Trolleys and Genes

Last week was school vacation week. The family day-care was closed. I was assigned to entertain my 2 1/2 year-old grandson; a job I welcomed. I decided to make the kid happy. A day of bliss.

It was a cool spring day and there could be no better time for a boy of his age to ride on the MBTA, the Boston trolley and subways system. Soon we were at the station and the Green Line Trolley came around the curve. The boy pointed and screamed with joy. As we boarded we got a big hello from the driver. We sat in the front seat so we could see down the track. The doors closed, the bell rang three times, and we were rolling.

A huge smile. His eyes were open wide. And then, what’s that? Another trolley coming in the other direction!! “Trolley! Trolley!” he pointed and yelled. The whole car shared in his delight.

He is the third of my grandchildren. Each of my two children have an older girl and a younger boy. The girls never cared about balls or trains. This one is entranced by anything with a motor: trains, trucks, planes, fire engines. The other boy, who is even younger, is all about balls. He has about fifty of them scattered throughout his house so that wherever he is he can pick one up and throw it. Especially down the stairs. Ball! Ball!

On the morning that I was to go on my trolley ride I was reading an article about a molecular biologist at UCLA, T.C. Ngun, who had studied the genetic material of 47 pairs of identical twins. Using a computerized search algorithm that scanned the genome of male twins, one of whom declared himself to be gay while the other was straight, Ngun and his team were able to find nine areas of difference between the two groups. However, the differences were not in the gene itself, but in the epigene, the material that the body uses to get a gene to turn on and to create the chain of proteins that it is programmed to create.

What makes this even more interesting, is that the epigene often changes over time. It responds to the environment it is in. It could be stress, or diet, or even a close relationship. It could even be something that happens in utero. But only under certain conditions will it turn a gene on, or off. That can explain how two sets of genes that are identical, as they are in identical twins, turn out two very different people.

I’ve been a therapist for a long time. I’ve had many patients who were gay, and many more who weren’t. I began seeing people at the time when it was still often dangerous to be gay. People were often beaten, beaten by the police, just for being in gay bars. So, not everyone was comfortable with admitting how they felt at that time, even to themselves.

I also came to understand that the paths people walked on before they decided they were gay were very varied. Some people realized by the time they were six that they were different, even if they couldn’t say why. Others felt the urges much more powerfully some time during adolescence. Many other men and women either didn’t realize their sexual preference, or covered it over in order to appear more normal, or perhaps, learned that they could feel very differently at different times in their lives.

That is why I find it fascinating to watch the gyrations this country is going thought about how to deal with transgendered people, or people who feel more comfortable thinking of themselves as of a different gender than of how they were born. During all my time as a therapist, and with the many people I worked with who struggled to be more comfortable with their sexual feelings, I never had anyone tell me that they thought they were members of the opposite sex. But perhaps that was because they didn’t know they could.

Then I looked at my grandson riding the train. He was enthralled with the experience. He was wearing a shirt that had airplanes on it. When we got downtown he wanted to watch the construction machines. These seemed like very typical boy behaviors. The girls, who are a few years older, never cared about any of that stuff. They are just moving out of the princess stage, but are still very aware of colors and clothes. The girls are also very aware that they can be anything they want, and both often play games of being like their mothers, who go to meetings, run businesses, and work at their laptops.

It seems as if many of our new technologies are leading to new discoveries about who we area as people, and how we get that way. I have been following a lot of that progress, and most of what we are learning is that things are much more complex that we thought. As a psychologist I am not at all surpassed that our development is a complex interaction of nature and nurture. I am a bit surprised that this interaction can take place down at the cellular level, and in our genes.

Of course it makes sense. But it warns us that dealing with all of these tendencies and behaviors is also much more complex than many people had hoped. It means that the results of a major life event, such as a trauma, or starvation, or a being infected by a toxin or virus, can create changes in a person’s genes, and that reversing those changes can be very difficult, because it is now part of their DNA. It can also mean that just giving a person a drug to change their brain, without changing their environment and social interactions, may not be very helpful.

It opens up so many questions about who is what sexually, who is what socially, what is a family, what is a race or a tribe?

Of course, I think a lot about what the world will be like when this kid grows up. Will there still be trolleys with bells that go “ding-ding,” or just self-driving robot-cars that take people exactly where they want to go. Will people be comfortable with a sexual identity that can be a different thing at a different time? Will there be the knowledge to help change your level of attraction by turing on or off certain genes? Do you want your sex drive diminished for a few years so that you can just focus on your career? Then, when you are comfortably wealthy, you can turn it back on and be attracted to everyone, and you won’t be too stressed-out and can enjoy it.

I am confident there will be a lot of interesting and beneficial things my grandson will do as he grows up, especially if he explores behavioral-genetics. But before I could discuss that prospect with him he fell asleep, two stops from home.

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