Wool and Graze
Gay sheep revisited.
Sometimes you come across a topic too big for the space you're writing in. This is one of those times. The topic is research on gay sheep and what it might mean for gay people. It's hugely complicated, and some of the complications didn't fit the space I had in print last week. Slate has plenty of cyberspace to talk things through, so let's talk. Gay sheep are more than joke material. They can teach us a lot about how science, technology, economics, motives, and morality fit together. Here are a few lessons.
1. Scientific motives can differ from technological motives. The sheep researchers—Charles Roselli of Oregon Health and Science University and Fred Stormshak of Oregon State University—are investigating biological factors in homosexuality. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals accuses them of trying to "cure" homosexuality. Not true. Roselli and OHSU's publicist, Jim Newman, have spent months dousing this fire. Roselli has never said or written anything against homosexuality. In fact, he has said that studies suggesting a biological basis for homosexuality tend to encourage tolerance.
Nor has Roselli tried, in any experiment, to make sheep turn out straight. He has tried the opposite: to make them turn out gay. He does this not to promote homosexuality but to find out whether the mechanism he's testing—deprivation of estrogen during fetal development—accounts for homosexuality. Scientists such as Roselli don't focus on achieving a preferred outcome. They focus on learning mechanisms. They want to know how systems—in this case, biological systems—work.
What Roselli and Newman have labored to convey in their fight with PETA is that you can't infer motives from research on mechanisms. That's absolutely true. Mechanisms are detachable from motives. But that truth cuts both ways. You can't infer Roselli's motives, nor you can you predict the motives of people who might exploit, in a later technological program, the mechanisms he's clarifying. And there's the rub.
2. When people mix, motives mix. The sheep research is a collaboration between a behavioral neuroendocrinologist (Roselli) and an animal scientist (Stormshak). It's also a collaboration between a medical institution (OHSU) and a more agricultural-industrial institution (Oregon State University). Each of these participants has distinct interests and obligations. So do the project's funders: the National Institutes of Health (specifically, the National Center for Research Resources) and the National Science Foundation.
NCRR's mission statement says it funds "discoveries that begin at a molecular and cellular level, move to animal-based studies, and then are translated to patient-oriented clinical research, resulting in cures and treatments for … diseases." It expects a human therapeutic payoff. Stormshak, for his part, has made clear that he's interested in sheep fertility as an economic outcome of his work. Gay rams, he notes, obstruct efficient breeding.
These aren't Roselli's main concerns. He's trying to figure out the system of hormones, brain, and behavior. Sheep just happen to be a useful species for his work. But as he collaborates with OSU, requests experimental animals, and seeks funding from NCRR, he invokes the interests of colleagues and evaluators. He adds "better selection of rams for breeding" to his rationales. He says his work might help to clarify the biology of human sexual orientation, alleviate sex-related disorders, and resolve difficulties in sex assignment of infants with ambiguous genitals. These applications to sheep and people appear in his writing not because they motivate him, but because the research is bigger than he is. It's a group project. He can speak for himself, but he can't guarantee whose motives will prevail or where they will lead.
3. Differences among motives matter, even when they're subtle. PETA has made hay of a 2000 paper in which Stormshak posited that gay rams "may not be exposed to the same levels" of estrogen as straight rams. "If this is true," he wrote, then estrogen therapy "might alter their sexual behavior to the point of being more like" the behavior of straight rams. PETA thinks this study threatens to advance the eradication of homosexuality.
But look more closely. The paper's title is "Influence of castration and estrogen replacement on sexual behavior of female-oriented, male-oriented, and asexual rams." And that's what the study examines: All the rams, not just the gay ones, are castrated and given estrogen. The point isn't to make the gay rams straight; it's to "restore sexual behavior" in general. And the experiment fails. Stormshak concludes:
Because there are no readily apparent phenotypic traits that characterize the male-oriented or asexual ram, these animals are frequently selected as flock sires and hence contribute to decreased fertility of ewes and economic loss to the sheep industry. Treatment of these types of rams with estrogens to enhance their sexual behavior or performance may not be practical.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of sheep by Lynn Ketchum/Oregon State University.