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The Monogamy Gene

Every time the indiscretion of some high-powered politician or celebrity is splashed across the papers, the age-old debate of why people cheat is renewed with more vigour. But, it's not just celebrities who cheat; ordinary people also cheat. In fact a recent news poll found more than two in 10 men admitted they had an affair. And it's no secret women stray too.
Biologists have long understood that monogamy is rare in mammals. Of about 4,000 mammalian species, only a handful has ever been called monogamous. The tiny list includes beavers and a couple of other rodents, otters, bats, certain foxes, a few hoofed mammals, and some primates. People disagree strongly about the value of monogamy. Some people believe monogamy provides a context to deepen trust and intimacy. Monogamy from this perspective provides a foundation for social progress and offers people more secure relationships. Sexual monogamy reduces jealousy and builds the kind of trust and intimacy that makes relationships stable. This appears to be born out by research. People in sexually non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy more frequently than people in sexually monogamous relationships. Some studies report at least 80% of people in open marriages experience jealousy over their extramarital relationships. A five year study of bisexuals observed a shift from sexual non-monogamy to sexual monogamy in many participants because they "...felt that non-monogamy was too time consuming, took too much energy, or was too complicated. They also thought that it got in the way of developing love, trust, and more intimate relationships with a partner."
Many criticize lifelong sexual monogamy as unnatural and unrealistic. They contend that humans have never been a sexually monogamous species, and that cultural expectations of sexual monogamy place enormous burdens on individuals to fulfil all the sexual needs of their partners. These expectations are quite unrealistic given how much variety exists in people's sexual desires and sex drives. In addition, sexual desires and sex drives can change over time due to circumstances (e.g., periods of high stress or poor health) and due to normal aging (e.g., changes in hormonal levels). Loving partners can find themselves mismatched in terms of their current sexual desires or sex drives. The failure to live up to unrealistic expectations of lifelong sexual monogamy causes people needless suffering.
So what if the latter argument is right and cheating happens with both men and women because human beings are not chemically engineered to be monogamous. If nature propels us to go forth, be fruitful and multiply at every possible opportunity, what we need is an antidote to infidelity, a commitment pill designed to counteract nature. Imagine turning a bed-hopping Casanova into a dedicated, monogamous mate with the flip of a genetic switch. A study shows it may be possible, at least for the notoriously promiscuous meadow mole. Scientists are now focusing on a "monogamy gene" in vole mice, or field mice, which is said to promote monogamous behaviour.
In the study, researchers used a harmless virus to transfer the gene from monogamous male prairie voles, which are known to form lifelong bonds with a single mate, into the brain of meadow voles, who mate with multiple partners and lack vasopressin receptors in their brain's reward centre. A few days later, the meadow voles had vasopressin receptors levels similar to those found in the prairie voles. Instead of mating and immediately moving on, the meadow vole would show more of an attachment to its mate.
Accomplishing the same feat in humans may be a bit more complicated, but researchers say they've found a gene that appears to have a profound effect on the social behaviour of animals. Pair bonding in humans is a much more complex process than in voles, social, economic, historic, and individual differences all play a role. The study, however, provides evidence, in a comparatively simple animal model, that changes in the activity of a single gene profoundly can change a fundamental social behaviour of animals within a species.
By Virginie on Nov 08
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