Reflections on Psychology: “Genetics of Promiscuity”

This blog post and subsequent blog posts are not necessarily meant to be read by others or to be overly scrutinized by critics. Rather, I am trying to develop my internal desire to study psychology by writing about topics that interest me, and blogging seems to be the least stressful way of doing this. I still do not know what topics I will decide to write about, but regardless it is good practice for me in order to prepare myself for graduate study.

Today I read an article in “Psychology Today” written by Dr. David DiSalvo entitled “Valentine’s Day Special: What Neuroscience Says About Love”. The article is very informative in describing the specific chemicals that may be involved in influencing the brain while a person is in love. What I would like to focus on, however, is the concept of their being a significant genetic component to “Promiscuity” and “Monogamy”. The author alludes to a study (which I have not read) of sexuality in voles. He states that voles are 99% genetically similar, yet there are seemingly two types of voles: those that have monogamous relationships and those that are promiscuous. By injecting these promiscuous voles with oxytocin and vasopressin, the promiscuous voles become monogamous (I do not know if there was a 100% success rate). While intriguing, results like these should be carefully scrutinized before claiming that this study can be analogous to human behavior. He states, however, that when promiscuous human beings inhale the aforementioned chemicals, that they appear to become more “empathetic”, “cuddly” and “sensitive”. The effects of the hormone are temporary, however. Only two studies of the hormone with small sample sizes support the conclusions. 

Before I delve into the study itself, I would just like to give a generic rundown of why it is important not to just accept the conclusions of these studies at face value. As already mentioned by the author, human beings are much more complicated than voles and the clinical effects of the hormones are not the same. Similarly, human beings should not be reduced to just their genetics and chemicals in the brain. What sort of factors, other than genetic predisposition, can account for differences in promiscuity and monogamy?

1. Cultural/Societal Influences: Promiscuity is more common in certain subgroups of the population, and this can most likely be attributed to social customs rather than pure genetics. For example, from what I have heard (I have no source study to cite) the rate of divorce and promiscuity within certain minority or poor populations is significantly higher than those in other populations and those from richer socioeconomic backgrounds. Very few people, however, would dare argue that these differences are based on genetic differences between racial groups. The voles, however, do not have as complex socio-economic disparities between each other. Another brief example is looking at the differences in the occurrence of AIDS and HIV. Some nations have a much higher occurrence of AIDS than other countries. These countries tend to be poorer and have less education about sexually transmitted diseases. While it is true that richer nations have more access to contraceptives, it is possible that education about sexual diseases can reduce the desire to be promiscuous. If I were to conduct a study that shows a significant decrease in promiscuous behavior among individuals who received substantial sexual education, where then would the assumption be that promiscuity is mostly a genetic trait? What about studies of religious conversion, in which a lifetime of promiscuity, drug abuse, and even physical abuse can be reversed without the assistance of externally administered hormones?

2. Environmental Influences: Influences such as parenting style can affect a person’s long term behavior, especially in the context of sexual behavior. A person who is raised in a family where the parents are promiscuous and the child is sexually abused, certain values and schemas are reinforced in the brain’s neural pathways (supposedly) which in turn create long term effects on sexual behavior. It would be important to find research that examines whether or not early childhood sexual abuse or values modeled after promiscuous parents, siblings, or friends can have just as strong an effect on promiscuity than oxytocin. 

3. Choice Influences: Human beings are endowed with the ability to choose to behave one way or another. While many people disagree with this (naturalists who assume all material interactions can be reduced to laws of nature). While the studies cited by DiSalvo look at promiscuous behavior as shown in a lab setting, they do not take into account qualitative studies of individuals who have changed from promiscuous behavior to monogamous behavior. One only needs to attend a religious meeting, an AA or SA meeting to see that a lifetime of habitual behaviors can be changed without the assistance of externally administered hormones. 

4. Lab influences: The voles were most likely born and raised in labs, separated from their natural environments. The human beings who were given oxytocin were also studied in a lab setting, under the assumption that showing pictures of an emotionally jarring situation and having the individuals rate their empathetic feelings on a scale of 1-10 (I am not sure if that is the exact scale used in the study) is the equivalent of reducing promiscuity in male human test subjects. It leads me to wonder if scientists were to administer the hormone to voles in the wild and observe their behaviors if they would get the same results. And it would also make me wonder if there would be substantial changes in relationship satisfaction once the individuals left the lab and continued on with their lives. 

I would like to conclude by saying I am not against the use of oxytocin or other types of hormones in the treatment of psychological disorders, whether they be social anxiety disorders or schizophrenia. What I am wary of, however, is the assumption that because a certain chemical facilitates a certain behavior does not necessarily mean that the given chemical or gene is the foundation of a certain behavior. Any chemical given in excess or substantially depleted will cause changes in behavior and feelings. 

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