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Drives, desires, and DNA

EARLIER THIS MONTH, The Washington Post gave Page 1 billing and a great deal of inside space to a new study finding "that men everywhere -- whether single, married, or gay -- want more sexual partners than women do." The results provide the strongest evidence to date that the male desire for greater sexual variety is universal. And that in turn can be taken to suggest, as the Post put it, "that male promiscuity is hardwired -- and therefore `normal.' "

The study, by evolutionary psychologist David C. Schmitt of Bradley University, appears in the current Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It was based on a survey of more than 16,000 college students from 52 nations worldwide. Overall, more than 25 percent of the male respondents said they wanted more than one sexual partner in the next month, while only 4.4 percent of the women did. The men were also more willing to have sex with partners they hadn't known very long, while the women generally wanted to take more time to get to know their partner first.

The Post story was reprinted in other major newspapers (including The Boston Globe), as well as on quite a few websites. That is considerably more attention than most social-psychology research papers get. What made the Schmitt study so noteworthy, it would seem, is its apparent implication that men can't help their lustful urges and roaming eye: It's in their genes. As the Chicago Sun-Times summed it up in a headline, "Men born to fool around, researcher says."

This will not come as a bolt from the blue to most people. Nor is it only human males who crave sexual variety. The story is told of the time Calvin Coolidge and his wife were taken on a tour of a government farm. Mrs. Coolidge saw a rooster mounting a hen, and asked how often it did so. "Dozens of times every day," the guide told her. Replied Mrs. Coolidge: "Please tell that to the president." When the president was told about the rooster, he asked, "Same hen every time?" "Oh, no," the guide answered, "a different one every time." "I see," the president said. "Please tell that to Mrs. Coolidge."

Roosters can't help doing what comes naturally. Human beings can. It simply isn't true that men (or women) are "hard-wired" for promiscuity -- or for any other kind of behavior. Our DNA may predispose us to act in certain ways, but those instinctual drives and urges are not the end of the story. They are only the beginning. The genes propose, but other forces -- environment, society, will power -- dispose.

Sex sells, and so do the sexual theories of evolutionary psychologists. By now, it has become almost a commonplace that differences in sexual desire can be explained as evolutionary strategies. Men supposedly want more sex with different partners because in prehistoric times those who impregnated more women had a better chance of passing on their genes. For women, the better genetic bet was to find a mate who would stick around to provide for her and the children. Over time, those preferences imprinted themselves in the psychological makeup of men and women.

Interesting theory. But is it true? Did Stone Age man really improve his odds of genetic replication by trying to mate with as many Stone Age women as possible? Isn't it at least as plausible that the man who stuck around to help care for the child he had fathered might in fact have been more genetically successful, since a child raised by two parents was more likely to survive safely to adulthood than a child reared by only one?

All of which suggests that men were subject to countervailing pressures -- to move on and to stay put. And what of the woman he was engaging with, who had her own goals and preferences and strategies for achieving them? The picture seems a lot more complicated than simply men-are-promiscuous vs. women-want-to-bond. Then as now, men and women had inborn drives and desires. But then as now, men and women found that for their mutual survival and happiness, those drives and desires had to be channeled into workable patterns and arrangements. Like marriage. Family structure. Romance. Commitment.

There have always been reckless people for whom nothing matters but their own cravings. "The heart wants what it wants," Woody Allen once said, by way of excusing his inexcusable affair with the daughter of his longtime partner. But civilization depends on people being better than that -- on self-control, on keeping appetites in check, on recognizing that we cannot pursue our heart's every desire, heedless of the needs and interests of others.

And in the end, that too is natural. Our capacity to govern ourselves, to develop conditions and ceremonies for keeping our innate urges manageable, is as much a part of our "hard wiring" as the urges themselves. Unlike all other creatures, we have the ability to mold and perfect our nature, to recognize our shortcomings and to overcome them. More than anything else, it is what makes us fully human.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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