Monday, January 01, 2007

Gay Sheep

I'm a little bit late to the game, but there are some researchers in Oregon trying to see if they can manipulate the sexual preferences of sheep by tinkering with their physiologies. The moral issues involved have gotten a little muddled, thanks to the combined efforts of PETA and Martina Navratilova, but I think I understand the form of the objections from liberal quarters. In particular, I think Navratilova's big objection is that the implication of working to figure out how to manipulate sexual preference seems to be that we would want to manipulate sexual preference. That would further imply, presumably, that certain sexual preferences are more desirable than, and thus superior to, others.

First, let me say that I think Navratilova mischaracterizes the research being done in Oregon; I think a fairer way of describing things is to say that researchers feel that the ability to manipulate sexual preference is a major test of our knowledge of the mechanisms involved.

Second, I want to just briefly mention one of my pet issues, which is that the distinction between genetics and choice in discussions of sexual preference acquisition is more apparent than real. It just doesn't make sense to talk about people choosing what they like and don't like. When people choose, all they're really doing is taking one course of action instead of the alternatives, but they do so on the basis of their previously-existing preferences. That is, what is a choice supposed to be if it's not an expression of preferences? The most charitable thing you can say about the whole thing is that you can't explain preference acquisition in terms of choice without falling into an infinite regress. Really, though, I think you can file this under "it's not even wrong". Actually, I'll do just that.

Update: To clarify, the only thing, here, I really consider "not even wrong" is the argument that people choose their sexual preferences. That particular position just doesn't make any kind of sense.

The concerns that Navratilova brings up are another matter. Those are coherent beliefs about the issues, they're just wrong or misapplied for various reasons. I don't think that the research should stop, nor am I especially worried about its implications, but I can at least understand what her objections are supposed to be.

18 comments:

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Call me old fashioned but I do think that certain sexual preferences are more desirable than others. I mean, obviously having a sexual preference that allows you to procreate with someone you love is preferable to one that doesn't. That said it's also preferable to to embrace whatever preference you have (so long as it involves consenting adults).

Ok enough of that. What I'm interested in is this: how do they plan to go about making the sheep gay?

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Wow, Tom. Since when are desireable preferences always those that lead to greater reproduction? I doubt you'd apply that sort of reasoning to other aspects of your life. (It appears you and your partner have chosen education and career [and peace and quiet] over making as many babies as possible, for example.) Plus, last time I checked, the globe isn't suffering from underpopulation. It's advantageous for everyone else if there are more non-reproducing humans. I won't get into the propogation of altruistic genes because you probably already know about that.

Ooh, here's a good slogan: "Be gay. It's the environmentally responsible thing to do!"

Paul, on your first point, the only reason we'd bother to explore the mechanisms involved with sexual preference is if we want in turn to manipulate those mechanisms again (Test Manipulation --> Understanding of Mechanisms --> Controlled Manipulation). The only reason we'd want to manipulate sexual preference is if we think some preferences are problematic. If somehow humans figure out exactly what "makes" us gay or straight or whatever else, that knowledge isn't going to exist as research for it's own sake; it's going to be used.

Of course research into genetic origins of traits isn't necessarily meant to be prescriptive or corrective; we know what makes one person blond and another person a redhead, but nobody's clamoring (yet) to get genetically prescribed babies that are blond or redheaded. But hair color isn't a politically, emotionally, and religiously charged trait like sexual preferences is. There are so many phenotypes and behaviors that could be explored for the sake of simply understanding them. Those researchers chose to research sexual preference because popular culture is so insistent that they PROVE that sexuality is genetic or environental, fixed or fixable.

"Not even wrong" my butt.

I agree that there's a lot of needless fretting over whether sexual preference is genetic or environmental. I don't have the arsenal of philosophical tools that you have, but your explanation of how preference is manifested makes sense. Of course, the main reason I think it's silly to care about the origins of sexual preference are precisely because I think all sexual preferences are equally valuable (namely, value neutral).

Rebecca C. Brown said...

It just occured to me that Tom was using the words "desireable" and "preferable" in a strictly evolutionary context.

I don't think those words were used in such a strict sense in Paul's post. I think they're meant to mean socially "good."

Tommaso Sciortino said...

You misunderstand my point. I'm just saying that - all things being equal - it's better to have the option to procreate with the one you love rather than not having the option. Granted, individual people might decide that having this option is not worth anything to them and for them I suppose it's not important. Still, if you ever seen a Lifetime original movie you know that for most people finding out that you can't conceive with their partner is upsetting. I think my point should stand without any reference to "evolutionary imperatives".

As for the gay sheep thing I think might be useful to imagine an analogue for some other trait which some small-minded people think negatively off. I mean, what if they were doing research that might allow us to purposefully conceive babies with blond hair and blue eyes? Or what if they were doing research on sheep to determine the amount of melanin in the skin?

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Understood, Tommaso.

Paul said...

You also misunderstand what I consider "not even wrong" - it's the second point, the one about preferences.

As for the actual research, see, I think it's a very good thing that researchers are working to describe the exact physiological mechanism of sexual preference acquisition. Right now, science's inability to explain in precise detail how one acquires sexual preferences is used by many people as an excuse to reject physiological origins altogether. That's a problem to the extent that it makes people feel like they have more room to disapprove of homosexuality and, therefore, homosexuals.

That's a reason to research the question that's got nothing to do with wanting to actually manipulate the mechanism. Now, granted, as with all scientific knowledge, it's going to be used in various ways, some of which are objectionable and some of which are not. But so what? What's the practical implication of that supposed to be?

Jim Newman said...

PETA’s big lie:

Just so you know. The false suggestion that the research is aimed at curing homosexuality was made by PETA. Yes, the animal rights group.

Of course PETA has their own motives for receiving press on this story. In fact, PETA heavily edited quotes by the researchers and even fabricated information to generate press coverage. Many weeks ago, a writer in the states looked into PETA false claims. Here’s what he found:

http://thenexthurrah.typepad.com/the_next_hurrah/2006/09/peta_crosses_th.html

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Understood, Paul.

And good point, too, about why we should look into the "causes" of homosexuality. I still think the research is more harmful than helpful, but at least now I can see a silver lining.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

You are being too reasonable for a blogger Rebecca. If you keep this up you'll set a bad example for everyone and eventually someone will have to change their mind about something.

Thinker said...

Paul wrote: "Right now, science's inability to explain in precise detail how one acquires sexual preferences is used by many people as an excuse to reject physiological origins altogether.

I agree, but if you really believe that even irrefutable scientific evidence will change minds, you must see a different world than I do. There really cannot be more irrefutable scientific evidence for something than that which has been accumulated over the past 150 years to support evolutionary theory. Despite that, the Gallup Organization finds:

Only about a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by the evidence, while just as many say that it is just one of many theories and has not been supported by the evidence. The rest say they don't know enough to say. Forty-five percent of Americans also believe that God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago. A third of Americans are biblical literalists who believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.

http://www.galluppoll.com/content/?CI=14107

Most people seem to pick and choose in order to support their existing beliefs. In the "faith-based" society that the Bushies count on (at least until recently), scientific evidence doesn't matter, unless of course it can somehow be twisted to support their "faith-based" beliefs.

Paul said...

Some scientific knowledge is accepted and believed, some is not. Maybe creationism still holds sway, but geocentrism doesn't.

I don't give up nearly so quickly and easily as that.

Thinker said...

Unfortunately, even Geocentrism is not dead. If he wants, Tomasso can weigh in on a lengthy debate he had with a contemporary Geocentrist a year or so ago.

Less anecdotal than that, the bi-annual Scientific and Engineering Indicators (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/indicators/) present the results of a national poll of scientific knowledge (Table 7-10 in the 2006 report). One question asked is "Does the sun go around the earth, or does the earth go around the sun?" In the most recent results, 71% of the respondents knew the correct answer. That is encouraging, but it means 29% held a geocentric view. That astonishes me. Internationally, things are even worse. 1/3 or EU respondents hold a geocentric view, as do 41% of Chinese respondents. South Koreans and Malayasians do best, with 86% of South Korean respondents and 81% of Malayasian respondents knowing that the earth revolves around the sun.

Thinker said...

Sorry, Tommaso, I just noticed that I misspelled your name.

Thinker said...

Oh, and if you didn't see it, you might be interested in a piece published last night at Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/books/int/2007/01/02/numbers/). It is an interview with Ronald Numbers, an historian raised as a young earth creationist who lost is faith in grad school. He and the interviewer discuss "his break with the church, whether creationists are less intelligent and why Galileo wasn't really a martyr." I found his perspective quite interesting.

Paul said...

Are we seriously going to have a debate about whether or not scientific progress has greatly diminished the influence and prevalence of geocentrism?

Thinker said...

http://thepartyline.blogspot.com/2006/01/why-we-should-blame-scientists-when.html

Paul said...

In the very appropriate words of the great Tommaso Sciortino, I’ll consider this thread closed.

Jim Newman said...

In regards to the Sunday Times article which is the source of all these wild conspiracy theories, I am pleased that a writer has thoroughly investigated the article. As he reports, the Sunday Times article is filled with major errors and false claims. His analysis also raises important questions about the timing of the article which comes almost five years after the research was actually conducted.

Here’s a link to that analysis that anyone who is interested in this topic should read:

A wolf in gay sheep's clothing: Corruption at the London Times
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/1/4/134158/4348