Perspectives

The Scarlet DNA? Genetics and infidelity

One of the most acclaimed novels of all time, “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, deals with the all-too-human failure of infidelity.

Tolstoy painstakingly draws out the circumstances and consequences of his characters’ failings. And he delves into the interior life of his doomed protagonist. For instance, Tolstoy tells us that the more Anna grew disenchanted with her husband, the larger his ears looked to her.

As it turns out, Tolstoy needn’t have bothered with all this detail. All he needed to do was to wait for science to reduce the conundrum of infidelity to a simple acronym: DNA.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior analyzed data from nearly 7,400 Finnish twins and siblings “who had been in a monogamous relationship for at least one year.” The study found that nearly 10 percent of men and more than 6 percent of women admitted to cheating.

Researchers also found that “identical twins correlated strongly with one [another] in terms of unfaithfulness, while fraternal twins and siblings did not.”  Since identical twins share 100 percent of their DNA, and siblings share only half, they concluded that “the clear finding is that an individual’s genetic makeup in general influences how likely he or she is to cheat.”

The lead researcher, Brendan Zietsch of the University of Queensland, told the Washington Post that “while there may be a clear genetic influence on our tendency to cheat, there is no such thing as a single ‘infidelity gene.’”

I can guarantee you that this is not how this study, or to be more precise, the story about this study, will be understood by the average person. To paraphrase Lady Gaga, we’ll soon be hearing, “I’m not a cheater, I was born this way.”

Christian Jordal, a marriage therapist at Drexel University, is skeptical.  He told the Post that “there can be a tremendous amount of ambiguity around why people cheat . . . It’s the same sort of mystery of the human heart: How is it that we choose to be attracted to someone? Why do we think or feel the way we do around love and romance? In the same way we don’t always have these answers, we don’t have the answers around infidelity issues.”

He’s right. Nonetheless, the Post reports “Among mental health professionals, the belief that infidelity always arises from an intrinsic flaw within the transgressor— such as a failure to commit or abnormally high sensation-seeking—is largely outdated.”

Of course it’s outdated. After all, what’s labeled these days as pathological isn’t transgressing moral norms, it’s believing that there are such things as moral norms in the first place!

Look, is someone’s behavior partly a function of temperament? Probably. Does heredity influence temperament? In all likelihood. But this is light years away from saying, as the Post headline does, that monogamy and/or infidelity is “programmed” in our genes.

I can hear Chuck Colson shouting “this is scientism run amok!” The mystery and complexity of human behavior, our capacity for good and our propensity to do evil, is reduced to our genetic makeup which in turn regulates some neurotransmitter in our brains.

This is, to coin a phrase, horse hockey. But worst of all, this view of human behavior demeans the human person, reducing us to a-moral automatons doomed to act only according to our genetic software.

But that, my friends is not who we are. Yes, we fail, and fail frequently. But we were made a little lower than the angels, in the very image of God. So while we cry out with Paul in Romans 7, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” as God’s adopted children, we can also cry out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Amen.

Eric Metaxas

 

— Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

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