Monday, June 06, 2005

Queer Eye and Others for The Fruit Fly

I didn't get to the Times article, For Fruit Flies, Gene Shift Tilts Sex Orientation until yesterday. But you have to read it and think, "Whoooooooooa ... this is SERIOUSLY going to piss off Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly [some irony there for Phyllis, but I'm likely just reading too much into a last name]; my morning's made!"

The crux of the article: There's a master gene in fruit flies that determines whether a male fruit fly has sex with a female, or with a male, or a female with a male or with a female --- in other words, you can make a fruit fly a fruit by playing with a gene. There goes another "Whoooooooooooa ..." Yes, indeed, there are queer fruit flies --- it's times like this I'm totally convinced there is a God, and what a wicked sense of humor God doth have.

So, is homosexuality abnormal --- ? Well, yes, of course, anything that only happens in about 4% of a given population is NOT normal, ergo it's abnormal. Is homosexuality unnatural? Nope, or certainly more and more of the evidence would certainly point in that direction. Why isn't it unnatural? Because nature allows for it to happen (regarding people specifically, read on), for whatever reason nature may have, and therefore it's a "naturally" occurring phenomenon.

Let me elaborate a bit. I use the word "abnormal" not in the pejorative way most of us tend to associate the word, but rather in the sense that it connotes something that's not statistically normal. In this case heterosexuality is the normative condition inasmuch as better than 95% of humans anyway (I've not seen the number for non-humans, and let there by no doubt that
there are many non-human species which have same-sex coupling and sex) seem to be that way. Those with a problem with homosexuals, though, have tended to fall in line with homosexuality being abnormal in a sense that it's against nature, and otherwise indicative of moral depravity or degeneracy. It would seem that this isn't the case at all, though admittedly we still have to find this gene, or more likely whatever combination of genes in human beings are responsible for sexual orientation such as we've seen with fruit flies.

In its simplest sense a gene is a chunk of DNA that codes for a protein. In fact genes are often part of a very complex interaction of chemicals and biological processes and in that sense don't usually really stand alone. I don't now what the fruit fly gene in question here is coding for, but it's interesting to think that a single protein is determining the behavior of a creature, in this case its sexual orientation; that's no small thing. This isn't all, recently scientists have discovered that applying nasal spray containing a protein called oxytocin to subjects increases their level of trust for people they don't know --- so here we have a relatively simple protein changing how deal with people, specifically how we trust them, and again no small thing.

Getting back to the the fruit fly gene, we don't know if things work the same way in humans or not, but it leads to an interesting potential problem I can see society dealing with, which is being able to "cure" homosexuality. Homosexuality may well be "curable" by turning on or off a gene in a man or a woman. I suppose the same thing can eventually be said for "curing" a black person in America from being black, or any type of person with a distinctive characteristic that makes them stand apart as "abnormal" (me with my hazel eyes, for example). My personal belief, and my wife's inasmuch as this was a discussion we shared in the car yesterday, was that homosexuality is as natural a part of the human condition as any other and therefore there's nothing to cure.

I expect that this will be a topic of debate and research. Frankly I'd sooner see such efforts expended on pedophiles and other sexual deviants with destructive tendencies, assuming we eventually find a gene that causes them to be what they are, but my guess is this is not as easy to model in fruit flies as sexual orientation is and we'll likely wait a while for any answers here. But if there are genes for those behaviors, what does it say about how we look at these people? In the end we're still left with many questions of genetics vs. environment, and where the lines cross, and what aspects of behavior are, ultimately pre-programmed and to what extend we have no control over that programming. It's all so complicated, and fascinating, and offers up many hard questions that we'll have to wrestle with.


Blogger GrrlScientist said...

While I was interviewing at "that very respectable school" on Friday, the search committee talked about this at lunch. It was quite interesting to think that one gene can do this in fruit flies .. and even though flies are not humans, there are many genetic similarities between flies and humans, which of course, makes this intriguing. On the other hand, there is no way to account for culture, which definitely exerts a powerful influence over human behavior (but presumably, not over fly behavior).


8:13 AM  
Blogger Africanuck said...

I was reading that the sickle cell anemia gene so prevalent in West Africans, when only transmitted by one parent, gives the child immunity to malaria.

It may well be that they will eventually discover that there is a reason for the "homosexual gene" (if such exists, which seems likely given this study). Logically, this is a self-destructive trait(from a reproduction point of view), and there has to be some reason for the fact that it hasn't died out.

9:17 AM  
Blogger James said...

I, too, am impressed with the fact that one gene is doing this in fruit flies --- but I'm wondering what the homophobes are thinking about all this. It seems that we're coming up with more and more evidence to show that there are indeed differences in the way homosexuals are wired, and that doesn't come from culture. But then what pressure does culture exert, and the question becomes at what point does meme overwhelm or modify the proclivity of the gene?

There's a blog opportunity there ...

9:18 AM  
Blogger James said...

I don't think that homosexuality is self-destructive, specifically in the context you're using it here. There's nothing that stops homosexuals from reproducing with a woman, in fact many historical homosexuals have done just that. So homosexuality doesn't so much endanger the species, at least with humans, as it may make it less "fun" for a homosexual to procreate.

That said, I think your substantive point is very interesting. If prevailing genes are pressured by evolution, and evolution's primary focus is the continuance of the species, then why are genes for homosexuality [keeping in mind that we haven't found any yet] retained when clearly they don't advance procreation in the "standard" sense?

Maybe the process of establishing sexual orientation in humans is so complicated that the process is thrown off due to small changes. Homosexuals may be the result of too much or too little of a hormone which may turn on or off a gene, and maybe on the other end we see satyrism or something else, with 90% of the population as a whole being straightforward heterosexuals. Well, I'm speculating, clearly, and I'm not particularly qualified to do that [this is hardly a subject I've given much reading to], but it is definitely fascinating.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Josh Canel said...

90% of the population as a whole being straightforward heterosexuals.

I'm sure you didn't mean the pun, but the term "straightforward" brings up something interesting. I recall that, according a sliding scale, only about 5% of people are "perfectly" heterosexual. In other words, many people by be exclusively heterosexual in the bedroom, but not in their minds.

While I am perfect comfortable with the proposition that homosexuality is natural, I think sometimes the natural debate is a red herring. I think the issue of bisexuality gets overlooked. Yes, other primates are bisexual, but studies like the one you're referring to play into a dualistic notion that I'm not sure is correct.

Gads! I didn't mean to comment so long. However, one anecdote: when I brought up this study to a right-wing Christian at work, she said, "That's wrong." My obvious reply, "What's wrong?" She said, "They shouldn't make gay flies!"

8:56 PM  
Anonymous Josh Canel said...

But getting back to the bisexual issue. I think that it is possible that a "natural" bisexual can be so influenced by environment that he or she develops a specific preference. Or what about a bisexual who remains monogomous over a 40 year relationship?

8:59 PM  
Blogger James said...

You can be sure that I considered the issue of bisexuality in this whole thing, and frankly I'm not so much inclined to think of the "naturally" heterosexual/homosexual distinction as a red herring, rather as a way to simplify what's an otherwise very charged and contentious issue. When you delve into bisexuality people take the stand that if there are bisexuals this is obviously a choice issue vice a genetic issue. Now how much bisexuality is choice or culture I don't know, though I'm inclined to think it's more of a cultural issue and that the potential for this likely resides in everyone if they're open to it (I'm thinking of Ursula K. Leguin's "The Dispossesed" as I write that.)

It seems to me that the best way to arrive at whether homosexuality is "natural" or not is to find a gene that programs for it, as was the case with the fruit fly. The cultural factor is removed because it is presumed that fruit flies have no culture, and the only way they can act in homosexual ways is if they're genetically so inclined. Making the case from there we then extrapolate to humans, and then endeavor to see if in fact a genetic mechanism exists. Finding that mechanism puts the holy rollers out of the "They're degenerates, and abomination before God" business, as clearly God allows for this to happen. Getting that argument settled I think we can then safely segue into considerations of bisexuality, for as much as that would need to be resolved.

9:18 PM  
Anonymous Josh Canel said...

Wow. I'm happy to see a reference to The Dispossed. I have little other response other than to say that I'm glad to have found another LeGuin fan. As a sophomore in high school (that was 14 years ago) when I read it, it was a major eye-opening read. It seriously changed my views of economics. The Left Hand of Darkness did the same a couple of years later, more in regards to gender and sexuality.

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Josh Canel said...

Damn. The Dispossesed.

10:33 PM  

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