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.
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.