30 01 2007

Ok, I know that title was baaaaad (ok, ok, I’ll seriously stop now), but the thought immediately rushed to mind when I opened this week’s TIME magazine and saw an article by John Cloud on studies being done on male sheep with homosexual tendencies. (“Ewegenics” was actually mentioned in the article itself, but my “punny” little mind got there first) The article itself deals with the claims surrounding scientist Charles Roselli, and a quick PubMed search came up with two papers dealing specifically with the topic at hand, entitled Hormonal influences on sexual partner preference in rams and Sexual partner preference, hypothalamic morhpology, and aromatase in rams, respectively. The first paper explain that 6-10% of the domestic rams studied showed a preference for male partners over female during the tests, and the males that preferred other males seemed to have differences in brain chemistry (specifically lower aromatase “in the medial preoptic area and estrogen receptor in the amygdala,” aromatase being an important chemical in sexual development). Being that PubMed only produces the abstract for this article, I don’t know by what means the preferences of these males were determined, but the TIME article suggests that the rams were presented with a choice of a males or females to mate with, and thus the 6-10% became apparent.

The second paper, the sequel to the first, finds that in addition the differing aromatase levels, male-oriented rams have a slightly different brain structure, a part of the brain referred to as the oSDN (I’m still doing searches trying to figure out what this area is and what it’s associated with) being larger in female-oriented rams and in male-oriented rams. In any event, there seems to be an interplay between brain morphology and chemistry that is created these rams that prefer the company of males, but then one may ask how the trait is getting passed on. Are these rams obligate homosexuals? The question isn’t even considered in the TIME article, nor most articles I’ve seen on similar subject, the fact that homosexuality occurs in animals being the primary point. In these tests the males preferred males, yes, but do they ever mate with females? If they do then they could very well pass on their different brains to their offspring and the trait would persist because it is not obligate homosexuality; if the rams just mated with other males and no others one would expect homosexuality fluctuate across generations. Perhaps the differing chemistry is the result of some recessive trait or something else we do not as yet know about, but just because some rams prefer to mate with males doesn’t mean that they never mate with females or that what causes homosexuality in them also applies to humans. From articles like Cloud’s, it seems apparent that the larger questions raised as far as ethology and evolution don’t necessarily matter, it’s just important that some animals are homosexuals and give credence to the increasingly apparent notion that animals (including people) don’t choose to be homosexuals.

As Cloud mentions in the article, however, some are wary of such research, worrying that if the cause for homosexuality can be pinpointed then it opens the door wide to eugenics, possibly someday allowing parents to determine if their child will be gay and fixing that “problem” through hormonal therapies. While rightly dismissive of the notion that we’ll see such applications anytime soon, he ends the article with these unsettling words:

The more pressing question for me is, What would happen if research like Roselli’s did lead to, as the Sunday Times imagined, “a ‘straightening’ procedure [such as] a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn like a nicotine patch”? I hope scientists have better things to do, but would a Hetero Patch be so awful? It would allow bigoted women to get what they want–straight kids–and ensure that gay kids grow up with moms who, at the very least, didn’t try to prevent their existence. Gay people seem to fear we would die out if such a device existed. But the elaborate combination of genes, hormones and psychology that produces same-sex attraction has persisted, against all odds, through the millenniums. Gays have survived Darwinian selection, Nazis, the dulling effects of Will & Grace. I don’t think a little patch would ever keep some rams from wanting other rams.

Like I said before, interesting scientific insight seems to have been co-opted to serve political ends, and I think a Hetero Patch would indeed be awful. I’m unsettled enough by genetically modified foods and all the tinkering being done with inserting animal genes into plants and vice versa, much less the ability to create designer babies. I find it disturbing that anyone would want to essentially design their child to be whatever they wanted it to be, perhaps someday extending to “breeding programs” to create smarter, stronger, or more fit children. Such themes are often brought up in science fiction, but the ability to actively engage in eugenics is slowly starting to become more possible. Even beyond my distaste at the moral/social level, it’s idiotic at an evolutionary level. If parents can start picking and choosing, designing their children, variation is hampered and as far as genetics goes there’s far more we don’t know than we do know. Indeed, if designing babies ever reached a large enough scale, the genetic variation would be low enough that disease would be even more deadly than it is now, making the Black Death look like a common-cold; part of the reason it didn’t kill more than it did was the genetic variation that made some people resistant, and they passed that resistance on to their offspring.

The whole thing reminds me of the Disney World ride The Carousel of Progress, where the values of technology and the improvements it brings are extolled in song. Even though humans are animals, we have long since left such a title behind, always trying to step a little closer to being gods; we want to know more, live longer, have a lasting legacy on the planet, etc. I’m not saying that we should stop here, but in going further we should be cautious of the consequences our actions may have. We are unique among animals in that we can willingfully do things for the benefit of the species (an even the planet), and thus there is no excuse for selfishness that will do more to destroy than help future generations. We can’t just keep walking forward blindly, proceeding with science because we can achieve a certain goal, but we need to ask if we should be moving in such a direction and what consequences there may be beyond our own lifetime.




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