Gay sheep revisited.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 8 2007 7:34 AM

Wool and Graze

Gay sheep revisited.

Sheep participating in the sex-study. Click image to expand.

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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.

Notice that Stormshak never singles out gay rams. He worries about rams that are gay "or asexual." He's not trying to get rid of homosexuality; he's trying to promote fertility. What a ram does on his own time is his own business, as long as he "performs" on the job: impregnating ewes.

Purging homosexuality and promoting fertility are not identical. If all you care about is producing more sheep, you can pursue that today through cloning, which also gives you total control of the genome. A ram's orientation wouldn't matter, particularly if most of what causes that orientation turns out not to be genetic. And if your motive is economic rather than normative, there's no reason to assume you'd tinker with people the way you tinker with sheep. Lambs are exploitable property. Babies aren't.

4. Motive-framing is a potent weapon in the politics of science. PETA opposes the manipulation, exploitation, and killing of animals. Not many people share its zeal about stamping out those practices. But lots of people get upset at the idea of using chemicals to wipe out homosexuality. So PETA has blurred the two issues, accusing Roselli and Stormshak of the latter when, at worst, they're guilty of the former. That's why so many gays and liberals have joined the outcry against the research.

5. Science and technology can change morality. Ethics doesn't float above science while judging it. Ethics has scientific assumptions built in. For instance, most people who regard homosexuality as a sin assume you can regulate your sexual orientation. If studies prove orientation is biologically determined, this objection collapses.

But the upheaval doesn't end there. Most people who defend homosexuality as a biological trait assume it can't be changed. Martina Navratilova, for example, is asking the universities to shut down the sheep research and spend the money instead on fostering "acceptance for people of all sexual preferences." What if the research destroys that assumption, too? What if it proves that sexual orientation is biologically based and that we don't have to accept it? What if science makes it possible to chemically reduce the prevalence of homosexuality without oppressing anyone?

That's the first reason not to squelch basic research. If you let it run its course, it might disabuse you of the assumptions that made you want to squelch it. The same can be true of technology. Looking back at the wretched history of hormone therapy for homosexuality, it's easy to say, "Never again." But the latest, albeit unsuccessful, interventions in sheep are at the fetal stage, when the brain is taking shape. If you don't regard the human fetus as a person—precisely because its brain hasn't fully formed—can you really say it was ever gay? Does your objection to medicating gay people still apply?

That's another reason to let research go forward: It might expose contradictions in your politics. You might find yourself in the odd position of pleading for acceptance of homosexuality as a natural condition while at the same time denouncing Catholic bishops who plead for acceptance of infertility as a natural condition. Is one kind of infertility more sacred than another?

The final reason to be wary of stifling research is that half-developed technology can be worse than the finished product. The sheep investigators have already identified brain markers that roughly correlate with homosexuality. What they deny doing—and PETA, in its efforts to stop the research, accuses them of doing—is trying to alter orientation in the womb. But if doctors learn to spot emerging gay brains and are unable to alter them, parents who are determined not to raise gay children will do what's already done to female fetuses in much of the world: abort them.

Science is scary. It can change your body and your mind. But smothering it can be just as dangerous. The wisest course is to keep an eye on its participants, their motives, and potential applications of their work, never letting one motive or application obscure others. Political attacks that blur these differences don't help.