Friday, July 24, 2009

Chinese Science and Homosexuality: Some Comments

Today’s edition of The Hindu has some articles that I thought are worth commenting about. The first is a front page news item with the heading ‘2 Chinese teams break new ground in stem cell research’. Not to detract from its importance, I wonder whether it would have been accorded the same degree of importance if it had been achieved in a different country. But this is no doubt an important step in realizing the potential of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) and the first time that someone has shown that they can be induced through limited genetic alterations to behave very similar to embryonic stem cells (ESC) in an in vivo context. More importantly, it heralds the arrival of China as an emerging powerhouse in the field of Science and Technology. The huge investment that nation has made in building a strong infrastructure in higher education and attracting talent is clearly starting to pay off. While Indian scientists too have published some good papers, I am aware of no comparable achievement. Those in charge of higher education in India would do well to take a moment to reflect on it. For those interested, Volokh Conspiracy provides a good summary of knowledge in this area and discusses some interesting ethical concerns related to these developments.

Today’s edition also has a reasonably good article by Dr.K.S.Jacob titled ‘Homosexuality, medicine and psychiatry’ which summarizes many known facts on homosexuality. My criticism here is that it either ought to have focused entirely on the science or if it waded into the larger sociopolitical questions, it ought to have framed the debate in proper perspective. Being a newspaper article, the former is entirely understandable. The latter however is not.

There is a paragraph titled ‘The debate’ which says that those opposed to it are not willing to accept homosexuality as part of a normal identity. This is no doubt the case but it takes us to the question of what normality is and how we define it which is where those supportive of the idea and those opposed to it differ. Both sides agree that certain forms of sexual practices are not normal – sex in public, sex with minors, sex with animals, etc. but disagree on why sex among adult men of the same gender is different and acceptable (or not). So what are the factors that make homosexuality distinct and unique in emphasis and treatment? The author does not delve into this question in any detail simply moving on to the next point saying:
"They (i.e. those opposed to it) also argue that it will lead to the breakdown of the family. Nevertheless, the threat today to marriage and family in India is from heterosexual men with their high rates of alcohol abuse, physical and sexual violence, harassment for dowry, unprotected extramarital sex and the abandonment of the wife and children."
There are no doubt other threats to marriage and family but the question here is whether homosexual relationships are also a threat to the traditional family. The issue is somewhat complex. The majority of gay Indians are married and have children and are having sex with men in addition to their wives. Many would certainly have preferred not to marry at all in the first place if they had a choice but would those already married leave their wives and cause a breakdown in the family if homosexuality became accepted legally and socially? The answer is not clear to me and the author does not talk about it either.

I will leave the discussion of prejudice for another day.


Karmasura said...

Work on iPSCs is not new.. you can google some other papers on that. But that the Chinese have done it is more interesting...

Pilid said...


Thanks for the comment. You are right: work on iPSCs are not new and have been known and used since Shinya Yamanaka's groundbreaking discovery but generating an entire mammalian body out of iPSCs is certainly new and resolves a longstanding question which is what these two teams achieved.

Karmasura said...

It is an exciting development which I have to track. I am majoring in Tissue Engineering. Thanks for posting.