Some Reflections on Science and the Gayness Of Sheep


1-30-07, 10:12 am

In 1961, the author William J. Lederer published his book A Nation of Sheep. One of its basic points was how the American people tended to follow and believe whatever the government and an uncritical press dished out to them. In Lederer's book the example given was how 'Communists' were blamed for all the troubles in the world and how the fight against “Communism' was used to justify every aggressive or stupid turn of US foreign policy, much as in today's world the fight against 'radical Islam' and 'terrorism' is used to justify the policies of the Bush administration (or, even worse, the fight against 'evil doers').

Recently, a small-scale example of 'sheep thinking' occurred among many people in both the animal rights and gay communities, as a result of inaccurate news reports published in the world press, climaxing in The Sunday Times of London last month. This story should be a warning that even progressive communities can be carried away when they let emotion and rumor trump reason and fact.

The following tale comes from the article 'Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science And the Perils of Bad Publicity' by John Schwartz, published in The New York Times of Thursday, January 25, 2007.

The protagonist of our story is one Dr. Charles Roselli, a scientist who works at the Oregon Health and Science University and who has devoted himself for the last five years to trying to discover what makes about eight percent of sheep (specifically rams) gay.

It seems that these rams never want to have sex with ewes but only with their fellow rams. Schwartz reports that Roselli's goal 'is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of sexual orientation in sheep.' This research, by the way, may be pertinent to the psychology of lonely Texas farmers, as well those interested in canine sexuality who want to know what motivates a certain percentage of wolves to desire to dress in sheep's clothing.

Unfortunately, the good doctor's research has stirred up a worldwide hornet's nest of denunciation initiated by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and joined by gay activists, other animal rights advocates, and regular people, all as a result of the bad press Dr. Roselli's research was given.

The erroneous report that came out in the London Sunday Times was guaranteed to cause trouble, as that paper reported Dr. Roselli had found a 'cure' for his gay rams (based on fetal hormone treatments) and that this, as the London paper said, 'could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.' Fighting words to be sure if this were really Dr. Roselli's intention. What is really behind this is that the sheep industry really wants to have more procreative rams. One of our more noted biological scientists, Martina Navratilova, was quoted as saying that this sort of research 'can only be surmised as an attempt to develop a prenatal treatment' to prevent gayness. She seems to be against scientific investigation itself. 'The more we play God,' she is quoted from an e-mail to the NY Times, 'or try to improve on Mother Nature, the more damage we are doing with all kinds of experiments that either have already turned or will turn into nightmares. How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?' Well, the sheep industry thinks an eight percent increase in ram fatherhood would lead to more lamb chops for a hungry world (and more profits for them).

Dr. Roselli has been trying to correct the record, with some success, the NY Times reports. Schwartz reports that Dr. Roselli 'insists that he is as repulsed as his critics by the thought of sexual eugenics in humans. He said human sexuality was a complex phenomenon that could not be reduced to interactions of brain structure and hormones.' The NY Times article did not mention information available in other sources, namely that hormone treatments had changed the sexual preferences of some gay rams. (Cf. the latest issue of 'The Week.')

Despite Dr. Roselli's disclaimer, and I am not doubting his personal integrity, there seems to be evidence that his research could be used by others to not only detect 'gayness' in fetuses but also to eliminate it as well (and vice versa.) Dr. Roselli is quoted from a 2004 press release as having said his research 'has broader implications for understanding the development and control of sexual motivation and mate selection across mammalian species, including humans.' What he has done is detect a difference in brain structure in fetal rams that turn out to be gay. Hormonal treatment of the fetus changes the brain structure and the ram is not born gay.

The word 'control' is crucial in this context. Jim Newman, a publicist for the university, said the word 'control' did not mean, according to Schwartz, 'trying to control sexual orientation.' What did it mean then? It meant 'understanding the body's internal controls.' This is just playing with words. The first step to controlling sexual orientation is to understand the body's internal control mechanisms. The issue isn't Dr. Roselli's motives but the motives of others who can use this research for reasons Dr. Roselli neither desires nor condones. But should Dr. Roselli be condemned for his research?

This actually goes far beyond Dr. Roselli. If there are biological laws at work here scientists will ferret them out. That is the nature of science. You could destroy all of Dr. Roselli's research and other scientists would soon reconstruct it.

Schwartz also reports that 'Dr. Roselli said that merely mentioning possible human implications of basic research was wildly different from intending to carry the work over to humans.' Others, however, may want to carry that work over to humans. This is really a social and political problem, or an ethical and moral one, not a scientific one. Trying to prevent scientific research into the nature of reality is fruitless.

Speaking of ethical and moral considerations, I would like to draw a few implications of my own (not necessarily original by any means) from Dr. Roselli's research.

In the first place, it shows that homosexual activity is a naturally occurring behavior found in mammalian species (sheep are not the only mammals displaying this activity). The theologically inclined should note that this is how 'God' made the world and, I hope, the preaching class will now stop all the fuss and bother about the immorality, and similar nonsense, of the gay life style. If you don't like the way the deity made the universe take it up with her, or it, and stop persecuting your fellow creatures.

In the second place, I have to take issue with the statements of Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, a senior fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, reported in the New York Times article. Schwartz writes, 'If the mechanisms underlying sexual orientation can be discovered and manipulated, Dr, Wolpe [said], then the argument that sexual orientation is based in biology and is immutable 'evaporates.''

It by no means follows that the argument from biology 'evaporates.' A similar argument would be that since transgendered individuals can have sex change operations, therefore male or female sex differences are not based in biology. It is the word 'immutable' that gums up Dr. Wolpe's argument. No one argues that biologically-based mechanisms are necessarily 'immutable.' There could be no such thing as gene therapy if that were the case.

Sexual orientation appears to be biologically (gene) based and a naturally occurring phenomenon. The fact that science can discover the biological mechanism and even manipulate it doesn't change that at all. It is absurd to claim that if you discover a biological mechanism, then the mechanism is no longer 'based in biology.'

Finally, lets all hope that scientific understanding of the world we live in will help us better understand and care for each other and not be used to divide and anathematize us.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at