With so much infidelity in the news (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Weiner, etc.), our culture is once again struggling to understand why people cheat, especially people in powerful positions. We’ve heard reasons ranging from the lure of power and money to having soulmate confusion. But what if there’s actually a cheating gene?
Don’t expect defense lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or divorce lawyers for Arnold Schwarzenegger) to use it as evidence to explain their client’s marital infidelities. Still, there’s no questioning the relevance these days to a new study that finds the genetic make-up of an individual—male or female—may help explain a tendency to adopt sexually unfaithful behavior.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute For Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, have found evidence of genetic-driven infidelity among zebra finch birds. And in their findings, published this week in the prestigious PNAS scientific journal, the researchers do not hesitate to draw similar conclusions with human beings.
Of course, there are many other socio-cultural factors that more or less condition the sexual behavior of homo sapiens: religious rules, social taboos, chance encounters. But there is nothing precluding the possibility of a genetic influence as well. Conducting similar studies on humans in order to verify such findings is nearly impossible, and very difficult for other mammals—just 10% of all species are monogamous.
Researcher Wolfgang Forstmeier and his colleagues focused their study on zebra finches, a bird species known to be faithful to their partners, but also with a noted ability to breed easily. And they focused on the behavior of females more than of males.
It is recognized that, from an evolutionary perspective, the goal of an individual’s life is “to maximize one’s genetic patrimony,” says the Swiss primatologist Jörg Hess. In practice, this means that the male member of a species will attempt to mate with as many females as possible in order to produce a maximum number of descendants. Females don’t have that same incentive.
What do you think—could there actually be an infidelity gene?