Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Genetic Threat to Marriage

About a year ago I posted on some research regarding the sex lives of voles, here. In short a genetic characteristic was found in them that made them either promiscuous or faithful. On top of that, researchers were able to create a virus that made the promiscuous more faithful by increasing the population of a receptor in the brain for vasopressin.

Back then I opined that such research probably wouldn't be done on humans and that the effects in humans would likely be much more complicated. Seems I was wrong, in part, but I love being surprised by the path of science in such things.

In this issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Walum et al. report finding a very similar effect in humans (though no, no one has tested the promiscuity cure on humans yet :-), as they did on the voles). They looked at 552 pairs of male twins and their spouses and made measures of relationship quality with spouses and children, personality and mental health. They found a certain allele in the gene encoding for this vasopressin receptor was associated strongly with human relationship quality and likeliness to enter marriage.

Of the men who had no copies of this allele, only 17% were unmarried, while over 30% of men with least one copy of the allele were unmarried. Furthermore, the married men with two copies were twice as likely to report marital crisis within the last year (34%).

Wow, right? If you want to promote marriage, Proposition 8 proponents, you don't need to demean and harm my family (in love and respect, of course)--that'll do nothing but hurt people. You need to get rid of this allele.

Really, you'll hear people attack my family all the time, telling us we're not ideal or not the ideal environment for children because of our sexual anatomy, all the while ignoring or misrepresented the science. But how many of them would pay attention to actual science and advocate to keep people with this allele from creating demonstrably non-ideal marriages? They'd be wrong if they did, to my mind--it's important to give marriage to even non-ideal couples--but the self deception in the ideal family argument used against same-sex couples is all too clear.

Anyway, in the bigger picture, we live in an exciting time with science moving at an unprecedented pace. As we turn those tools in on ourselves, old superstitions about who and what we are are burning off like a fog, and the breathing room for the ghost in the machinery of our minds is getting more and more cramped.

It'll be interesting to see how our many old philosophies survive, those that built themselves on a cornerstone of libertarian free will, where there are these impossible actions somehow neither caused nor un-caused. Personal agency is clear enough, but this sort of free will is not even a passable illusion, and many people use it for the basis of their morality and theology. The odd fact is we have morality and a justice system because there is no such thing as libertarian free will. We use moral and civil law to get one part of the human brain to override another with deterministic expectations (though imperfect expectations). We make people promise to marriage and add negative consequences for breaking the promise because we always knew, somewhere, that some had a marriage-threatening area of the brain abnormally low on a vasopressin receptor :-).

I'm just lucky, being a man without legal threat to keep my promises to my husband and children, to have a brain more like a prairie vole.

In seriousness, though, I'm afraid we'll wake up from our dreams to a world without truly free agency a bit grumpy, and the possibility for misuse of such research is great, especially on gay people. Ironically, I think such research will show us dangerous leaders will be dangerous leaders whether they hold the reins of mysticism or science. Here's to hoping reason, compassion, empathy, and an abundance of vasopressin receptors wins out.


robert said...

Thanks for the information. Very interesting research being done. I applaud your efforts to educate in many regards.

Anonymous said...

a coworker carries the gene for early (like in the 40's) alzheimers. she's not sure about whether to have her kids tested. sort of makes me wonder where this will all end. instead of "the devil made me do it," i guess it's "the allele made me do it."

Scot said...

"Thanks for the information. "

You bet Robert.

"she's not sure about whether to have her kids tested."

I was under the impression treatment before detectable onset could have benefits. It may pay to know... err but not too soon.

"instead of "the devil made me do it," i guess it's "the allele made me do it.""

That's the thing I was trying to get at, particularly regarding crime. That day is coming if not here, and to top it off, it's true; we are programmed by genes or experience or God or whatever. Our old philosophies of punishment for sin were always dubious, relying on libertarian free will and action (particularly the actions that are mental choices) being neither caused or not caused. But in the past a little hand waving and mysticism could get us to excuse it.

Trouble is that won't cut it after many more of these discoveries. We'll have to quit seeing punishment as revenge and see it as deterrent. We actually already punish because we hope to act on another drive programmed into the brain, to override a criminal drive.

This is one of my favorite topics and so I best stop before I begin rambling again :-). Simply, when a criminal says "the allele made me do it" the response should be "So what?" as we send them off to prison.