Saturday, February 03, 2007

Gay sheep revisited   posted by p-ter @ 2/03/2007 11:20:00 AM

Over at Slate, William Saletan takes a look at the gay sheep story. It starts:
Just up the road from Brokeback Mountain, closeted away in their own private Idaho, the gay sheep were getting it on.

Well, it wasn't exactly private. They were doing it in front of scientists at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near the Idaho-Montana-Wyoming border. The scientists arranged the trysts. It's called "sexual partner preference testing."

According to an article by researchers involved in the project, here's how it works. In a 15-by-10-foot "arena," a young ram is offered four choices: two ewes in heat and two rams. "The four stimulus animals are restrained in stanchions so that they can only be approached from the sides and rear." For 30 minutes, the unrestrained ram does as he pleases. The scientists count his "anogenital sniffs," "mounts," and "ejaculations."

The science of natural variation in sexual preferences is actually pretty interesting, standing as it does at the intersection of neurobiology, behavior, and genetics. Of course, the reason it's getting attention now is because of the backlash from those who worry that altering a ram's sexuality is the first step towards eradication of teh gay. Once any process is well-understood, there is the opportunity for controlling it; the development of sexual preferences is certainly no exception. But it's seriously bizarre to assume that if homosexuality is eliminated in rams (for economic reasons), the next step must be to eliminate it in humans. PETA's unintentionally funny* press release makes it clear this is how they intend to interpret it: "the experimenters plan to extrapolate the test results to humans-with the insidious implication that homosexuality in people can be 'cured.'"

You can't have it both ways: it is generally taken for granted that if homosexuality is shown to be largely biological, which seems to be the case, this would be a blow to homophopia the world over (why this is, I've never understood. Skin color has always been biological, and people still get all worked up about it). But on the other hand, once the biology is understood, of course it might then be possible to alter it. Whether this (hypothetical) understand of how to control sexuality in humans should be used is a much more interesting question; the science has nothing to say about this.

* This sentence literally made me laugh out loud: "Navratilova-who has won nine Wimbledon Women's Singles championships and, with a record 167 titles in singles and 174 in doubles, holds more overall tennis titles than any other player in history-adds, 'For the sake of the animals who will die unnecessarily in these experiments and for the many gays and lesbians who stand to be deeply offended by the social implications of these tests, I ask that you please end these studies at once.'" Juxtaposition of utterly irrelevant tennis statistics and moral outrage gets me every time.