Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Cheating Gene

Have you read about the "cheating gene"? Here's one column commenting on the research:,0,6173113.column

It seems that some men have a genetic predisposition to intimacy and fidelity, because their bodies produce an abundance of a hormone familiarly known as the "cuddle chemical." Others, who suffer from a deficiency of this hormone, supposedly have trouble with monogamy. This discovery offers apparent support to the mechanistic philosophy that free will is an illusion, because our actions are controlled by genes, hormones, or neural wiring.

Does a genetic predisposition equate to "they just can't help it"? As a believer in free will, I maintain that biological determinists are confusing two levels of causation. Why did I write the previous sentence? Because nerve impulses traveled from my brain to my hands and caused my fingers to strike certain keys; because I wanted to communicate an idea to the readers of this paragraph. Both true. Why does a man decide to marry a particular woman? Because millions of years of evolution have produced a tendency to view people of the opposite sex with certain physical characteristics as good mates on account of their potential to produce healthy offspring; because the aesthetic conventions of our culture have conditioned him to regard a woman of her type as attractive; because he has been thrown together with her at a time in his life when he is ready to settle down, and proximity stimulates attachment; because the man and woman have become intimately acquainted, sharing important values and developing appreciation for each other's personality and physical appeal. All of these "causes" may be true, without negating the couple's freedom to make a decision about their future together.

I cling to the belief that each sapient being has—or is—a “self” that makes decisions and choices, although inborn traits and environmental influences shape the available choices (and some people suffer from mental illnesses or other handicaps that severely limit their power to choose or avoid certain behavior). The current theory of some neuroscientists that not only free will but even consciousness is a convenient illusion constructed by the brain to make sense of a chaotic whirlpool of impulses and responses still leaves me to wonder who’s doing the constructing and embracing the illusion. As C. S. Lewis paraphrased the version of this philosophy current in the mid-twentieth century, “all this time, almost nobody has been making category mistakes about almost nothing.” Nope, doesn’t work for me.



  1. Margaret I think blood screenings would come into play then, a woman could ask a guy to submit his blood to see if he was one for a serious relationship or just a fling. Perhaps it would make things easier, but I seriously doubt this is the cause of infidelity, "as a man thinketh so is he" we could include woman in that quote as well.

  2. Do women have a cheating gene as well, or are women who cheat just immoral? ;)

    I think there are good arguments for the nonexistence of free will, and yet, when the notion that free will doesn't exist becomes prevalent, the results are demonstrably disastrous. That seems to be the best argument that it does exist.

    Even if it doesn't exist, I think free will, along with personal responsibility, are, at the very least, necessary fictions. I think society falls apart if we don't hold people responsible for their actions, regardless of how plausible the reasons for believing they are not seem.