The Love That Dare Not Bleat Its Name

With apt timing as regards recent discussion of the place of science in our society, the New York Times yesterday featured on its front page a story about Dr. Charles Roselli, a researcher in Oregon who is studying homosexuality in sheep.

The research is motivated, apart from what I am sure is garden-variety scientific curiosity on the part of Dr. Roselli, by agricultural concerns. Apparently, domesticated male sheep are homosexual at a rate of about eight percent, and sheep farmers would like to know why, and how to determine which rams are more likely to breed. Dr Roselli has been examining the brains and other parts of these animals, and is attempting to understand what, if any, consistent physiological differences there might be between the heterosexual sheep and their homosexual counterparts, who presumably are better groomed and less likely to be found in sports bars.

Dr Roselli, whom we might reasonably expect to live a quiet life at the microscope and dissecting table, has instead, to his dismayed surprise, found himself at the center of a swirling vortex of controversy. He is getting it from all sides. The good folks at PETA, usually models of self-effacing civility and restraint, have been harassing him about the dozen or two sheep he sacrifices annually at the altar of Science (rather inexplicably, as there are several million sheep delivered to their Maker each year for food and other ends), and there are those who don’t like the social implications of his work, including the noted philosopher and bioethicist Martina Navratilova. Apparently the fear is that if the biological underpinnings of homosexuality were to become known, people would then look for ways to “cure” it, or filter it out of the gene pool altogether.

There are a quite a few revealing remarks quoted in this article. First, there is Ms. Navratilova, who seems awfully angry that anyone might actually try to understand the physiological basis of sexuality. She explains:

The more we play God or try to improve on Mother Nature, the more damage we are doing with all kinds of experiments that either have already turned or will turn into nightmares. How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?

Well, perhaps by advancing our knowledge of what we are and what makes us tick (not to mention the actual point of the research, namely being able to breed sheep more efficiently). It could be argued that sexuality is not a trivial part of our lives, and that whatever helps us understand ourselves might help us clamber up out of the darkness we have been blundering about in for the past few thousands of years.

Trying to dig himself out of a hole, even Dr. Roselli plays along:

Dr. Roselli, whose research is supported by the National Institutes of Health and is published in leading scientific journals, insists that he is as repulsed as his critics by the thought of sexual eugenics in humans. He said human sexuality was a complex phenomenon that could not be reduced to interactions of brain structure and hormones.

He doesn’t know that, of course; it might turn out that human sexuality really is determined quite thoroughly by such mechanisms after all. Nobody knows. To make such a remark is thoroughly political, though perhaps understandable given the hot water he’s in.

Here’s another good one:

Paul Root Wolpe, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the university’s Center for Bioethics, said that although he supported Dr. Roselli’s research, “I’m not sure I would let him off the hook quite as easily as he wants to be let off the hook.”
By discussing the human implications of the research, even in a somewhat careful way, Dr. Roselli “opened the door” to the reaction, Dr. Wolpe said, and “he has to take responsibility for the public response.”
If the mechanisms underlying sexual orientation can be discovered and manipulated, Dr. Wolpe continued, then the argument that sexual orientation is based in biology and is immutable “evaporates.”

Well, excuse me, but if the argument is based on scientific falsehoods, then it should evaporate, no? It sounds like Dr. Wolpe is arguing that when we have a “scientific” argument that suits our political ends, we’d better not put it at risk by checking it against the facts. And why should Dr. Roselli be responsible for the public’s benighted reaction? Are the scientists who are amassing evidence of global warming “responsible” for the reaction of the oil companies?

Dr. Wolpe redeems himself a moment later, however:

The prospect of parents’ eventually being able to choose not to have children who would become gay is a real concern for the future, Dr. Wolpe said. But he added, “This concern is best addressed by trying to change public perceptions of homosexuality rather than stop basic science on sexuality.”

Thank you! This is the point that everyone else here is missing. The world just is, and we do ourselves no favors by choosing ignorance. Perhaps what we ought to do is grow up a bit instead.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Ever since I saw this post, I’ve been resisting the urge to tell a Scots joke. But I bet Malcolm’s heard them all.


    Posted January 28, 2007 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    By the way, I’m using your blog post for one of my EFL classes. Thanks in advance for permitting the theft.


    Posted January 28, 2007 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    By all means! I would be honored to have your students poring over my scribblings.

    And yes, I’ve heard an awful lot of jokes concerning Scots and sheep, none of which I shall reprint here.

    Posted January 28, 2007 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  4. Kevin Kim says

    The funniest Scots joke I ever heard didn’t involve any sheep. You might know the one I’m thinking of, actually. The punchline is: “Good! Now drive my daughter to Edinburgh!”


    Posted January 29, 2007 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  5. peter says

    So there are pillow-biters in the ovine community? Who knew?

    My question would be: when these rams wake up in the morning with a sore butt and a bad taste in their mouth, are they at least sheepish about what happened the night before?

    (The obvious answer: naaaaahhhhhh)

    Posted January 30, 2007 at 9:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Knew you’d weigh in sooner or later, Pete.

    Posted January 31, 2007 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    Well, I try to offend as many different groups as possible — no reason to make exceptions for gay sheep.

    Posted January 31, 2007 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  8. Just as I was thinking, “Don’t I know a joke or two about Scots and sheep?,” Kevin beat me to that thought!

    I’m sure that sheep aren’t the only animals in the animal kingdom who have a propensity towards homosexuality; however, I dare say it’s the most ironic!

    Posted February 3, 2007 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Maven, and thanks for visiting. Here’s one:

    Why is it best to shag a sheep at the edge of a cliff?

    – They push back better!

    That’s an amusing website you have there. Onto the sidebar it goes.

    Posted February 3, 2007 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Onto the sidebar? Isn’t that lovely! Thanks!

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  11. the one eyed man says

    You should rename this post Brokeback Mutton.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

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