Saturday, October 27, 2007

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw with Matching Pumps

There was an article in the Salt Lake Tribune a couple days ago about gay worms. That’s not exactly the sort of creature you want getting press as gay, but hey, it’s local research.

“The researchers isolated the nerve cells responsible for sexual attraction in nematode worms, then "flipped" a genetic switch in the brains of female worms so they became attracted to other females.”

Of course nematodes ain’t humans, and expecting such a relatively simple genetic on/off switch for homosexuality for us would be a mistake.

Gaiety is, however, abundant throughout creation. I’ve collected research on everything from gay penguins to kangaroos, from dolphins to fruit flies, from mice to guppies (1,2). I’d be hard-pressed to think of a creature on this earth that does not have some measured occurrence of gaiety. In fact, some of our closest genetic relatives, the bonobos, are almost famous for their gay sexual activity.

Not only do we see same sex attraction in most every creature, we also know how to create it. We’ve made some species gay through genetic manipulation (3,4), others by hormone exposure (5-7), and even others by brain surgery on once straight mammals (8,9). I’d not, however, expect such research on humans to be forthcoming :-).

In all, it’s kind of surprising a study on worms even makes the news.

But I suppose it’s for a reason. There are still many folks who deny the existence of homosexuality outside of humanity, and others seem to ignore it in hopes of downplaying biological causes. The desire to do so is understandable. Biological causes feel more permanent to folks who hope to change us, though that’s certainly not the case; nurture or nature may both have permanent or malleable results. While such folks would rather blame, say, distant fathers or domineering mothers, I doubt near all these gay mammals, birds, insects, and marsupials were raised under such conditions :-) (I know I wasn't and I can't stand these tactics that aim to insult some great parents).

In all, and as I’ve said before in more detail, the causes of homosexuality must include at least one prime biological cause, and that is what such research on other creatures can possibly pin down for us. Such a cause is a necessary requirement, and no nurture or psychological cause that anyone may claim can be a sufficient cause. Simply, however we are created, there must first be a switch to flip and circuitry set there in the gay mind to cause the eventual feelings of with whom you are supposed to couple, just as it’s there to cause the feeling of, say, red.

Of course, I also know many in the gay community fear such research in both our species and in others, and, as stated in the Tribune article, it may become be a double edged sword. I know there’s interest in such research on gay livestock, if not to “cure” them, then to avoid purchasing or breeding for young animals that will eventually be found gay. I mean, what breeder wants a ram who’ll only be interested in rams (10), right?

Thank goodness, though, humans are so much more than a commodity, like livestock, or nematodes :-). Thank goodness life thrives off of its diversity, not merely in spite of it, and that human morality is becoming more and more about treating each individual as we’d want to be treated, rather than the tribalistic Darwinian arms race of our past. I’m pretty sure the day will come when we will be able to alter the biology of humans to the extent that we could change which sex we innately love, but I’m also pretty sure(/hopeful :-)) that, by that time, not very many people will care.

1. Bagemihl B. 1999. Biological exuberance. New York: St. Martin's Press.
2. Vasey P. L. 2002. Same-sex sexual partner preference in hormonally and neurologically unmanipulated animals. Annual Review of Sex Research 8:141-179.
3. Ryner L. C., S. F. Goodwin, D. H. Castrillon, A. Anand, A. Villella, B. S. Baker, J. C. Hall, B. J. Taylor, S. A. Wasserman. 1996. Control of male sexual behavior and sexual orientation in drosophila by the fruitless gene. Cell 87:1079-1089.
4. Kitamoto T. 2002. Conditional disruption of synaptic transmission induces male-male courtship behavior in drosophila. Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Science 99(20):13232-13237.
5. Woodson J. C., B. W. Balleine, R. A. Gorski. 2002. Sexual experience interacts with steroid exposure to shape the partner preferences of rats. Hormones and Behavior 42:148-157.
6. Baum M. J., M. S. Erskine, E. Kornberg, C. E. Weaver. 1990. Prenatal and neonatal testosterone exposure interact to affect differentiation of sexual behavior and partner preference in female ferrets. Behavioral Neuroscience 104(1):183-198.
7. Thompson R. R., F. L. Moore. 2003. The effects of sex steroids and vasotocin on behavioral responses to visual and olfactory sexual stimuli in ovariectomized female roughskin newts. Hormones and Behavior 44:311-318.
8. Kimchi T., J. Xu, C. Dulac. 2007. A functional circuit underlying male sexual behaviour in the female mouse brain. Nature 448(7157):1009-1014.
9. Paredes R. G., M. J. Baum. 1995. Altered sexual partner preference in male ferrets given excitotoxic lesions of the preoptic area/anterior hypothalamus. Journal of Neuroscience 15(10):6619-6630.
10. Roselli C. E., K. Larkin, J. A. Resko, J. N. Stellflug, F. Stormshak. 2003. The volume of a sexually dimorphic nucleus in the ovine medial preoptic area/anterior hypothalamus varies with sexual partner preference. Endocrinology 145(2):478-483.


Kengo Biddles said...

I've long-held that my gayness is nature and nurture. It did not, thus, surprise me that this research was made/discovered/published.

As for Dolphins, don't they also, for example sodomize the sharks they kill, like a sign of their dominance? And isn't that something common throughout the whole animal world?

Scot said...

Hey Kengo

Hmm, I’m not sure what counts as sodomy for a dolphin (Must... Resist... blow hole joke...). :-)

My admittedly superficial search could not find research on shark-buggering dolphins.

But yes, using sex as a show of dominance is pretty common throughout the animal world, though not near as common as homosexuality. I mean, we have homosexuality in many species without social hierarchies, or the capacity to track them, such as the example in the article.

But more importantly, it’s not near the same issue. We’re not just talking about some sex act, like mounting; it’s about orientation. In species where mounting is used as a show of dominance, it’s the head male doing the most… um… bragging. He’s also getting the most heterosexual sex, and antagonistic to his same-sex victim. Take, for example, prison or ancient battlefields where homosexual rape was used as a threat by the victor, some testosterone filled monster of a man. Such sex is performed primarily by heterosexual men for reasons of climbing the social hierarchy or pushing someone else down, not for pair bonding with their victim, not for love or sexual orientation.

In these examples of other species, I’m talking about orientation, sexual preference. Here the individual favors, often exclusively, sexual activity with their same sex. They nuzzle, caress, care for each other mutually, and, in some species, bond for life, and even raise adopted babies together. Many of these animals do not attempt to court or have sex with the opposite sex at all. They perform even the mating rituals with members of their same sex. Sure, there is often some sort of genital stimulation involved, but it’s not the main activity that indicates orientation in these species, just as gay relationships are not, no matter how much Focus of the “Family” insists :-), based on getting off.

Simply, no matter how much they look alike, sex for dominance is not sex for love or attraction.

Not that that was what you were saying :-). But I wanted to address the notion that gay behavior in other animals is merely a show of dominance. It often comes up in this topic, and it’s not the case.

Kengo Biddles said...

thanks for the meaty response, Scot. :)

javajones said...

Thank you for such a clear and well documented essay. I especially like the point you make about the difference between sex for dominance and same sex emotional attraction.

Before I “became gay”* I used to think that all instances of homosexual behavior in animals was a matter of dominant posturing. I was emotionally attached to the belief that homosexual behavior was just wrong. But my mind and my heart were opened and I began to understand much better what it means to be gay. I have read lots of studies from scientific and social researchers since I had my heart opened, and this helped me accept homosexuality as a natural variation of human affections.

*For clarification: I am a heterosexually oriented female, but I feel a very strong affinity for gay men in particular. As I read in one blog recently, I feel as though I have an inner gay man. This of course doesn’t mean I have personal experience or understanding of what it is like to be gay, but I am very sympathetic.

Scot said...

Thank you for the nice comment, javajones. I’m glad to see new faces around here :-).

Queers United said...

i heard of the gay penguins and reports of 500+ species exhibiting same-sex mating behaviors, but haven't heard of these fabulous worms.

Scot said...

Yeah, the creator likes the gay animals. :-)

I've put a lot more information on this topic here in, which is not just about gay animals but about how researchers have altered animals to make them gay, from genetic manipulation to brain surgery.