by John Corvino
When an article about “fruit flies” popped up on a gay website, at first I thought it was about straight women who gravitate toward gay men. (The other, uglier term for such women is “fag hag.”)
Alas, the article was referring to actual insects, the annoying little ones that remind you to throw away overripe bananas.
Apparently, some researchers at Penn State University have discovered that by getting groups of male flies “drunk” with alcohol fumes, they can induce homosexual behavior. (Just like frat boys.) They observed this behavior in a small transparent chamber, which they called–I am not making this up–a “Flypub.”
According to http://newscientist.com, “The first time they were exposed to alcohol, groups of male flies became noticeably intoxicated but kept themselves to themselves. But with repeated doses of alcohol on successive days, homosexual courtship became common. From the third day onwards, the flies were forming ‘courtship chains’ of amorous males.”
Yes. And by the fourth day, they were redecorating the Flypub in sleek mid-century modern furniture. By the fifth day, they were serving Cosmopolitans and debating the relative fabulousness of Martha Stewart’s new Wedgwood line at Macy’s. And so on.
The article continues, “[Lead researcher Kyung-An Han] argues that the drunken flies provide a good model to explore how alcohol affects human sexual behaviour. While the ability of alcohol to loosen human inhibitions is well known, it is difficult for scientists to study.”
Of course it is. Imagine the grant application:
“Describe the proposed methodology.”
“Um, well, I’m going to get a bunch of college students drunk and naked, then record their behavior.”
Sounds like a shoo-in for funding, no?
It’s not that I doubt the merits of such research. Granted, I’m far more interested in figuring out how to keep fruit flies out of my kitchen than how to make them horny. Still, I appreciate the value of scientific inquiry–all else being equal, the more we know about the world, the better.
My problem arises when people start using these studies to draw conclusions about human romantic behavior. While Han has warned against such inferences, other researchers and commentators have not been so cautious.
For example, when Austrian researchers in 2005 genetically manipulated a female fruit fly to induce homosexual behavior, Dr. Michael Weiss, chairman of the department of biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University, told the International Herald Tribune, “Hopefully this will take the discussion about [human] sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science.”
I hope it does no such thing. For two reasons: first, because human sexuality is far richer and more complex than fruit-fly mounting behavior. (Fruit flies don’t pout if you don’t call the next day–or so I’m told.)
Second, and more generally, because science and morality tell us different things. Science tells us something about why we behave as we do. It does not tell us how we SHOULD behave, which is the domain of morality. Science cannot replace morality or vice-versa.
To put the point another way: while scientific study can reveal the biological origin of our feelings and behaviors, it can’t tell us what we should do with them. Should we embrace them? Tolerate them? Change them? Those are moral questions, and simply observing fruit flies–or humans, for that matter–is insufficient to answering them.
But can’t these studies prove that homosexual attraction is “natural”? Not in any useful sense. Specifically, not in any sense that would distinguish good feelings and behaviors from bad ones. Discovering the biological origin of a trait is different from discovering its value.
Beyond conflating morality with science, popular commentators on these studies have an unfortunate tendency toward oversimplification.
Consider last year’s fruit-fly study at the University of Illinois, which the gay newsmagazine The Advocate announced with the headline, “Study finds gay gene in fruit flies.”
Except that it didn’t. What the study found was a genetic mutation in fruit flies that rendered them essentially bisexual. Scientists could then switch the flies’ behavior between heterosexuality and homosexuality through the use of synapse-altering drugs.
In other words, the study neither found a “gay gene” in fruit flies nor answered any questions about how hardwired or malleable human sexual orientation might be.
Meanwhile, one fruit fly who participated in the Penn State study released the following statement: “Dude, I was so drunk that day–I don’t know what happened!”