Is There A Mom Gene?

Just after a wrote a blog post on how there is a whole new level of complexity in studying how genes work, I see that the internet is lit up with news of the discovery of the mom gene. And speculation about what it means for women, reflections by writers on whether or not they have it, and so on. So … do you have the mom gene? 

Well, at this point, the only way you can determine this is if you are … a female mouse. (And even that is still subject to debate).

Yes, check out the abstract of the study here. It’s an important study. It’s a well conducted study. It’s published in a top tier journal. But it is about maternal behavior in mice.

Now, of course there is a long history of using animal models to inform our understanding of human behavior, particularly with respect to neurobiology and genetics. And this study is going to make a scientific contribution to understanding how specific genes may play a role in regulating specific and complex behaviors. But that said, how do we go from the following – “Suppression of ERα in the preoptic area almost completely abolished maternal care, significantly increasing the latency to pup retrieval and significantly reducing the time the moms spent nursing and licking the pups” (from the study’s abstract) – to making inferences about the degree to which human females are predisposed genetically to want to be a mother. As if you could run to your local geneticist and ask for a rapid genotyping so you can find out for sure if you really want to be a mother.

Look, I’m all for interesting research on genetics. I’m for understanding how genetic influences shape in part complex behaviors in humans (I’ve spent a fair number of years studying this). But can we get back to reality? We can’t find single genes for the vast majority of diseases – primarily because they involve complex (and not understood) interactions between biology and the environment. The science of genetics keeps getting more and more complex. When we talk about wanting to be a mother, think about how many social factors are involved from early childhood through adulthood (I know I’m stating the obvious, but it seems like the obvious needs stating). No complex human behavior is reducible to a single gene that functions in a “go/no go” way. Do genes play some type of role in how strongly a female wants to be a mother, or how maternal she is? I’m sure they do – in the same way that they have some influence on shyness, or aggression, or any number of traits, along with a whole bunch of social and cultural factors.

So, I can confidently state that unless you are a female mouse, we are not, at this moment in scientific time, ready to determine if you have, or don’t have, the mom gene.

Mouse mom with pups via (I guess this mouse has the mom gene)

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