Monogamy Is In The Genes
April 20, 2017 3:22 AM   Subscribe

A boring mouse who tends to their home and children show monogamous behavior is genetic, just like humans! Oldfield Mice not only make lifelong connections with their partners, they never inbreed. They even build better nests! Lady mice all over the world are looking for an Oldfield mouse...
posted by Yellow (37 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It’s a monogamouse?
posted by misteraitch at 3:27 AM on April 20 [35 favorites]

monogamous behavior is genetic, just like humans!

This is the sound of anthropologists facepalming.
posted by sukeban at 4:05 AM on April 20 [48 favorites]

Just like the mice, people call me "boring" when they find out how monogamous I am.
posted by mmoncur at 4:11 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]


Let's look at the headline:

Why Are Some Mice (and People) Monogamous? A Study Points to Genes

Some, not all, not the majority. Just some.

And now the second paragraph:

But field biologists have long known that when it comes to sex and family life, this mouse is remarkable: Peromyscus polionotus is monogamous — an exception among mammals — and a solicitous parent.

So monogamy is exceptional among mammals? The framing of this post is odd.
posted by rdr at 4:16 AM on April 20 [11 favorites]

If the good Lord had wanted me to be monogamous He wouldn't have invented Ryan Gosling is all I'm saying.
posted by billiebee at 4:21 AM on April 20 [15 favorites]

The article goes more about genetic influence in parenting in two varieties of mice measuring variation on physical attachment to the pups ("how much mice lick their pups, how long they huddle, how long they handle their young, and how likely they are to retrieve a pup if scientists plucked it out of the nest").

The problem when extrapolating to humans is that nobody in their right mind would think that the change in parental attachment between the late Victorian or Edwardian era and the 1960s Dr Spock type parenting two generations later was due to massive genetic mutations.
posted by sukeban at 4:29 AM on April 20 [8 favorites]

sukeban: "how much mice lick their pups "

my name is Mowse
and wen its nite
or wen the moon
is shiyning brite
and all the men
haf gon to bed
i stay up late.
i lik the pups.
posted by chavenet at 4:45 AM on April 20 [56 favorites]

The problem when extrapolating to humans is that nobody in their right mind would think that the change in parental attachment between the late Victorian or Edwardian era and the 1960s Dr Spock type parenting two generations later was due to massive genetic mutations.

Well there was a startling amount of open air atomic activity between the two time periods, so it wouldn't be completely out of the realm of possibilities. Unlikely, sure.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:49 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]

And the article ends with "But Dr. Bendesky cautioned that the vasopressin gene would probably turn out to be just one of many that influence oldfield mice. Though it is strongly linked to parental behavior, the vasopressin gene accounts for 6.7 percent of the variation in nest building among males, and only 2.9 percent among females.", or don't believe the headline!

Although it is interesting in regard to the licking of pups, I've just read Cordelia Fine's Testosterone Rex and in it she mentions studies relating to mice (or rats, not sure which) licking the anogenital area of the male offspring and it having distinct influences on brain chemistry.
posted by Fence at 4:55 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]

The oldfield mouse doesn’t seem extraordinary. With soulful black eyes and tiny teacup ears, the rodent lives a humdrum life scurrying about meadows and beaches in the Southeast.

Guess what, fucker. I think scurrying around a meadow and having pretty eyes IS extraordinary. You heard me, you FUCK. You mouse-dismissing SHIT
posted by Greg Nog at 6:12 AM on April 20 [47 favorites]

The Victorians did not lick their children?
posted by My Dad at 6:38 AM on April 20 [15 favorites]

Man, I am apparently doing parenting all wrong.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:40 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]

Well there was a startling amount of open air atomic activity between the two time periods, so it wouldn't be completely out of the realm of possibilities. Unlikely, sure.

Other potential suspects include plastics, fluoride in drinking water, and transistors.
posted by nickmark at 6:55 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]

This is a really cool study. I want to get that out there. I always go in skeptical on these but they have a behavior and they actually figured out a way to do an intervention that changes the behavior by changing the genes, then sorted it all out. How often can you do that? It's usually correlation and there are parenting and environmental issues impossible to deconvolute.

But yes, then going immediately to "Oh, let's extrapolate to humans" messes up the vibe. (Sukeban's observation is good, but even without that things just don't translate from mice to humans consistently.) Science journalists: Trust that the science is interesting. You don't need to tie it to humans or exobiology or renewable energy all the time.
posted by mark k at 6:56 AM on April 20 [8 favorites]

What are the cannibalism rates in monogamous mice? And if there is cannibalism present is it endogamous or exgamous? Asking for a friend.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:56 AM on April 20 [6 favorites]

As a dude who generally feels happier in long term monogamous relationships can I just say, please stop trying to help make the case for monogamy using science; you're trying too hard. Don't worry: nobody would ever try to pressure you into changing your sexual habits from that sort of liberal perspective because that would be nosing into people's bedrooms, and dictating and policing moral norms on personal sexuality, which is a pretty illiberal attitude to take toward sexuality and human relationships.

There doesn't have to be just One True Way(TM)--it makes me kind of grimace when it seems like people are trying to use science to justify conformity to a personal preference.

Regardless of what's supposedly more "natural"--that's always debatable: you can cherry pick examples of just about any pattern of sexual behavior from examples in nature--what should matter most is what works best or worst to promote health and well-being on an individual, personal level, within the bounds of respectful and nonexploitative social behavior.

Nature's general tendency seems to be no more discriminating or deliberate than throwing every possible mutation and variation on sexual practice at a wall and seeing what sticks. To argue any one particular set of observed patterns of natural sexual behavior is more or less natural requires ignoring counterexamples that don't quite fit in just about every direction.

I know this fact has sometimes been abused by the sexual purity police on the conservative side, but it's no less fact if the science is sound: from a purely evolutionary, game theoretical perspective, individual females of most species (including humans) don't really have much incentive to be promiscuous because promiscuity for women comes with higher risks of adverse health consequences either through disease transmission or accidental pregnancy and related medical complications. Purely looking at the math, it's riskier and costlier, on a population-wide level, on average, for females of a species to be more sexually promiscuous. There are survival costs for males of a species, too, but those tend to relate less to the potential natural consequences of engaging in sex with many partners than in the competition among males for mates. Sure, birth control and safer sexual habits can ameliorate those risks, and it's up to individuals to figure out for themselves what risks and rewards are worth it, and what balance to strike, but indiscriminately pressuring men or women toward any particular dogma on sexuality (any dogma more rigid than "hey, try not to hurt other people through risky or manipulative sexual behavior") starts to feel eerily like policing people's sex lives and an unexamined impulse to impose a different but no less totalizing and potentially oppressive set of homogeneous moral orthodoxies on human sexuality, like in those old Christian socialist cults popular at one point in U.S. history that practiced forced polyamory on what they considered doctrinal grounds, like a kind of sex positive variation on Puritanism.

I'm suspicious of any one-size-fits-all theories that advocate for a position on monogamy either way. It should be obvious that there are a lot of very personal and individual differences in what patterns of sexual activity are optimal and emotionally and personally satisfying and healthy for different individuals with different needs, and those preferences and needs may even change at different times in a person's life history.

If you've ever known someone with an extremely reckless attitude toward sexuality--as in, a friend or acquaintance with a history of frequently having unprotected sex and exposing multiple partners to life disrupting and personally damaging STDs (like an ex husband of an old high school friend of mine), you're forced to realize what may be medicine for some can be poison for others. And especially once you start getting into trying to start a family. My high school friend found she had extreme difficulty conceiving and it turned out to be due to her ex husband's reckless and compulsive promiscuity; he left her with a chronic condition that made conceiving children more medically dangerous, painful, and expensive.

Any discussion of sexual mores and inclinations that doesn't honestly and factually consider the gender differences in practical risks and incentives, and ignores that the risks of sexual promiscuity are inherently greater for women (though those risks can be imperfectly reduced through safer sexual habits and honest communication) seems like it's an attempt to impose a set of homogeneous norms rather than an honest attempt to encourage healthy and personally satisfying attitudes toward expressing human sexuality, much less about meaningful , long-term personal empowerment.

I guess on this, as with many other things people frame as binary conflicts, when it comes to monogamy versus polyamory my own position is there's a bigger answer that transcends both and it's a false dilemma, driven more by the impulse for ego validation than any disinterested, rational ethical or scientific principle. Nature's own model of sexuality is extremely diverse and offers no ideal, one-size-fits-all, inherently better or worse model of healthy human sexuality. Whatever that means is up to each of us to puzzle out on a personal and interpersonal level, through self reflection and examination of our life experience, isn't it? That's my take anyway. I can see a little of both sides, but think it's an emotionally motivated mistake to hold either position up as a universal dogma or superior ideal.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:37 AM on April 20 [12 favorites]

I think I'm less interested by the idea of whether there are genetic components for monogamy, and more interested in genetic components for good parenting.
posted by corb at 7:43 AM on April 20 [1 favorite]

It’s a monogamouse?

Great, now I'm singing that word to the tune of Manamana.

This might take all day to get out of my head.
posted by rokusan at 8:01 AM on April 20 [8 favorites]

Monogamouse sounds like a cartoon character from a PSA that even Nancy Reagan couldn't tolerate

Like Mighty Mouse's boring cousin

(Says the mostly monogamous internet commenter)
posted by schadenfrau at 8:45 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]

M'nogamouse, m'nogamouse,
Don't go cattin' outside the house
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:47 AM on April 20 [4 favorites]

From the article: "Variations in how they function may explain why most species are promiscuous, why a few are monogamous — and why some, like humans, are somewhere in between."

From the summary: "A boring mouse who tends to their home and children show monogamous behavior is genetic, just like humans!"

Sometimes people who are insecure see what they want to see instead of what is.
posted by gripdamage at 8:51 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]

Ugh this framing. That mouse may or may not be boring or humdrum. It has nothing to do with sex.
posted by srboisvert at 9:06 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]

Oh for christ's sake. I don't work on monogamy myself, but my lab's other system is effectively "why is there variation in how monogamous prairie voles are, and how does it work on a genetic and neurological level?" so I'm pretty goddamn familiar with the literature underlying monogamy in the animal kingdom.

This is not the first time that scientists have identified a genetic or neurological basis for monogamy, just to get that shit out of the way. The prairie voles I mentioned have been studied extensively about that exact thing for, oh, at least ten or fifteen years now--to the point of using transgenic tech to artificially induce monogamous behavior in house mice by expressing particular receptors for vasopressin in specific parts of the transgenic mice. It's not a "genetics" thing so much as a matter of where particular genes are expressed, and where parts of the brain are listening for particular signals.

I have a lot of respect for Carl Zimmer, and I can see that he's being very careful as he works through this study to try to explain why it's cool. This study is genuinely fascinating because they've identified so many quantitative loci involved in the evolution of parental care and monogamous behavior, because what we usually refer to as monogamy is more of a suite of traits that all sort of work together, and the vole systems have primarily focused on affiliative behavior: a subset of these things. Hopi Hoekstra's work on crossing different Peromyscus species is really genuinely cool; she's done similar work identifying quantitative loci underlying burrow construction in a couple of other Peromyscus species before, and identifying at least potential places for the genes that underlie this behavior so that they can be studied more effectively on a protein level is really, really cool.

But jesus fucking christ, applying it immediately to the question of whether humans are monogamous/how monogamous humans are is an oversimplification in the extreme and it always bloody happens. A friend of mine asked me to sit in on a panel about polyamory a few weeks ago, and I wound up sitting next to an Australian gentleman who attempted to launch into an explanation spiel about how humans are clearly not naturally monogamous, and monogamy is an unnatural state imposed on us by culture. I was not best pleased, because the thing is is that monogamy is less of a single binary hard and fast trait and more of a fucking spectrum, with individuals falling into different places along that spectrum based on both genetic and personal context. I told him so, too, and explained about things like Casanova wolves and prairie voles who don't stick so close to their mates, preferring instead to catch copulations with females who aren't their mates and risking that someone else will visit their own mate in the meantime. Monogamous species do not contain all equally monogamous individuals. That's consistent everywhere we've looked.

Parental care is something of a construct, too. For example, male rats don't normally participate much in parental care, but if you house a male rat with neonates after birth, you can induce him to look after the pups and help the mother rat out pretty easily. Even in nature, there are distinct animal cultures with varying levels of parental care and parental 'norms' about how much investment individuals put into offspring, particularly among baboons. Some of these behaviors are purely genetic and some are not, and how flexible they seem to be to environmental context also appears to vary quite a bit within species.

But it's also partly genetic. And that's the real story here: genes interact with environmental context in fascinating ways to produce complicated behaviors. If anyone tells you that any complex behavior "is genetic!" in humans, run very far in the opposite direction because that person is clearly talking straight out their ass. I get the impulse to simplify things for understanding, but it drives me up the fuckin' wall because it muddies the water and, worse, creates conflict for people who are trying to use science to understand themselves, and then you get arguments based on incredibly bad understandings of the natural world around us. It's all terribly fucking frustrating.
posted by sciatrix at 9:21 AM on April 20 [46 favorites]

also god fucking dammit rodents aren't boring come over here and fight me on that

I'm serious I will bring you so many interesting rodents
posted by sciatrix at 9:22 AM on April 20 [24 favorites]

and of course oldfield mice will inbreed sometimes if their usual dispersal mechanisms are perturbed

just because this paper is about hybridizing two species and looking at genetic markers in the backcrosses doesn't mean that either of the parent species is magically immune to inbreeding

which is by the way totally not mentioned in this paper because no one is looking at inbreeding at all right now
posted by sciatrix at 9:27 AM on April 20 [6 favorites]

goddammit I have such a crush on Hopi Hoekstra and her work is so consistently amazing
posted by sciatrix at 9:30 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]

sciatrix, I love you.
posted by schadenfrau at 9:52 AM on April 20 [7 favorites]

I'm serious I will bring you so many interesting rodents

If we are signing up for the "sciatrix explains interesting rodents to me" part of Metafilter I would like to sign my name SO HARD.
posted by corb at 9:54 AM on April 20 [12 favorites]

Seconding the proposal for RodentFilter. Sciatrix is now my favorite mefi scientist.
posted by happyroach at 9:59 AM on April 20 [4 favorites]

But jesus fucking christ, applying it immediately to the question of whether humans are monogamous/how monogamous humans are is an oversimplification in the extreme and it always bloody happens.

This seems to be the normal pattern in pretty much any media report on any animal study of any kind. A quick gloss of the study, described with about half accuracy, followed by a leap all the way to what it "might" mean for humans, if you suspend all critical thinking.

I think it's the desire to gain reader attention by oversimplifying*, combined with selfish human nature: the reader and writer only want to deal with just enough big boring science words to establish authority or assign a cool factor, and after that it's right into Yes but how does this affect me, the human person over here who really needs this to be about me?

* He says, oversimplifying.
posted by rokusan at 10:04 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]

sciatrix, I love you. -- schadenfrau

Get a maze, you two!

Couldn't resist. Bad human.
posted by rokusan at 10:05 AM on April 20 [13 favorites]

From The Economist (2009):
Monogamouse: Genetically modified prairie voles may illuminate the human condition

It ends with: "One study has already shown that it is possible to inject a viral vector for the vasopressin receptor into the brains of the fickle meadow voles and make them better partners and parents. It may be some time before such interventions are available for human males, but women can always live in hope."
posted by Kabanos at 1:10 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

Ugh I find that joke, and the similar one in the OP both tired and sexist.
posted by smoke at 3:04 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]

I will bring you so many interesting rodents

You are my neighbour's cat and I claim my £5.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:58 PM on April 20 [4 favorites]

Seriously, not one "Of Mice and Men" joke?
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:19 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]

I was hoping for a "Mice Oldfield" joke personally, but there's just no way to work Tubular Bells in there.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:48 PM on April 20

also god fucking dammit rodents aren't boring come over here and fight me on that

I seriously thought "boring" was in the FPP because this was a "boring mouse", some subclassification of mice based on their behavior of boring holes in things, or maybe a typo for "burrowing".


I'll fight on that too.
posted by mmoncur at 8:31 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]

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