Media Circus

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. But that doesn't mean we should fall in love the way they do.

Published April 9, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it wasn't exactly clear from the news reports what the studies of nerve pathways in lab rats had to do with chemical reactions in human bodies, much less that peculiarly interesting physiological happening known as the orgasm. But that didn't stop anyone in the media from trumpeting the news of the impending arrival of an orgasm pill for frustrated women. By studying lab rats, the Associated Press reported, two researchers at Rutgers had "determined that the brain can receive signals of sexual response through a pathway other than the spinal cord." Such findings, the story suggested, "could lead one day to a pill that would give the same sensation as an orgasm and also might have use in treating pain."

London's Daily Telegraph, with typical testosterone-enhanced bluster, spelled out what it took to be the study's implications. "Bleak future for men as women take pleasure with a pill," a headline in the paper blared. "After Dolly the cloned sheep made males redundant for procreation, men were dealt a further blow yesterday when scientists announced they were one step closer to a female orgasm pill," the paper's technology correspondent declared. A columnist for the men's magazine Loaded, quoted in the Telegraph, didn't see the news as all bad. "A pill like this for women will take the pressure off us," he said, freeing men to go out on the town, "leav[ing] the girls to it" at home.

In less than two shakes of a rat's tail, though, the story had vanished. It seems the reports of an "orgasm pill" were nothing more than "somebody's fantasy," as one of the researchers, Beverly Whipple, explained to the press. "Somebody took the studies we have been conducting in laboratory animals and with paralyzed women and came up with this conclusion that we had nothing to do with," she said.

The story of this non-story, though, tells us a good deal about our susceptibility to reductionist biological explanations of human behavior. Reading the news has become a lot like reading Aesop's fables: We're continually introduced to wildlife whose lives are supposed to offer some sort of blueprint for human morality and behavior.

Lately the obsession has reached a fever pitch. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report reported a biochemical basis for love. "Love began with motherhood," exclaimed the caption under a tender picture of a chimp mom holding her baby. "Nature ensures that mothers bond with their children, viewing them more as bundles of joy than as burdens," a caption underneath a similar photo of a human mother went on to explain. When mammalian moms give birth, you see, they're flooded with a chemical called oxytocin, which inspires maternal devotion and makes females eager "to please others."

The piece suggested that traditional human romance had a similar biochemical basis. The evidence? Studies on the upstanding prairie vole, "whose mating bond of lifelong monogamy would put most human couples to shame." "Nature is conservative, and this is a beautiful example of that," explained a neuroscientist, talking to the New York Times about the same research. The Times was particularly impressed by the male vole's sense of entitlement: Even if the relationship has been consummated only once, he will assault other voles, male or female, who go anywhere near his honey. "Aggression is one way of expressing attachment," one scientist helpfully explained -- a theory O.J. Simpson presumably shares.

According to the news weeklies, not just monogamy, but our standards of beauty are biologically based as well. Last year, Newsweek devoted a cover story to research showing that the physical traits animals look for in a mate all have evolutionary advantages. You can probably guess where this is going. Though the research in question drew its conclusions from studies of penguins and jungle birds, Newsweek speculated that human standards had a Darwinian logic to them: The extremely low waist-hip-ratio (large hips, small waist) men prefer in women is a sign of fertility. So why do emaciated waifs stalk the fashion runways? And why do some people have sexual desires that have nothing to do with propagating the species? The Noah's Ark approach to human sexuality doesn't help here. "Homosexuality is hard to explain as a biological adaptation," Newsweek admits. "So is stamp collecting."

Those who want to step back a moment from the earnest Darwinian struggle going on in singles bars and bedrooms will be happy to note that goofing off has been declared biologically healthy. "Play is nearly as important as food and sleep," a recent U.S. News & World Report declared, trotting out a veritable menagerie to reassure us that it's OK to enjoy ourselves. Young pronghorn antelopes, bears, chimps, rats all want to have fun. Therefore, the newsmagazine cheerily implied, it's perfectly reasonable for humans to feel the same.

But why do we need to be told that something is "natural" in order to accept it as part of our lives? Why should we look to pronghorns to justify our pleasures? What does the sex life of the prairie vole, the penguin, the Japanese scorpion fly, really tell us about our behavior on Friday night? Some female insects bite off the heads of their mates during the sex act; that doesn't mean it's any way for humans to carry on.

The appeal of nature analogies and determinist theories, clearly, is that they absolve us of any sort of social responsibility. Why fund crime prevention programs and public education, or change the power relations between men and women? None of it will make any difference. Things are the way they are for a reason. We don't have to change anything, and even if we wanted to, we couldn't. We have no more control over our sex lives than fruit flies do, no more civic obligation than the boll weevil.

Luckily, though, those of us having trouble identifying with the prairie voles may get some relief. It's too soon to say for sure, but the media may be slightly relaxing its cult-like fixation on biology as human destiny. Time magazine recently devoted almost an entire issue to infant development, highlighting new findings on the importance of upbringing to a baby's mind -- and no baby tapirs or kiwis were paraded before us to convince us that we should care for our young. Even in the midst of the sheep cloning hoo-ha, Newsweek took the time to point out that personality, achievement and identity are not entirely scripted by DNA. Some pundits even suggested there might just be some differences between people and Finn Dorset sheep. And in this week's Times Book Review, James Gorman, Times deputy science editor, hails as "illuminating" Susan Allport's "A Natural History of Parenting," which "shows ways in which people thought to find lessons for life in biology but failed miserably."

Biology may be beginning to lose its appeal as a stock explanation simply because it's coming increasingly under our control. As the Human Genome project nears completion, leaving things up to biology won't be such an easy way out anymore. We'll have to make messy political and personal decisions about biological politics, decisions that will mean actually facing our innermost conflicts and social inequalities. We hate that sort of thing. As, incidentally, does the vole.

By Liza Featherstone

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