Home / Newly Homosexual Fruit Flies Join Sexuality Debate

Newly Homosexual Fruit Flies Join Sexuality Debate

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I read a Reuters story earlier today that might be making some headlines soon. Basically, a new study of the effects of simple genetic manipulation on fruit flies in the current issue of Cell has evidentially shown that sexual orientation can be altered in the species.

What interests me about the story is the debate I anticipate emerging out of it. For as long as I can remember, people have been arguing either that homosexuality is an innate part of the homosexual’s being or a choice made by the individual. Usually the latter was a religiously-based argument rooted–when not purely in some vague dogma–in a passage in Leviticus (which also prohibits eating shellfish) or in the story of Sodom and Gomorra. I suspect this little study will cause some lively debate between Biblical literalists and other individuals holding the attitude that homosexuality is a choice and those folks of a more scientifically-oriented bent.

[Of course those people on the side of science haven’t always been right about sexuality, either. Many people will remember the case of David (a.k.a. Bruce a.k.a. Brenda) Reimer, the Canadian boy whose doctors convinced his parents to raise him as a girl after a botched circumcision. Basically, what these Winnipeg doctors believed was that gender behavior (and, by extension, sexual preference) was entirely a product of one’s environment. They simply wanted to spare the boy the sort of humiliation one might expect living with a severly mutilated penis would cause and figured “making” him a girl physically would make him a girl internally as well. Then all would be swell.

Except that, despite the hormone medicine and parental treatment, Reimer grew up to be a big lesbian tomboy.

So the scientific community sort of realized that they couldn’t, in fact, just alter someone’s gender and call it a day. People are born with preferences. Reimer’s were heterosexual. It was as simple as that.]

In recent years, neuroscientists have shown that sexuality has physiological roots. Brain scans, for instance, show that homosexual men tend to have brains that differ slightly from those of their straight counterparts. Now, some people will argue that given the plasticity of the human brain, the choice to “become gay” will have altered the brains of homosexual men so that they no longer resemble those of heterosexual men. And the argument will blow up again.

But, despite the fact that the Cell study only deals with fruit flies, it seems those people on the side of “they’re born that way” will have some new ammunition in their arsenal. It’s not much, but I think it may be the first step towards building a fact-based understanding of human sexuality. I mean, now that people understand that depression is caused by neurotransmitters as opposed to demonic intervention or a choice to become sullen, we’ve been better equipped to understand and accept melancholia in our society. I am certain that the Biblical literalists championing Leviticus will argue that the scientists “made the flies gay” and that, as a result, the study is bogus since God made the flies straight.

I just hope people realize the important thing: sexual behavior is genetic. The flies didn’t choose anything.

Originally published at www.sobriquetmagazine.com.

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  • Bennett

    I applaud your presentation. Very nice and thoughtful piece. Thanks.

  • Whoa, I’ve heard about that boy’s case in a few of my sociology and communication classes. And everytime they said it was a complete success. Glad to finally hear the “real” results. But we need to look at the complete picture. Our genes only tell story. Our lives might be designed to follow a path (gay), but the way we choose to live it is almost completely up to us. I think it’s interesting how science has developped to allow us to look into our genetic make-up and find out possible reasons for why we are the way that we are. But in the end, our choices determine our fates much more than our DNA.

  • Saw the mistake. I meant to say “Our genes only tell one story.” Sorry.

  • Eric Olsen

    very nice and great title – thanks EG!

  • a new study of the effects of simple genetic manipulation on fruit flies in the current issue of Cell

    Don’t you mean “a new study of the effects of simple genetic manipulation on fruit flies reported in the current issue of Cell“?

    I just got a vision of a pop-up fruit-fly lab, springing out of the journal’s pages as you opened it to the correct page!

    Just think of all those gay fruit flies (hmmm, somewhat redundant, isn’t it? “gay fruit flies”) escaping the attention of the sadistic post-docs trying to play with their sexual orientation.

  • Dr. Pat,

    Yeah, I see how the wording might be confusing…

    Mea culpa

  • Would anyone expect a fruit fly to be anything less than gay?

  • >>I just hope people realize the important thing: sexual behavior is genetic. The flies didn’t choose anything.< < I'm with you 100%, except for two things. There's the famous Calhoun study of rats, which is borne out by studies of other species and among humans in prison, that under crowded conditions with insufficient access to the opposite sex, the rats voluntarily chose to have sexual relations with other rats. See this paper from our local psych department for more info.

    The point which this study brings out is that under certain circumstances there is a natural inclination to engage in homosexual behavior on a situational basis rather than because of genetics. Translating this to the human population, while some people may be born gay, there may well be others who choose that lifestyle because of how they were raised, the environment in which they live, or other influences. This clearly happens in prison where homosexuality is essentially forced on the inmates.

    The other consideration is that we’re humans, a pretty high order of rational being. Therefore, whatever our genetic tendancies, it IS possible for us to overcome them, at least temporarily or even permanently through willpower and conditioning. A person born gay, who wants to be straight badly enough can probably convince him or herself to be straight and stick with it to the point where it becomes ingrained conditioning that counters the genetic tendancy. This may lead to all sorts of problems if the conditioning breaks down, but it’s a viable lifestyle choice.

    In addition, even if you are born gay by genetics, you can always choose not to engage in actual homosexual sex and be a gay celibate. This is the class people the Catholic church seems to rely on for a lot of their recruits. This may not be the happiest solution, but it is a way to walk the line between being born gay and trying to reach an accomodation with straight society.

    And I know I’ve given some fodder and support to the Christians around here, but I had to point out that the issue is much more complex than mere genetics.

    Dave

  • Indeed the issue is much more complex than genetics. I also submit that in order for society as a whole to become more enlightened about homosexuality, those in the gay community need to change their own paradigm. It’s so easy for us to blame the fundamentalists, Christians, sexually ambiguous and others. We have to take some responsibility for ourselves and many gays refuse to come out of victim mode.

  • Dave & Silas-

    You’re both quite right. Some of what Dave writes reminds me of Michel Foucault’s (by the way, this is probably the only time I will ever bring a poststructuralist historian up in conversation) comment that the concept of a “homosexual” (as opposed to homosexual behavior) is a relatively recent idea.

    Basically, the argument Foucault made was that there has always been homosexuality, but we’ve only recently decided that the behavior indicates a type of person rather than his or her choice.

    See, my take on the study is pretty basic, really. I think it simply shows empirically that there is a genetic predisposition in homosexuals that leads them to prefer members of the same sex. Whether or not someone chooses to act on a sexual desire is entirely up to the individual, of course.

    Of course, sexual behavior is not always motivated by sexual orientation, either. I mean, rape tends to be more power-oriented and, as Dave rightfully mentions, same-sex prison communities often host a great deal of homosexual behavior among people who would, if in a mixed community, seek heterosexual contact. For instance, in his book In the Belly of the Beast, Jack Henry Abbot, describes how, despite a huge amount of gay sex within the prison he inhabits, only a very few men are “real homosexuals.” And we need not bring up the oft-cited catamites of Ancient Greece for a plethora of other such examples…

    So, yes. It is totally a choice of whether or not to act in a certain way, but I think the study strongly supports the notion that the drive to behave in a given fashion is, at least partially, genetic.

  • Bennett

    “In addition, even if you are born gay by genetics, you can always choose not to engage in actual homosexual sex and be a gay celibate. This is the class people the Catholic church seems to rely on for a lot of their recruits. This may not be the happiest solution, but it is a way to walk the line between being born gay and trying to reach an accommodation with straight society.”

    I just don’t see why anyone would choose this. Why decide to go through life denying your very nature? Why choose frustration over fulfillment? Screw straight society!

    Do you really want to waste your life by looking for acceptance from members of society still worshipping at the alters of a deity system?

    Despite the religious fantasies floated by the world’s organized churches, there is no proof that life as we know it is more than this one, single, go-round. I can hope that there is more, but that’s a hope, not a belief.

    And until someone shows me proof that there is some twisted superior “god like thingy” hovering over the earth looking into billions of bedrooms every night to see who’s “naughty” and who’s “nice” (this hole is okay, that hole is not okay…), I’m going to live each day to the best of my abilities. With love for my partner and family members, loyalty to my friends, kindness to everyone I meet, and I hope YOU do the same. And it sure as hell doesn’t matter to me what your sexual orientation is!

    Do you really want to deny your very nature, in order to live by someone else’s arbitrary and unnatural rules?

    Not!

  • >>I just don’t see why anyone would choose this. Why decide to go through life denying your very nature? Why choose frustration over fulfillment? Screw straight society!

    Do you really want to waste your life by looking for acceptance from members of society still worshipping at the alters of a deity system?<< That's all easy for you or I to say, but many people find the social and family pressure to be great enough that they feel they have to conform. The desire to fit in is one of the strongest motivations in a society. And it isn't just driven by religion, though that's certainly a factor for many people. There are plenty of others who just put a high priority on parental and community approval. If you think that it's bad for people to deny thier true natures in order to conform, then you have to start by changing society to be more accepting of those who are sexually different. It's been made quite clear that the confrontational approach doesn't work. I'd recommend education. Good luck with your crusade. Dave

  • Bennett

    “I’d recommend education.”

    You aren’t recommending education Dave, you’re recommending repression, and subverting one’s nature in order to “fit in” with a limited slice of American religious culture.”

    as in:

    “you can always choose not to engage in actual homosexual sex and be a gay celibate.”

    “but it is a way to walk the line between being born gay and trying to reach an accomodation with straight society.”

    Nice try Dave. Good luck with YOUR crusade.

  • Bennett, I was talking about educating the public, not reeducating gay people.

    BTW, I don’t have a crusade. I’m all for gay marriage, polygamy and bestiality if the animal is willing.

    I was just trying to lay out some of the realities of our society.

    Dave

  • Bennett

    Dave, you know I admire your eloquence, and at the same time I am disturbed by what appears to be a serious case of “I believe one thing, but say another”, and we’ll ignore any other issues about obfuscation at this time.

    Educating the public is a fine idea, but don’t tell people to repress their nature, and wait for society to catch up with reality.

    You reveal yourself with a comment like “I’m all for gay marriage, polygamy and bestiality if the animal is willing.”

    Just like the christophiles around here. “Gay = beastiality”.

    You couldn’t resist, could you?

  • My thought is, if someone is being celibate because they think it will score them some points with religious folk, they are pretty stupid.

    You can date around or you can have a boyfriend of 10-20 years and in either case they won’t approve of your relationship(s).

    Regarding celibacy; just to be clear, it isn’t the sexual act that the fundies expect the gay person to give up. It is the expression of love and intimacy on a romantic level to another of the same sex. That encompasses even more than giving up sex, which just by itself, we acknowledge is already an unrealistic expectation to lay upon people.

    It is not a realistic or humane choice to place upon anybody.

  • My thought is, if someone is being celibate because they think it will score them some points with religious folk, they are pretty stupid.

    I agree, Steve. I don’t understand what the fundamentalist preoccupation with gay sexual relations is all about. Perhaps the fact that they are depriving themselves of a healthy straight sex life is being projected negatively upon gays.

  • >>Educating the public is a fine idea, but don’t tell people to repress their nature, and wait for society to catch up with reality.< < I never, ever suggested this. I was observing a common phenomenon, not recommending it. In fact, I said that it would be 'denying their true nature' if people were to repress their sexuality. I also said that doing it 'may lead to all sorts of problems' - clearly not an endorsement. >>You reveal yourself with a comment like “I’m all for gay marriage, polygamy and bestiality if the animal is willing.”<< They're all alternatives to standard, legal sexual behavior and none of them causes any real harm. If I were like the fundies I would have thrown in child molesting. The fundies bring bestiality and being gay together to make being gay look bad. I don't see bestiality as necessarily bad, so I have no problem with the comparison. Again, so long as the animal is consenting. Dave

  • >>My thought is, if someone is being celibate because they think it will score them some points with religious folk, they are pretty stupid.< < People are nothing if not stupid. And admit it, Steve, you know there are people out there living straight lives or being celibate and acting straight because they are afraid to come out. For a long time they were the majority of the gay population. They may still be a majority. >>Regarding celibacy; just to be clear, it isn’t the sexual act that the fundies expect the gay person to give up. It is the expression of love and intimacy on a romantic level to another of the same sex. That encompasses even more than giving up sex, which just by itself, we acknowledge is already an unrealistic expectation to lay upon people.<< But if you have gay inclinations and choose not to act on them in any way, most fundies consider that sufficient to meet their criteria for getting into heaven - if you actually wanted to go to a heaven which looked like a 24 hour cross between Branson Misouri and the Crystal Cathedral. Have you ever considered that Jesus was a man, so loving him is kind of gay? Dave

  • Have you ever considered that Jesus was a man, so loving him is kind of gay?

    I have considered that. I’ve also considered that historically speaking homosexual dalliances were not that uncommon in the world at the time of Christ. Since many of his followers were fishermen or shepherds, it’s quite possible that the majority of his disciples had sex with men and women. But, of course, thanks to St. Paul and other doctors of the early Church all of that was swept under the rug.

  • And admit it, Steve, you know there are people out there living straight lives or being celibate and acting straight because they are afraid to come out. For a long time they were the majority of the gay population. They may still be a majority.

    yes, but sexual orientation is not so easily dismissed. Consider McGreevey who was married and closeted to his own wife, like millions are, but came out only because he was about to get busted with blackmail.

    Married with children does not mean celibate in regards to your true orientation more often than not. Those are the gay men who frequent the backs of adult bookstores, parks, rest stops, etc. because they need to go their own way quickly. Nobody truly comprehends the damage of the closet, it affects those all around too.

    Perhaps the fact that they are depriving themselves of a healthy straight sex life is being projected negatively upon gays

    I believe it is because they believe that sex is a gift from God and therefore they have to follow his rules in regards to it. For those of us who are agnostic, athiest, secular or just less fundy, see it as an expression of intimacy. To me a romantic dinner, and a back massage can be very intimate, or say a hand-holding stroll followed by a cuddle. These can be just as intimate as sex.

    For some of us the extreme intimacy of sex can be expressed in many ways, all of them equivalent in their expression of intimacy. Sex can mean something completely different to many of us, but we still have to be bound by their rules.

  • Dave writes: The other consideration is that we’re humans, a pretty high order of rational being.

    Reply: I came to this party a little late, but I find that early statement to be pretty big leap, Dave. (wink)

    Cheers,

    Ron

    [We now return you to our regularly scheduled debate.]

  • deusabscondidum

    Reimer didn’t end up a lesbian tomboy. Reimer identified as male and lived as such. As he was born male in the first place, this should come as no surprise and shouldn’t enter into any debate about transgendered people or gay people.