Of voles and men — and fidelity - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Of voles and men — and fidelity

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Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2004 6:18 am | Updated: 6:14 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Among the recent headlines we could live without was this: "Monogamy may be in the genes."

It appeared on Thursday’s front page, just in time for Father’s Day. We could live without it because the first reaction of alley-cat guys probably was to take it as justification for their alley-cat ways.

Not so fast, Lothario. The scientists aren’t talking about you. They’re talking about voles.

The only true similarity between voles and wandering men is that they are both ratlike — the voles in their anatomy, the men in their behavior. While voles may be hardwired to do the things they do, that has yet to be proven about humans.

The scientists noticed two kinds of voles behave in two ways. The prairie vole stays with a lifelong mate, the meadow vole jumps from partner to partner. The prairie vole hangs around the nest, the meadow vole hangs around the bars. The prairie vole helps with the kids, the meadow vole says "I’ll call you in the morning" and never does.

Does this explain why "Little House on the Prairie" was one of the most wholesome TV shows in history? Maybe, but that’s not why scientists were curious.

They wanted to know why prairie voles act like choir boys and meadow voles like rock stars. They found their answer in a gene. The prairie voles have it, the meadow voles don’t.

The science is complex, as science always is. And we have to take scientists at their word on this because genes are invisible to the naked eye. In searching for a picture of a gene on the Internet, I found pictures of Gene Autry and Gene Krupa but none of actual genes. Never having seen one, I cannot testify that genes truly exist.

The scientists tell us, however, that when they injected this gene into the brains of meadow voles, the little fellas calmed down. It was the animal kingdom’s version of "Father Knows Best," a rodent redux of "The Cosby Show."

Meadow voles that didn’t get the gene kept on being naughty.

Legions of women (and not a few men) may hope they’ll soon be able to talk to their doctors about a genetic fidelity potion. Not for them, but for their straying mates.

That won’t happen, the scientists say, because animals and humans are too different for the research to have much, if any, application to us.

Besides, if monogamy were programmed into us, where would be the beauty of it?

If we could reason the matter no more deeply than your average vole, would we not have lost much of what makes us human? Feelings that transcend mere lust and emotion and strive to attain the realms of loyalty, honesty and devotion?

Voles will never have those things. We can, if we want to. And wanting to makes all the difference.

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