Fidelity enhancementsWednesday, 3 September, 2008
Surprisingly little has been said about the claim that a ‘monogamy gene’ has been found in people. This is probably because the RS3 334 repeat is in a gene, avpr1a, that is a vasopressin receptor element (Walum et al, 2008). Both oxytocin/vasopressin (pretty much the same peptide, differing at only two residues) have been well known to play a role in pair bonding in all mammals, with oxytocin more relevant in females and vasopressin more relevant in males (Neumann, 2008). I was expecting a bit more of an upset, but I guess the anti-enhancement people aren’t any more shocked than I am about this discovery. But seeing as I haven’t blogged about this, it may be an interesting time to do so now.
First, this research has a real potential to increase our control over our own relationships. If we become worried that we will succumb to temptation and cheat on our partners, we can simply reaffirm our relationship by stimulating the vasopressin receptors. Oxytocin and vasopressin in the brain correlate to acting more trustworthy (Zaket al, 2005). Think of it as biological marriage counselling – it would probably be far more effective too.
One the other hand, if we do not want to be tied down to a single partner, we may be able to alleviate the jealousy felt by loved ones by adjusting the vasopressin/oxytocin system back the other way. It would probably be more complicated in this case, especially if we wanted to ensure that people were just as happy in a non-monogamous group, because these peptides are linked to sex drive and anxiety.
There may be some interesting dilemmas here though. Oxytocin increases the degree to which people trust others (Kosfield, Heinreichs et al, 2005), which creates an environment where cheaters can better prosper (as game theory would indicate). And if a polygamist and a monogamist fall in love, who is expected to change their view with the vasopressin modification?
Of course, these two peptides are not the only things involved in pair bonding behaviour, especially in the complicated brains of human beings. Nonetheless, I think this will be a very useful tool for future relationships. Essentially, this will allow for human relationships to be far less random. Love is blind, but with this knowledge of biology we can take love by the hand and guide it to where we want it to be.