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The New York Times
Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and Bad Publicity
Some sheep from a university study of homosexual behavior. About 8 percent of rams are said to seek sex with other rams instead of ewes.
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
Published: January 25, 2007
Charles Roselli set out to discover what makes some sheep gay. Then the news media and the blogosphere got hold of the story.
Lynn Ketchum/Oregon State University
Dr. Charles Roselli has been criticized for his study of gay sheep.
Dr. Roselli, a researcher at the Oregon Health and Science University, has searched for the past five years for physiological factors that might explain why about 8 percent of rams seek sex exclusively with other rams instead of ewes. The goal, he says, is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of sexual orientation in sheep. Other researchers might some day build on his findings to seek ways to determine which rams are likeliest to breed, he said.
But since last fall, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals started a campaign against the research, it has drawn a torrent of outrage from animal rights activists, gay advocates and ordinary citizens around the world — all of it based, Dr. Roselli and colleagues say, on a bizarre misinterpretation of what the work is about.
The story of the gay sheep became a textbook example of the distortion and vituperation that can result when science meets the global news cycle.
The news media storm reached its zenith last month, when The Sunday Times in London published an article under the headline “Science Told: Hands Off Gay Sheep.” It asserted, incorrectly, that Dr. Roselli had worked successfully to “cure” homosexual rams with hormone treatments, and added that “critics fear” that the research “could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.”
Martina Navratilova, the tennis star who is both openly gay and a PETA ally, wrote in an open letter that the research “can only be surmised as an attempt to develop a prenatal treatment” for sexual conditions.
The controversy spilled into the blog world, with attacks on Dr. Roselli, his university and Oregon State University, which is also involved in the research. PETA began an e-mail campaign that the universities say resulted in 20,000 protests, some with language like “you are a worthless animal killer and you should be shot,” “I hope you burn in hell” and “please, die.”
The news coverage, which has been heaviest in England and Australia, focused on smirk and titillation — and, of course, puns. Headlines included “Ewe Turn for Gay Rams on Hormones” and “He’s Just Not That Into Ewe.”
In recent weeks, the tide has begun to turn, with Dr. Roselli and Jim Newman, an Oregon Health and Science publicist, saying they have been working to correct the record in print and online. The university has sent responses to senders of each PETA-generated e-mail message.
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.
On blogs where attacks have appeared, the researchers point out that many of the accusations, like The Sunday Times’s assertion that the scientists implant devices in the brains of the sheep, are simply false.
The researchers acknowledge that the sheep are killed in the course of the research so their brain structure can be analyzed, but they say they follow animal welfare guidelines to prevent suffering.
The authors of the Sunday Times article, Chris Gourlay and Isabel Oakeshott, referred questions to a managing editor, who they said was traveling and could not be reached.
Dr. Roselli and Mr. Newman persuaded some prominent bloggers, including Andrew Sullivan, who writes an online column for Time, to correct postings that had uncritically quoted The Sunday Times’s article. They also found an ally in the blog world: a scientist who writes under the pseudonym emptypockets and has taken up Dr. Roselli’s cause. The blogger, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said a public stand could hurt his career, said he had been cheered by the number of bloggers who dropped their opposition when presented with the facts.
Ms. Navratilova, who also received a response from the university, said she remained unconvinced.
“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,” she wrote in an e-mail reply to a reporter’s query. “How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?”
In an interview, Shalin Gala, a PETA representative working on the sheep campaign, said controlling or altering sexual orientation was a “natural implication” of the work of Dr. Roselli and his colleagues.
Mr. Gala, who asked that he be identified as openly gay, cited the news release for a 2004 paper in the journal Endocrinology that showed differences in brain structure between homosexual and heterosexual sheep.
The release quoted Dr. Roselli as saying that the research “also has broader implications for understanding the development and control of sexual motivation and mate selection across mammalian species, including humans.”
Mr. Newman, who wrote the release, said the word “control” was used in the scientific sense of understanding the body’s internal controls, not in the sense of trying to control sexual orientation.
“It’s discouraging that PETA can pick one word, try to add weight to it or shift its meaning to suggest that you are doing something that you clearly are not,” he said.
Dr. Roselli said that merely mentioning possible human implications of basic research was wildly different from intending to carry the work over to humans.
Mentioning human implications, he said, is “in the nature of the way we write our grants” and talk to reporters. Scientists who do basic research find themselves in a bind, he said, adding, “We have been forced to draw connections in a way that we can justify our research.”
As for whether the deaths of the sheep are justified, he said, “why would you pick on a guy who’s killing maybe 18 sheep a year, when there’s maybe four million killed for food and clothing in this country?”
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.”
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.”
January 30, 2007
The Gay Sheep and Sound Science (1 Letter)
To the Editor:
Re “Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and Bad Publicity” (front page, Jan. 25):
Dr. Chuck Roselli’s research on homosexual rams is not a homophobic experiment but solid, groundbreaking science.
Dr. Roselli has taken advantage of a natural variation in the behavior of rams to find out how brains modulate sexual behavior and mate choice.
His experiment provides insight into how mate preference of any sort is formed, homosexual as well as heterosexual.
The idea that Dr. Roselli’s research is aimed at preventing homosexuality or increasing discrimination against homosexuals is baffling. If anything, understanding the biological basis of variability in mate choice should lead to greater acceptance of homosexuality.
We consider Dr. Roselli one of our finest colleagues and deplore the unfair treatment his research has received from action groups, the media and the blogosphere.
Geert J. de Vries
Amherst, Mass., Jan. 26, 2007
The writer is a professor of neuroscience and behavior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The letter was also signed by the following scientists:
Arthur P. Arnold, Ph.D.
Director, U.C.L.A. Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology
Distinguished Professor and Chair
Department of Physiological Science
University of California, Los Angeles
Gregory F. Ball, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Johns Hopkins University
Jacques Balthazart, Ph.D.
Université de Liege
Michael J. Baum, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology
Nancy G. Forger, Ph.D.
Professor of Neuroscience and Behavior
University of Massachusetts
Shaila Mani, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Baylor College of Medicine
Margaret M. McCarthy, Ph.D.
Professor of Physiology and Psychiatry
University of Maryland Baltimore School of Medicine
Paul Micevych, Ph.D.
Professor of Neurobiology
University of California
Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
University of Virginia
Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Human Genetics, Pediatrics and Urology
Chief, Division of Medical Genetics
David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A.
Kim Wallen, Ph.D.
Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroendocrinology