Is There An Infidelity Gene?

Researchers have shown that the tendency to cheat on a mate is hereditary among a bird species, and probe what role genetics play in human cheating as well?


Don't expect defense lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or divorce lawyers for Arnold Schwarzenegger) to use it as evidence to explain their client's marital infidelities. Still, there's no questioning the relevance these days to a new study that finds the genetic make-up of an individual -- male or female -- may help explain a tendency to adopt sexually unfaithful behavior.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute For Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, have found evidence of genetic-driven infidelity among zebra finch birds. And in their findings, published this week in the prestigious PNAS scientific journal, the researchers do not hesitate to draw similar conclusions with human beings.

Of course, there are many other socio-cultural factors that more or less condition the sexual behavior of homo sapiens: religious rules, social taboos, chance encounters. But there is nothing precluding the possibility of a genetic influence as well. Conducting similar studies on humans in order to verify such findings is nearly impossible, and very difficult for other mammals -- just 10% of all species are monogamous.

Researcher Wolfgang Forstmeier and his colleagues focused their study on zebra finches, a bird species known to be faithful to their partners, but also with a noted ability to breed easily. And they focused on the behavior of females more than of males.

It is recognized that, from an evolutionary perspective, the goal of an individual's life is "to maximize one's genetic patrimony," says the Swiss primatologist Jörg Hess. In practice, this means that the male member of a species will attempt to mate with as many females as possible in order to produce a maximum number of descendants. Females don't have that same incentive.

Why do females take the risk?

"There is much research focused on understanding why certain females, even though they have already mated with a male, would still risk mating with another male," says Forstmeier. "This promiscuity has no clear advantage for them, and in fact could come at a great cost (transmission of diseases, the male partner no longer caring for the offspring)."

In order to see things more clearly, the biologists used 1,500 finches of five consecutive generations. They placed in cages several finches, male and female, whose father was known to be very or somewhat unfaithful. With a video camera, they observed the finches mating. Above all else, they managed to quantify, over several generations, the propensity of each finch to engage in "extramarital" relations.

The result? "We discovered that infidelity is correlated between males and females, in other words, that the sister of an unfaithful male is more likely to have a penchant for infidelity as well. In effect, the two birds share the same genetic, inherited predisposition of their fickle ancestors."

The researcher admits that "even among birds, the attitude of the female does not entirely depend on her genetic make-up, but probably for at least half. Even so, the correlation is big enough to be significant. That would explain why, even if she does not garner any direct benefits, the female still leans ‘to the left," as her genes ‘prompt" her to do so."

For Laurent Keller, a biologist at the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Lausanne, "these results are not surprising, as all personality traits are defined, at least in part, by one's genetic make-up. Furthermore, when the environmental conditions are similar for all of the individuals of several generations, as was the case for these birds raised in captivity, the inheritability of a trait becomes stronger than in the wild." Keller says that better conclusions will be possible once these results are compared with similar data gathered from birds taken at random from nature.

What also remains to be explained is how exactly genes "push" an individual into having an extramarital affair. "It is nearly impossible," says Forstmeier, "because of an infinite complexity of interactions at various levels of a personality (exclusive social ties, sexual motivation, acceptance of risk)."

Other researchers, however, have attempted to do just that. In 2008, Hasse Walum of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden screened 900 men who had been in a relationship for five years for vasopressine, a hormone tied to social behavior. Those who had a mutated form of the gene had rockier relationships, and were less attached to their partner.

This study is itself based on even more remarkable work conducted in 2004. Larry Young of Emory University in Atlanta used two species of vole (a small rodent), the prairie vole (microtus ochrogaster), social and monogamous, and the meadow vole (microtus pennsylvanicus), asocial but polygamous. He noticed a difference in their brains. In the monogamous rodent, vasopressine receptors were situated in the same area as dopamine, the pleasure hormone secreted during sexual intercourse. Among the meadow vole, aka "mustachioed Don Juan," the two receptors were far from each other, so much that the vole establishes no relation between its pleasure and a particular individual.

Read the original article in French

photo - robad0b

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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