Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ability of men to maintain empathy (especially in marriage) may have genetic influences; a "moral" issue?


The Karolinska Institute in Sweden has published a study showing that genetics may affect how well (heterosexual) men bound to wives and remain interested in “self-giving” intimacy over many years or decades, “in sickness and in health.” Men who lack a certain allele (334) may tend to have more stable relationships. Men who have one copy may be more stable than men who have two copies of the allele, the latter of which may be more likely break up.

In many animal species, males have a natural inclination to have as many female partners as possible so that their genes have the best chance to survive. Social conservatives have always maintained that it is social institutions (marriage) that allow women to tame men into monogamy. With this study, that seems less certain. It all sounds like it belongs in a Masters and Johnson book, doesn’t it.

The study, of which Hasse Walum was a major researcher, is called “Link Between Gene Variant and Relationship Difficulties,” link here. Biologically, the allele seems to affect the function of the hormone vasopressin within the man's body.

The study would suggest the idea that openness to sustained intimacy and the “encroachment” from another person when one might want to be left alone is itself partly inherited. Introversion (or even the “schizoid personality”) might be related to genetics, and might have connections to developmental issues like Asperger’s or even frank autism.

From a moral point of view, openness to empathy and sustained intimacy (especially in males) an important way that society spreads the “risk” of bearing children with varying levels of ability. It is a paradox but avoiding the "risk" of having children could be viewed in a negative moral light, even with stronger words. (Philip Longman pointed that out circuitously in his book "The Empty Cradle".) But even this seems genetically influenced, so the whole matter leads to some existential questions.

The study does not deal specifically with homosexuality, but it is logical that in men there could be some connection found later.

The Institute (on its home page) has references to other biogenetic studies, such as the idea that children of older fathers may be more likely to develop bipolar disorders.

The formal article is published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with a purchase link (for "Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene ( AVPR1A )") here.

Dr. Phil appeared on the NBC Today show on Sept. 3 and speculated that women might want an "allele" genetic test before marrying! (What would happen if there were a genetic test related to sexual orientation?)

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