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Dr. Angie Willey, University of Massachusetts Amherst – Biology and Pair Bonding

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Angie Willey of the University of Massachusetts Amherst discusses the assumptions behind current interpretations of how biology influences monogamy and pair bonding. 

Angela Willey is Assistant Professor of Feminist Science Studies, jointly appointed in Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College, the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College, and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Her research examines the historical and cultural reproduction of the ideal of monogamy as well as resistance to the normalization of coupled forms of social belonging.  She is working on her first book, Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology.

Dr. Angie Willey – Biology and Pair Bonding

The story of pair bonding goes that attraction keeps us on the lookout and when we find a suitable mate, we fall in love. We then form attachments to our lovers to keep us together for long enough to get our offspring through dependence.  This story provides an evolutionary rationale for the ideal of the couple.  
In this story of what I call heterosexual, companionate, aspirationally lifelong monogamy, female attachment to sexual partners is largely taken for granted, while male attachment is an evolutionary mystery to be solved. 

Laboratory research on voles purports to explain this mystery by looking at the role different hormones (and the distribution of their receptors) play in processes of pair-bonding for males and females.  The trouble is, like so much gene-brain-behavior research, the vole research begins from assumptions of difference, rather than testing them. 

My fieldwork in one such laboratory suggests that this research also begins from assumptions about the importance of “mating” – sex – in pair bond formations.  My research suggests that what makes a bond between lovers different from other attachments isn’t our biology.  What implications might it have for our conceptions of human nature to question the distinction between bonds of coupledom and, for example, friendship?  How might it change our views on marriage, parenting, and what makes a good life to think of coupling as but one expression of a biological disposition toward interdependence?  Among other things, understanding this might help us to challenge the pathologization and devaluation of modes of belonging that decenter the couple – like single parenthood, extended family networks, and the often communal lives of those cognitively or otherwise indisposed to participate in coupling.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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