Monogamy Is Genetic, New Research Suggests, Which Makes This Matter Even More Complicated

Discussion about whether humans are meant to be monogamous has picked up recently, but the situation may actually be even less straightforward than it's seemed. New research suggests that monogamy is genetic, and that predisposition for monogamy can vary from individual to individual, even within a single species. This makes sense, because individuals have always had incentives to try to survive and reproduce by different strategies in order to compete with each other.

Prairie voles are interesting because of their pair bonding habits, which tend towards the monogamous. While previous vole research focused on hormones related to pair bonding, this new vole research somewhat surprisingly focused on spatial memory.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin (funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health) looked at the brains of faithful male voles as compared to those who strayed. They found that the faithful males had genes turned on for a spatial area of the brain, and they "speculate that faithful males are better at keeping tabs on a mate or are less likely to return to a place where they've encountered conflict."

This research is sort of related to previous research suggesting that cheating is genetic. Since the hormones of oxytocin and vasopressin are deeply implicated in pair bonding, and the receptors for them vary from person to person for apparently genetic reasons, it's a short leap to conclude that some of us are predestined by our genes to cheat.

But it's important to tread lightly here — we are just beginning to understand the way that various genetic characteristics affect people's behavior (or not), and very few genetic markers issue straightforwardly in observable traits or behaviors. People aren't lying or deceiving themselves when they claim to be motivated by their sexual values too; these are also real.

Understanding the genetic bases of monogamy and cheating could help shed light on bigger social changes, especially surrounding the sexual revolution and the rise of unmarried childrearing. As the vole researchers are quick to point out, the monogamous voles aren't really better or worse than the cheater voles. They are just attempting to spread their seed in a different way. Only time tells who's won in the evolutionary race. There may not be a meaningful answer to whether humans are monogamous or not.

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