The Science of Sexuality

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Sintija Jurkevica and Jonathan James

The struggle of understanding sexuality begins to muddle even before sexual orientation can be defined. Some sources describe it as a person’s capacity to have erotic experiences and responses. However, in general, sexual orientation or preference, can be defined as “the sex (biological aspects of maleness and femaleness) of those whom one feels romantically and sexually attracted to”, where one’s sexual orientation may be categorised as heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, queer, pansexual, asexual or among others. However, categorisation of identifiable preferences is more nuanced than it appears; whilst some research may describe orientation as discrete categories, substantial evidence backs up the existence of a sexual continuum or spectrum.

But how does one develop a sexual preference? This riddle is a classic psychological argument of nature versus nurture: do the genes, the environment, or a mixture of them both influence one’s sexual attraction to others? This is obviously an ongoing debate and a matter of significantly more research. A recent September publication, composed by a psychology researcher Michael Bailey and his colleagues in the peer-reviewed journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, has been created with the intention of objectively reviewing previous scientific research on sexual orientation to draw impartial conclusions on the topic, without preconceptions of scientific biases and political influences.

Bailey’s review paper concluded that the non-social causes, such as the individual’s genetic make-up, play a larger role than environmental influences in establishment of one’s sexuality. The evidence, supporting such a claim, includes the genetic influences in twin studies and unchanged sexual orientation of infant boys after they are surgically or socially “converted” into girls. Bailey and colleagues also argue against the commonly assumed environmental causes of homosexuality to be weak and distorted in comparison to alternative explanations.

Various genetic hypotheses had been proposed to explain differences in sexuality. In several studies, it was found that a several different genetic markers (i.e. genetic elements) were more likely to be found in gay men in comparison to their straight counterparts. When this news was first published, it caused an outpouring in the media of the discovery of the so called ‘gay gene’, but the media failed to report one significant factor – genetic influences themselves cannot be used to determine predisposition to a trait. In other words, simply having a genetic element doesn’t automatically result in these individual’s sexual orientation. To make matters more complicated, scientists were unable to reproduce these findings in women for same sex attraction, suggesting that sexual orientation is a lot more complex than a few genetic differences.

Other scientists have conducted studies considering the seemingly well establish theory that each additional older brother increases the odds of a male being gay by approximately 33%, with something like 1 in 7 gay males holding their sexual orientation because of having older male siblings. These findings have been controversial, not least because there are several scientific studies that support these proposals, and several that have not found a link.

One attempt to explain this apparent causation is through the maternal immune response. Male fetuses produce H-Y antigens (small proteins) that play a role in sexual development in the womb (i.e. the development of male sex organs). In response to these antigens, the mother will sometimes produce an immune response, which gets stronger with each successive male fetus, resulting in decreased activity of these antigens in later males. One suggestion is that this results in less ‘mascularization’ of the male brain, resulting in the development of same sex attraction. The major flaw with this explanation is simple – the occurrence of the mother’s immune response is significantly lower than the prevalence of homosexuality, suggesting it cannot be the major cause.

The truth of the matter is, despite several attempts to better understand the genetics behind human sexual orientation, scientist know very little about what causes it, or even the true significance of any environmental factors. As Bailey concludes in his paper however, “Sexual orientation is an important human trait, and we should study it without fear, and without political constraint,” Bailey argues. “The more controversial a topic, the more we should invest in acquiring unbiased knowledge and science is the best way to acquire unbiased knowledge.” Therefore, we should look forward to developing a better understanding in the future, in the hope that a better understanding of ourselves, results in a better understanding of each other.

 

 

Alan Turing – The Father of Computer Science

alan turing*Image reproduced with the Permission of James Evans Illustration.

Sintija Jurkevica

Could a computer ever be able to enjoy strawberries and cream? Could a computer ever make a human fall in love with it? These are types of questions Alan Turing (1912-1954) might ask one whole-heartedly at a dinner party, thereby unfolding the eccentricity of the genius himself. By profession, Turing was a distinguished British mathematician, logistician and philosopher, who pioneered the field of computer science, whilst his persona has been characterized as petulant and reserved, concealing a world of innocence and passion for nature and truth.

In the celebration of the 50 year milestone reached after the development of Sexual Offences Act 1967, highlighted in this article are some of the most influential Turing’s achievements, followed by a short biography on his personal life as a man who found himself attracted to other men at a time when same-sex attraction was illegal.

    #1: The Universal Turing Machine

Suppose a world in which computation, crudely defined as a mathematical calculation, is only carried out by humans. This almost begs one to ask the seemingly obvious question: could a physical machine be engineered to carry out simple calculations? And yet, at the technological limits of 20th century, this was not so obvious. Turing was fascinated by the possibility of building such a machine and in 1936 he conceptualised a mathematical model of a computer, named the Turing Machine.

The Turing Machine was conceived as an infinitely long paper tape divided into squares with erasable digits written on it which would act as storable memory of an output. The digits on the tape would be recognised and printed or erased by a read and print tape. Hypothetically, when given an instruction, as simple as the calculation of 2 + 2, the machine would read the digits individually and alter them appropriately following the set rules until the calculation is finished. For example the Turing Machine would re-read the tape of digits until it finds a solution of 4 when instructed to calculate 2 + 2.

Whilst each Turing Machine can only follow a single set of rules, namely a single program, a Universal Turing Machine can hypothetically compute an infinite amount of programs when its sets of instructions have been changed, or re-programmed. This concept of a universal, programmable computer has laid the foundation of the modern theory of computation, where a single machine can carry out the task of interpreting and obeying a program, just like, in essence, a standard digital computer does. Only 9 years later did the electronic technology evolve to transfer Turing’s mathematical concepts and logical ideas into practice engineering to demonstrate the feasibility and usefulness of such a device.

Upon a closer philosophical enquiry, one realises that Turing’s arguments for building the UTM connects logical instruction, something regarded as cognitive, with materiality of a physical machine; this is arguably Turing’s most significant legacy to the world that will influence the many generations after him. Throughout his lifetime, Turing would also relate his mathematical work to the functioning of the mind. For example, he regarded the building of UTM as “building a brain”, and has written an influential philosophical paper titled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, that has inspired the field of Artificial Intelligence.

    #2: Cracking the Unbreakable Enigma

During the Second World War, Turing worked at Bletchley Park, the British cryptanalytic headquarters. There, he designed and helped to build a functioning decryption system called the Turing-Welchman “Bombe”, which initially read the German Luftwaffe air force signals. Later, the codes, deemed as impossible to decrypt, generated by the German “Enigma” machine used in German naval communications, were cracked by Turing in 1939. Turing’s section ‘Hut 8’ deciphered Naval and U-boat messages on an industrial scale, and its influence has been argued to contribute towards the Allied victory over The Axis.

   #3: Work on Non-Linear Dynamic Theory

During his childhood, Turing was fascinated by nature and showed curious philosophical enquiry, exercising his ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. He would make degree level notes on the theory of relativity at school and pondered whether quantum-mechanical theory could explain the relationship between mind and physical matter during his undergraduate years at Cambridge.

In his older years working at Manchester University, Turing used the computers developed there to explain universal patterns in nature by mathematics, and published another classic paper titled ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis’ in 1952. His theory of growth and form in biology explains how the so called Turing patterns, such as leopard stripes and the spirals of snail shells, emerge from an initial mass of uniform matter.

   Turing’s Relationships

It was during his years at a boarding school in Dorset where he would find himself attracted to another able student, Christopher Morcom, who inspired young Alan to communicate more and pursue an academic path. Their intellectual companionship would leave a significant imprint on Turing after Morcom’s sudden death from tuberculosis, which inspired him to examine the problem of the mind and matter throughout his lifetime.

And it would around his undergraduate years at Cambridge when Turing realised that his attraction to men was a significant part of his identity, as he sought intimacy with an occasional lover, James Atkins, at the time a fellow mathematician. Only with years, he would become more outspoken about his sexual preference, leaving sexual conformity behind him. Curiously, when working at Bletchley Park, Turing had proposed to one of his female colleagues, Joan Clarke, who accepted the arrangement. However, Turing ended up retracting as he informed her of his true feelings.

On 31st March 1952, Turing was arrested and trialled for sexual indecency after police learnt of Turing’s intimacy with a young man from Manchester. As a man who honoured the truth, Turing would not deny his “illegal acts”, but admitted to no wrong-doing. As a severe consequence, Turing chose to undergo the year-long hormonal treatment – which in essence was chemical castration, over a prison sentence. In the light of Turing’s “indecency”, his security clearance was revoked, ending his ongoing work with the government and leaving him as a man with highly classified information who had to endure intrusive police searches.

Turing was found dead of a cyanide poisoning in 1954, administered from an apple. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.

Throughout his life, not only did Turing display an exceptionally profound mathematical and logical reasoning, his curiosity of nature allowed him to establish links between seemingly unrelated topics to lay the first solid foundations of computer science. Without Turing’s contributions, it would have taken another prodigy and a questionable amount of time to pioneer the age of computing which has developed the strong human reliance on smart devices existing today.

Alan Turing was a man who has, and continues to transform the world- regardless of his sexual preference.

Sally Ride’s Space Legacy

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Sally Ride was an American physicist and astronaut, most famous for being the first American woman in space, in 1983, and the third woman in space behind Russian Cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Sativskaya. As well as being the youngest American to have travelled to space, at just 32, she is less well known for being the first known LGBT astronaut, a fact not revealed until after her death in 2012. Whilst having been married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley from 1982 – 1987, her partner for the next 27 years would be Tam O’Shaughnessy, who she met when both were aspiring tennis players years earlier.

Ride joined NASA in 1978, having answered an advertisement in a newspaper for people to join the space programme. Prior to her first flight in 1983, she worked as a communicator for the second and third space shuttle flights and worked to develop the ‘Canadarm’ robot arm, used by space shuttles to deploy and recover deliveries. The flight in 1983 subjected her to a lot of media attention, mostly because of her gender. During one press conference, she was asked a series of extremely sexist question by the media, including whether she would cry if things went wrong, and whether the flight would damage her reproductive organs. Despite everything, Ride simply insisted she was an astronaut.

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The Challenger shuttle, moments before the horrific disaster.

On June 18, 1983, Ride because the first American woman in space as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger. The crew deployed two communication satellites and carried out many drug experiments in space. Ride was the first woman to use a robotic arm in space. A year later, in 1984, Ride embarked on her second mission on the Challenger (sadly to be her last, following the Challenger disaster of 1986, which took place months before she was due to go to space again for a third time.) In total, Ride spent over two weeks in space.

Following the Challenger disaster, Ride moved from space flight to the political sphere, working on the Rogers Commission to investigate the reasons behind the disaster. Later, she would go on to found NASA’s Office of Exploration, which continues to lay the groundwork for much of NASA’s future exploration. She would also work with schools to encourage students to pursue careers in the space industry, contributing to seven short stories aimed at children, and spent some time as a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.

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Then US President Barack Obama, awarding Sally Rides posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Sally Ride’s legacy continues to this day – she has received several accolades both during her lifetime and posthumously. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama. A year later, in 2014, she was induced into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBT history and people.

The Life of Leonardo Da Vinci

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Jonathan James

Leonardo da Vinci is the archetypal renaissance man, a master of painting, sculptor, architecture, invention, and engineering. His work, which spanned multiple disciplines, informed not just art and design, but also contributed greatly to our understanding of zoology, botany, biology, anatomy, engineering, and physics. He filled dozens of notebooks, which continue to surface to this day, containing hundreds if not thousands of drawings, sketches and ideas based on human anatomy, architecture, and mechanics. Whilst most of his work was not experimental – rather based on theoretical concepts, his work went into extreme detail, and provide some of the first explorations of many fields.

Under the apprenticeship of Andrea del Verrocchio, Da Vinci began what would become a lifelong appreciation of anatomy and physiology, which show up repeatedly in his notebooks; some of his most famous sketches include pictures of a foetus in a womb, the human brain and skull, and a series of topographic images describing muscles, tendons, and other visible anatomical features. It’s a common myth that to carry out these studies, Da Vinci stole corpses on which to perform illegal autopsies – the truth is much less exciting. He was in fact given permission, first by hospitals in Florence, and then later in Milan and Rome, to dissect human corpses. As well as studying ‘healthy’ specimens, disease also fascinated Da Vinci, being the first person to define atherosclerosis (thickening of the arterial wall) and liver cirrhosis, and is known to have constructed models that depicted the flow of blood through the vessels of the heart. His work was published in De humani corporis fabrica (The Human body) in 1543.

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Anatomical Drawings of the Neck and Shoulders

Perhaps Da Vinci’s most famous scientific exploits come from the field of Engineering. In 1488, he developed a design for a flying machine, whilst also developing plans for a parachute, giant crossbow, and what has been described a ‘tank’, but which represents a moveable cannon. He worked as an Engineer, when, in 1499 he was forced to flee to Venice, where he developed a system of moveable barricades to shield the city. He worked with Niccolo Machiavelli on a project to divert the flow of the Arno River near Florence, as well as a design, produced in 1502, of a 720-foot bridge developed for the Sultan of Constantinople intended to cross the mouth of the Bosporus, the straight that separates the bulk of Turkey from central Europe. Whilst never constructed, Da Vinci’s work would later be vindicated, when, in 2001, a bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.

Da Vinci also worked in botany – where he paid attention to the action of light on plants. He also had an excellent understanding of geology, a particularly famous story exists of him frequently exploring caves around the Apennine mountain range. His observations of layered rock also convinced him the biblical story of the great flood could not be true. In addition, he was an accomplished cartographer, producing a map of Chiana Valley in Tuscany from eye, rather than using any modern surveying equipment. Elsewhere, he studied mathematics heavily, becoming particularly interested in geometric forms such as the rhombicuboctahedron, a 26-sided object made up of both square and triangular faces. An accomplished musician, Da Vinci also invented the viola organist, the first bowed keyboard instrument to ever be designed and developed.

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Map of the Chiana Valley, Tuscany.

Da Vinci kept his personal life very secret. As a result, his sexuality has been the subject of much analysis and speculation. Whilst he had few close relationships with women, his most intimate relationships are said to have been with his pupils Salai and Melzi. Court records from 1476 show that Da Vinci and three other young men were charged with sodomy – whilst the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, there remains considerable speculation around his presumed homosexuality. In any case, the influence of Da Vinci cannot be understated; he made enormous contributions to a vast range of scientific disciplines, not to mention his artistic endeavors not mentioned here. As a result, to this day he remains an iconic figure and a key player in the Renaissance period.

A Profile of Margeret Mead

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Rhiannon Freya Lyon

Born in the US, 1901, Margaret Mead is recognised as one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century, often seen as the woman who laid the foundation for second wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Through her studies of isolated civilisations in the South Pacific, Mead was a pioneer of the idea that behaviour is culturally learned rather than being innate. She specifically focused on gender roles (the expected behaviour of an individual based on their gender), and how these are greatly shaped by the society we grow up in.

During her early academic career, Mead was especially interested in studying cultures uninfluenced by Westernisation. This lead to her first pacific island field study in Samoa which largely consisted of interviews with adolescent girls, observations from which laid the grounds for her first book Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928. In this book she put forward the idea that Samoan cultures didn’t adhere as strictly to gender roles as the US: that adolescents had more freedom to explore their sexuality, that extra-marital sex was not so taboo, and that these attitudes lead to more healthy development. She put forward the controversial view that the Western way of doing things was not necessarily the best or most progressive way of doing things.

In 1935 Mead started digging into the differences in gender roles and temperament across different cultures in New Guinea, recorded in her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. She found that different cultures had different attitudes towards aggression and what the roles of men and women were in society. For example, the Arapesh people were peaceful and neither men nor women were involved in war. Contrary to this, among the Mundugumor people both men and women were involved in war. The women in the Tchambuli ethnic group were responsible for catching and trading of food, while the men were more involved in the politics of the tribe, with neither gender being dominant over the other. Mead found that across cultures men and women would be responsible for different things, but in general whatever the role of the man was, this was held more highly. This observation broke ground by separating the biological sex from a socially constructed gender.

During World War 2, access to the South Pacific was cut off and Mead’s focus therefore shifted to the US. During this time Mead and her former academic mentor Ruth Benedict founded The Institute for Intercultural Studies.

As with anything that challenges the status quo, Mead’s work attracted a lot of criticism. People did not like the idea that their ideas of gender and gender roles were not as set in stone as they may have thought. One of Mead’s most prominent critics was Derek Freeman, who was very determined to discredit her and her findings, publishing several books on her “hoaxing”. There are of course legitimate criticisms to make of Mead’s work, her downplaying of some of the negative elements of Samoan development for example. But Freeman’s criticisms went beyond this in his (somewhat successful) attempts to damage her reputation. His work has now by and large been rejected by the anthropological community, due to his unreliable methods and tendency to cherry-pick his data, while misrepresenting Mead’s work.

After the Second World War, Mead went back to New Guinea in order to study the impact of exposure to the wider world on the people living there as a result of war. She found that after contact with the wider world, societal ideas among previously cut-off cultures had changed.  This trip ended up informing her beliefs in the way cultural ideas shape social problems such as racism and disregard for the environment, and lead to her famous quote “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Although her mother was a suffragist, Mead never publically labelled herself a feminist. She was however very outspoken on women’s equality and civil rights. Her work contributed to the rise of second wave feminism by focusing on how gender roles are shaped by the society you live in, rather than being inherent.

Later in life Mead became a curator for the American Natural History Museum, President of the American Anthropological Association, Vice President of the New York Academy of Sciences, and served various positions in the American Association for the Advancement of science. She was a public speaker and university lecturer, speaking on a wide variety of subjects. In total Mead authored 12 books, and co-authored many more. She is seen as being a very accessible writer and speaker, able to successfully engage with members of the general public to spread her ideas further than the circle of academia.

Mead said of relationships “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationships”. This illustrates her views, unconventional at the time, and possibly even now, that romance need not be heterosexual or monogamous to be valid. These views were displayed in her own personal life, although her relationships with women were not public knowledge at the time. Mead had three successive husbands, the last of whom she had a child with; alongside her marriages she also had a long-term lover Ruth Benedict, her former mentor. She spent the later years of her life living with fellow anthropologist Rhoda Metraux, with whom she had a romantic relationship.

Over her lifetime Mead was awarded many accolades for her contributions to anthropology and wider society, including being posthumously awarded the Presidential Award of Freedom.