Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 28 January 2014

What’s in a name, Dick Swaab?

Research findings are released on a regular basis. From the nice-to-have, but not essential latest beauty breakthrough to the latest technological advance that allows us to peer deeper and further back into the space-time continuum. But then there’s the other category, the most exciting: the type that is controversial.

Controversy is a good way to grab headlines with your research and even better for selling your books, a trick that Professor Dick Swaab is clearly familiar with. The Dutch Professor of Neurobiology at Amsterdam University has authored an at first unremarkable sounding book, We are our Brains. On the face of it, his four-decade, impressive CV would have you believe that it is about boring brain function with the odd bit of Freudian theory thrown in. But what has thrust his writing into the spotlight with almost as much certainty as Harry Potter is his assertion that smoking, high levels of stress, drugs and drink during pregnancy will not only lead to behavioural problems but bi- and homosexuality in the baby as well.

Against the backdrop of increased homophobia, translated into repressive laws, in essence persecuting the LGBTI community throughout the world, such a claim needs scrutiny, since it could further perpetuate anti-gay sentiment. Whether it is Russia, Uganda or Nigeria, the world seems to be liking the gay community less and less, with no sign of letting up. This negativity and repression is based on irrational arguments where some religious leaders in East Africa have resorted to shocking anti-gay sentiments amongst their congregations, some even showcasing extreme pornography in church. (Check out the so-called “poo-poo video” on You Tube if you don’t believe me.)

My concern was that the good Professor could be adding to this narrative, one that perpetuates homosexuality as unnatural; some genetic dysfunction or sexual perversion. The reason why your average pack of twenties have a warning from the Department of Health, advising pregnant moms not to smoke – let alone drink, use drugs or stress too much – is because it has a negative impact on the baby’s physical and mental growth and development. By saying that you will have lesbian and gay babies if you smoke while pregnant, you imply that being gay or lesbian is some mistake.

So considering the Mac Maharaj-coined, “quoted out of context” defence, I figured I should have chat with the Prof himself, which I did. Despite the Prof’s insistence that he is not vilifying the gay community by implying that they emerge due to mommy’s smoking and drinking, he sticks by his theory: “Pre-birth exposure to both nicotine and amphetamines increases the chance of lesbian daughters. Pregnant women suffering from stress are also more likely to have homosexual children of both genders because their raised level of the stress hormone cortisol affects the production of foetal sex hormones.”

I am no expert on the wiring of the brain, nor will I purport to be an authority on how it works, but if you claim, as Swaab does, that being gay is natural and that one is born that way, that theory does not hold any water if you, in the same breath, claim that smoking causes gay babies just as it causes babies with low IQ, behavioural problems or stunting.

Swaab’s research might be sound; the man’s CV indicates that he should know what he is doing. But a little more care should be taken in reconciling his theory with his supposed personal conviction. Swaab was quick to point out that in his home state of the Netherlands, famous for legal marijuana in Amsterdam’s coffee shops and liberated sex, attitudes towards sexual orientation are not repressive and that the LGBTI community is warmly welcomed.

That may be the case for most of Western Europe, but by his own admission, that sentiment does not prevail globally. What he refutes is that his theory could add to the growing homophobia we see taking the world by storm.

I cannot dictate to the Professor or to anyone in the research community how to conduct their work and what conclusions to reach, but surely his four-decade career should have taught him that if your findings are incompatible with those generally accepted by the scientific community, then maybe you should apply yourself somewhat before making pronouncements. It is particularly important for the Prof to apply himself when his findings are logically in conflict with his own supposed mores and those that should be accepted globally.

Swaab reduces homosexuality to variances within the genetic code, something akin to some being naturally tall, short, blue-eyed or curly haired. Last time I checked, pregnant moms did not have to expose their bellies to microwaves to have blonde children, and similarly, nicotine is not necessarily a pre-requisite for bisexuality. What the doctor fails to account for is the occurrence of homosexual offspring of mothers who never smoked, or history before the mainstream use of tobacco products.

So is Swaab’s finding homophobic? Most certainly, although he doesn’t even realise it. Soon his research will be the basis of further homophobia, further red-herring evidence for why it is ‘unnatural’ and ‘immoral’. Everyone is abuzz over Swaab’s findings, but I’d like to see greater scrutiny by the scientific community. After all, there’s nothing like sensation to get folks to buy your book. DM

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