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Altruism and HealthPerspectives from Empirical Research$
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Stephen G. Post

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780195182910

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195182910.001.0001

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Monogamy, Motherhood, and Health

Monogamy, Motherhood, and Health

(p.371) 20 Monogamy, Motherhood, and Health
Altruism and Health

C. Sue Carter

Oxford University Press

This chapter discusses recent research with prairie voles, rodents that live in a state of social monogamy similar to that of human beings. Knowledge of the relatively simple brains and neurohormonal processes of these animals helps to explain the origins of the human tendency to form strong, long-lasting social bonds and the emotions that accompany them. The chapter uses the term ‘social monogamy’ to distinguish the concept from that of sexual fidelity, which genetic testing has revealed to be exceedingly rare even in the apparently devoted prairie vole. Social monogamy refers to a way of living that promotes (but does not guarantee) sexual fidelity, shared parental care, and the reinforcement of social and emotional bonds. The chapter's research with prairie voles has identified two hormones — oxytocin and vasopressin — that appear to form the neural underpinnings of the social monogamy system. Interestingly, the physiological and emotional processes involved in social bonding and parental care are very similar to those that ensure wellness and survival (both hormones are important to healthy responses to stress and general coping). Increased knowledge of the ‘social nervous system’ of prairie voles will help us to understand why social support is so critical to human health and longevity. It may also explain why love and benevolence, which she sees as emotional reinforcements of social bonding, have healing powers.

Keywords:   prairie voles, social monogamy, fidelity, social bonds, social support, social bonding

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