Of Rats and Men
By Linda Avey ©1994
Ladies, are you in a good mood? If not, skip this article and save it for later. It seems that recent brain research supports the hypothesis that men are genetically predisposed to philandering. That’s right. They say they have a “built-in” excuse to cheat.
It goes like this: His brain is different from ours. (That much we knew.) On average, males outscore females on tests of spatial reasoning. Females, reciprocally, outscore males on linguistic ability, which means we know better than to say things like, “He threw himself at me. I couldn’t help myself.”
Now here’s where the rats come in. Real rats. The furry kind–uh, make that the four-legged kind with tails. Male rats consistently outperform female rats in mazes. Anthropologist Steve Gaulin hypothesized that male rats have superior spatial reasoning ability, allowing them to roam around and find multiple mates during breeding season and, presumably, find their way back home afterwards. (There is no mention as to whether they have their tails between their legs or not.) Female rats, on the other hand, tend to hang around home base and wait for the males to show up. The males, unfortunately, are often late because when they do happen to get lost, they refuse to stop and ask for directions.
Gaulin wanted to test his theory about philandering rats, so he chose two closely related species of rodents–meadow voles and pine voles. Male meadow voles are known for their philandering. During breeding season, they typically roam four-to-five times the distance covered by the female of their species. Pine voles, on the other hand, are monogamous. Male and female pine voles stay at home together during the peak of breeding season–in spite of the fact that there’s nothing but reruns on TV at this time of year.
Dr. Gaulin found what he was looking for: The male meadow voles (philanderers) learned the mazes much faster than their female counterparts, indicating better spatial reasoning ability in the males than in the females. The monogamous male and female pine voles, however, each did a mediocre job in the mazes, about the same as the female meadow voles, indicating similar spatial reasoning ability.
A colleague of Gaulin’s, animal behaviorist Lucia Jacobs, was curious to see whether anatomical differences in the voles might account for their variant behavior. Jacobs found that the brain structure called the hippocampus was 11 percent bigger in male meadow voles than in females of that species. But no corresponding gender difference occurred in the monogamous rodents, the pine voles. Tsk Tsk.
None of these researchers is saying that having a better sense of direction compels a guy to travel. And some self-respecting men resent being compared to rats. But still, if we’re going to place the blame for philandering on an organ, at least now we know where to point the finger.