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Sex, Drugs and Stupidity

By Annalee Newitz

BY NOW, you've probably heard about the whole slutty-vole controversy. Meadow voles are furry little rodents who, like most creatures in the animal kingdom, are not sexually monogamous. But several researchers at Emory University decided it would be a good idea to change all that with gene therapy. After lengthy study, the Emory crew discovered that the hapless meadow voles lacked a receptor for the hormone vasopressin, which their monogamous cousins, prairie voles, possessed.

One wonders what the hell these researchers were thinking about when they decided to whip up some virus shells full of genes that would build those receptors and inject them into the poor meadow voles' brains. What exactly are the possible applications for this kind of gene therapy? A more constant meadow vole? I don't think so.

This experiment, like all such experiments related to the sexual predilections of animals, has as its implicit goal the unraveling of a human mystery: Why do some humans want to have sex with only one person at a time, while others prefer more? If these neuroscientists could prove that nonmonogamy might be eradicated with a little extra vasopressin uptake in the brain, it's undeniable that they've happened upon a huge drug market waiting to happen.

People who value sexual faithfulness more than the integrity of their brains might insist on gene therapy for their future spouses. Perhaps parents who feel that monogamy is the "right" way to live could get their kids' brains altered right off the bat. What's scary is that the experiments worked. The altered meadow voles exhibited what the scientists defined as "monogamous behavior," which is to say that they chose to mate with a vole they'd mated with before even though another hot little meadow vole was waiting for them in the cage next door.

Although most of the scientists who worked on the experiment have been careful to tell the press that their discoveries have no bearing on human behavior, most humans seem to think that they do. Already I'm finding myself reading articles with headlines asking, "Are swingers slaves to genes?" and "Should men get gene therapy?" Meanwhile, in England, a government health adviser appropriately named David Nutt is promoting the idea that children in the U.K. should be immunized against drug addiction. Apparently, the Scripps Research Institute and a British biotech company called Xenova are already working on vaccines against cocaine addiction.

Actually, what the "vaccines" would do is block the pleasure receptors in the brain that respond to the happy-joy feelings created by favored drugs like cocaine and heroin. Of course, these are the very same pleasure receptors that allow you to feel good when you pass a test, fall in love or eat sugary desserts. So if we play our cards right, we can have a whole generation of monogamous kids who don't feel pleasure. I'm looking forward to that future, aren't you? After all, think of the trouble we'd avoid—never another broken heart, never another drug addict. Oh, but wait—we'd still get addicted to alcohol, which is the drug that kills the most people every year. People would still fall (monogamously) in love with other people who didn't love them back. Luckily, with gene therapy, they'd never fall in love with anybody else again. And they wouldn't be able to get any pleasure out of drowning their sorrows in drugs.

Sounds great! If a world of pleasureless, monogamous brains doesn't seem so bad, how about a world without political parody? Imagine: you can't do drugs, you can't fool around with new hotties and you can't even make fun of the United States without being slapped with a lawsuit. That's exactly what web animation studio Jib Jab discovered when they released a short music video featuring cartoon versions of George W. Bush and John Kerry calling each other names, all to the tune of mid-20th-century hell raiser Woody Guthrie's song "This Land Is Your Land."

Soon after releasing the video on the web at www.jibjab.com (it's still there), Jib Jab received a nasty legal threat from Ludlow Music, the company that owns the copyright on Guthrie's famous protest song. They ordered the hapless parodists to cease and desist disseminating their song or Ludlow would slap them with a big hairy lawsuit. What's particularly amusing about Ludlow's wrath over the alleged infringement of their copyright—leaving aside the fact that parodies qualify as fair use—is that Guthrie lifted the tune for "This Land" from a 1930 song by the Carter Family called "When the World's on Fire" (you can hear it at www.eff.org/IP/CarterWhen.mp3). So the copyright itself is suspect, since it's for an infringing work.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is going to heaven when the world's on fire.

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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