Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 521–543 | Cite as

Voles, vasopressin, and infidelity: a molecular basis for monogamy, a platform for ethics, and more?



Voles are attracting attention because genetic variation at a single locus appears to have a profound impact on a complex social behavior, namely monogamy. After briefly reviewing the state of the most relevant scientific literature, I examine the way that this research gets taken up by the popular media, by scientists, and by the notable philosopher of neuroscience Patricia Churchland and interpreted as having deeply revisionary implications for how we ordinarily understand ourselves as persons. We have all these big questions we would like to resolve about free will, consciousness, our understanding of persons, and the nature of morality and there is a tendency to ask more of neuroscience than it can yet answer. I do not deny that advances in neuroscience may eventually bear on important philosophical issues. However, it is not at all clear that this research has many of the sweeping implications being claimed for it and, in communicating science responsibly to the public, there is reason to be cautious about suggesting that it does.


Churchland Patricia Smith Free will Neuroethics Oxytocin Vasopressin Voles Science and culture 


  1. Ahern TH, Young LJ (2009) The impact of early life family structure on adult social attachment, alloparental behavior, and the neuropeptide systems regulating affiliative behaviors in the monogamous prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster). Front Behav Neurosci 3(17):1–19Google Scholar
  2. Bales KL, Boone E, Epperson P, Hoffman G, Carter SC (2011) Are behavioral effects of early experience mediated by oxytocin? Front Psychiatry 2:1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bales KL, Plotsky PM, Young LJ, Lim M, Grotte N, Ferrer E, Carter CS (2007) Neonatal oxytocin manipulations have long-lasting, sexually dimorphic effects on vasopressin receptors. Neuroscience 144:38–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bazell R (2008) The cheatin’ gene: researchers find men may be genetically predisposed to cheat. NBC Nightly News with Brain Williams. Retrieved from
  5. Beurton PJ, Raphael F, Rheinberger H-J (eds) (2000) The concept of the gene in development and evolution: historical and epistemological perspectives. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  6. Bickle John (2003) Philosophy and neuroscience: a ruthlessly reductive account. Kluwer, DrodrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carter CS, Grippo AJ, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Ruscio MG, Porges SW (2008) Oxytocin, vasopressin and sociality. Prog Brain Res 170:331–336Google Scholar
  8. Carter SC, Boone EM, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Bales KL (2009) Consequences of early experiences and exposure to oxytocin and vasopressin are sexually dimorphic. Dev Neurosci 31:332–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Churchland PS (1991) Our brains, our selves: reflections on neuroethical questions. In: Roy DJ, Wynne BE, Old RW (eds) Bioscience and Society. New York: John-Wiley & Sons, pp 77–96Google Scholar
  10. Churchland PS (2002) Brain-wise: studies in neurophilosophy. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  11. Churchland PS (2006) The big questions: do we have free will? New Scientist. 2578:42–45. November 18Google Scholar
  12. Churchland PS (2008) The impact of neuroscience on philosophy. Neuron 60:409–411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Churchland PS (2009) Inference to the best decision. In: Bickle J (ed) The oxford handbook of philosophy and neuroscience. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 419–430CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Churchland PS (2011) Braintrust: what neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  15. Churchland PM (1995) The engine of reason, the seat of the soul: a philosophical journey into the brain. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  16. Churchland PM (1996) The neural representation of the social world. In: May L, Friedman M, Clark A (eds) Mind and morals: essays on cognitive science and ethics. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 91–108Google Scholar
  17. Commitment phobes can blame genes: a man’s reluctance to marry may be down to a genetic ‘flaw’, say researchers. BBC News, September 2, 2008Google Scholar
  18. Cortez MF (2008a) Monogamy gene links men’s DNA to happily ever after in marriage. Bloomberg, September 1.
  19. Cortez MF (2008b) Fidelity in DNA? Researchers find monogamy gene in men. Mormon Times (Deseret News), September 2.
  20. Could monogamy gene combat infidelity? ABC News (Good Morning America), 23 July 2005Google Scholar
  21. Could there be a cheating gene? The Tyra Banks Show, 12 Oct 2009Google Scholar
  22. Damasio A (2005) Brain trust. Nature 435:571–572CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Damasio A (2007) Neuroscience and ethics: intersections. Am J Bioeth 7(1):3–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Donaldson ZR, Young LJ (2008) Oxytocin, vasopressin, and the neurogenetics of sociality. Science 322(5903):900–904CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Farah MJ, Heberlein AS (2007) Personhood and neuroscience: naturalizing or nihilating? Am J Bioeth (AJOB-Neuroscience) 7(1):37–48Google Scholar
  26. Fink S, Excoffier L, Heckel G (2006) Mammalian monogamy is not controlled by a single gene. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 103:10956–10960CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gene determines fidelity in men. Health Jockey, 2 Sept 2008Google Scholar
  28. Getz LL, Carter CS (1996) Prairie-vole partnerships. Am Sci 84:56–62Google Scholar
  29. Gibbard A (1990) Wise choices, apt feelings: a theory of normative judgment. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  30. Gould SJ (1978) Ever since darwin. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  31. Griffiths PE, Stotz K (2007) Gene. In: Ruse M, Hull D (eds) Cambridge companion to philosophy of biology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 85–102Google Scholar
  32. Hammock EAD (2007) Gene regulation as a modulator of social preference in voles. Adv Genet 59:107–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Heckel G, Fink S (2008) Evolution of the Arginine Vasopressin 1a receptor and implications for mammalian social behaviour chapter 26 in progress in brain research. In: Neumann ID, Landgraf R (eds) Advances in vasopressin and oxytocin—from gene to behavior, vol 170(8). Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 321–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Highfield R (2004) How a cupid gene could stop men straying. The Telegraph, June 23.
  35. Highfield R (2008) ‘Divorce gene’ linked to relationship troubles. The Telegraph, September 1.
  36. Holden C (2008) Why men cheat: study chalks up promiscuous behavior to a single genetic change. Science Now, September 2.
  37. Hyman SE (2007) The neurobiology of addiction: implications for voluntary control of behavior. Am J Bioethics 7(1):8–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. I get a kick out of you; the science of love (love is all about chemistry). The Economist, 14 Feb 2004Google Scholar
  39. Insel TR (2010) The challenge of translation in social neuroscience: a review of oxytocin, vasopressin, and affiliative behavior. Neuron 65:768–779CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Insel TR, Fernald RD (2004) How the brain processes social information: searching for the social brain. Annu Rev Neurosci 27:697–722Google Scholar
  41. Johnson CY (2004) Study says gene encourages monogamy. Boston Globe, June 17.
  42. Joyce R (2006) The evolution of morality. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  43. Kettlewell J (2004) Fidelity gene’ found in voles: a single gene can turn the don juan of voles into an attentive home-loving husband. Nature magazine has reported. BBC NewsGoogle Scholar
  44. Kirn W (2004) Curing casanova. New York Times Magazine, pp 13–14Google Scholar
  45. Klotz L, Sylvester E (2009) Breeding bio insecurity: how US biodefense is exporting fear, globalizing risk, and making us all less secure. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  46. Knafo A, Israel S, Darvasi A, Bachner-Melman R, Uzefovsky F, Cohen L, Feldman E, Lerer E, Laiba E, Raz Y (2008) Individual differences in allocation of funds in the dictator game associated with length of the arginine vasopressin 1a receptor RS3 promoter region and correlation between RS3 Length And Hippocampal mRNA. Genes Brain Behav 7:266–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E (2005) Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature 435:673–676CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lewontin R (1992) Biology as ideology: the doctrine of DNA. Harper-Collins, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  49. Lewontin R (2011) The genotype/phenotype distinction. In: Edward NZ (ed) The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (summer 2011 edition)
  50. Lewontin R, Rose S, Kamin L (1984) Not in our genes: biology, ideology, and human nature. Pantheon, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  51. Libet Benjamin (1985) Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behav Brain Sci 8:529–566CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Lim MM, Young LJ (2004) Vasopressin-dependent neural circuits underlying pair bond formation in the monogamous prairie vole. Neuroscience 125:35–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lim MM, Wang Z, Olazábal DE, Ren X, Terwilliger EF, Young LJ (2004) Enhanced partner preference in a promiscuous species by manipulating the expression of a single gene. Nature 429:754–757CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Mabry KE, Streatfeild CA, Keane B, Solomon NG (2011) Avpr1a length polymorphism is not associated with either social or genetic monogamy in free-living prairie voles. Anim Behav 81:11–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Macrae F (2008) The love-rat gene: why some men are born to cause trouble and strife. Daily Mail, September 4.
  56. Mcguire B, Novak M (1987) The Effects of cross-fostering on the development of social preferences in meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Behav Neural Biol 47(2):167–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. McGraw LA, Thomas JW, Young LJ (2008) White paper proposal for sequencing the genome of the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster). Sequencing proposal submitted to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) by research groups at Emory and accompanied by letters of support by leading scientists who work with voles, 1–64. Available at
  58. Mundell EJ (2008) ‘Bonding gene’ could help men stay married. The Washington PostGoogle Scholar
  59. Moss L (2003) What genes can’t do. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  60. Nahmias E (2005) Agency, authorship, and illusion. Conscious Cogn 14:771–785CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Nahmias E (2010) Scientific challenges to free will, chapter 44. In: O’Connor T, Sandis C (eds) A companion to the philosophy of action. Blackwell, Oxford, pp 345–356CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Nair HM, Young LJ (2006) Vasopressin and pair-bond formation: genes to brain to behavior. Physiology 21(2):146–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Ophir AG, Campbell P, Hanna K, Phelps SM (2008) Field Tests of cis-regulatory variation at the prairie vole avpr1a locus: association with V1aR abundance but not sexual or social fidelity. Horm Behav 54(5):694–702CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Reichard UH, Boesch C (2003) Monogamy: mating strategies and partnerships in birds, humans and other mammals. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  65. Rheinberger H-J, Müller-Wille S (2010) Gene. In: Edward NZ (ed) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition).
  66. Roan S (2008) Some men carry ‘Commitment-Phobia’ gene. Los Angeles Times, September 3.
  67. Roskies AL (2010) How does neuroscience affect our conception of volition? Annu Rev Neurosci 33:109–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Ruse M (1986a) Evolutionary ethics: a phoenix arisen. Zygon J Relig Sci 21:95–112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Ruse M (1986b) Taking Darwin seriously: a naturalistic approach to philosophy. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  70. Wilson EO, Ruse M (1986) Moral philosophy as applied science. Philosophy 61:173–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Silver J (2008) Men are like voles: vasopressin and bonding—marital fidelity may be affected by a vasopressin polymorphism. J Watch Psychiatry, September 29.
  72. Searle J (2001) Rationality in action. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  73. Shetty P (2008) Monogamy gene found in people. New Scientist and ABC News (September 1) and ABC News (September 2). and
  74. Sommers T, Rosenberg A (2003) Darwin’s nihilistic idea: evolution and the meaninglessness of life. Biol Philos 18:653–668CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Soon C, Brass M, Heinze H, Haynes J (2008) Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci 11:543–545CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Special edition: his cheatin’ genes? New science links biology, monogamy. NBC’s Today Show. 3 September 2008. Retrieved from
  77. Sterelny K, Griffiths PE (1999) Sex and death: an introduction to the philosophy of biology. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  78. The gene excuse: the guy can’t help it; he was born that way. Pacific Sun. 30 June 2004Google Scholar
  79. Tierney J (2009) Anti-love drug may be ticket to bliss. New York Times, January 12.
  80. van Fraassen BC (2007) Does god mix with science, interview by Robert Lawrence Kuhn for Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God (PBS television series). Video available at
  81. Vollmer S (2010) The divorce gene explored: should you get your partner’s DNA before saying ‘I do’? Psychol Today, January 3.
  82. Wade N (2005) DNA of voles may hint at why some fathers shirk duties. New York Times, June 10.
  83. Walum H, Westberg L, Henningsson S, Neiderhiser JM, Reiss D, Igl W, Ganiban JM, Spotts EL, Pedersen NL, Eriksson E, Lichtenstein P (2008) Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 105:14153–14156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Wang Z, Yu G, Cascio C, Liu Y, Gingrich B, Insel TR (1999) Dopamine D2 receptor-mediated regulation of partner preferences in female prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster): a mechanism for pair bonding? Behav Neurosci 113:602–611CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Weaver I, Cervonia N, Champagne F, D’Alessio A, Sharma S, Seckl J, Demov S, Szyf M, Meaney M (2004) Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nat Neurosci 7:847–854CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wenger DM (2002) The illusion of conscious will. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  87. Williams JR, Catania KC, Carter CS (1992) Development of partner preferences in female prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster): the role of social and sexual experience. Horm Behav 26:339–349CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Yamamoto Y, Cushing BS, Kramer KM, Epperson PD, Hoffman GE, Carter CS (2004) Neonatal manipulations of oxytocin alter expression of oxytocin and vasopressin immunoreactive cells in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus in a gender-specific manner. Neuroscience 125:947–955CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Young LJ, Hammock EAD (2007) On switches and knobs, microsatellites and monogamy. Trends Genet 23(5):209–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Young L (2009) Being human: love—neuroscience reveals all. Nature 457:148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Young L (2011) Interview for The Science Network by Roger Bingham at the one mind for research symposium: next frontier of the brain forum May 23–25 in Boston, MA. Video available at
  92. Zak PJ (2012) The moral molecule: the source of love and prosperity. Dutton Press, Hialeah forthcomingGoogle Scholar
  93. Zak PJ, Kurzban R, Matzner WT (2005) Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness. Horm Behav 48:522–527CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Zarembo A (2004) DNA tweak turns vole mates into soul mates. Los Angeles Times, June 17.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA

Personalised recommendations