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Bet on it…or do a DNA analysis…

June 18th, 2004 · 6 Comments

Tyler Cowen listed a few examples from a NYT article Betting on the Betrothed(article quote below).

Shortly after Jennifer Lopez married Marc Anthony on June 5, British bookmakers began offering 3-to-1 odds that the couple will divorce by the end of the year. On the other hand, the odds are 1 to 2 that Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher will marry by the end of December, said Warren Lush, the chief oddsmaker for the gaming company Ladbrokes of London.

Yesterday’s Seattle Times published Preference for commitment may hinge on single gene describing experiments performed on two types of voles (one “promiscuous” and the other “monogamous” by nature) to determine how DNA impacts fidelity.

But by “infecting” the promiscuous vole with the single gene that makes the monogamous variety want to pair up, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta were able to make the meadow vole more committed to a mate.


“It looks like we’re studying the basis of love, but we’re really studying the basis of social behavior,” Young said. “I do feel strongly that there is a genetic basis that causes us to tend to form bonds with a partner. The variation that we see (in commitment levels) is probably a combination of the environment interacting with those genes to shape our behavior.

In the last paragraph, another scientist commented

“There’s something mysterious about a couple that stays together for 50 years through thick and thin,” Konner said. “And then when we see how many couples don’t, it’s hard to imagine that it’s just a question of different beliefs. I expect that we’ll find out that there’s some core biological component.”

Combining these two news articles, it seems clear that there are two ways to determine how long a relationship will last. Bet on it. Or do DNA analysis. Or both. Perhaps those bookmakers would benefit from getting a few samples to a lab or two…

I’m not sure how I would feel, if in the future, couples who are about to get married would also have to take a genetics test – not to screen for potential medical diseases in their progeny – but to see whether they are destined to stay together.

Mystery is a part of marriage. Love itself is a mystery that no scientist can quantify or measure in a test tube. I don’t think I can explain it completely.

However, the remark that a 50 year marriage is “mysterious” seems strange to me. Yes the divorce rate is a high statistic, around 50%. But I suspect that in other cultures, and in American society generations ago where divorce was not as common, half-century marriages weren’t so mysterious. Is there something mysterious about fidelity and faithfulness? Is there something mysterious about living out vows and being true to words? (note: see this post on keeping promises!)

I fear the day that we determine that our genes have determined our life. This study, conducted in voles, may be on that path. However, last time I checked, human beings were not rodents. Although I do believe DNA influences us, I think we have more determinants than our genetic code.

Perhaps taking a peek at a family tree would also provide information on the durability of the marriage. Or looking at the environment – for example, statistics might prove that being a celebrity impacts the longevity of love. Some scientists, motivated by potential financial gain, might try to research these factors and create a calculation that would predict the precise length of commitment for a couple, thereby revealing how to gamble on the books.

I would be a bad bet for marriage, based on my family history, looking at how long love as lasted on various branches. Already Ted and I have been together almost as many years as my parents were. Maybe he shouldn’t have married me. But I believe that there’s more to our commitment than the environment where I was raised or the genes I received. Something mysterious is working in us.

It’s sad to see people betting on break-ups. I don’t know about DNA.
But I know you can bet on love to last.

Tags: marriage

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob V // Jun 19, 2004 at 4:28 am

    I feel you are being a little unfair to the researchers here. Did they ever say that a genetic test would indicate who is destined to stay together? Or that genes determine our lives? I doubt any scientist would suggest such a thing. Researchers have presumably found a “fat gene” that indicates who is more likely to be overweight. Still, no one suggests that you could ever weigh a person given their age and DNA sequence.

    For me, I think having information on whether I had a committment gene would be nothing but helpful. I would be reassured if I had it. If I didn’t, I would be committed to proving the correlations wrong. That’s just the way I respond to what others have to say about my potential.

    The real question here might be: “how do you respond to other people’s expectations?” I think many people live down to the expectations of others. I know at least a few people, however, who take offense to predictions and work to prove them invalid. The 1997 movie Gattaca is about one such person.

  • 2 MD // Jun 19, 2004 at 8:37 am

    Odd. Where does free will come into all of this?

    I guess I can always blame the genes for why my marriage didn’t work (his of course 🙂 )

  • 3 Ducky // Jun 19, 2004 at 8:21 pm

    Julie —

    You said, “But I suspect that in other cultures, and in American society generations ago where divorce was not as common, half-century marriages weren’t so mysterious.” I recently heard or read a statistic that the average length of marriages isn’t a changed a whit shorter than it was a century ago. (Sorry, I don’t have the reference.) While the divorce rate was obviously much lower, the death rate was much higher. MANY women died in childbirth.

    “Until death do us part” wasn’t quite as impressive when death had this rude tendency to part you relatively quickly.

  • 4 Kris Hasson-Jones // Jun 21, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    My mother’s first marriage lasted a little over two years. Her second (and my father’s first) lasted about 6. Her third lasted about six months, although I think she didn’t actually divorce him for a couple of years after that.

    My father’s second marriage lasted less than a year; his third lasted about 10 years; he’s on his fourth marriage (he remarried his second wife, who in the interim was married to, and had children with, someone else).

    My first marriage, at 13 years, lasted longer than any of theirs.

    I’m also fifth generation divorced on my mother’s side. All the women–me, my mother, her mother, her grandmother, and her great grandmother–were divorced at least once, not always from their first husbands (because the first ones had died).

  • 5 Julie // Jun 22, 2004 at 12:29 am

    Wow, thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    Bob, yes perhaps I was pushing it 🙂 but I don’t think it’s too far out of the question to imagine a DNA test being used as a premarital screen/help. Your perspective on expectations is an interesting one.

    MD, I like your sense of humor! And your point about free will!

    Ducky, thanks for the information – and for correcting my perspective. Perhaps instead of “half-century”, I should have said “lengthy” or something less specific. You are right that people did not used to expect to live so long…and therefore to be married so long…

    Kris, thanks for sharing your family history. My family looks a little like yours.

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