The Sexual Brain
The Science of Desire: The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior
Historians of homosexuality will judge much twentieth-century “science” harshly when they come to reflect on the prejudice, myth, and downright dishonesty that litter modern academic research on sexuality. Take, for example, the lugubrious statements of once respected investigators. Here is Sandor Feldman, a well-known psychotherapist, in 1956:
It is the consensus of many contemporary psychoanalytic workers that permanent homosexuals, like all perverts, are neurotics.1
Or consider the remarks of the respected criminologist Herbert Hendin:
Homosexuality, crime, and drug and alcohol abuse appear to be barometers of social stress…Criminals help produce other criminals, drug abusers other drug abusers, and homosexuals other homosexuals.2
The notion of the homosexual as a deeply disturbed deviant in need of treatment was the orthodoxy until only recently. Bernard Oliver, Jr., a psychiatrist specializing in sexual medicine, wrote in 1967 that
Dr. Edmond Bergler feels that the homosexual’s real enemy is not so much his perversion but [sic] ignorance of the possibility that he can be helped, plus his psychic masochism which leads him to shun treatment….
There is good reason to believe now, more than ever before, that many homosexuals can be successfully treated by psychotherapy, and we should encourage homosexuals to seek this help.3
Such views about the origin of homosexual preferences have become part of American political culture as well. When, in 1992, Vice-President Dan Quayle offered the view that homosexuality “is more of a choice than a biological situation…. It is a wrong choice,”4 he merely reasserted the belief that homosexuality reflected psychological conditioning with little biological basis, and certainly without being influenced by a person’s biological inheritance.
And now we have the much publicized spectacle—Time magazine has taken up the story in a dramatic feature entitled “Search for a Gay Gene”5—of homosexuality’s origins being revealed in the lowly fruit fly, Drosophila6 Males and females of this, one has to admit, rather distant relation adopt courtship behavior that has led two researchers at the US National Institutes of Health to draw extravagant parallels with human beings.
Shang-Ding Zhang and Ward F. Odenwald found that what they took to be homosexual behavior among male fruit flies—touching male partners with forelegs, licking their genitalia, and curling their bodies to allow genital contact—could be induced by techniques that abnormally activated a gene called w (for “white,” so called because of its effect on eye color). Widespread activation (or “expression”) of the white gene in Drosophila produced male-to-male rituals that took place in chains or circles of five or more flies. If female fruit flies lurked nearby, male flies would only rarely be tempted away from their male companions. These findings, which have apparently been reproduced by others, have led the investigators to conclude that “w misexpression has a profound effect on male sexual behavior.”
Zhang and Odenwald go on to speculate that the expression of w could lead to severe shortages of serotonin, an important chemical signal that enables nerve cells to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.