Field of Genes
The wrongheaded approach to science in a New York Times writer's new book about marriage.
At first, this was of interest only to the small number of people who both know what a vole is (more mouse than mole) and who worried about the stability of vole relationships. That is, until Sweden's Karolinska Institute stepped in. In a 2008 article in the high-end medical journal PNAS, the institute's researchers examined whether AVPR1A might be associated with human marital discord. Guess what—it (maybe) is! The authors wrote that their research "suggests an association between AVPR1A polymorphism and human pair-bonding behavior possibly analogous to that reported for voles." Then the first author, a Swedish hunk right out of central casting, gave a press conference to demonstrate his sensitivity to the issue.
Medical writers, from Parker-Pope to Slate's Sydney Spiesel, gobbled the tasty bait. It is difficult to know which side is the more culpable for the rush to scientific certainty. The scientists know better than to push such early undigested work. The news industry would be well-advised to cover science in a fashion different than it covers the latest Washington sex scandal. But in the more reflective guise of book writer, Parker-Pope compounds the error. She writes, with the smallest measurable caveat: "While the research marks the first time a specific genetic trait has been associated with marital happiness and fidelity, simply having a copy of the cheating gene doesn't mean adultery is a foregone conclusion." Well, that's sure good news. Just when the entire gene game is about to veer off into Calvinist determinism, a meek qualifier reminds us not to give up all hope. Perhaps we are not just acting out a genetic script given us at conception. Maybe—just maybe—we are humans, too.
The point is this: The human genome is not a department store of traits where each gene can be separately purchased, so that shoppers can mix red hair with shyness, or resistance to breast cancer with a sweet alto voice. Genes don't come out clean with nothing attached. Everything is attached to them. They operate in a web of unimaginable complexity, not along a simple plot line. The AVPR1A gene, for example, when not responsible for your marital happiness, also is involved with blood pressure regulation, renal absorption of salts and fluids, and who knows what else. The body is a wonderfully contrary machine. Merely referring to AVPR1A as "the cheating gene" perpetuates damaging oversimplification.
Another problem with almost-mindless cheerleading for the power of genetic research is that it is wildly out of sync with the actual pace of scientific progress. The real scientific world decodes reality at the rate of a few millimeters per century. But the alternative world that gene studies and books like this one inhabit moves at the speed of light from a vole gene to a kissing gene to a cheating gene. Parker-Pope is trying to move Oprah World into the bright light of science. But she'd be better off leaving well enough alone. You just can't marry the self-help book, which forever has been free of information, to the field of genes. It's the intricate place where the real dreamers live.
Kent Sepkowitz is a physician in New York City who writes about medicine.