agree with Roe v. Wade that women should be allowed to have an abortion during the early stages of pregnancy without test of reasons. This would therefore include terminating on account of a prediction that the fetus would become gay. I certainly would not be “cheerful” if women aborted fetuses for this reason.  I believe that we should work to create a world where women would feel blessed to have a gay child. Significant progress has been made in that direction over the 16 years since my study was published.

 

Byne, W., Tobet, S., Mattiace, L. A., Lasco, M. S., Kemether, E., Edgar, M. A., Morgello, S., Buchsbaum, M. S. & Jones, L. B. (2001). The interstitial nuclei of the human anterior hypothalamus: an investigation of variation with sex, sexual orientation, and hiv status. Hormones and Behavior. 40, 86-92.

 

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