As I am sure many of you know this week we saw spirit day and as many will also know I am bisexual.
Well on spirit day I heard so many anti-gay arguments and so I decided to write an article on homosexuality, nature and science 🙂
Fruit flies are among the most sexually proficient creatures on earth. Their ability to produce a new generation in two weeks has made them the darlings of genetics researchers for nearly a century. Put a male fruit fly into a bottle with a female, and he will almost instantly start to breed with her. However, in a lab in the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda (Maryland) there are some fruit flies which defy this usual behaviour, these male flies when placed in a bottle with a female will totally ignore her. But when these males and females are all placed in a container together the females will cower in the corners while the males essentially have an orgy in the middle. Why is this? Well it’s because the scientists have added a single gene to the males, and this gene has basically altered their sexuality.
To some extent this research is welcomed because it supports what many of us have long felt: that sexuality is an innate characteristic, like skin colour, rather than a life-style choice, as conservative moralists contend. And if that is true, then gays deserve legal protection similar to the laws that prohibit racial discrimination.
However, as these things often are, it is a double edged sword. Despite the obvious political benefits of proving that sexuality is genetic there is a problem that can be seen in many people’s interpretation of this research – that homo/bi/pan-sexuality is a “defect”, an “illness”, that needs to be “fixed”.
No matter how people feel about the issue, it is increasingly hard to argue that genes play no role in homosexuality. The evidence began to pile up in 1991, when studies showed that identical twins were more likely to have the same sexual orientation than other pairs of siblings. That same year, a California scientist reported slight brain differences between gay and straight men, although the conclusion is disputed. And in 1993, an NIH researcher found a stretch of DNA on the X chromosome that seemed to harbour one or more genes affecting sexual orientation.
Going back to the fruit fly experiment I mentioned earlier; the main limitation is that although the scientists have managed to create homosexual male flies they have so far failed to cause the same effect in females. The gene in question though is interesting, it was discovered long ago, and is one of the most thoroughly studied of all fruit-fly genes. It is called the “white” gene because, among many effects, it influences eye colour, and a particular mutation in the gene causes a fly’s normally red eyes to be white (The gene’s specific job is to produce a protein that enables cells to utilize an essential amino acid called tryptophan. If fruit flies are unable to process tryptophan properly, then they cannot manufacture red eye pigment). On the surface it’s hard to see how this could affect sexual preference.
Under normal circumstances, the white gene is active only in certain cells; including brain cells, and does nothing to disrupt standard sexual behaviour. In these experiments normal version of the gene was inserted into embryonic flies, but transplanted the gene in such a way that it was activated in every cell.
With every cell sucking in tryptophan from the blood, a shortage of tryptophan developed in the brain, where it has important uses. Since tryptophan levels were altered, the researchers hypothesize; the brain was unable to make enough serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters that carry messages between nerve cells. Serotonin is a multi-purpose chemical, and abnormal levels of it in humans have been linked to everything from depression to violent behaviour. In the case of the gay fruit flies, the scientists speculate, a shortfall of serotonin produced the change in sexuality.
One piece of evidence that supports this theory is the drug Prozac, which relieves depression by lifting serotonin levels in the brain. At the same time, though, the serotonin boost tends to dampen sexual desire. In contrast, low serotonin levels can produce heightened sexual activity, at least in lab animals. In experiments done in the U.S. and Italy, scientists used drugs and special diets to suppress serotonin in rats, mice, cats and rabbits. The result was increased sex drive and, sometimes, homosexual couplings.
However, there are a few issues still with this theory: why would the increase of sex drive from the lack of serotonin often be homosexual rather than heterosexual? And if sexual orientation is genetically determined, then why do some identical twins differ in sexual preferences? Will children be given genetic tests to determine the odds of their becoming homosexual? Will prenatal tests lead to abortions of foetuses that might grow up to be gay?
On top of this genetic research is something else I feel needs addressing: as well as the whole “sexuality is a choice” argument people often use the “it’s not natural” argument, well observations by zoologists begs to differ. More and more we are discovering that homosexual and bisexual activity is not unknown within the animal kingdom. Nothing is more experimental and broad-minded than Mother Nature after all.
One example is Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo, who have been inseparable for over six years. They display classic pair-bonding behaviour—entwining of necks, mutual preening, flipper flapping, and the rest. They also have sex, while ignoring potential female mates. In 2004 some filmmakers went in search of homosexual wild animals as part of a National Geographic Ultimate Explorer documentary about the female’s role in the mating game the programme (called “girl power”) included a variety of species displaying homosexual and bisexual behaviour.
Studies suggest 75 percent of bonobo (an African ape closely related to humans) sex is non-reproductive and that nearly all bonobos are bisexual. Frans de Waal, author of Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, calls the species a “make love, not war” primate. He believes bonobos use sex to resolve conflicts between individuals.
Among plants, sometimes flowers possess both male and female sex organs, sometimes they are unisexual and on different plants, sometimes unisexual and on the same plants, sometimes flowers are designed so they can’t self-pollinate, other times they have to pollinate themselves.
Among animals we find everything from the male seahorse who carries the eggs, hatches them and takes care of the young, to the “polyandrous” Spotted Sandpiper whose females may lay up to four nests in a season, each equipped with a different male incubating the eggs. Of course the common earthworm is both male and female, and some snails sometimes mate with themselves, producing offspring.
The higher up the evolutionary scale you go, the kinkier it all gets. Among communities of mice and other mammals, when population density reaches a certain high level where diseases and famine threaten, not only does homosexual behaviour appear but also parents begin killing their own offspring.
Since 1988, the Department of Agriculture (US) has been doing studies in Idaho on hormonal and genetic differences in rams. The reason for its importance is not only to find human applications, but no sheepherder wants to pay $4000 for a breeding ram that isn’t interested in ewes. In an extensive study they found the “Dud Stud Phenomenon” iwhich is where rams were judged to be homosexual. The study showed that about 8.5% of rams studied were homosexual – close to the estimate of 7-10% of humans in the U.S.
Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool, claims several potential functions of homosexuality. Dunbar says the bonobo’s use of homosexual activity for social bonding is a possible example, adding, “One of the main arguments for human homosexual behaviour is that it helps bond male groups together, particularly where a group of individuals are dependent on each other, as they might be in hunting or warfare.” For instance, the Spartans, in ancient Greece, encouraged homosexuality among their elite troops. Another suggestion is that homosexuality is a developmental phase people go through. This is similar to the argument of play in young animals to get their brain and muscles to work effectively and together. Off the back of this, there’s the possibility you can get individuals locked into this phase for the rest of their lives as a result of the social environment they grow up in. However, Dunbar also makes it clear that homosexuality doesn’t necessarily have to have a function. It could be a spin-off or by-product of something else and in itself carries no evolutionary weight. For example, sexual gratification, which encourages procreation – an organism is designed to maximize its motivational systems. In other words, if the urge to have sex is strong enough it may spill over into non-reproductive sex, as suggested by the actions of the bonobos and macaques.
To the western world, homosexuality (both animal and human) is an anomaly, an unexpected behaviour that above all requires some sort of “explanation” or “cause” or “rationale.” In contrast, to many indigenous cultures around the world, homosexuality and transgender are a routine and expected occurrence in both the human and animal worlds. Most Native American tribes formally recognize–and honour–human homosexuality and transgender in the role of the ‘two-spirit’ person (sometimes formerly known as berdache). The ‘two-spirit’ is a sacred man or woman who mixes gender categories by wearing clothes of opposite or both sexes and often engaging in same -sex relations.
Another point is that compared to straight men, gay men are more likely to be left-handed, to be the younger siblings of older brothers, and to have hair that whorls in a counterclockwise direction. Do these common biological traits among gay men imply that maybe their sexuality is biological too?
One huge problem is that this topic/issue has never been properly researched because it’s so politically sensitive. What can be known though is that homosexual and bisexual behaviour can be seen throughout the natural world and that among human populations, homosexuality occurs at a certain rate in all populations – regardless of race, age or gender. These two things have got to imply that there is some degree of genetic, or innateness to sexuality.
To me the most obvious and compelling argument, even ignoring the genetic research, studies of brain chemistry and studies of identical twins raised apart, which strongly support statistically its not choice but nature, is that no one would CHOOSE such a behaviour that generated so much hate and discrimination. Just think of the many personal accounts of those that have tried so hard to change out of the fear of God or fear or judgement/discrimination/bullying/etc, but fail since you CANNOT change natural sexual orientation. Many commit suicide, or leave Christianity feeling they can’t respect a God that would make them gay and then condemn them. How can one believe that God condemns people who love each other tenderly and unselfishly just because they were born homosexual? To me this echoes of the time when left-handedness was seen as inherently evil, or when mental illness was seen as possession. Still others try desperate to hide their sexuality, some even undergoing conversion therapy in secret and many end up DYING during said “therapy” due to ECT being administered incorrectly (not that I agree with ECT anyway but that’s another debate).
“Bonobo Sex and Society,” Scientific American, Mar. 1995
Homosexuality: Its Nature and Causes, D.J. West
A sexually dimorphic nucleus in the human brain. Swaab, D.F. and E. Fliers
Twin and sibship study of overt male homo-sexuality. Kallmann, F.J.
A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Bailey, J.M., and R.C. Pillard.
A linkage between DNA markers on the X chromosome and male sexual orientation. Hamer, D. H., S. Hu, V. L. Magnuson, N. Hu, and A. M. Pattatucci.
Nature via nurture: Genes, experience, and what makes us huma. Matt Ridley