Friday, May 31, 2013

The better rodents of our nature

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine had a cover story on potential new drugs to address waning sexual desire in women in long-term relationships. Be that as it may, there was one paragraph that drew me up short. The author was talking about the technical difficulty of studying live brain reactions in women undergoing sexual stimulation:
So we rely on rats. And one of the world's masters of rat lust is Jim Pfaus, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Concordia University in Montreal, who wears hoop earrings and used to sing in a punk band called Mold. The various drug companies…regularly consult with him. A few floors below his office, hundreds of rats court and mate in stacks of Plexiglas cages. Pfaus and his grad students inject the rodents with this or that compound to block one aspect of desire's biochemistry and isolate another. Or they kill the rats right after a moment of craving or copulation. The brain is then extracted, frozen and shaved into wafers, microns thin, by a device resembling a miniature cold-cut slicer. Pfaus peers at these specimens under a microscope to figure out which clusters of neural cells went into metabolic overdrive while the rodent was in a sexual frenzy.
There is much in this paragraph that invites an emotional response -– intrigue, curiosity, revulsion, dismay. Primarily, I suppose, there is the assumed consonance between the psychological states of humans and rats. Then there is the always contentious question of using animals in biological research, especially research that is not potentially life-saving. And why, pray tell, did we need to know about the hoop earrings and punk band?

My first impulse was to concoct a reaction involving humor, a parody perhaps on The Rats of NIMH. Then I remembered a Boston Globe column of twenty years ago in which I poked fun at some published research on adder sex, which involved some curious voyeurism in the boudoirs of serpents. I had a rebuke from Stephen Jay Gould, who considered my snickering inappropriate for well-meaning research. Stephen had been a kind supporter of my writing, so his rebuke hit home.

I'll leave Professor Pfaus and his rats to you. Humans certainly have more in common with rats than with angels. And angels, presumably don't have sex, at least none that I ever heard about in school.