Sunday, May 24, 2015

Infidelity & Biology: Commentary on the NY Times Sunday Review

Yesterday, the NY times Sunday Review featured a fascinating science article about one of the most sensitive, yet divisive topics: infidelity and whether our biology has anything to do with it. The writer - and obviously, expert on the topic - Dr. Richard A. Friedman, ostensibly takes sides by his choice of words for the heading of his piece: “Infidelity lurks in your genes.”

He opens his argument by inundating us with a flood of scientific experiments and data, regarding the amazing role of vasopressin and oxytocin in dictating sexual promiscuity, trust and bonding. Though his introduction of the data is overwhelming (and a little bit rushed), the science within is captivating and seriously intriguing. I really encourage everyone to spare half an hour to read this highly informative piece, especially before proceeding with my critique of the article. Dr. Friedman’s effort in collecting all this science, and putting it in layman’s words, is quite remarkable, and he really deserves credit for it.

However, what he infers from this mass of data is quite contentious.

First of all, the role of vasopressin, its receptors and gene variants, seems to haven’t yet been truly sorted out. At one point, vasopressin appears to be boosting of fidelity and loyalty, and at another, it seems to promote the opposite. One study explains this effect by declaring that this effect is highly dependent on the place of the vasopressin receptors in the brain. Dr. Friedman attributes this effect to genetic composition - and while not directly saying it – and therefore it’s one’s destiny, to be promiscuous and a marital cheater, from the moment he is born! Though, I have nothing of the doctor’s experience nor knowledge on the subject, I have quite the life experience of spotting and meeting a number of sexually promiscuous, polygamous, and marital treacherous persons. Guess what? Some of them indeed had marital infidelity running in their families – but especially amongst their friends and closest acquaintances who treated the matter almost casually. So, while I’m not completely refuting the hypothesis of the thing running in their genes, I’m saying may be it’s not by birth, but by re-accommodation of genes and micro endo-evolution. While this might seem farfetched, it’s not my idea at all. A study I read earlier had already proven that our genetic make-up varies considerably with time, and that its effects are far reaching, even to the extent of affecting our gametes and thence our offspring – a man having two kids, one before a disease, and another after the disease, may transfer some disadvantages traits to the second kid, that the earlier kid been spared.

Second point: Dr. Friedman advocates the evolutionary advantage of infidelity in males, justifiable by the abundant prevalence of promiscuity in human males; however, he’s not half-convinced of the presence of infidelity in human females (9.8% amongst males vs 6.4% females in one study), and is quite uneasy with any evolutionary redemptory statement. However, this is rhetorical and not quite convincing.  Though Dr. Friedman puts it in a tortuously dry sentence, his statement is clear. A promiscuous male spreads his genes at a higher frequency (by matting with a lot of females) and hence his genes should be quite available. Women have limited sexual and spreading capabilities and obviously cannot repeat this feat. How about: female offspring get the promiscuous gene from the male promiscuous parent? Is there anything to prove the gene is gender specific?
Dr. Friedman, however, retracts in the end, siding with morality, saying that “while one may happen to carry infidelity genes, yet one could decide what we could do with the emotions and impulses they help create” J (Obviously, the professor is aware of the scathing criticism he’s going to receive from the moralists).

The article is mind opening and offers good insight into our biological nature. If you haven't read it already, make sure to check it here.

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