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Mobile Register
June 16, 1995

By David Thomasson

The gay gene:
It might bear fruit ... but will it fly?

When Time magazine devotes two pages to fruit flies, as it did in the June 12 issue, there’s something in the wind besides bugs. A large photo shows 10 male fruit flies linked prow to stern in a wreath around the headline, “Search for a Gay Gene.”

The facing page carries a photo of four male humans linked in a manner that is more than friendly, with the U.S. Capitol rising in the background. This prepares the reader for a story that links (at a minimum) gay fruit flies, gay humans, genetics and law.

It seems that two scientists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., fiddled around with the genes of some fruit flies and brought off an arresting result: The males lost interest in the ladies of the species.

Now this would pull any geneticist up short, for fruit flies are remarkably virile by nature — even more so than Italians. The average male drosophilia starting cold can approach a female, chat her up and cross the Rubicon, so to speak, all in about eight seconds. Two weeks later he is bouncing baby fruit flies on his knees and planning another family.

But the fruit flies that had their genes tinkered with ignored the girls right there in the same jar. The boys locked together in circles and serpentine rows that resembled conga lines. They buzzed and rubbed against one another in what the scientists said was dirty dancing. As the dancing grew hotter, the females cowered in clusters at the top of the jar — and who could blame them?

The scientists concluded that the males were gay and, further, that the gay gene transplanted into the flies is what turned them around. From here, the story charges boldly into speculation about a gay gene in humans and about the moral and legal implications of such a finding.

By now the story had left me far behind. I was still on that wreath of fruit flies, which was described as a “circle of love” and an “orgy.” Were the scientists perhaps hasty in attributing such human sentiments and purposes to little bugs? Why, for instance, was this seen as gay behavior brought on by a gay gene rather than, say, dancing behavior brought on by a dancing gene?

It isn’t an idle question. Imagine space aliens as tall as the Eiffel Tower happening upon a football stadium at game time — a very bowl of fruit flies from their vantage point. Might not such observers be misled by the activity in the bowl?

“Look at those males in the middle, Cyrus, linking up in rings and lines. Look how they grab and clutch at one another. Hotter than pistols, and not a female in the lot.”

“Yes, Ed, and notice how all the others are keeping their distance, cowering around the sides of the bowl. Who could blame them?”

“That little brown seed seems to be the key, Cyrus. When the males crouch around it for even a few seconds, it puts them in a frenzy. They can’t keep their hands off each other. Whichever one picks up that seed becomes an irresistible target for male gang-lust.”

“By heavens, Ed, I believe we’ve discovered a gay seed.”

Even if the Bethesda scientists are correct about a gay gene in fruit flies, one cannot conclude that there is a similar gay gene for humans. And if there is such a gene, the moral status of homosexuality would be no less problematic than before the discovery. Whether the desire for homosexual behavior is explained by environmental or genetic influences (or both), there’s still the troublesome question of whether one ought to act on that desire. It isn’t clear how a genetic explanation of homosexual desire might help answer that question.

If such an explanation were formulated, it would still face a logical hurdle. Scientists hope to prove that if a specific human gene is altered just so, a person becomes homosexual. Given such proof, however, it wouldn’t follow that if a person were homosexual, his genetic makeup would lie at the bottom of it. To suppose so is to commit what is called the fallacy of conversion.

Here is another example of it: If you feed a man strychnine, he will die. But it does not follow from this that if you find a man dead, then he must have eaten strychnine. For all we know, he might have died from shock at the sight of male fruit flies doing the lambada.

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