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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.

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