Why Do Voles Fall in Love? Interview with Feminist Science Studies Scholar Angela Willey
|Dr. Angela Willey
In May I attended a great conference, the 4th biennial conference of the Association for Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies (FEMMSS). At the conference, I heard a wonderful plenary talk by Dr. Angela Willey and her colleagues. Dr. Willey is one of our own – a recent (2010) graduate of Emory’s doctoral program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In her work, she examines the cultural assumptions underpinning contemporary neuroscience research on monogamy and the social implications of this research. At the conference, I asked Dr. Willey if she would agree to be interviewed about her work for the Neuroethics Blog, and she graciously agreed. Before sharing what she said, I am just going to give you a little background about Dr. Willey and about the neuroscience research on monogamy that she analyzes.
|Vole (Image from Howlsthunder)
Here I am just going to give a quick and simplified overview of the work taking place at Dr. Young’s lab. The lab has worked with two species of voles, one of which is “socially monogamous” (they form long-term male-female bonds) while the other is “socially promiscuous” (males and females separate after mating). The lab has offered a causal genetic and neurological explanation for this difference: in male voles, for example, the lab has found a difference between the socially monogamous species and the socially promiscuous species in an area of the genome responsible for regulating the expression of vasopression receptors. According to the theory, this difference in the genome produces a different pattern of vasopression receptors in the brains of the monogamous males compared to the promiscuous males, which, in turn, leads to a differential behavioral response to the release of vasopression that occurs during sexual activity – specifically, the formation of long-term pair bonds in the monogamous males but not in the promiscuous males (Young 2009; Young and Wang 2004; Lim et al 2004)
|Oxytocin (Image adapted from SirLyric)
If we were to say something like, “the administration of oxytocin often seems to make voles more likely to want to spend time in closer proximity to a familiar animal than one they just met”, we might extrapolate that administration of oxytocin might – at least sometimes – encourage individuals with low interest in interacting with family members (often parents) to prefer their company (at least physical proximity) to that of strangers. This articulates a link without relying on the naturalization of monogamy.
|Clifton Road separates the main Emory campus from
the Emory Hospital and the Yerkes Primate Research Center,
where Young’s lab is located (Photo by Daniel Castro)
Initially I was just interested in the popular discourse, but as I became increasingly interested in the scientific claims being represented there, I contacted Young and asked to meet with him. From our first contact, where I explained that I was trying to understand the lab’s publications (as a non-scientist) and how their claims were represented in the press and taken up in clinical treatment trials, he was friendly and helpful. I asked lots of questions every time I met with Young or the graduate students who agreed to talk with me. Everyone greeted my questions in a spirit of intellectual rigor and I think genuine interest in the possibility for radically interdisciplinary communication. I say radically interdisciplinary because neuroscience and women’s studies are of course both already interdisciplines, but there aren’t a lot of models for talking between them, as you know. But this was a moment filled with excitement about the possibilities of talking across the parts of campuses so often separated by disciplinary and even architectural constraints (like a busy street, or, as at UMass, a pond). I gave a power point presentation in the lab on “Monogamy in the Humanities” in order to introduce my research agenda and it generated a lot of really interesting discussion.
|Another photo of Donna Haraway, just because we
love her here at the Neuroethics Blog
(photo by Rusten Hogness)
I’m still ultimately interested in historicizing the couple and in forms of social belonging that exceed the nuclear, privatized family. My book project uses feminist science studies to try to move beyond a reductive nature/culture debate about coupling. Many of us across disciplines are trying to think “natureculturally” – to borrow Donna Haraway’s phrasing – about what we are and might be and I see my research as part of that conversation as well. In addition to the book, I’m working on a project of articulating feminist genealogies for the kind of thinking about materiality, contingency, and embodiment that has emerged in neurofeminisms.
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Gupta, K. (2012). Why Do Voles Fall in Love? Interview with Feminist Science Studies Scholar Angela Willey. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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