September 08, 2008

Two-Timin' Husbands: Not Their Fault?

[By Crabby]

So this post really should be called something more general like "Genetics and Personality," or "Nature vs. Nurture." Or perhaps: "Free Will and Strength of Character? Ha Ha Ha Ha!"

Because this post is not just about two-timing husbands. It's about how so gosh-darned many things about us are turning out to have a genetic basis.

Pair-Bonding for Dummies

But let's start off with the good vs. the not-so-good husbands. Because it turns out they've found a "monogamy gene" that explains a lot of the difference. (And TherapyDoc has a great discussion of it over at Everyone Needs Therapy).

Yep, according to recent research, there are variants of sections of a gene called "RS3 334" that affect how men bond with their partners. They can have none, one or two copies of the RS3 334 section. "Men with two copies of RS3 334 were more likely to be unmarried than men with one or none, and if they were married, they were twice as likely to have a marital crisis."

(There's a lot more interesting stuff in the monogamy gene article, but alas, no instructions on how to obtain secret samples from your husband to see if you got a dude hard-wired for long-term fidelity).

Mommy, How Come You're Beating Your Head Against the Wall Like That?

(Photo found here; original source unknown)

Actually, if you're going to be stealing DNA samples from your hubby, you might want to swipe one from your kids too. At least after you've read this fascinating Newsweek article on genetics and child development.

New research seems to suggest that parents have much less influence than previously thought on how their kids turn out.

An example: in about 30 percent of kids, their DNA coils carry a glitch that leaves their brains with fewer dopamine receptors. What's the problem with that? Well, for one thing, having fewer dopamine receptors is linked to "an inability to avoid self-destructive behavior such as illicit drug use." Also, children with this genetic variant appear to be less able to learn from mistakes. To quote Newsweek, "no matter how many tests they blow by partying the night before, the lesson just doesn't sink in."

Or how about this surprising finding: "children with a sweet temperament, which is under strong genetic control, are the least likely to emulate their parents and absorb the lessons they teach, while fussy kids are the most likely to do so. Fussy children have a hypersensitive nervous system that is keenly attuned to its surroundings—including what Mom and Dad do and say."

Wow. How many parents have been driving themselves crazy trying to raise their kid "perfectly," and it turns out they've got a kid who's just not wired to absorb any of that well-intentioned parenting?

And these are just a couple of example from a couple of recent articles. Almost any psychological disorder or human strength or weakness you can think of seems to have some link to things we can't control: our genes.

So what does this all mean?

I don't know about you, but I have mixed feelings about the implications of this.

On the one hand, when people are lame and frustrating and they disappoint or annoy me, I want to blame them for their stupid/careless/self-centered behavior. I like to judge other people by my own standards: if I wouldn't do it, then others damn well shouldn't either!

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!

Why should I feel sorry for them when their problems stem from their own clueless behavior? They must not be trying hard enough to be good! Let 'em suffer the consequences! Don't hide behind genetics buddy--you still make the choices.

But if the subject is a personal weakness of mine? Er, well, then I seem to have a different reaction. I am quite happy to discover that this trait is inborn and not my fault. For example, while I don't seem to be wired for aggression or compulsive behavior or dishonesty, I am definitely an anxious, pessimistic type. And hey, anxiety disorders are genetic!

Oh sure, I could suck it up and confront all my worries and fears, but it's harder for me that it is for you. So if I often don't, and instead I cower/sulk/avoid. But you can't really blame me, it's my genes!

Add Personal Responsibility and Stir

Yeah, this is the part where everyone, including me, starts to scream: but wait a minute, genetics aren't everything! Environment isn't either! What about Free Will and Responsibility and Choice?

It has been commonly observed that not everyone with unfortunate genes or a terrible upbringing behaves badly. Nor do folks who have been blessed with calm untroubled temperaments and excellent early home environments necessarily turn out well. However much the game may be rigged, the choices along the way are ours. I do think there's such a thing as "strength of character," and even if that turns out to be mostly genetic too. But it's something we can all learn to improve upon by the exertion of good old fashioned will-power.

We all know what that moment feels like, right? We face a choice between Right and Wrong, and Wrong is easier and more fun and oh so tempting and maybe no one will ever know about it but us. Whether it's as small as skipping a workout, or calling in sick to go to the beach, or as big as an extra-marital affair or picking up a weapon in anger--it's a moment we have the power to decide for ourselves. In that short moment, sometimes only a fraction of a second, we can reclaim our destiny, no matter what plans our genes or environment may have laid out for us.

I think we are "better" people when we do the right thing. And no amount of bad genes or bad environment can entirely take all those moments away from us--even if the luck of the draw may completely change the range of choices we have available.

Tolerance for Other's Limitations: Got Some?

However, in our society (and particularly in the U.S.) we do tend to LOVE the notion of "personal responsibility," especially when it's applied to other people. How do we deal the fact that other people come with entirely different brains, different early childhood experiences, different options?

We don't! We expect everyone to behave the same, regardless of their inborn capacity to do so or the realistic choices available.

One quick example: a study of attitudes toward mental illness recently concluded that while more Americans believe that mental illness has genetic causes than they did 10 years ago, they are no more tolerant of the mentally ill than before.

No Answers Here, This is Just Cranky Fitness!

As I said, I'm confused and hypocritical about what it means that "strength of character" has perhaps only a small part to play in who are are. We are often, as it turns out, a product of our genes, and no doubt our environments.

What do you folks thinks this means? How much of "who you are" are feels like a given, and how much do you get to choose?


  1. Genetic predisposition aside there comes a point before we do something where we decide to do it.
    You can claim genetic imperative all you want, but you still must be responsible for your actions.
    If not, then we could all claim the DNA made us do it.

  2. I was gonna say what Leah said before I saw here comment. I think genetics plays a part, but I think many of us used these "findings" as excuses.

    However, the day I could tell my friends and family that my 3 year old was autistic, you could see some of them realizing that I may not be such a bad, overindulgent parent afterall.

    Sometimes genetics really is a factor.

  3. Wow...this is kind of heavy stuff for a Monday, Crabby...making me think. lol.

    In many ways, I feel like my genetics have made me "me," but there's no doubt that life experiences have changed me. The question is: were those changes something I really chose or was it my genetics that pushed me towards them? Hmmm...

  4. I agree that genetics play a part, but should never be used as an excuse.

    An old friend of mine came to visit yesterday, who up until six months ago was fighting a horrible, all-consuming depression. Then, as soon as she picked herself out of it and felt better, she got a new job with a sexist, racist boss who underpaid her, abused her and then fired her. And she dealt with it and didn't let it tip her back over the edge.

    Learn your limitations, then learn to overcome them.

    I'm so proud of her, she's my inspiration!

    TA x

  5. Agree with others who have stated that genetics play a role, but do not negate personal responsibility.

    I often find myself wondering about people who commit crimes or cheat on a spouse - all those kinds of things that most of us consider to be wrong - and wonder what makes them think that is ok?

    I suppose that genetics can have something to do with it, but that still does not mean that people can go ahead and do whatever they want without blame or consequences. It doesn't make it right - I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

  6. This post resonated with me. I'm a multiple birth (hint: more than triplet less than quintuplet) so theoretically, the environment my sibs and I were raised in was the same. My sisters turned out "normal", my brother was kicked out of college, and I graduated from an Ivy in 3 years.

    I was definitely a fussy child, and my brother always looks back on a mistake and says "if I had done x, I wouldn't have been caught", Not "that was a mistake". So I think his dopamine receptors aren't all there.

    That said, I worked my ass off to graduate early, so yeah, I definitely think there's choice there. And I agree with Leah.

  7. Sure, genetics play a role, but humans have evolved to have logical, rational thought processes that are capable of overcoming genetic predispositions in the behavior department. There comes a point when genetics cannot be solely blamed for the actions of a human being. We are animals, but we are not wild.

    There is a scientific phrase: necessary and sufficient. This means that one element is necessary for a given outcome and that this element alone is sufficient to yield that same outcome. Genetic predisposition doesn't work that way. Having a "non-monogamous" gene does not make a person incapable of being monogamous. Ultimately, that's a choice the person makes.

    Obviously, there are some cases that don't fit with what I say above. Mental illness, extreme depression and bipolar disorder can override rational thought. And with children, who are just learning to use logic and think for themselves, this is a whole other ball game.

  8. Wow, what thoughtful comments! So far, you folks seem to be very strong advocates of personal responsibility, which is not surprising considering what an accomplished bunch you all are.

    Where are the whiny slackers like me looking for excuses for their failings? Sigh.

  9. Crabby,

    I'd like to help you out by whining, "it's not my fault," but I am genetically predisposed to agree with Leah.


  10. All of us have some genetic advantages as well as some disadvantages. It doesn't take away our ability to choose.

    That said though, people would be better served to remember this and be more compassionate with people in their weaknesses. I still think that kindness goes a lot farther than, well, meanness. Wow, that deep;)

  11. I pretty came here to say what Leah said...humans have the ability to reason and make rational decisions...yes, we do have to choose to do so!

  12. Good post, Crabby!
    (Though I do agree that all this thinking is contraindicated for a Monday morning ;)

    Seems to me that it's a lot easier for people to accept a physically evident genetic disability, e.g. Down's Syndrome, than it is for them to deal with a disability that affects the mind/personality, e.g. autism.

    Read a fascinating study a couple years ago about a connection between a clearly physical disorder (scarlet fever) and Tourette's Syndrome, a disorder that was once thought to be purely "in the mind". According to this study, both were triggered by the same virus (I think it was a virus. Or a bacterium) but one affected the heart and the other the brain.

  13. Impulse control. It's a process which is hopefully developed by adulthood.

    I felt compelled to post that comment. But then I knew I could have control over my behaviour and so I didn't.

    Damn.. never mind. ;)

  14. "I can no more control my behaviour than I can the colour of my eyes or hair"...? Miss Clairol and the makers of coloured contact lenses beg to differ!
    Seriously, I totally agree with my cousin (she's so much better at expressing herself, I should use her as my spokesperson, but that's just my genetic predisposition to laziness talking!)

  15. I also was fascinated with that Newsweek article a few weeks actually gives some hope that parents can have a decent amount of influence, if you are "lucky" enough to have one of those fussy babies.. Finally!! a benefit.

    I must say in my personal case study: my daughter (fussy from day zero) and her BFF (easy going from day one), it's really true. Mine is very influenced by us and others and very in-tune to others decisions. BFF could care less about her surroundings and parents influences, makes her decisions (very good ones) based on her own free will or whatever. But it's so interesting to watch from afar.

    But I've also noticed is mine is much more influenced by her peers then BFF could mean trouble ahead as she is heading into teen years.

  16. I'm all for personal responsibility. I think that there are people born with certain genetic predispositions, some of which will definitely make their lives a bit harder than others'. And while that can explain before, it doesn't necessarily condone it. I have a former friend who nearly killed his girlfriend by punching her in the stomach. And then he was upset about it, but he ended up blaming it on his "intermittent explosive disorder" and the marijuana he'd been smoking. So on the one hand, I totally recognize that he may have genetic disorders which make it harder to control himself. But that doesn't mean that he's still a good guy, that he can just blame it all on that and not accept responsibility for it. So it was definitely a factor, but part of it was choices he made as well (like smoking the marijuana, not getting enough therapy, or meds, or whatever).

  17. free will.

    free will.

    genetically I wanna sit on my ass all day ignoring work and toddler watch reruns of the real housewives of orange county and eat poptarts smeared with melted butter.

  18. I need to ponder , very deep....need coffee! I love the photos! :)

  19. i feel like I already knew what I was going to say just from reading your blog post, so I may not be totally impartial. I am a big believer in genetic predisposition when it comes to thing like, say, carrying the BRCA1 gene. But breast cancer is something that starts inside your body and people with that mutation do not CHOOSE it - they may exacerbate things by smoking or not exercising but they don't have will power to exert over it. These men with this so-called mutation? Boo freaking hoo. I don't care if every man in your family was a cheater and at birth, they held you down and tattooed "Born Adulterer" across your bottom. You CHOOSE to cheat. It's not something that mutates in your blood saying, "Go screw your secretary." Blah.

    That said, I think I have a mutation that renders me helpless over an open PB jar.

  20. I think we're directed by parents into a certain sort of direction- such as, we'll have a different outlook on life if we grow up in a rich suburb as opposed to a sketchier area of the city, or if our parents have a certain political perspective we'll likely adopt it or at least be somewhat influenced by it. And theres other things like diseases or whatever that run in the family that are obviously out of our control. But apart from that, its free choice.

    And definitely agree with Leah: "you still must be responsible for your actions".

  21. How did you get all those photos of me? Yeah, the drier was a blast!!

    Taking responsibility, forgiveness, always easier from the outside looking in. Nice post!!

  22. a lot of it's already been said, but i'm more of the belief that it's a combination, with some things ultimately coming down to our own choices.

    i'm not so insightful today.

  23. Nature vs. Nurture, Free Will vs. Genetic Pre-determinism.

    N v N is clearly a false dichotomy. Both of those play a role in how a person turns out.

    Free Will is trickier though. To accept that you have free will, I think you have to go into the realm of the spiritual. We are either a bag of chemicals and nerves, acting based on the reactions occurring inside us, or... there is something else, call it a soul, that allows us to override the chemical reactions.

    A few people talked about how we should be able to control our impulses, my personal belief is that we actually have less control over our response to an input, than we do over "longer term" issues.

    Longer term, we can make small changes like improving diet, sleeping more, and exercising which all improve our hormonal balance, or we can get counseling or read books that affect our thought processes. Either of those are, in effect, reprogramming the black box. Then the next time you are faced with an impulse you have "progamming" in place to do the right thing.

    Regarding husbands who cheat, they are or will be held accountable. In some cases though (sex addiction for example), they were not able to control themselves. If you asked them before the fact whether cheating is ok, theri answer would be "No."

    When the moment of truth comes however, brain chemicals kick in to override the logical thinking side, and the rationalizations come out (I never really loved her, It depends on your definition of sex, etc.). I'm not defending cheating spouses in any way shape or form, but either they do not have a well-developed sense of morals or else they are simply not programmed to resist.

    I wrote a bit about free will on Emotions For Engineers at
    and about addictions at


  24. Great points you all are making!

    And thanks Tony--I agree about the N v. N as false dichotomy. The debate is often framed that way, so while I may have referenced it I really don't see why anyone would think it's either/or.

    Will have to check out your free will post, as you have obviously put a lot of thought into it.

  25. I don't think our will is all that free if we are not aware of its limitations. We make a lot of decisions that are hardwired into us while our brain thinks at the same time it takes a rational choice. None of us are immune against group dynmaics for instance - it's not just other people that get sucked in into mob behaviour or mass panics. A lot of our behaviour is predisposed but gets rationalized.

    But we can be selfaware - I really like Tony's idea of changing the program long term - and overcome our knee-jerk reactions. And that is where our free will lies.


  26. Hey, do women have one of those gene things too? Is it the same gene?

    I have to come down on the personal responsibility side too, otherwise I'd have no reason to live. I think the genetic predisposition to act like an idiot is no more or less an obstacle to succeeding as a human being and acting responsibly than some physical predispositions are to developing fitness. Like my predisposition to slack off. It doesn't serve as an excuse. That's why we have RULES, so you don't have to go reinventing the social wheel all the time.

    In fact, as an old fogy I have to say that's the disturbing thing about the times we live in--social mores seem to be all over the place. A lot of people don't know what the rules are.

  27. I don't even think it's genetics as much as it is the influence of our family as we grew up. Lucky for me, I was blessed with great parents. I hope my kids are as lucky ;)

  28. No matter what one's genetic predispositions, there are still certain laws and behavioral norms we must live by if we're to get along. I reject "it's my genes" as an excuse for wrongdoing, but it's too bad we aren't better at teaching people how to work with what they've got.

    There are legal, honest ways of working with a lot of character traits, but as a society we push a certain ideal (college, white-collar job, monogamous marriage, kids, dog, SUV, house in the 'burbs) and look askance at anyone who follows a different path.

    I'm not advocating letting people with a compulsion to kill go around murdering people, but how many times do people give others a hard time for being in an open marriage or chosing to not have kids? We as a society judge peoples' clothes, homes, jobs, hobbies and education as if we know best what will suit the other guy.

    As a society, maybe we should get better at encouraging people to find open, honest ways to indulge the quirks that are basically harmless instead of shaming them into the truly shameful behavior of sneaking around and lying.

    Then we could focus our energies on the outliers and maybe find ways to eradicate the truly unacceptable behaviors that harm us all.

  29. Nature vs Nurture.

    Can't we all just get ALONG?!!


    Roads don't always go downhill and the wind isn't always at our backs. There's times we really do need to battle aspects of our nature. If we're lucky, we've received the kind of nurturing to help us when confronting those aspects.

    I feel sorry for those folks who got short-changed on both the DNA and domestic fronts. They haunt our prisons, asylums and big city streets.

  30. My totally unscientifically validated theory: your genes might determine your physical characteristics, but I don't see how they can do more than predispose you to certain behaviors. In other words, I can't choose to change my height. That's determined already. But although I might be predisposed to be short-tempered, I can learn to control that.

    So I'm all in with the Personal Responsibility folks! ;)

  31. It can be a good thing to know one's predispositions. If one knows one is predispositioned toward alcoholism, for example, one can then use extra caution.

    Perhaps the real difficulty is how do we teach people to feel empowered to overcome or work with their predilections instead of feeling like they're the helpless victims of them?

  32. Ok, my brain is totally fried after reading all that information.

    I've known that genetics can affect personality and behavior for a long time. Bipolar disorder runs in the family, BUT therapy, family education (very important), and drugs help a lot!

    I have an "everything and the kitchen sink" view on why people act the way they do. It's a combo meal of genetics, parenting, schooling, environment, societal influences, life experiences, free will, moral set, probably about 100 other factors we haven't discovered yet, and whether on not they had their morning coffee.

    What I try to do is not judge anyone harshly when I think they're doing something I wouldn't do or being a jerk because I don't know the circumstances that have put them in the position they're in.

  33. BTW, the kid in the photo with paint everywhere...I had the same artistic tendencies once. Except my canvas was a family-heirloom Oriental rug. I learned from that mistake real quick, LOL.

  34. I twittered today about a study that said the antidote to having a fat gene is to exercise more (Exercise trumps obesity gene, U.S. study finds -- it'll be posted on my twitter update on my blog after midnight eastern).

    So what's the antidote to the cheating gene, then? Hmmm...

  35. I am a geneticist...and I honestly think that most things can be changed to some degree if you want to.
    I am an eternally chirpy optimist, but it seems like too easy of a cop out to blame genetics for things. It doesn't mean you should not try or give up. It's not an excuse.
    People who genetically can't walk or hear or talk seem to get by in life and learn ways to deal with life. Some things are difficult, but I really think you need to try and do the best you can with what you've been given and not just give in to it and not try.


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