Slate reviews the latest excretion of pseudo-scientific, evolutionary psychology-based aspirational ethics, as incorporated into a marriage self-help book:
Tara Parker-Pope, the earnest health reporter for the New York Times, promises a new wrinkle in the self-help genre with her book, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. Her basic premise is that there exists a vast, underappreciated repository of "objective, evidence-based advice" about marriage that has not gotten its due. Science, that old bore, is finally going to be deployed into the battlefield of marital harmony and disharmony. Enough with the touchy-feely already: Let's see what the rats (and voles and chimpanzees) can tell us about finding and keeping Mr. (or Ms.) Right.
Here, like so many before her, Parker-Pope enters the creepy retro-future world of Gene Worship. ... Parker-Pope falls for the one about the vole and the fidelity gene.
The point is this: The human genome is not a department store of traits where each gene can be separately purchased, so that shoppers can mix red hair with shyness, or resistance to breast cancer with a sweet alto voice. Genes don't come out clean with nothing attached. Everything is attached to them. They operate in a web of unimaginable complexity, not along a simple plot line. The AVPR1A gene, for example, when not responsible for your marital happiness, also is involved with blood pressure regulation, renal absorption of salts and fluids, and who knows what else. The body is a wonderfully contrary machine. Merely referring to AVPR1A as "the cheating gene" perpetuates damaging oversimplification.
Another problem with almost-mindless cheerleading for the power of genetic research is that it is wildly out of sync with the actual pace of scientific progress. The real scientific world decodes reality at the rate of a few millimeters per century. But the alternative world that gene studies and books like this one inhabit moves at the speed of light from a vole gene to a kissing gene to a cheating gene. Parker-Pope is trying to move Oprah World into the bright light of science. But she'd be better off leaving well enough alone. You just can't marry the self-help book, which forever has been free of information, to the field of genes. It's the intricate place where the real dreamers live.