A Call to Paws

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These days, few things are as commonplace in the landscape of scientific research than the perpetual yowl of opposition. Despite the fact that huge announcements in the sciences often aren’t, off the bat, that thrilling (“two galaxies a million light years away collided and we aren’t sure where the mass went!”), there still always seems to be someone that’s up in arms. Most of the time, it’s the usual suspects — Baptists, the Bush administration, pro-lifers, and school boards in the midwest — people whose interests are threatened, ideologically, by the potential of specific knowledge. However, the numbers are growing, and researchers are more often having to defend their work against growing murmurs of antagonism. There’s even an Oxford-based organization, Pro-Test, that marshals researchers and scientists into the streets to protest their right to do biological research. Not to mention the fact that science funding is at an all-time low.

Scientists protesting being protested? This is getting complicated, and probably because the issues scientists tend to be dealing with these days are more complex, relevant, and rife with implications than we’re used to.

The thing is, Science has been around since Greek-guys-in-sheets times, and there just isn’t that much “safe” research to be done. Centuries of experimental trial and error have gotten the rudimentary ideas out of the way, and now we’re launched headlong into the big-picture stuff. Front-page science news is more and more mind-blowing, because it concerns the kinds of ideas that freak us out to the core: embryonic stem-cell research, evolution, our effect on the planet’s climate, the beginnings and ends of the Universe. Hence, the roar of pundits grows larger, and more vitriolic. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, in a recent posting on their website concerning the deriving of totipotent stem cells from 8-celled human embryos (a process that doesn’t harm the embryo) espoused that “today’s scientists must move forward on a solid ethical footing or they risk falling into the same pit that doomed many of Nazi Germany’s scientists to a legacy of disgust and moral outrage.”

Yikes!

More surprising, however, is objection from leftist groups. I was recently struck by the thundering of dissent against the work of Dr. Charles Roselli, a biologist at the Oregon Health Sciences University, OHSU. Dr. Roselli, who works primarily with sheep, is the author of a series of papers about sexual orientation in rams — the so-called “gay sheep” — which suggest that sexual orientation is hard-wired in the animals’ brains before birth. Provocative stuff, to be sure, since it may mean that homosexuality is definitely biologically programmed, part and parcel of the natural world, and, therefore, that the rights of homosexual humans should be beyond contention. Duh, I know.

It’s unsurprising that Dr. Roselli’s work would come under fire; what is surprising, however, is by whom. Of all organizations imaginable, the radically leftist People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA, infamous recently for their amazingly tasteless Beyonce Knowles coup, in which they verbally attacked the pop singer in a restaurant for her fur-oriented fashion choices) have taken the OHSU research as a misguided call to arms.

PETA, in a trenchant attempt to stop Roselli’s work, posted a petition on its youth-oriented website, claiming that “these experimenters believe that homosexuality is a defect that needs to be fixed, and they’re cutting open and killing gay sheep to do it.” Meanwhile, Roselli has repeatedly told the media that his work is completely neutral, that he’s trying to understand the biological impetus behind complex behavior, and, according to an interview with the Seattle Times, that he isn’t even a “nature-versus-nurture kind of dichotomist.”

Why would PETA target this kind of research? After all, Roselli and his team deal with a grand total of 16 sheep in their lab, while American meat-packing companies plow through over 4,000,000 yearly — and no one learns anything from those, other than that they might taste good with a little mint sauce and some potatoes. Of course, a great deal of animal research is morally dubious and, frankly, unnecessary, but the work of these OHSU researchers — and many others throughout the country — is in a completely different league: no one’s putting shampoo in puppies’ eyes here.

Don’t get me wrong, I love our animal brothers, but that doesn’t necessitate a blind adherence to any and all political group which claims to represent them. It seems that PETA has cherry-picked the OHSU team and manipulated its hot-button modus operandi in order to turn people away from any kind of biological research involving animals, a politically-biased strategy that wouldn’t be out of order among Intelligent Designists and those who deny the increasingly obvious presence of climate change. As if we needed another anti-Science group in this country!

PETA’s rhetoric is questionable; the petition on their site ends with “I am sure that you want your university to be known for making real medical advancements that actually benefit humans, not for torturing animals and promoting homophobia.” It is also sensationalist, borderline silly, and frighteningly similar to the language that the Southern Baptists’ Convention uses to criticize stem-cell research. Alls I’m saying is, language is dangerous, but not as dangerous as extremism.

Comments

  1. #1 nicole
    September 17, 2006

    PETA is fully aware of what they are doing-their goal is to provide a media stunt to draw attention to a larger issue. This has been the tactic of every other succesful social movement. How could you say PETA’s questioning of Beyonce, as her dinner guest, is tackier than her fashion and ethical choices? If someone is not fully able to defend their own decisions, such as Beyonce, what kind of example does that set for her fans? I think PETA has integrity for having the guts to day what we are all thinking. Connecting Beyonce to fur, or a high-profile animal research case to abusive animal testing, are the kind of actions need in this media saturated world.

  2. #2 Claire
    September 17, 2006

    For one thing, the attacks on Beyonce and Dr. Roselli are two hugely different issues: wearing fur is some ridiculous medieval shit, but biological research? Confusing the two is the effect of PETA’s “you’re with us or against us” rhetoric, and the last thing we need in this country is more us-vs-them extremism.

    I see what you mean, fully, but I don’t understand how lying about and effectively smearing someone who is doing reasonable and justifiable research is going to help PETA’s image, let alone the “larger issue.”

    Trying to cut through, or subvert, the media-saturated world with more misinformation and high-profile, youth-marketed media is a weird strategy that only confuses those who are on the fence about these kinds of issues. I really think that the truth, presented without aggression, is more than enough to convince “regular” people to stop wearing fur, eating meat, or being homophobic. Straight up.

  3. #3 matt mc
    September 17, 2006

    aside from the animal testing part, i do think the study of whether or not homosexuality is ‘hard-wired’ or not is very interesting and deserving of some serious ethical discussion. i think you and i share similar views concerning gay rights, but i fear that the masses out there would see the science as proof that homosexuality is a defect that could be fixed. genetic testing to see if someone is pre-disposed to have homosexual offspring sounds frightening yet very predictable. i guess i just am not sure if proving that homosexuality is hard-wired would help or hurt the cause for gay rights. it is very complicated, for sure.

  4. #4 Kevin Erickson
    September 18, 2006

    I think PETA’s aim in this campaign was to tap into the fresh energy behind the gay rights movement and funnel it toward animal rights. A noble goal, poorly executed, to be sure, but it does indicate a bigger problem regarding the fragmentation of leftist political identities. I mean, for me it is crazy obvious that if you are a good person you would support queer liberation and oppose the exploitation of animals, and that this should come from the same compassionate ethical center. But for various reasons we are still stuck on the illusion that these are seperate issues.

  5. #5 emptypockets
    September 19, 2006

    Very well put. You may be interested in a similar piece I wrote about PETA’s lies about the ‘gay sheep’ experiments and a follow-up I posted the other day. HTML links don’t seem to be working in comment preview, here they are:
    http://thenexthurrah.typepad.com/the_next_hurrah/2006/09/peta_crosses_th.html
    http://thenexthurrah.typepad.com/the_next_hurrah/2006/09/unspreading_a_l.html

    Nicole, PETA may have a point to make but it should be made honestly — not by lying about the facts.

    Kevin, whether animal research is “exploitation of animals” is not obvious to me. Maybe some is; on the other hand, there are some animal rights advocates who think animals should not be kept as pets, opposing even the use of seeing-eye dogs. I think the bigger issue is the mistreatment of animals, and certainly for behavioral studies animals need to be treated quite well if the data is going to be at all meaningful. Besides the ethical issues, just pragmatically – sick and unhappy animals act weird, and give unreproducible data.

  6. #6 Claire
    September 19, 2006

    “Emptypockets,” your piece on PETA was what inspired this post. Thanks so much for your research.

  7. #7 evan
    September 20, 2006

    Is it wrong to imagine that the way I feel about PETA is probably the way non-fanatical conservatives feel about people who blow up abortion clinics?