Genes and your Valentine prospects
"The continuation of the species is seldom in our minds when we ask for a phone number."
That was the philosopher Alain de Botton's interpretation of German philosopher Schopenhauer's take on our motivations for loving. It was in Alain de Botton's 2000 book called Consolations of Philosophy which grabbed my attention back then when it was released. But most recently, it was also in my mind as I took note of the slew of Valentine's goings-on this week and asked myself, "So what is really on our minds when we do that?"
We wonder about many things when we are attracted to someone, and probably the list expands when we consider marriage. But are genes part of those considerations?
I thought about that, because based on the history of marriages, genes and marriage as a tandem were never part of the consideration in pre-marriage evaluations, except to arrange marriages between family members to keep the power and/or wealth within the family. But shouldn't that tandem be considered since we are made up of genes that influence our health and behaviors – behaviors that are crucial in making a marriage work? Let us see where science has so far worked up a trail for this wedding march to follow.
Monogamy is deeply implied in marriages. If it were not, then why bother ceremonially cordoning two people together with the "exclusion of all others" when it comes to physical bonding? So what do genes tell us about human biology when it comes to our genetic predisposition to stick to our "one and only love" for the rest of our lives?
Apparently, only about 3% of mammals are monogamous in the way that humans perceive monogamy to be. We are mammals and, by definition, share many genes with other mammals. Many of them influence our sexual bonding behavior, like for instance, if we prefer one or many mates at one time across our single lifespan.
Scientists have not really found a set of genes that spell human monogamy, although they seem to have found this in another mammal called the prairie vole. Scientists found the prairie voles generally just socially bonded with one till death. The male may sway from time to time, but they return to the one they are bonded with. This highlights the difference between sexual monogamy and social monogamy. Sexual monogamy is when you have only one partner you mate with. Social monogamy is when you (mostly males) can mate with others from time to time but consider only one partner your "soul mate." That story of "but he goes home to her" is a common phenomenon. Now you see why scientists think prairie voles' version of monogamy is very tempting to compare with the human version.
A recent study found that there seems to be a set of genes that is responsible for social monogamy in males, across vertebrates. And they found them in – yes – voles, but they also found them in mice, parid songbirds, frogs, and cichlid fishes. As far as I know, there are still no scientific studies that have teased out these "social monogamy genes" in humans, although we have to remember that we are also vertebrates like the ones identified in the study. No research has yet come up with a study identifying these genes across human male subjects. But I think that if that study ever happens, each human male who would submit themselves to this test should get a purple heart for this extraordinary bravery, especially when they seem to have all sworn to "deny, deny, deny."
Another reason that genes should be considered when getting married is that a successful marriage depends on the interplay of the couple's emotional lives. These emotional lives have a lot to do with a sense of attachment, trust, and empathy, and these traits are so strongly linked to the life of hormones called oxytocin and dopamine. The presence, production, release, or even maintenance of these hormones depend on both your genes and the environment.
Oxytocin, in fact, figured as a "third wheel" in a study that tested couples' perception of each other's support for what they are each going through. Oxytocin played a role in the way either husband or wife perceives the other as being supportive of his or her situation.
But despite interesting and progressing work on the link between genes and marriage, we still cannot expect science to map out a template against which you can measure yours and your partner's genetic fitness for marriage, or whatever form of exclusive bonding you want to be part of. This is because of several reasons. One of them is the fact that genes are not governed by Newton's law where assigning values to a variable can precisely predict outcomes. Genes do not predict but it predisposes you. How much it predisposes you to a behavior is not an exact science. And anyone who has been under the spell of love knows that a lover never surrenders to any science – at least not at that stage.
So yes, the lover has a galaxy of things in his or her mind when choosing a partner, but genes are way below the pile, if they are at all in there. Cupid will most likely never trade his bow and arrow for the double helix. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.