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Sunday, Sep 20, 2020

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Not Thinking Straight by Madelyn Arnold
A Gay council of worms [sic]
by Madelyn Arnold - SGN Contributing Writer

Monday afternoon I became acquainted with a pleasant gentleman who asked me what I was writing, and I said an essay. And he asked, what for? And I answered, the Seattle Gay News. And he said: "No, I mean, what's it about? And I said: "About worms." At which point he suddenly discovered something very important to do and turned to do it. I then returned to speculation over the scientific method as applied to at least one kind of human behavior - ours.

For this is about worms. And penguins. And a little bit, about free will.

I'll bet you've heard this one: Scientists Cure Cancer in Rats(!) Har-har-har.

You know: feed them lithium and laundry soap and birth control pills to see what's teratogenic -- and so.... Do the rats have less to worry about now? And if not, can we cure them?

I suppose there are some in the United States who think these trials are about rat disease... but then there are people of average (or better) intelligence....

Once upon a time a long time ago, I went to college. And studied the strangest things: rats, mice, fruit flies, nematodes, bacteria, viruses and self-replicating systems... we didn't get near anything so human as a wombat, until my last year. Which was very right, at least from a wombat's point of view.

When a literature major studies literature, s/he learns how to learn - by learning. To write, by writing; learns to write about ideas by endlessly turning and twisting ideas -- illustrating, refuting and adjusting them pro and con, back and forth. With a little luck, s/he learns to enjoy such stuff and all the little monkey-wrenches used.

But when young students are learning how to study science, what they are actually ticking-off is the many ways that they can fail to obtain a product from, to improve growth for, or simply rear a "system" (ie., a living thing) to maturity - in such a way that it could all be repeated again and again.

(1) Eventually, we grasped that to study anything complex we needed to study what was simple; (2) that complex systems were composed of many series' of simple systems and (3) further, that to study normal behavior we needed to study the abnormal, and ask ourselves how (and how much) that differed from the "normal" or average behavior.

For more than a year, reported in February of '05, zookeepers in Bremen, Germany, were mystified as to why three of its five penguin couples produced no offspring. They did the usual courting dances, built nests together, had sex, and still no little penguins. Finally, scientists did a DNA test to see if there was something genetically wrong. That is when they discovered three of their five couples were male.

So, in 2005, the zoo imported four female penguins from Sweden to interrupt the "infertile" birds, but the poor boys weren't interested in footsie with the other sex, remaining faithful to their same-sex partners. The males were separated from their Gay mates and one by one females were introduced. But the males pined for their mates until they were reunited.

"Aversion therapy" as a practice has never worked successfully in penguins, and it's been tried more than once. According to, "Gay penguins are not unusual. New York's Central Park Zoo has Roy and Silo, who have been together for several years. As with one of the couples in Germany, Roy and Silo put a rock simulating an egg in their nest and sat on it, keeping it warm in the folds of their abdomens. Similar attempts to introduce females to Roy and Silo also failed, although the two no longer spend time together. Roy for a while spent time with a female penguin but ended it early this year."

I suppose leaving him bereft of any couplehood at all is a kind of cure....

"Gay penguins have also been found in Japan. Scientists at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, found about 20 same-sex pairs at 16 major aquariums and zoos."

Of wider application is work released this week by Laboratory and Biology Professor Erik Jorgensen, scientific director of the Brain Institute at the University of Utah and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, (obtained on a grant from the National Science Foundation): Scientists alter sexual orientation in worms/Same-sex attraction is genetically wired nematode's [worm's] brain.... Current Biology [Nov. 6 '07].

University of Utah biologists genetically manipulated the brains of nematode worms so that the animals were attracted to those of the same-sex - "part of a study that shows sexual orientation is wired in the creatures' brains."

"They look like girls, but act and think like boys," says Jamie White, a postdoctoral researcher and first author of the new study. "The [same-sex attraction] behavior is part of the nervous system."

This may only prove that worms have even more sex on the brain than humans do, but "An evolutionary biologist will consider this to be a potentially common mechanism for sexual attraction."

"The conclusion is that sexual attraction is wired into brain circuits common to both sexes of worms, and is not caused solely by extra nerve cells added to the male or female brain," says Jorgenson. "The reason males and females behave differently is that the same nerve cells have been rewired to alter sexual preference."

"We cannot say what this means for human sexual orientation, but it raises the possibility that sexual preference is wired in the brain. Humans are subject to evolutionary forces just like worms. It seems possible that if sexual orientation is genetically wired in worms, it would be in people too. [But] humans have free will, so the picture is more complicated in people."

If we grant that the "picture is more complicated in people", is there such a thing as free will?

Watch this space....
Halloween on Capitol Hill
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photos by Joey - SGN photographer

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