Jan. 4 2007: For those just learning of this story, please also see today's update on it, detailing how PETA's lies just now crossed over to the mainstream media via the Sunday Times.
Charles Roselli, a biologist at Oregon Health & Science University, turned on his computer the other day to find that he had been targeted. His research had been lied about, and his reputation insulted. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise for a right-wing group to oppose his science, since his research implies that homosexuality is biologically programmed and part of the natural world, not a "lifestyle choice" or an "abomination." But it wasn't a right-wing group that had targeted him. It was PETA.
Dr. Roselli is part of a vanguard of researchers trying to understand the biological basis of complex behavior. Animal behavior is so complicated that it seems almost impossible that we could ever understand it at the molecular level -- but then again, that's what we thought about embryonic development a few decades ago, and that has turned out to be a beautiful and understandable molecular story. Likewise, complex behaviors are rapidly coming into range as something we can understand in our lifetime. For example, researchers have now assembled a fairly detailed picture of how circadian clocks keep time, synchronizing your body's internal rhythms to the pattern of day and night.
Understanding sexual behavior is one of the most exciting areas right now -- after all, the preference to mate with one individual over another is a major part of generating new species and therefore a driving force in evolution. Already some major advances have taken place. Catherine Dulac at Harvard University has found that mutating a single pheromone receptor in male mice makes them attempt to have sex with males that intrude on their territory, instead of trying to fight with them. It is absolutely stunning that changing a single gene -- even changing a single letter of the DNA code -- could have such tremendous and specific consequences on behavior.
Even more amazing, it turns out that in the fruit fly Drosophila there is a single gene that can confer both male and female sexual behavior. This gene can be read in either of two forms, much like if you and I were each quoting an article you might elide ("...") one paragraph while I might elide another, keeping the same key information but changing certain details. Similarly, this gene is read slightly differently in males than in females. Forcing males to express the female form of the gene makes them stop mating with females and instead become interested in other males; likewise, females expressing the male form of the gene begin performing the male part of the courtship ritual. If you had said fifteen years ago that sexual preference could be controlled by a single gene, I would have called you a nut.
But no one has been attacking the work of the fruit fly researchers. Catherine Dulac has not been called "anti-gay" by PETA. Instead, they picked on Dr. Roselli.
Dr. Roselli's group studies male-oriented sexual preference in rams, what some pop writers have nicknamed "gay sheep." You may have read something about it in the news, how he and co-workers found evidence that homosexuality is biological, or at least that there is a biological correlate to same-sex preference, a part of the brain that is of different size in gay males than in straight males, though cause and effect was still undetermined. It could be that sexual orientation determines the size of the hypothalamus, or it could be that the hypothalamus directly regulates sexual orientation. In order to test these possibilities, as the Seattle Times wrote, Dr. Roselli wanted to change conditions in the womb and ask if he could produce higher numbers of gay sheep. This experiment is identical in logic to the mouse and fly experiments described above -- you suspect A causes B, so alter A and see if there is an effect on B.
At this point it's worth noting that right-wing groups like Focus on the Family are also upset by the consequences of Dr. Roselli's research. They say homosexuality is a choice, not something you're born with, and I'm sure they would not like the idea of anyone learning how to make higher numbers of gays. At the same time PETA is lying about his work and his intent, claiming that if he proves homosexuality has a biological origin, it will open the doors to pharmaceutical drugs for "curing" homosexuality, and that that is his real goal. Both groups are off their rockers. They are wrong on several levels, but the most important one is denying the deep cultural component to human sexual behavior. Most animals have sex just to procreate; when's the last time you did? There is a lot more going on in the mind of a sexually aroused human than pheromones alone, and Dr. Roselli's group calls the rams "male-oriented" rather than "homosexual" for a reason: they are studying the biological basis of sexual behavior, and "homosexual" is a word laden with culture. At the same time, we would be foolish to think humans have transcended biology completely, and you would have to be appallingly incurious about the world around you not to think it is fascinating to understand how biology drives sexual behavior in other animals, and perhaps influences it in humans.
So, why did PETA target Dr. Roselli? My first guess, judging by the adorably fuzzy lamb at the top of their campaign page, was the sheep. I emailed Dr. Roselli to ask about it, and to my surprise he was gracious enough to consent to an email "interview" with an anonymous blogger, for which I'm grateful. (I should put in my disclosure here: I myself am a biologist, but I don't work with vertebrates -- other than the ones I eat lunch with every day -- and I am not in Dr. Roselli's field, don't know him, and have never met him.) I asked Dr. Roselli just how many sheep they use in their experiments, and he told me it averages about 18 sheep per year -- 6 male-oriented rams, 6 female-oriented rams, and 6 females. By comparison, I looked up how many sheep Americans eat each year, or at least how many are killed by American meat-packing companies: the answer is almost 4,000,000 per year. It doesn't seem like Dr. Roselli is Sheep Enemy #1.
I also asked Dr. Roselli why he felt it necessary to work on sheep, when such terrific progress was being made in mice and flies. He gave an excellent answer, something I hadn't thought about much before. In the mouse and fly experiments, researchers are manipulating the system to see what kinds of behaviors they can produce -- behaviors that tell us something about the underlying biology, but are themselves artificial. Dr. Roselli's sheep, though, are the way God made them (pardon the expression) -- the way evolution has selected for. It is one thing to see what behaviors you can create in a lab, it is something special to study behaviors as they exist naturally in the wild.
"Sheep are the only species in which a small percentage of males have been shown to exhibit an exclusive same sex attraction," Dr. Roselli wrote to me. "The behavior was first reported in mountain sheep, but has been more rigorously characterized and studied in domesticated sheep. Using the ram model allows us to do controlled studies to determine the biological factors that may contribute to sexual partner preference."
Their hypothesis, he said, is that the same factors that have evolved to control sexual determination and differentiation during development also underlie sexual partner preference.
So, if PETA isn't just trying to save as many sheep as it can, perhaps they were alarmed by the "gay" part of "gay sheep." Why they wouldn't attack one of the other labs, the ones working in mice or flies, is beyond me, but perhaps there was something about Dr. Roselli I didn't know. Perhaps he really is a homophobe or a bigot, and PETA has found him out. It seemed strange to me that the only evidence PETA gave for their claim that "Roselli has made it very clear that he intends to use the findings of his experiments to 'cure' humans next" was a completely innocuous statement from a grant application: "This research also has broader implications for understanding the development and control of sexual motivation and mate selection across mammalian species, including humans." I don't see anything about curing there -- I see "understanding" but I don't see curing. It sounds like normal grant boilerplate to me (good luck getting money from NIH without saying your work is relevant to humans).
But, like I said, I didn't know Dr. Roselli -- so I asked him. I wrote, "Do you think homosexuality is something that can or should be 'cured'?" His reply: "No," he said. "And I find it appalling and offensive that PETA has suggested that I and my collaborators do."
If PETA can defend their claim that his intention is to cure homosexuality, I would like to see that. Because it is a damn nasty thing to say. And as far as I can tell, it is a bald-faced lie.
So what is Dr. Roselli's intention? Is this research meant to help humans? Here is his reply:
Like all basic research there are potential benefits from this research at several levels. Sexual behavior is in many ways a hard-wired behavior, especially in animals like sheep. Understanding the developmental control of sexual partner preference as well as the neuroanatomical and neurochemical substrates of this behavior give us a better idea of how the brain works and may give us insights into other sexually differentiated behaviors and neuroendocrine functions.
Moreover, sexual behavior and sexual partner preference play a fundamental role in reproduction and psychosexual development. There are serious medical conditions that are the result of variations in sexual development, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia and androgen insensitivity syndrome. These conditions may lead to problems of sexual function, social and psychosexual adjustment, mental health, quality of life and social participation. Understanding variations in psychosexual development that may affect these individuals requires reference to studies in non-human species that show marked but complex effects of androgens on sex differentiation of the brain and on behavior. A greater understanding of the biological underpinnings of partner preference may greatly assist in providing affected individuals with the medical services and support that they may desire.
While human sexuality is more complex than the reproductive and motivational behaviors observed in sheep or rodents, it is anticipated that the use of animal models such as the male oriented ram will help illuminate basic principles that apply to all species and which will be helpful in understanding the biology of human behaviors as well.
Here is what I take from that: There are a few people with rare disorders who this might help. But mostly, science is about discovery. It is about mapping the internal world, without knowing what you will find -- but with the faith and experience that understanding how biology works makes us better, gives us a foundation from which to learn more. It is what drives progress. And, on top of all that, it is often beautiful. Who would have thought a single gene could switch aggression to attraction, or male courtship to female? Who would have thought we could ever understand how our brain works, how and why it makes us do the things we do? Who wouldn't want to know?
I appreciate that some of you would say it is not worth it, if it means killing animals. Some of you would say that humans should not experiment on animals, at least on thinking feeling animals, for any reason, no matter how great the prize. In an ideal world, I would feel that way myself. Unfortunately, in this world, I realize that stopping animal experiments would mean an end to meaningful biology. You can make cells do a lot of things in a dish. What matters is what they do in real life, in real animals. Unfortunately, stopping animal research means stopping biology flat.
There is another discussion well worth having: which experiments are worth it? Is it worth killing an animal to get a life-saving cure? Is it worth it to get a piece of information that fills in a missing puzzle piece, something that could provide the entry point to dozens of life-saving cures? And which experiments are those, and which ones are not worth the sacrifice? It is something anyone who works with animals thinks about, a lot. Although I don't work with vertebrates now, I used to in my earlier years, and it is not fun. It is tremendously rewarding to be able to gain insight into a system so like ourselves, but it is not fun to kill.
So that is an important discussion, "which experiments are worth it?" The answer is not just up to the scientist -- vertebrate research is heavily regulated, with lengthy approval processes from the government, the state, and the university. In many places, your experiments need to be approved not just by administrators and fellow scientists, but also by members of the community, regular people without scientific training who are put there to make sure that your experiments not only make scientific sense but also make common sense, that they are consistent with what your neighbors would find reasonable.
Whether killing an animal is worth it for an experiment is an important and always welcome discussion. What's not welcome is lies. What's not welcome is propaganda. PETA has joined the company of intelligent designists and global warming deniers, those who misreport scientific research, cherry-pick results, and flat-out lie to further their political agenda. PETA picked Dr. Roselli because sheep are adorable, unlike mice or flies, and because gay rights is a hot-button issue. They lied about his work and his intention because they want to turn as much of the public as they can against scientists who use animals. Lying about and distorting science in a campaign against biology research is something I've come to expect from the right, from Kansas school boards and Sen. Santorum. We should not allow it to take root on the left.