Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Gay fruit flies?

It's not news that some folks find the theory of evolution unsettling. While the stereotypical denialist of evolution is a Bible-beating, trailer-owning bumpkin, there are an increasing number of thoughtful, educated individuals that do not accept the claim that humans evolved from single-celled organisms. Even more "outrageous" to these denialists is the claim that, eons ago, our ancestors may have resembled fish or, God forbid, apes.

But another hotly contested debate preoccupies my thoughts this afternoon: Nature versus Nurture. The case for Nature, if choosing between the two, relinquishes our individual destinies to our genes. Critics of the Nature argument insist that it reduces Homo sapiens to automata. At the very least, humans tumble a few notches down the scalae naturae; we are rendered but one more brute species.

Most people who follow the debate, professionals and amateurs alike, agree that Nature and Nurture play important roles, but increasing evidence seems to place more emphasis on proteins and, as this research appears in popular journals and newspapers, outrage on the part of the Nurture loyalists may be imminent.

Nicholas Wade's Science Times article, "A Gene for Romance? So It Seems (Ask The Vole)" (Tuesday, July 19, 2005, New York Times) got me thinking about the popular reaction to genetics research (and the associated scientific claims). The research Wade describes will not surprise anyone who reads scientific journals such as Nature or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), but these are specialized publications with an audience generally limited to scientific professionals. In the NY Times piece, statements such as, "Researchers discovered how the gene is naturally modulated in a population of voles so as to produce a spectrum of behaviors from monogamy to polygamy, each of which may be advantageous in different ecological circumstances," are likely to make some readers squirm. It is, however, the gene dubbed "fruitless" that will capture the fearful imaginations of most casual readers. "The gene is called fruitless because when it is disrupted in male [Drosophila fruit flies] they lose interest in females and instead form mating chains with other males." Biologists have isolated the gene and are able to manipulate it successfully, changing fly sexual preferences.
"Fruitless serves as a master switch of behavior, just as other known genes serve as master switches for building an eye or other organs. Are behaviors and organs constructed in much the same way, each with a master switch gene that controls a network of lower level genes?"
I showed the Times article to a gay co-worker. Like him, I believe that homosexuality is largely genetic, but new research suggests that environmental factors must not be dismissed.
"'Among mammals,' Dr. Meaney and colleagues wrote in a report of their findings last year, 'natural selection may have shaped offspring to respond to subtle variations in parental behavior as a forecast of the environmental conditions they will ultimately face once they become independent of the parent.'

A full understanding of these behavior genes would include being able to trace every cellular change, whether in a hormone or pheromone or signaling molecule, that led to activation of the gene and then all the effects that followed. Dr. Robinson has proposed the name 'sociogenomics' for the idea of understanding social life in terms of the genes and signaling molecules that mediate them."
Sociogenomics? Accurate though the name may be, I'm sure many readers will associate the term with genetic engineering; my co-worker and I certainly did.

Curiously, he was most concerned by the notion that one's environment can cause chemical alteration of proteins, thereby changing the genetic makeup (and behavior) of the individual. "If people believe there is a certain way to raise a kid so that he isn't gay," he worried, "then many parents will do their best to eliminate homosexuals." True, but why stop there? If biologists can "flip" the fruitless gene in Dropsophilia, I assume a similar gene (or series of associated genes) in Homo sapiens will one day be isolated. Given this, a "GATTACA"-like scenario is no longer very fanciful. Fortunately, humans don't make the best test subjects and are more prone to serious complications than either voles or fruit flies. Even in Drosophilia flies, removal - as opposed to "flipping" - of the fruitless gene results in fly death.

For the time being, though, I like where we stand. We're beginning to realize just how influential genes are on human behavior, psychology and physiology. It's exciting...even if we need to society to work against any outliers who see genetic-engineering as an opportunity to rebirth sanctioned eugenics.

Photo credit: Tracey Chapman and Linda Partridge


Devo said...

I imagine you're a big fan of the book "The Selfish Gene"... and while I haven't yet read it, the premise and what I imagine the author's intent to be both frighten me. Then again, I'm little more than an ape facing the Black Monolith of science as it exerts its evolutionary influence on me whether I like it or not. Soon enough, I'll be smashing animal bones with other animal bones and beating the tar outta rival ape tribes...

But I digress. I wanted to address the significance of finding this "gay gene". My hope for the future is that we produce MORE gay kids using this switch. That way, offensive displays of plaid wallpaper, garden statuary (especially those god-awful statues of little kids peeing into fountains so prominent in the heavily "Italian" sections of the Jersey Shore), socks with sandals and other egregious fashion and style offenses would slowly atrophy as natural homosexual panache slowly infuses into our culture. We won't NEED TV shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy anymore, cuz the sensibilities suggested by them will become part and parcel of our society!

Seriously, though, I think this issue and its concomitant implications are massive, not only for any particular community, but for the relationship that science has with the humanities, and vice versa. I think it's high time they shook hands and said to one another "let's work together instead of constantly trying to sabotage each other." Some of the most significant discoveries and inventions have come as a result of creative thought and an appreciation for the humanities. Similarly, many discoveries and inventions have rocketed the scope and reach of various arts exponentially.

This goes for religion, too. Scholars have been able to record the "brain waves" of various individuals in deep states of meditation and conclusively document the differences between these states and waking states. Along the same lines, these individuals have been able to consistently agree (in double-blind, controlled experiments) on the effects and characteristics of these states of meditation. I'm sorry to keep bringing up stuff that makes you uncomfortable, HH, but your blog seems to revel in that which makes others uncomfortable, so I just really enjoy doing everything I can to toss a bit of the same back in your direction. It's all in good faith, brother mine!


Hungry Hyaena said...

I haven't read "The Selfish Gene," but I do enjoy reading Richard Dawkins when I come across an article or a reprinted essay. I understand why his perspective might frighten you, but ultimately I feel that such fear is based in misunderstanding.

Dawkins and those in his camp do think most, if not all, of our personality is dictated by genetics and evolution. I agree. However, I don't believe this a limiting issue. Only when we begin to "check with our genes," as if they are our keepers, will such perspectives become problematic, even dangerous. The only reason to be afraid of genetics is the question of free will. Free will is and isn't a fiction. After all, those genes may dictate chooses and behavior, but each combination is so distinct and unique that we're back to the individual again.

I also hope the "gay gene" becomes more and more prevalent. It will not only reward aesthetics, but limit population growth. Two thumbs up!

As for your comments making me "uncomfortable": No discomfort in this comment, Devo. I think the studies of meditating monks sensible and exciting. I do think it important to distinguish between most religions and Zen Buddhism, though, as meditation seeks a return to tabula rasa, in some sense a return to the point before memory and learning. As someone who attempts to meditate on a semi-regular basis, I am a believer in its ability to heal.

Now whether you want to explain the restorative powers via chemicals and proteins or mysticism remains up to the individual. Frankly, they are one and the same thing to my way of thinking.

Devo said...

You know, HH, I think we may be like Danny deVito and Ahnold in that movie Twins. Or something. I always have this bizarre feeling that we usually say the same exact thing, but from two different sides of humanity, for lack of a better, more eloquent way of saying that. I completely agree with every single thing you say in your response above, but in a very subtle way. I think our convergent attitudes on the merits and theory of meditation represent a focal point in our respective personalities. Given, i don' tknow you but from a few Blog interactions, but they've been pretty telling interactions.

Anyway, I agree with you that evolution is the single most formative force that we, as humans, are affected by. Of course, I'm kind of ignoring the basic things like gravity and the strong nuclear force or whatever, but you know what I'm saying. We were shaped, and are continuously shaped, by that which we've named evolution. However, I don't think that the biological realm is the only arena touched by this force. I think it encompasses and drives much more than simple arrangements and rearrangements of Arginine and Glutamine. I dunno if you've ever heard of Sri Aurobindo or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (though I'm sure I've mentioned their names before) but they shed light on a whole other side of the influence that evolution may have had on our development as beings. Even if you don't buy what they're saying, their stuff is so creative (in the sense that Arthur Koestler meant "creative", in that it represented a quantum leap forward in conventional thinking, encompanssing and transcending all thought leading up to their hypotheses) that it certainly warrants an exploration by anyone interested in the implications of evolution on any areas outside mere genetics.

Anyway, good point about the gay gene! Population control is such a frustrating issue to try to communicate effectively. The concept itself (ZPG, if you like) is self-defeating, cuz the people unaware of it or unconvinced of its importance will far outbreed (and in consequence inculcate their skepticism of the theory) those who embrace its importance! You've got an automatically contracting base of understanding that is doomed to a relatively small size-cap by the very nature of its substance!!!!

As for Zen trying to re-establish a tabula rasa... I'm not sure if that is entirely accurate. It DOES seek to cease mental activity, to some extent, to achieve "no-mind", but that is not concomitant with reverting to non-consciousness. In fact, quite the opposite, it seeks to achieve supra-consciousness. This state is, in fact, more or less a tabula rasa, but it retains and transcends the conscious state from whence it came. Ken Wilber (I will again whore out his name to an already weary audience, I'm sure) postulated an interesting theory regarding this type of misconception. He called it the "pre-trans fallacy." Interesting stuff, and pretty compelling, too. I think I may have showed you that write up before, but my memory is swiss-cheezy, so I'll just put up the link again in my ignorance and desire to disseminate knowledge.... so there!

Hungry Hyaena said...

Well, which one am I? The Terminator or The Penguin?

I like what you say about Zero Population Growth. I feel the same way about the "contracting base of understanding." In fact, a lot of environmental issues suffer from similar ills, particularly any dealing with patterns/habits of consumption.

I think we're arguing abstract, nit-picky details when it comes to the Zen debate. Wilber's "pre-trans fallacy" (which you've suggested I read at least a dozen times, asshole) is a little too didactic for my tastes. In my mind, the "trans" becomes the "pre" and vice versa, making tabula rasa both supra-consciousness and non-consciousness. I know Wilber disagrees, but whateva...

I gotta go cause I'm arguing with that ridiculous co-worker of mine. Oh, my God... I'd like to be able to think straight right now, but...

Devo said...

Oh yeah... I keep forgetting about recommending that damn guy and his ideas! Again, I'll be the first to admit that once I'm enamored of an idea, I'll try to whore it out to any marginally intellectual ear I can snag. And your intellect is more than marginal, I'd be willing to bet. Either way, I'll try to refrain from advancing that particular agenda again... but remember, I have the attention span of mating drosphilia fruity flies, so if I do it again, I so sowwy!

Good luck ripping your moron coworker a new one. I imagine this is the same one who claims to be a vegetarian?

Anonymous said...


There has been research into genetic bad breath (more bad breath causing bacteria in the mouth, with less good breath causing bacteria)... I have also read the fruit fly argument.

Fruit flies share what, maybe 2 or 3 chromosomal bands in common with us? Sure switching on one gene in a female fruit fly might change her sexuality... We have how many more millions of codons?

As a gay woman, I can say that homosexuaity in humans is very likely NOT genetic. Nor is it purely Nurture. It's an amalgam. The best and most tested theory is that girls or boys who are exposed to androgens in the womb are more likely to be gay. The exposure to this chemical (usually testosterone) also explains the wide variance of seuxal behavior.

Seriously people, there isn't a gene for EVERYTHING. There MIGHT be a gene for alcoholism in Scandanavians... But how does alcoholism become expressed in a South American? Because it isn't genetic for 99.9% of people. Let it go.

mynameisjulian said...

Why aren't my comments published if they're anonymous?

BTW: Funny you should choose a hyena as your moniker. Packs of hyenas are led by a few vicious females, and include some low-ranking, mostly transient males here and there.

mynameisjulian said...

Another reason it is highly unlikely homosexuality is genetic:
Monozygotic twins only have a 52.5%rate of concurrence on sexuality, yet they have the exact same copies of their parents genes in the exact same order.

I know that you're trying to poke fun of people who are uncomfortable with new genetic research... I think they're called luddites... But even when behavior is genetic, it's almost always highly influenced by environmental factors. For instance, the alcoholism gene in Scandanavians (although it's really an anxiety/depression causing gene) can't be turned on without alcohol, did the gene make him do it, did the presence of alcohol make him do it, or was it both gene and environment (the alcohol presence)?

Hungry Hyaena said...

My Name Is Julian:

Wow, you are really determined to be hostile. Rather than enter into a thoughtful debate, you start slinging mud from the get go.

1) Your "Anonymous" comments are published. See above.

2) I am fascinated by the hyaena, in part, because of their unusual social hierarchy and behavior. I have always believed the role of the artist to be somewhat hermaphroditic and the female/male relationships among spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta) - this structure is not true of other hyaena species, by the way - is for me symbolic of this ambiguous stance.

That you assume this knowledge would make me blush shows that you assume me daft and conventionally reactionary. What evidence you have of this I know not. if you want to read more about why I choose the hyaena, visit this post and this one and this one.

3) Homosexuality is an amalgam of Nature and Nurture. I agree. That's why I suggested as much in the post.

Apparently, though, you are more determined to be argumentative than to read what I wrote carefully.

4) That monozygomatic twins have a 50% concurrence in terms of sexuality is shockingly HIGH, actually, especially when you consider that Nurture can chemically alter the predisposition.

Luddites are afraid of technology in general, not genetic engineering in particular. Any reasonable human being is afraid of genetic engineering, myself included. Why would I want to "poke fun" of common sense? (In fact, I highlight the worry in the last two paragraphs of the post. Are you even reading these things?)

Again, we are in agreement that all behavior, whether sexuality or alcoholism, is a result of both Nature and Nurture.

mynameisjulian said...

I wasn't intentionally argumentative. This was in response to The Genetic Mandate... The quest to discover that all behavior is genetic.

I did read that you knew most scientists believe behavior is a combination of nature and nurture. My post wasn't necessariy directed toward you, but rather in frustration at the widespread belief, especially in the gay community, that it's genetic. Maybe I was being hostile. I apologize. But the topic frustrates me.

I disagree that monozygotic twins 50% concurrence on sexuality is further proof, or high. If it were purely genetic, twins would show a 95% concurrence. Monozygotic twins are still exposed to the same androgens in vitro. But I think about 25% separate at some point.

I'm not against research into gay genes. I honestly don't believe it's genetic. Most genes have some sort of advantage, usually reproductive. I think even the ADHD gene is considered the "exporer gene", and ADHD is found in greatest numbers in Native Americans... Likely the greatest migrators. But I think chemicals that influence behavior are another thing altogether. They don't always produce an evolutionary advantage.

Most forms of population control aren't genetic: crowding (you can see people's frustration at being in crowds, thus the move to the suburbs - which is causing more damage actually), and homosexuality. Both of these are likely instinctual, likely biochemical... As they have no clear reproductive advantage.

Anyway, hi again. I'm on edge from accidentally and unfortunately tapping into the conservative net, and I took some unnecessarily argumentative behavior with me.

I'm a little weary of genetic enginering... But the medical benefits are amazing. I'm quite optimistic (and a bit anarchistic), and I believe humans are naturally cooperative. In general, great evil comes about from fascism, not from letting humans be the animals they are.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Your points about evolutionary reactions to over-population are valid. I don't view homosexuality as one of Nature's population controls. (I was kidding when I suggested as much earlier in this thread.)

This idea has been floated in academic circles, though, and there are many folks who do take it seriously. I find such a notion far-fetched for the same reasons you do. That said, an increase in practicing homosexuals could lead to more adoptions and a lowered birth-rate, both of which still get thumbs-up gestures from me.

Your note about the ADHD gene is curious. I had no idea that it was also called the "explorer" gene. Fascinating. Thank you.

I'm no conservative ranter - in most cases, I'm decidedly left of center - but I do have some values my "liberal" friends consider a little too "country." In this partisan age, that makes me something of a least, that's what the media would have us believe.

mynameisjulian said...

I'm curious, what views do your friends consider too "country"?

Ultimately, I'm a left leaning centrist. I lean extremely left on social issues like health care, stem cell research, and gay marriage, as well as on environmental issues like protecting marshes and wildlife preserves (digging for oil in Alaska, for instance), but am rather conservative (not neo-con!) on foreign policy... I absolutely do not support the Iraq war. Pragmatically, it was the worst counter-terrorism move. Foreign policy should focus on free yet fair trade... But back to conservative foreign policy: I'm against liberals' giant monetary loans to the governments of developing countries in the interest of globalization.

Let me elucidate the Alaskan oil situation: Bushies claim that digging for oil in Alaska will make us less dependant on foreign oil. But this is a short term effect. When the oil reserves are used up, we'll be more dependant on foreign oil than ever. Neo-con politics just aren't logical.