Biology is NOT destiny

Biology influences our decisions to cheat, but doesn't compel them.

Posted Sep 19, 2010

Our fear of biology can be paralyzing.

I've been concerned of late, when several people have written me, or approached me in my practice, feeling that biological processes have already determined the fate of their relationships. My concern peaks when these folks tell me that my writing has increased their worry.

Much of my writing addresses the underlying biological processes that run in the background of things like infidelity, mate selection, and sexual relationships. I like to explain these things, with the goal of normalizing them for people. I have seen people in so much pain, over feelings like jealousy, over the decline of their sexual relationship, etc., that I believe it helps, takes the pressure off so to speak, for them to understand that some of this is just biology, working the way it does.

But, apparently these arguments are perhaps too successful, because people approach me now, concerned that these biological indicators are actually the death knell for their relationships. One man wrote me, saying that his wife showed all the signs I wrote about, and that it must be inevitable that she would be unfaithful. After all, who can stop biology?

Freud wrote that "Biology is destiny," in describing how he believed women MUST be, and how their behaviors and personalities are compelled by the female biology. Today, we know much about the different biological processes involved in gender differences and behaviors. But, we know even more about the complex, unpredictable role of the interplay between environment and biology. In fact, we know enough now, that we are almost back to square one, unable to predict anything with certainty. I once asked a famous evolutionary researcher if he had ever examined his own testosterone levels, or measured the symmetry of his own face. "No," he said, "The value of these data is not meaningful at the individual level. It only has predictive ability at the statistical level, when you predict trends across large numbers of subjects."

I'm toying with the idea of putting together an "infidelity prediction list," including things like, "Does you partner smell sexy to you?" "Is your ring finger longer than your index finger?," "How big are your testicles?" "Is your face symmetrical?" etc., all things that are biological indicators, correlating with the risk of infidelity. But the thing is, we know, even if you end up with every one of these markers, it doesn't govern your behavior. Biology may subtly influence your choices, particularly if you go through life on automatic pilot. But, if you are aware, and conscious, making thoughtful, considered decisions, it is you in charge of your life. Not your cells, genes or gonads.

Our brains allow us the blessing of overcoming biology.

Biological influences on our behavior dispose us towards certain decisions or behavior, in the short-term. The blessing of being human though, is that we can make long-term decisions, and override those biological compulsions. Yes, biology and our gonads may drive us to mate with this person, now, instead of our husband or wife later. But, the ability to make long-term decisions, and to consider the lifelong impact of these different options, allows us to make decisions based upon will, ethics, love, compassion and respect. These are things not covered in biology. At least, not yet. Hopefully not ever. They reside in the existential ability we have, to make our own decisions. To decide our own fate. At least, we have this ability, when we decide to exercise it.

So - afraid that the influences of biology on sexual behavior is compelling you or a loved one towards decisions and outcomes you fear? Worried that biology has doomed you to infidelity, or a failed relationship? Then sit down, and do some examination of yourself, and with those you love. Make some hard decisions, comparing what you want in the short-term, and the long-term. Biology is on the side of the short-term payoff, almost every time. But, the power of the human brain lies in the ability to step beyond biology, and look at long-term consequences, before they happen. Exercise it, or you are indeed doomed to a life ruled by biological predestination.

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