Unz vs. Cochran Smackdown on “‘Gay Gene’ vs. ‘Gay Germ’” Theories

Nobody seems to stir up a good internet nerd fight quite like Unz. Here he is taking on Gregory Cochran on the gay gene vs. gay germ theories.

First of all, the gay gene theory was only an ancillary part of the Cochran article Unz is criticizing, and Unz seems primarily motivated by his desire to defend E.O. Wilson. Cochran is going after this article by E.O. Wilson that argues that scientists don’t necessarily need to be good at math. He uses Wilson’s “gay uncle” theory to illustrate why he thinks it is wrong.

On that issue, I tend to agree with Wilson. I’m not bad at math. I took AP Calculus in high school. But I’m relatively better at language skills than I am math. I made higher on the verbal SAT than I did on the math SAT which is unusual in males. Linking science and math skills never made much sense to me. Physics and math yes. Chemistry and math yes but less so. But biology and math, not so much. I always saw more commonality between history and social studies and biology than I did biology and algebra. I recall reading once that the “reading” portion of the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) best predicted success in medical school rather than the subject matter subsets. (The test has since changed formats.) I also agree with Unz that Cochran’s attack was unnecessarily nasty.

But on the gay germ vs. gay gene argument, I tend to agree with Cochran. Taking a shot at Wilson’s “gay uncle” theory is shooting fish in a barrel. I don’t think people have taken the gay uncle theory seriously for a while, because the math doesn’t work. But I’m not sure Unz is getting the gay germ theory right. My understanding of the gay germ theory is that it is likely some pathogen that infects the mother while the baby is in utero or maybe the baby shortly after birth. I think Unz is suggesting a combination of some sort of genetic predisposition combined with an environmental factor, possibly including a germ. Something similar has been proposed for schizophrenia, which is highly heritable but also tends to happen more commonly in winter births suggesting an environmental component particularly a germ. I don’t think the two are incompatible. A predisposition + a germ is still a germ theory. Is Cochran insisting on just a germ? Is Unz ruling out a germ? I’m not sure what they are arguing about. As with most complex phenomenon that isn’t simply an either or, a combination of genetic predisposition and environment seems likely.

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