December 2002

Junior minister notes gay sheep


    

 

 

For the first time that I know of, a junior minister has acknowledged that homosexuality is an innate condition. It was done very subtly, almost as an aside. What such a public admission means is yet unclear.

The Sunday Times, 1 December 2002, carried an extract of a speech made by Minister of State for Health, Balaji Sadasivan. The speech was the annual oration of the Obstetrical & Gynaecological Society, and entitled "The Limits of the Brain". Dr Sadasivan is a neurosurgeon.

The extract itself was about 1,800 words. How long the speech was, I don't know, since I've not been able to get the original text. Reading from the Sunday Times' abridged version, Dr Sadasivan spoke about how he chose his profession and how the neurology of the brain imposes limits on what humans can or cannot do. He devoted much of the speech to language acquisition. Our brains evolved in conditions of monolingualism, and is probably hard-wired for it, yet in today's world, we require lots of people to be bilingual or even multilingual.

He went on to make the point that behaviour, e.g. risk-taking, has a neurological basis. Males, he said, tended towards more risk-taking behaviour than females.

The Sunday Times carried two paragraphs of his, on homosexuality. I don't know if he said more than this, as the text of his speech was not available on the Ministry of Health's website.

"Research has also shown that the brain of homosexuals is structurally different from heterosexuals. It is likely therefore that the homosexual tendency is imprinted in the brain in utero and homosexuals must live with the tendencies that they inherit as a result of the structural changes in their brain.

Within the moral and cultural constraints of our society, we should be tolerant of those who may be different from most of us."

The second paragraph (above) was in line with the general thrust of Dr Sadasivan's speech, which was that social policies must take into account natural facts.

Towards the end of the oration, he said, 

"Politics, my present vocation, is the art of understanding human behaviour and the science of making rules for the greater good of society.

To succeed, the rules must work within the limits of the brain's intrinsic patterns of behaviour. This is the challenge in political leadership and government."

 
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What is the significance of Dr Sadasivan mentioning the origins of homosexuality in a public speech? What is the significance of the Sunday Times choosing to include 2 paragraphs on this when selecting what to reproduce on its pages (and this newspaper is usually very sensitive to what the government wants said)?

Quite likely, Dr Sadasivan was just speaking his mind, since it was an oration to a professional body. But unless a minister is very nave, he would have thought long and hard about what subjects to mention, and what to avoid, if he knew it would be reported.

One can be optimistic, and say this is subtle way of preparing the population for more tolerant policies to come.

My guess, however, is that the neurological basis for homosexuality was a fact that simply interested the junior minister, and so he chose to include it. However, in choosing to mention it, he must also have believed that it was no longer a sensitive topic in Singapore, or that it was time to air the subject.

The effect of stating his position, and of the Sunday Times carrying it, is to suggest for the first time, that government policies will in future be grounded on this scientific fact. 

 

BBC, 5 Nov 2002:

Sheep study poses sexuality questions

US scientists claim to have found evidence that brain structure influences sexual preference in sheep. They say a region of the brain involved in sexual behaviour is different in "gay" rams which prefer to mate with other males.

Similar types of findings have been found in humans, according to researchers at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland.

The part of the brain studied is an area of the hypothalmus involved in mating behaviour, the preoptic hypothalamus. In humans and some other animals it is about twice as large in males compared with females and contains twice the number of cells. Its function in behaviour is not fully known.

Researchers studied sheep in an attempt to understand the biological basis of sexual behaviours.

They say previous studies have shown that between six and 10% of rams are attracted to males rather than females. They analysed the brain structures of 17 rams, nine of which preferred to mate with males, and 10 ewes.

Research focused on a group of brain cells in the preoptic hypothalamus called the sexually dimorphic nucleus.

"Interestingly, this bundle of neurons is smaller in ewes and in rams with same-sex preferences than it is in rams that prefer ewes," said lead researcher Dr Kay Larkin. "We also determined that the volume of the sexually dimorphic area is approximately the same in rams that prefer rams as it is in ewes."

The researchers believe sheep could help provide clues about human sexuality.

Professor Charles Roselli said: "While we realise that sexuality is more complex in humans than reproductive behaviours in sheep, this model will help illuminate the basic principles that apply to all mammals, and may be helpful in understanding the biology of human behaviours as well."

Previous work on a possible biological basis to sexual orientation has caused controversy. There has been conflicting evidence on whether genetics might underpin homosexuality to some extent.

David Allison of the UK gay rights group Outrage says there is nothing wrong with the so-called nature/nurture debate; what matters is getting rid of prejudice. "It's the prejudice that is wrong not how gay people come into world," he told BBC News Online.

 

It's an indication that this cognizance has permeated the highest level of government. With this cognizance, the state cannot any longer wish away homosexuality, castigate it as deviance and compel individuals to change. But to what extent the state should accommodate it, at what pace the state will revise its existing homophobic policies, remain open questions especially a state that has a long record of social engineering and is no great example of human rights.

Yawning Bread 


 

Yahoo-Reuters, 5 Nov 2002:

Gay Sheep May Help Explain Biology of Homosexuals

Gay sheep that mate only with other rams have different brain structures from "straight" sheep, a finding that may shed light on human sexuality, U.S. researchers said on Monday.

The differences are similar to those seen in some homosexual humans, but probably only go a small way to explaining the causes of different sexual preferences, the team at Oregon Health & Science University said.

"We are not trying to explain human sexuality by this study," Charles Roselli, a professor of physiology and pharmacology who led the study, said in a telephone interview. "Whether this is a big component of what contributes in humans, that's still debatable."

Working with a team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, Roselli's team studied 27 sheep -- 10 ewes, nine rams that mated only with other rams and eight rams that mated only with females. The "gay" sheep are strongly homosexual, Roselli said.

"They don't pair-bond," he said. "But they are exclusive. They don't court or mate with females. They only court and mate with males."

First the scientists watched the sheep to be sure of their behavior -- something that cannot be done with humans. Then they took apart their brains.

"They don't pair-bond," he said. "But they are exclusive. They don't court or mate with females. They only court and mate with males."

First the scientists watched the sheep to be sure of their behavior -- something that cannot be done with humans. Then they took apart their brains.

"There had been reports in humans that a certain area of the hypothalamus, the preoptic area ... was usually larger in males than females," Roselli said. This area was also found to be larger in heterosexual humans than in homosexual men. But the researchers had used the brains of men who had died of AIDS in their study, which meant the disease or drugs used to treat it could have had an effect on the brain.

"With an animal model you can be more selective and do more controlled studies," Roselli said.

The sheep had similar differences in their brains, the researchers told a meeting in Orlando, Florida, of the Society for Neuroscience. "In a sense we confirmed what been found in humans," Roselli said.

The brain cells in this area also made greater amounts of an enzyme called aromatase in the heterosexual rams. Aromatase is involved in the action of testosterone, the so-called male hormone.

This does not mean the gay rams had less testosterone in their brains, Roselli stressed. "It is not necessarily the activational effect of the hormone," he said. Other types of neurons are probably active they just have not found them yet.

No differences in testosterone relating to sexuality have been found either in the sheep or in humans, he said. "It's not that gay men have lower levels of testosterone," he said. "And it's not the case with these sheep."

Roselli believes that exposure to hormones while still in the mother's womb may affect the brain and cause differences in sexual preference, and more experiments will aim to show whether this is true.

 

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