Field of Genes
The wrongheaded approach to science in a New York Times writer's new book about marriage.
Once upon a time, the marriage self-help book was a terse, dictatorial affair. The author, often a prim matron, laid out the essential how-tos of domestic bliss—setting your table for company, boiling coffee, feigning interest in your husband or his friends or sex. The writer often seemed a bit miffed at having to go through this simple guidance yet again. But her impatience was tempered by her confidence that conformity to her 4 million simple rules would yield another fine young lady fit for marital service.
The genre and its close cousin, the relationship pep-talk, have, of course, evolved from their early Sunday-in-church tone. In the 1970s came the lite-FM sounds of I'm OK—You're OK. This was followed through the years by such American standards as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, You Just Don't Understand, and on and on. And lately more raucous (but still very understanding) books like The Ruleshave held sway among people who seek the sort of counsel available only in paperback form.
Those squishy days are now officially over. Tara Parker-Pope, the earnest health reporter for the New York Times, promises a new wrinkle in the self-help genre with her book, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. Her basic premise is that there exists a vast, underappreciated repository of "objective, evidence-based advice" about marriage that has not gotten its due. Science, that old bore, is finally going to be deployed into the battlefield of marital harmony and disharmony. Enough with the touchy-feely already: Let's see what the rats (and voles and chimpanzees) can tell us about finding and keeping Mr. (or Ms.) Right.
Well, it turns out that there is really not that much news out there in academic marital studies. Parker-Pope's book consists of 13 chapters with hard-edged titles: "Forsaking All Others: The Science of Commitment" and "The Science of Your Marriage: Diagnosing the Health of a Relationship." But inside are mostly familiar studies of couples who are doing well or not, who like each other or not, who roll their eyes or not. Sharing common goals with your spouse is important for a sound marriage; sharing a similar attitude about money is important, too. This ground has been well-turned before. But no matter: Parker-Pope writes clearly and with a light touch, and the book moves along. Though the tone is Redbook circa 1985, little pain is inflicted.
Except for one chapter—that one up there subtitled "The Science of Commitment." Here, like so many before her, Parker-Pope enters the creepy retro-future world of Gene Worship. This condition has been upon us ever since Watson and Crick first spun the helix. You know the drill: Scientists announce they have identified the gene that makes people tall/intelligent/artistic. A flurry ensues: Scientists on TV, scientists on the radio, scientists right there on your favorite Web site, all reporting that of course we don't know yet exactly what the finding means, but it's still very exciting. Until it disappears, never to be heard of again. And then the next red-hot gene story appears, and different scientists appear in their lab coats to tell us once again this is big, big news (though don't count on it exactly, yet).
Parker-Pope falls for the one about the vole and the fidelity gene. You remember this from a few years ago: There exists a vole (the prairie vole) that is monogamous, unlike the many other voles burrowing and chewing roots worldwide even as you read this. Scientists found a gene unique to the prairie vole (the AVPR1A) that encodes for a certain receptor. Voles with the receptor were monogamous; voles without the receptor were not.
Kent Sepkowitz is a physician in New York City who writes about medicine.