Richard G. Petty, MD

A Gene for Infidelity?

Last January I wrote about the link between creativity and promiscuity.

I’ve just picked up this month’s copy of the Mensa Magazine, published by British Mensa  and there’s an interesting article by Dr. Desmond Morris entitled “Why brilliant men betray their wives.” Desmond is a national institution in Britain. A zoologist, ethnologist and surrealist painter, he always used to be on television and gained considerable notoriety for his book The Naked Ape that tried to explain human behavior by analogy with apes.

In his latest article Desmond follows some of the same reasoning that I did in my article: many intensely creative people also enjoy risk taking. He just talks about males, but I think that the same principles apply equally to many intensely creative and successful women, who also enjoy taking extreme risks.

Every act of creation demands that we see, feel or think differently about something. Desmond says that every piece of innovation or creativity is an act of rebellion. I only half agree with that: the truly creative person is busily establishing a new level of order. The creative rebel is a stereotype that’s not born out by experimental work on genius and creativity. The creative or innovative act is one of making new connections and in a sense it is also a moment of risk-taking, for the new technique, formula or invention may fail. We recently discussed the way in which resilience is a key to creativity: to keep going in the face of failure or adversity. Even the most highly creative are not every single day: I have known many Nobel Prize winners and award winning artists, and they all have their off days.

Desmond’s article highlights the multiple extra-marital affairs of Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin and Bertrand Russell.

He argues that it is the innate compulsion to take risks that leads both to creative brilliance and an inability to remain with just one partner. He pursues the idea that our distant hunting ancestors required a new personality trait: bravery. The successful needed to take risks and be courageous. Desmond then again excludes women from his equation, saying that their reproductive contributions to the tribe made them too important to risk on the hunt. He now fast-forwards to the present, saying that the offspring of the adventurous males could either engage in physical risk-taking or explore new ideas. And that their curiosity leads them to explore not just ideas but novel sexual experiences. Once a “conquest” has been made, the risk-taking adventurer moves on to a new target.

It is certainly true that men are far more likely to die in accidents than are women, but it’s a bit of a stretch to attribute all of that to risk-taking. What about the male difficulties with multi-tasking and to resist peer pressure, to say nothing of much higher rates of substance abuse?

And yes, fame, power and wealth can be powerful aphrodisiacs. But to reduce immoral, dangerous and disrespectful behavior to a risk-taking gene from our distant ancestors seems to me to a wild extrapolation based on a very selective use of a small amount of information.

Because infidelity surely has many more strands to it that just a genetic “itch.” Many highly successful people are enormously narcissistic and so fail to take into account the damage that their infidelity might do to their spouse and children.

Seeing sex as no more than a branch of gymnastics is also off the mark. Even a casual encounter will likely contain emotional, subtle and even spiritual components. If a relationship is failing because those are all missing, it is no surprise if a spouse investigates divorce and other options. But that is not risk taking: it is fulfilling a need that is not being met by the current partner.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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