What’s the secret of a happy and enduring marriage? According to a team from the Yale School of Public Health, it could be the genes of husband and wife. In a paper published last week in the journal PLOS One, it reported that when at least one partner had a genetic variation within the oxytocin gene receptor, married couples had significantly greater marital satisfaction and feelings of security.
This is the latest in a trend to shift responsibility for a happy and satisfying life from our hearts to our DNA.
The researchers were careful to point out that genes related to oxytocin, often called “the love hormone”, account for only about 4 percent of the variance of marital satisfaction. Although this percentage is small, they said, in the light of the other genetic and environmental factors, it is still a significant influence.
Where there are genes, there are drugs, and where there are drugs, there’s profit. There’s money to be made from love. Some investors have backed dating apps which promise to identify compatible partners based on genetic profiles. A start-up called DNA Romance, for instance, holds out the promise of scientifically-proven compatibility – probably to people who have been disappointed in love many times before. Its website explains:
“We are pioneers in understanding of how DNA plays a role in human attraction and loving relationships. Our mission is to enrich peoples’ lives by helping them make genuine connections that hopefully lead to lasting love.”
What’s the difference between marriages arranged by an old-fashioned matchmaker and marriages arranged by an algorithm? Which will make the spouses more faithful, more generous, more affectionate, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health? If we’re comparing, for all the faults of human matchmakers, I’d put my money on them every time rather than on a data-driven computer program that no one understands. The secret to a lasting relationship between husband and wife is not having enough oxytocin but having the self-sacrificing love to continue in the marriage if the oxytocin runs out.
The Yale research is an example of what French sociologist David Le Breton calls “genetic fundamentalism”, the belief that fundamentally we are just “wetware”, a bundle of DNA-coded software. Or, in the words of Richard Dawkins in the book that made him famous, The Selfish Gene, “We are survival machines, robots that are blindly programmed to preserve the egotistical molecules that are known as genes.”
Geneticists are busy searching for the behaviours which have been inscribed in our genes. Here are just a few of many studies which promote a tendency to view human behaviour as genetically determined.
Internet addiction. The same gene may be responsible for nicotine addiction.
Suicide. A 2014 study showed that suicide victims had significantly higher levels of a chemical that alters the SKA2 gene.
One-night stands. The dopamine receptor D4 polymorphism, or DRD4 gene, seems to dispose people to promiscuity and infidelity.
Reckless drunken behaviour. Finnish researchers found a gene which is more common amongst people who cannot hold their liquor.
Sex offenders. Swedish scientists found that close relatives of convicted sex offenders were four to five times more likely to be convicted of sex crimes.
Political preferences. A British study of twins found that genetics was responsible for whether people voted for the Tories or Labour.
Being a gangsta. Research published in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry showed that men with a particular form of the MAOA gene are twice as likely to join a gang.
But do these studies convey useful knowledge? Will they stop you from getting drunk or voting for the Conservatives? They could do the opposite. As Le Breton points out: “The conviction that psychological or social difficulties are genetically determined encourages attitudes of passivity and resignation, and it frees the individual or society from any responsibility, constituting in this way a strong argument in favour of the status quo.”
Thankfully, society is still a long way from absolving people from moral responsibility for their actions based upon their genetic make-up. Some lawyers and psychologists have suggested, for instance, that there may be a genetic component to paedophilia – but nowhere are judges are accepting the excuse that “my DNA made me do it”.
Nonetheless, the dream persists of creating a genetic utopia in which all behavioural problems can be fixed with DNA-tailored medicines. A few years ago Peter Singer proposed a “morality pill” in a New York Times op-ed. And another Australian bioethicist, Oxford’s Julian Savulescu, has even argued that that it would be a crime not to “enhance” people to act more morally. A couple of years ago he and colleague Ingmar Persson contended that:
“If safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory.”
This is an illusion treasured by transhumanists and drug companies. The truth is that the fault is not in our genes, but in ourselves that we are unhappy. While we cannot escape the fact that genetics probably plays a role in our interests, abilities, weaknesses and attitudes, we know that we can make gene-defying choices and that our choices shape our lives.
The problem is that the old resources for cultivating wise and healthy choices – stable families, religious education, a deep acquaintance with history and literature – are disappearing from many lives. These almost certainly account for far more than 4 percent of marital satisfaction. Perhaps if the Yale researchers had dug a bit further, they would have discovered that those happy couples not only had the oxytocin gene but had read Pride and Prejudice and went to church regularly.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.