Why Most People Might Want to be a Prairie Vole

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Prairie Voles either have much superior willpower and strength of character than humans, or they are simply wired differently.

Maybe their ‘vows of marriage’ are much more meaningful to them.

Prairie Voles are almost exclusively monogamous, staying with their initial pair-bond for life. Indeed, if their partner dies, their commitment is such that they do not pair up with another.

I was intrigued by the article “Love is Strange” by Mike Lee Pearl in which he discusses the role of biology, and more specifically the hormones oxytocin and dopamine, in both Vole and human behavior around pair-bonding. It turns out that Voles are wired differently. They have “really dense oxytocin receptors...” which plays a critical role in their monogamous commitment.

So there you go. If only humans had denser oxytocin receptors the increased bonding instinct from the oxytocin ‘flood’ would cause us to stay for life with our first partner (as Voles do — although that might be a scary prospect for many). The issue of human infidelity and struggle with monogamy would be over!

But we don’t have equivalent biology. Yes, we process oxytocin and dopamine, but not to the same level. 

Despite this, we have somehow created a societal model that lauds monogamy as an ideal, and we use mental fortitude or pursuit of a higher spiritual esthetic as a way of accomplishing it. 

Let me just say I happily and sincerely extend my congratulations to any couple that is celebrating 50-years-plus of married life together. That is impressive, indeed (although, even as we cheer them on, we don’t know if they were truly monogamous).

So why do we so avidly aspire to a lifestyle we are not actually wired to? Yes, we do use oxytocin and dopamine for bonding and connecting, but not to the extent that we are so overcome that we don’t consider bonding and connecting with others.

Is it a spiritual test? That is, were we not given the Voles biology so that we ‘higher’ beings can learn to transcend our ‘lower’ physical nature? Seems rather cruel if the Universe intended it that way. The Voles get a free pass, but we don’t. Maybe if we succeed at monogamous commitment in this life we get to come back as Voles, so we can blissfully experience stress-free monogamy.

Okay, I jest. But doesn’t it make you wonder? If anything, shouldn’t our spiritual beliefs line up with our biology, and the biology of our planet?

Human beings greatest power for survival, beyond intelligence, is our capacity to share. We forget this from time to time, but we see it very clearly when there is a disaster or loss of life. People share and pull together. No doubt, if times get difficult on the planet, our key to survival will once again be to share.

Why is it we can share almost everything in life willingly—even money—but we can’t share our lover? Especially in light of the fact that we weren’t given the biology to be naturally monogamous.

What a revolution it would be if we could embrace our biology and see the sharing of our partner (both male and female) with others as a natural gift of loving connection. Ironically, more primary partner couples would likely stay together if this was so.

As for Mike Pearl’s comments about love, in the same article cited above, well, that’s for another blog post...

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On further thought: Of course, there is another way to look at human vs. vole oxytocin biology. Since our oxytocin receptors are less dense, we obviously have to touch each other and make love much more frequently to create the same level of pair-bonding. Perhaps the key to maintaining an exclusive couple is to touch frequently and make love several times a day — then no marriage contract needed. -- MH

The Bonobo Factor: Intro

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“It’s humans that have the hang ups. Sex in bonobo society is a mechanism to reduce tension. Sort of like a handshake!” Quote from a Youtube video posting. Here’s a quick view of bonobo sex.

Bonobos. Have you heard of them? More and more of us have. In Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s thought-provoking book “Sex At Dawn” we read this:

“Genetically, the chimps and bonobos at the zoo are far closer to you and the other paying customers than they are to the gorillas, orangutans, monkeys, or anything else in a cage. Our DNA differs from that of chimps and bonobos by roughly 1.6 percent, making us closer to them than a dog is to a fox, a white-handed gibbon to a white-cheeked  crested gibbon, an Indian elephant to an African elephant or, for any bird-watchers who may be tuning in, a red-eyed vireo to a white-eyed vireo.”

 

Pretty amazing… and sobering at the same time. Bonobos have only been studied fairly recently. When they were first discovered they were considered a ‘sub-group’ of the chimpanzees. For a long time most scientists considered the chimpanzee hierarchical, power-focused model of ‘society’ most like humans. Ryan and Metha point out that with more study of the bonobos and early human matriarchal societies, and deeper understanding of human physiology, comes evidence that we may in fact be much more closely related to them than chimps. Their book includes this passage:

Crucially, human and bonobos, but not chimps, appear to share a specific anatomical predilection for peaceful coexistence. Both species have what’s called a repetitive microsatellite (at gene AVPRIA) important to the release of oxytocin. Sometimes called “nature’s ecstasy,” oxytocin is important in pro-social feelings like compassion, trust, generosity, love and yes, eroticism. As anthropologist and author Eric Michael Johnson explains, “It is far more parsimonious that chimpanzees lost this repetitive microsatellite than for both humans and bonobos to independently develop the same mutation.”

 

Oxytocin is worthy of a blog post on its own. Maybe several. But for me this is a significant find.

So what if we are more closely related to bonobos than chimps? What does this mean? Well, first it means a lot of resistance. Why? Because bonobos are notoriously free and open in their sexuality. Bonobos have been observed to, “engage in sex to ease tension, to stimulate sharing during meals, to reduce stress while traveling, and to reaffirm friendships during anxious reunions.”

In other words, they have sex a lot. And it is primarily female-driven, because their societal construct is matriarchal in nature. They even have sex with males from neighboring communities, or tribes, when they cross paths. Make love, not war. This does not sit well in our ‘modern’ patriarchal world, with all its embedded hierarchies, where loving sexual energy is extremely ‘narrowed’ and constrained and often becomes power exchange rather than honoring union. The paradigm shift required to embrace a “bonobo-like” human existence would be huge! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask ourselves the question: would life be better if we embraced our bonobo-like nature?

Here’s a quick preview of that list:
1. More sex = less conflict.
2. Feminism can be very sexy.
3. Sisterhood is powerful.
4. Jealousy isn’t romantic.
5. There’s promise in promiscuity.
6. Good sex needn’t always include an orgasm, and “casual” doesn’t mean “empty” or “cheap”.
7. Sex and food go better together than love and marriage.

You can read Christopher Ryan’s original post here, or here.

Over the next few blogs posts I will reiterate Christopher Ryan’s comments about each point, and then follow with a response as to what I think that means for us, if we, indeed, embraced the ‘Bonobo Factor’.

Read Part Two HERE