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Event Review: Sexuality After Genetics - The New Science of Gender

16 September 2013
Appeared in BioNews 722

'Debate: A formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward'. It might seem a bit simplistic to start a review of a debate with the dictionary definition, but after watching Professor Tim Spector's and Dr Helena Cronin's debate on the new science of gender, I just had to go back and check.

The debate on the topic of sexuality after genetics was organised by the Institute of Arts and Ideas.  They aim to bring together world-leading theorists, scientists, politicians, and writers for their philosophical debates, which have included everyone from scientists and writers like Jim Al-Khalili, Bruce Hood and Terry Pratchett to scientists and writers like Baroness Susan Greenfield.

The current debate, moderated by New Humanist's Caspar Melville, is on gender. 'Is gender something which is socially constructed, or is it something that is gifted to us via our genes, or is it both?' ask Melville of the experts. According to the blurb accompanying the debate's video, we can expect conflict to rage between the two camps.

However, the 'debate' is surprisingly tame. Both participants get some time to pitch their ideas, which are meant to spark a fierce debate but result in an interesting, but hardly frenzied question and answer session.

The lack of a real debate seems partly due to the very different backgrounds of the two speakers: Dr Cronin is a Darwinian philosopher at the LSE, London School of Economics [and Political Science], while Professor Spector is a genetic epidemiologist at King's College London. While both bring an interesting perspective to the debate, they seem too different to be able to argue on the same topic.

The fact that they seem to agree on the main point to be debated, that both nature and nurture can affect sexuality, delivers the final blow to the debate. As Professor Spector explains in his pitch: 'It's not culture, it's not genes alone that determine our sexuality. The most telling thing for me is that identical twins, who share the same DNA in every cell of their body, they are genetic clones, are discordant for their sexual preference. Where one is gay, there's only a one in three chance that the other will also be gay. And that to me is the perfect human experiment, of a natural phenomenon'.

Although the raging conflict on sexuality after genetics seemed to be settled before the start, both speakers brought interesting examples and science. The debate turned out not to be much of a debate, but rather a panel discussion where the two participants were talking about two completely different, but nevertheless interesting topics.

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