It had to happen, sooner or later. We now find out that, according to an article by Richard A. Friedman in the New York Times, the tendency toward infidelity in some men and women is based on a genetic condition. Friedman states, “We have long known that men have a genetic, evolutionary impulse to cheat, because that increases the odds of having more of their offspring in the world. But now there is intriguing new research showing that some women, too, are biologically inclined to wander.”
There are evidently two hormones at play, vasopressin and oxytocin, that have to do with engendering feelings of trust, empathy, and sexual bonding, as well as pleasure. Genetic variations affect the ability of a person’s brain to process or respond to these hormones. The inability (or lessened ability) to respond to the hormones would affect a person’s ability to generate trust, empathy, and bonding with a mate. That could, in turn, lead to a higher rate of unfaithfulness.
Friedman raises two caution flags: “Correlation is not the same as causation; there are undoubtedly many unmeasured factors that contribute to infidelity. And rarely does a simple genetic variant determine behavior. Still, there is good reason to take these findings seriously.” He goes on to recount experiments with both mammals and humans that demonstrate the impact these hormones can have on feelings and behavior.
What does Friedman believe is the impact of these findings on our moral reasoning? “So do we get a moral pass if we happen to carry one of these ‘infidelity’ genes? Hardly. We don’t choose our genes and can’t control them (yet), but we can usually decide what we do with the emotions and impulses they help create. But it is important to acknowledge that we live our lives on a very uneven genetic playing field. … For some, there is little innate temptation to cheat; for others, sexual monogamy is an uphill battle against their own biology.”
I found this intriguing because this precise argument is used to justify changing our church’s teaching about the acceptability of same-sex behavior. If, as many people believe, same-sex attraction is somehow hard-wired into some people’s brains, we must allow that attraction to be expressed and lived out in same-sex romantic relationships, goes the argument. (I would note that genetic determination of same-sex attraction has not been established by any research.)
It would be a mistake, however, as Friedman notes, to base our moral reasoning on even well-established genetic predispositions. Otherwise, we would end up condoning infidelity and alcoholism, two examples of behavior that appears to have proven genetic roots. As our scientific understanding advances, we could find ourselves upending all sorts of Christian ethical teaching on the basis of genetic tendencies that are uncovered.
If genetic predispositions toward unhealthy or sinful behavior are discovered, I would tend to classify them as part of the consequences of the Fall. In the words of our Confession of Faith, “We believe [humanity] is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil” (Article VII). This describes what we call “Original Sin.” Whether the inclination toward evil is due to a spiritual condition or is genetically influenced (or both) in the end doesn’t matter. We all need the grace of Jesus Christ to overcome our tendencies to do all kinds of evil.
Some maintain that the church ought to accept and affirm gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons because “God made me that way.” But I do not believe God made any person to live a life of sin, whether it be same-sex attraction, infidelity, greed, anger, or any other condition. If there are biological or genetic factors involved in any of these conditions, they are due to the corruption of human nature, not the original intention of God.
As Friedman points out, we are not playing on a level genetic playing field. Many people have genetic and environmental advantages and disadvantages, from physical appearance to parental nurturing to the presence of birth defects or handicapping conditions to a tendency toward same-sex attraction or problems with anger. In some area of life, we all are perhaps “fighting an uphill battle” against the inborn or nurtured disadvantages that hinder our Christian faithfulness.
That is why we are so heavily dependent upon “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Without his help, it is impossible for us to realize the full human potential that God created us to have, or to be reconciled to our loving Father in the midst of our own sins and inadequacies.
No matter where the fault lies – in our genes or in our upbringing or in our own rebelliousness – the answer is always the same: God’s grace through Jesus Christ can heal and forgive us, restore and reconcile us to himself, and empower us to live as the fully human person God created us to be. Let’s stop using “genes” as an excuse to keep us from being all that we can be in Christ.