Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ex-gay panel discussion in Tallahassee

This evening, I attended a panel discussion titled:
All God's Children: LGBTQ Members of Faith & the Ex-Gay Movement
jointly organized by the Pride (the on campus student version) and Seminole Christian Life, a very conservative christian student body. I have taped the whole conversation, and I am currently making a backup to my webserver so that the file cannot get lost. I will upload the video in sections to YouTube in the coming days. Uploaded to YouTube here Before the panel started, two of the ex-gay members asked me to refrain from making the video, because they were afraid that the message would be distorted by selectively cherry picking pieces of the video. So, I told them that if I would upload the video to YouTube, I would upload it integrally. I personally think the complete video is much more powerful, so that is not an issue. Internally, I was actually quite appalled by it, knowing that the ex-gay movement has a reputation of distorting the information of others.

What follows is my personal impression.

First of all, I think it was incredibly stupid of Pride to provide a platform to these people in the first place. As expected, they deliberately distorted what we know about homosexuality based on scientific research. Two of them claimed that there is no genetic component to homosexuality, which is bullshit. I know exactly what gene (frutty oops, the political correct version is fruitless) needs to be manipulated to make a male fly court other male flies, or a female fly to court other females. But heck, what can you do once they have made the blunder? Well, document. So, I went to the meeting, with my laptop and web-cam, and recorded the whole discussion.

Ok, the panel consisted of five members. Three representatives were representing the ex-gay movement, Frank Carrasco & Christine Sneeringer, from Exodus and ex-felon and con-artist Arthur Goldberg, from JONAH. The other side was represented by two local clergy, Rev. Mark Byrd of the Gentle Shepherd MCC and Cantor Tanya Greenblatt of Temple Israel.

The evening started with personal introductions by the panel members, and I will provide a short impression of those introductions:

Frank Carrasco
Frank appeared to me as genuine about himself, realizing that he still has feelings for men, but he has chosen Jesus over his own feelings. I think that he in due time will find peace with Jesus and being gay, and that he will follow the many former ex-gay's that have left the ex-gay movement before him.

Christine Sneeringer
Christine is a different story. Based on her story, I am sure that a major reason she found love in the arms of a woman was her abuse past. That happens, and it sucks. I am glad that she has found herself and has realized that she has attractions to men. However, she didn't say whether she still has or not has feelings for woman, but I would not be surprised if she did. She at least still makes blips on the gaydar of at least some of the females in the audience.

Arthur Abba Goldberg
Arthur is an Orthodox Jew, convicted fellon, dis-barred attorney with a criminal record for financial crimes. Spend 18 months in jail. He is still a con-artist based on what I saw of him this evening. Glib and skilled, lies between his teeth. He gave me the creeps, similar to psychopaths I have met.

Rev. Mark Byrd
Mark told us about his journey from being raised in a church that considers the Southern Baptists as too liberal (sic) to finding peace in being gay and Christian. ADDED in response to the first comment: Tried basically the ex-gay path (he was married, has a daughter), was miserable, to the point of being suicidal, till his wife finally told him to be true to his feelings and amicably divorced so he could find peace. You could see his eyes shout fire when the ex-gay people claimed to do no harm.

Cantor Tanya Greenblatt
Tanya is a member of the Reform Judaism branch, heterosexual, married and very open towards gay people. She explained a lot about the context in which the Torah was written, and tackled head on the cherry picking of Bible/Torah verses to proof ones point.

And now about the content of the discussion. I think there were a few good things and the expected and obvious bad things.

A major discussion point was about respect. Especially the ex-gay members stressed this point, and within qualified limits, I agree. I think that if someone chooses Jesus over his or her sexual orientation, that is that persons personal choice, and whether or not we believe it is healthy or not, something we should respect. But as I say, this is within qualified limits. The limit is honesty. Telling your personal story is one thing, distorting the facts is another. For example, Christine claimed that there is no genetic component to homosexuality. Really? No, wilfully distorting important facts results in less respect. If you want respect, you better become honest and stop distorting the facts. And no Christine, NARTH is not a reliable source for that kind of information.

But there is another point that I would like to bring up. And that is the question of change? Basically, can people change their sexual orientation? My answer is neither yes or no, because I think that in rare cases, some people can change their sexual orientation. And those numbers are far less than what the ex-gay movement want you to believe. Also, I suspect that most of those cases are either bisexuals who have a somewhat stronger attraction to individuals of the same sex, or people who have for example experienced trauma or something related. However, most of the people that claim to have been heterosexualized are pretending.

I have far more respect for those in the ex-gay movement who actually honestly say they still have feelings for the members of the same sex, but make an active choice between God and their sexual orientation. There is nothing wrong with it, as long as it is their own choice.

And that brings me to the next item that I want to address here tonight. Recruiting. This was brought up, and all ex-gay members said they did not recruit. However, nothing was said about youngsters that are singed up for their programs by their parents. O wait, the parents sign the release, so they are not recruited.

And that brings me to the last item to be discussed. Harm. They claimed they did no harm. Whow. The APA disagrees. The survivors disagree.

UPDATE in the morning
Ok, I am going to bed. Tomorrow more.

And let me finish my last thoughts. If you are really interested to do no harm, you only can achieve that when you are honest, and means that you represent the research accurately. When you claim that you can change, but that the research indicates that it is a very rare thing, you give people false hope of a solution that is not there. If you REALLY want to help people without harming them, you say that. You say, we can help you, not with changing your sexual orientation, but with finding a way to deal with your generally unchangeable sexual orientation that is compatible with your believe. For more information about professional standards of helping people, see here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sophophora: A Laboratory Handbook

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press has announced the next edition of their best-selling fuitfly handbook:

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sophophora melanogaster: Next steps

After some nights of sleep, I have come to the conclusion that moving forward with splitting the genus is the only sensible thing to do. The longer we wait with renaming Drosophila melanogaster, the more complex the situation is going to be. The graphic representations of the paraphyletic genus Drosophila that are circulating around the internet are only a dressed down version, in that they ignore a substantial part of the paraphyly (aka, it looks not as bad as it actually is):

Well, here is the full story:

Once we get Sophophora melanogaster out of the way, there is not a real hold-up for further taxonomic revisions, and the field won't be longer hold hostage by the Sophophora melanogaster problem but individual researchers can actually do their revisions.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Drosophila politics: Sophophora melanogaster

The commission has ruled, Drosophila funebris remains the type species of the genus Drosophila, opening the way a renaming of Drosophila melanogaster to Sophophora melanogaster. To understand better how we got here, I will provide some background information on the history of the genus, the history of the case, the decision and how to move forward.

The history of the genus Drosophila

The genus Drosophila was established in 1823 by Fallén, who included 12 species. Drosophila melanogaster was described in 1830 by Meigen, who placed it in the genus Drosophila. Then, in 1939, Sturtevant subdivides the genus in several subgenera, including the subgenus Sophophora, home of Drosophila melanogaster. In 1990, Grimaldi removed several subgenera from the genus Drosophila, and elevates them to the level of genus, including the subgenera Scaptodrosophila, Hirtodrosophila while several other subgenera are moved to the Hawaiian 'Drosophila' genus, Idiomyia. The latter name has only been accepted sparely, most researchers place them in the subgenus Drosophila. Over time, the genus Drosophila has been the receptacle for many species of fruit flies, especially those lacking obvious characteristics that warrant a separate genus, resulting in a genus that consists of more than 1000 species (or 1500 if the Hawaiian 'Drosophila' are included).

The history of the case

Several years ago, I was in need of a good phylogeny of the genus Drosophila for a comparative analysis. I have images of more than 21.000 fly wings spanning more than 100 species across the family Drosophilidae. However, if you want to know how those wings evolved, you have to consider that closely related species will be more similar because they share more of their evolutionary history with each other compared to more distantly related species. Six years ago, everybody was waiting for Patrick O'Grady to finally publish his comprehensive molecular phylogeny. A few years earlier, in 2002, O'Grady, together with Rob DeSalle had received a US$ 367.221 grant to study the phylogenetic relationships within the family Drosophilidae by sequencing and analysing up to 60 genes for more than 100 different species. We are still waiting, well, not for long any more as we now have our own molecular phylogeny in press with Genetics Research.

After waiting a few years on the Drosophila phylogeny, something had to happen, en I pulled together all the existing literature covering small parts of the phylogenetic tree of the genus Drosophila, and pieced them together first by hand, and later using a formal method, called the supertree analysis. That tree was published in 2008. What the analysis showed was that the genus Drosophila as currently defined is paraphyletic. Several genera, including Hirtodrosophila, Scaptomyza, Zaprionus, Mycodrosophila and several more are positioned within the genus Drosophila.

Among taxonomists, a continuing discussion is whether paraphyletic taxa are desirable/accaptable or not. However, there is one crucial aspect to consider. Homogeneity. Consider the following scenario. Take a group of species that are closely related. All species, except those in one small branch look very similar to each other. The exception is that small clade that is very different from the remaining species. In such a case, grouping the two genera in a single genus to make a monophyletic genus does not make sense. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Drosophila. The genus is very heterogeneous, and the various clades are often more alike to the included genera than to the more distantly related relatives in the genus. So, Drosophila is not a good candidate to keep as a paraphyletic genus, an option preferred by some researchers such as Patrick O'Grady.

So, what are the alternatives?

One alternative is to sink all included genera into the genus Drosophila, which would result in a very large (2250+ species) genus, that is rather heterogeneous, and it would result in more than 100 secondary homonyms (that is, two species with the same name of which the species described last needs to get a new name).

The other is to split the genus along the major clades, and elevate each of the clades to the rank of genus. That is an easy solution, and done frequently in taxonomy. Unfortunately, there is only one small problem. And that is that Drosophila melanogaster would be renamed to Sophophora melanogaster.
Yes. You read that right.

This is a situation where nomenclature, the science of how to name species and higher taxa, clashes with reality. Why? Because Drosophila melanogaster is not just your average run-of-the-mill species. Drosophila melanogaster is one of the most studied model-organisms in the world, with more than 50.000 published articles; references in almost each and every biology textbook on many many different topics; it is used in high school biology classes to teach kids the fundamentals of genetics; it is used in medical research, in neurobiology, in ecological, studies, in genetics, etc. So, renaming such a species is not feasible.

When you come to that conclusion, there is only one way to go, and that is to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, effectively a small group of well-respected taxonomists who decide when overruling their own rules is better for taxonomic stability. So, we submitted an application to the commission for consideration, in which we asked them to change the type species for the genus Drosophila to Drosophila melanogaster, so that the name Drosophila melanogaster would be carved in stone. For now and for ever.

The Decision

A few days ago, the commission published their decision. In the three years between the publication of the application and the decision by the ICZN, many comments by outsiders have been published. Some of them were in favour, some against. In the end, the commission ruled 4 against 23 to reject the application. I won't go into the arguments of the individual commissioners, but they can be grouped in several broad arguments:
  1. We do not know enough.
  2. People can learn a new name.
  3. Let's not create precedent.
  4. A paraphyletic genus is not a problem.
  5. Conserving the name would require more species to be renamed.
  6. The other model species
Lets see.

1. We do not know enough.

Really? Sorry if I sound underwhelmed. There are over 20 published phylogenies covering a wide range of species, and at least a 30 more that focus on smaller groups. We summarized everything in a nice article in 2008, and there is only one conclusion that follows from that article, and that is that the genus is paraphyletic, and that most clades are well defined. A comprehensive molecular study pointing at exactly the same thing is in press. Okay, they did not have access to the latter, but the latter only confirms what we already knew from the previous publication.

2. People can learn a new name.

True. But will they accept the new name? Because if the scientists won't accept the new name, they won't learn it, and it won't trickle down to the general public. During the proceedings, various examples have been put forward on acceptance of new names. One example was hilarious, because it was presented as a perfect example on how new names were accepted. Stegomyia aegypti used to be called Aedes aegypti, until a few years ago, the genus was revised and the name changed. Unfortunately, contrary to the claim as a successful name change, it was not accepted by the community at large, to the point that several journals, including Journal of Medical Entomology, Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, Journal of Vector Ecology, Medical and Veterinary Entomology, Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Vector Borne and Zoonotic Diseases, and PROMED, publicly denounced the new name. Another example was the renaming of the zebrafish, Danio rerio, which was easily accepted. True, but as a colleague who works on the species explained, that name change did take place before the zebrafish became a popular model system, so hardly anything was affected by it. The situation with Drosophila melanogaster is rather different as I explained above.

3. Let's not create precedent.

First of all, the commission by design does not have to take into consideration what happened in previous cases. Each case is decided on its merits, without regard of previous rulings. But even if they did consider precedents? Would that be a problem? Unlikely because there are not that many widely used model systems, and most of them are phylogentically positioned in places that a name change is really unlikely. Unsurprisingly, no examples of other potential cases have been presented.

4. A paraphyletic genus is not a problem.

Okay, I discussed that one above already, no need for repetition.

5. Conserving the name would require more species to be renamed.

I am not sure how they came to this conclusion as we explained in the original application. When the genus is split, it will be split according to the four major clades. So, the names of the species in two of the clades will change regardless. Of the two remaining clades, the clade with Drosophila melanogaster is the largest, effectively preserving the name of the largest possible number of species.

6. The other model species

Some voiced concern about renaming the other Drosophila model species like Drosophila virilis and Drosophila grimshawii. Well, by rejecting the application, none of the species will retain the name Drosophila because none of the species is in the clade with the type species.

How to move forward

So, what is next? Good question. Several options remain:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Accept phylocode for the genus and forget about having a nice rank-based classification.
  3. Split the genus and renames Drosophila melanogaster to Sophophora melanogaster and test the argument that it won't matter and that people will accept the new name.
  4. Elevate the clade one by one to the level of genus, slowly but surely dismantling the genus until only two relative small unrelated clades remain, one with funebris, and one with melanogaster.
At this stage, I have not made a decision what my next step will be. See my next post here.