... and ain't i a woman?: A monogamy gene?

December 1, 1999

and ain't i a woman?

A monogamy gene?

Scientists at Emory University claim to have found a gene that regulates some aspects of animal social behaviour, including whether mating couples stay together or move on to other sexual partners. The researchers labelled it the "sociability" gene, but others, keen to extrapolate the results to human behaviour, have dubbed it the "monogamy" gene.

By genetically manipulating a specific receptor in the brain, researchers say they have transformed an antisocial mouse into a more social animal. DNA strands from pair-bonding prairie voles (burrowing rodents) were spliced into "promiscuous" mice, resulting in the latter becoming more bonded to their mates, sticking around even when the females weren't in heat.

"What is really intriguing about this", said Tom Insel, one of the researchers, "is that a change in the promoter sequence of a single gene can lead to ... this profound difference in something as complex as social behaviour".

Columnists have since speculated on the possibility of developing a "monogamy" drug. In Salon, a magazine of dubious quality, Virginia Vitzthum wrote on September 7 that perhaps Bill Clinton could be the first human test subject for monogamy gene therapy with possible drug names such as "Luvone, PantzOn and Noagra".

The problem with extrapolating conclusions about human behaviour from experiments on animals is that variants of instinctive animal behaviour do not shed much light on human thought and action.

While some may argue that most parliamentarians are exceptions, humans are not rodents, and the explanations for our actions are not comparable to those governing rodent behaviour. Humans are conscious beings, capable of thought, self-awareness and an ability to alter the way we respond to physical drives.

The relationships — the social bonds — we form with other humans are based on conscious thought, but are also powerfully shaped by conditioning and socialisation.

In human society, monogamous marriage is a form of social bonding that appeared only relatively recently as the norm. Prior to the development of a level of food production sufficient to give rise to a surplus, human society was egalitarian, and responsibility for the upbringing of the next generation was a collective task.

Class society developed when it became possible for some members to take control of the surplus generated by improved horticultural and herding techniques. During the change from a clan system to a father-dominated "family" system, the issue of passing on one's property to children gave rise to the need to identify their fathers.

The only way to ensure this was to ensure that the children's mothers had sexual relations with only the one man. Monogamous marriage was institutionalised to ensure legitimate heirs to the father's property; this monogamy has usually applied only to women, restricting only their behaviour.

By the time of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, this form of the family had been firmly institutionalised. It was looked upon and handled as a business transaction, and it applied only to the propertied classes. Plebeians did not marry in the formal sense, and slaves did not marry at all.

Demosthenes, a famous orator, described the role of women in the class society of that time: "We marry a woman in order to obtain legitimate children and have a faithful warder in the home; we keep female slaves for our service and daily care; and concubines for the enjoyment of love".

Double standards on monogamy still thrive. Married men responding to a Salon survey by Vitzthum uniformly condemned the idea of a monogamy drug, with such terms as "castration" and "lobotomy".

Monogamy as an ideal, if not in practice, seems "natural" to many people now, only because of the conscious effort to reinforce this ideology, the same ideology which has dictated many other oppressive aspects of women's lives.

But there is nothing essentially "natural" about human behaviour. People behave according to the dictates of constructed social norms which have changed through human history and can continue to do so; this includes the way humans satisfy the need for all forms of social contact.

In a future rational society, when class distinctions have been overcome, a whole range of relationships may develop which no longer have property (or the lack of it) as a factor, and may include many variations on the monogamous couplings we now see as "normal".

By Margaret Allum

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