The subject of identical twins has been on my mind ever since I read a magnificently creepy thriller called Ice Twins by SK Treymayne – a pseudonym meant to sound like a woman, but it fact belonging to the novelist Sean Thomas. I read it because Thomas is in the new Spectator Life explaining how the pressures of the market push the writers of psychological thrillers towards female-sounding names – so he (sort of) turned into a woman to make Ice Twins a bestseller, which it duly became.
The book is tightly plotted, meticulously researched and I urge you read it – but what grabbed my attention was the subject of that research: identical twins. Lydia and Kirstie are monozygotic twin seven-year-olds (i.e., produced by a single fertilised egg). Lydia is killed when she falls off a balcony. Then, a few months later, Kirstie freaks out her already grief-stricken mother by saying: 'Why do you keep calling me Kirstie, Mummy? I'm Lydia.'
This throws the mother into total panic because the girls were what you might call identical identical twins. Monozygotic siblings share the same DNA, which is an astonishing quirk of nature – but I'm sure you've all noticed that some identical twins look more like each other than others do. I have a friend whose identical twin brother looks uncannily like him – but only at a distance would you mistake one for the other and there's nothing distinctive about their fraternal relationship. Ice Twins explains that there's a spectrum of likeness between monozygotic twins (and also that dogs are sometimes better at telling the difference between ultra-identical twins than their parents are).
So this morning I was googling 'identical twins', and of course I was led immediately into the area of twin studies. Scientific researchers hunt down monozygotic twins relentlessly, because they provide uniquely valuable data in sorting out nature from nurture. (In particular, identical twins who were raised separately – of whom there are very few – are genetic gold dust.)
And I landed on this story, published yesterday by MuslimVillage.com, headed 'Identical twin studies show homosexuality not genetic'.
Eight major studies of identical twins in Australia, the US and Scandinavia during the last two decades all arrive at the same conclusion: gays were not born that way.
'At best genetics is a minor factor,' says Dr Neil Whitehead, PhD. Whitehead worked for the New Zealand government as a scientific researcher for 24 years, then spent four years working for the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency. Most recently, he serves as a consultant to Japanese universities about the effects of radiation exposure. His PhD is in biochemistry and statistics.
Identical twins have the same genes or DNA. They are nurtured in equal prenatal conditions. If homosexuality is caused by genetics or prenatal conditions and one twin is gay, the co-twin should also be gay.
'Because they have identical DNA, it ought to be 100%,' Dr. Whitehead notes. But the studies reveal something else. 'If an identical twin has same-sex attraction the chances the co-twin has it are only about 11% for men and 14% for women.'
Because identical twins are always genetically identical, homosexuality cannot be genetically dictated. 'No-one is born gay,' he notes. 'The predominant things that create homosexuality in one identical twin and not in the other have to be post-birth factors.'
Alarm bells started going off by the end of the second paragraph. Dr Whitehead isn't at the cutting edge of genetic research. I looked him up and it turns out he's a 'Christian writer' who has been accused by his critics of producing 'junk science'. I'm not qualified to judge, but this report by New Scientist rubbishes his argument:
A genetic analysis of 409 pairs of gay brothers, including sets of twins, has provided the strongest evidence yet that gay people are born gay. The study clearly links sexual orientation in men with two regions of the human genome that have been implicated before, one on the X chromosome and one on chromosome 8 ...
'It erodes the notion that sexual orientation is a choice,' says study leader Alan Sanders of the NorthShore Research Institute in Evanston, Illinois.
Let's just say that the science isn't settled, not by a long chalk. What interested me was the source of MuslimVillage's story: they'd copied it from Jews News, which in turn took it from RedFlagNews.com, a hard-right American Christian website that is today telling us that the ashes of the Apostle John may have been found in a medieval fortress in Bulgaria.
Dr Whitehead's 'findings' are being tossed around in a pool of counterknowledge, bogus information dressed up to look like fact. What I find fascinating about counterknowledge is that its raw material – conspiracy theories, urban myth, fake history and fake science – spreads from one marginalised community to another, even though those communities may despise each other. Conservative Muslims, Jews and Christians want to believe that homosexuality is environmental, because if it's genetic that makes it difficult to justify their belief that it's sinful. As soon as they find a study that reinforces their worldview, they jump on it, without asking too many questions about its methodology.
We're going to see a lot more counterknowledge in the years to come, because digital technology makes it easier to apply an 'authentic' gloss to ideologically driven claims. The ghastly RT.com, Putin's increasingly sophisticated propaganda vehicle, has never met a conspiracy theory it didn't like (unless it involved the Kremlin, of course). And in a developing world where rigorous methodology is thin on the ground, its reach is increasing every day. I wonder whether its 'journalists' have Dr Neil Whitehead in their contacts books.