As "Today's Papers" columnist Scott Shuger foretold, readers across America are spending an inordinate amount of time today examining the relative lengths of their index and ring fingers. This is because of today's news reports on a new study in Nature by Berkeley psychology professor Marc Breedlove that says gay people are likelier to have index fingers that are substantially shorter than their ring fingers. Apparently this is because finger length is influenced by the quantity of male hormones present in the womb. "This is not a test to be used on your friends and neighbors," Breedlove warned the Philadelphia Inquirer. Too late! Chatterbox and his colleagues in Slate's Washington office spent the morning examining one another's hands. Our tentative conclusion: We're all gay.
Before breaking this news to Mrs. Chatterbox and the Chatterkinder, however, Chatterbox thought it advisable to get a bit more information. As of 2:30 p.m. ET on March 30, Nature hadn't yet posted the study on its Web site, but this Berkeley press release provides a bit more detail. Our first order of business is to dismiss the AP's simplistic assertion that women's index and ring fingers "tend to be about the same length" and, if they're not, it could be a sign that the woman is gay. In fact, almost everybody, male and female, has a ring finger that's longer than their index finger. It's just that in women, the difference is usually less pronounced. According to Breedlove, though, homosexual women tend, as men do, to have index fingers that are much shorter than their ring fingers. It's also true, apparently, that a fair number of heterosexual women have the same configuration; the Inquirer piece has evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers of Rutgers, who has performed similar research, saying he found substantial overlap between gay and straight women on relative finger size.
What about guys? According to the press release, men had a more "complicated pattern." For them, there is "no direct relationship between finger length and sexual orientation." (Isn't that just what a guy named "Breedlove" would say? Let's see your fingers, pal.) But "some gay men did appear, based on their finger lengths, to have been exposed to greater than normal levels of fetal androgens before birth," the press release continues. In other words, there might be a connection for men, too. Or there might not. If there is, Breedlove says, it "calls into question all of our cultural assumptions that gay men are feminine." Indeed, it would argue the opposite--that gay men are "hypermasculized," i.e., they have more male hormones. The press release fails to state the less politically correct corollary that lesbians are indeed "masculine" women, just like mainstream culture says they are.
In fact, this whole realm of inquiry risks being polluted at every turn by cultural prejudice. Chatterbox is in no position to judge Breedlove's science, but he will restate, for those who've not heard it before, Chatterbox's Law of Biological Determinism: Conservatives believe that genes determine everything except homosexuality; liberals believe that genes determine nothing except homosexuality.