Monogamy = Prosocial Behavior?

Vole
Picture from Howlsthunder

I recently attended part of a conference at Emory on “prosocial behavior” titled “Neurobehavioral Mechanisms of Affiliative Behavior and Cooperation: Prospects for Translational Advances for Psychiatric Disorders,” hosted by the Emory Center for Translational Social Neuroscience and the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.

To oversimplify, these folks believe that social behavior is “mediated” by neuropetides such as oxytocin and vasopressin (translation and, again, oversimplification: the more oxytocin/vasopressin receptors you have in your brain, the more “social” you will be). One of the key architects of this idea is Larry Young, who has become famous for his research with voles. Basically, some species of voles are “monogamous” and some species of voles are “promiscuous.” The male voles from monogamous species have more (or a different pattern of) vasopressin receptors than the male voles from promiscuous species. By giving a male vole from a promiscuous species the same pattern of vasopressin receptors as a male from a monogamous species (through fancy genetic manipulation), you can turn this vole from a promiscuous critter to a monogamous critter. Voilà! (See an article about this research from Emory).

So, are these researchers planning to use vasopressin or vasopressin receptor manipulation to increase monogamy in human males? No (although others will certainly try). These researchers want to use oxytocin and vasopressin manipulation to treat autism. Wait, why autism? Well, again to oversimplify a bit, Young and others have repackaged monogamy as a form of “prosocial behavior.” In other words, the monogamous voles are prosocial and the promiscuous voles are (presumably) antisocial. And what group of people “suffers” from an “anti-social” disorder? Why, people with autism of course. Again, voilà, we have a group of people to test out our “prosocial” therapies on and (happy bonus) we will be able to find plenty of funders for this “translational” research.

Ok, so I’m being somewhat facetious. These researchers certainly argue that oxytocin and vasopressin mediate a whole host of “prosocial behaviors” (not just monogamy), and if they are able to develop therapies for those autistic individuals who desire treatment, then great. But I am troubled by the easy slide between heterosexual monogamy and “prosocial” (and good) and promiscuity and “anti-social” (and bad).

One presentation, by Jeffrey French, was particularly revealing about the assumptions underlying this research agenda. Dr. French decided to study social behavior in marmoset monkeys because he thinks they are a good model for humans. Why are they a good model? He gives four reasons: marmosets practice serial monogamy, male marmosets express a high level of paternal involvement, the male-female pair with children (i.e. the nuclear family) is the center of the marmoset social system, and male and female marmosets form important socio-sexual bonds. But why would these characteristics make marmosets a good model for humans? Dr. French must hold one of two assumptions (or both): either he thinks marmosets and humans express these same four social behaviors (and thus we can learn from marmosets about what humans are like) or he thinks humans should express the four social behaviors that marmosets express (in other words, by studying marmoset behavior, we can figure out how to make humans behave the same way). The problem with the first assumption is that, while some humans express these four patterns of behavior, many of these behavioral patterns (for example, the nuclear family) are only widespread in some cultures and in some historical periods. Thus, it seems simply inaccurate to assert that marmosets and humans consistently express similar types of social behaviors. The problem with the second assumption is that, well, if it’s true, Dr. French is essentially using his research to promote the formation of the heterosexual nuclear family. Ugh.

Of course, there may be another interpretation of Dr. French’s reasoning – if you can think of one, I would love to hear it.

As a side note, I will say that these researchers certainly valorize a different type of masculinity (the loving husband and caring father) than that celebrated by a certain group of sociobiologists (the promiscuous man trying to impregnate as many women as possible).

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