Being that it’s Valentine’s Day and all, I came across an article in the Guardian by five experts on the topic of love, well, on love and modern romance. By and large I found the takes to be a bit lame, which is to say that they more-or-less fall back on romantic cliches. The nature of romance and sexuality is changing so fast, culturally, that there’s no need to be trite or traditional. The reality, of course, is that around Valentine’s Day, it’s the articles that reinforce our feel-good biases about romance that get shared around and hence get the most hits and hence generate buzz — and hence generate revenue. Even so, as I scanned through the Guardian article, a few comments caught my eye, comments from a biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, aka “the love doctor.”
Speaking of love, Fisher says: “I’ve found that it’s not an emotion – although a lot of emotions are involved. It’s actually a drive – a basic mating drive that evolved millions of years ago.”
That’s fairly par for the course, so far as evolutionary biology is concerned. It’s something I’ve heard before, but even so, I tend to fall back on the old belief that love is an emotion rather than a drive. Maybe I do this because it’s the prevailing cultural belief, or maybe I tend to view love as an emotion because of all of the intense feelings it produces. Or yet again, maybe it’s just not sexy or all that interesting to think about my love life in terms of evolutionary biology.
Speaking of evolutionary biology, here’s more un-sexy stuff on love from Helen Fisher:
One of the main factories that generate feelings of romantic love lies at the base of the brain, near regions that orchestrate thirst and hunger. We are a species that forms pair bonds, we team up to rear our young. Our basic human reproductive strategy is serial pair bonding, with some clandestine adultery on the side. We also have a big cerebral cortex with which we accept and follow social rules, and many of us fall in love and stay together long-term.
Interesting, eh? Indeed. I would, however, take issue with what she says here: Our basic human reproductive strategy is serial pair bonding, with some clandestine adultery on the side.
It’s not that “the love doctor” is wrong. Seen from the perspective of a culture where monogamy is the norm, then, yes, we bond in pairs with some clandestine adultery on the side. But what if monogamy isn’t the only way? What if the reason that we engage in “clandestine adultery” is because monogamy isn’t actually the ideal arrangement for every human being?
Though I am in no way an expert on love, I have read that anthropologists speculate that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were a bit more independent and a bit less monogamistic than we are today. People had multiple sexual partners, had fewer children, enjoyed more free time, and generally seemed to be more physically healthy. Children were raised more by the tribe than by an immediate family unit.
A Garden of Eden? Hard to say, for sure, because much of this is speculative. We don’t have a lot to work with, by way of evidence. Even so, the evidence that is available points in this direction, at least for now.
So could non-monogamous relationships be more…healthy? Possibly. There’s a growing movement of folks exploring the possibility, connecting with each other via the world wide websticles.
And, in fact, the love doctor does get around to this:
But there are many new relationship patterns emerging, polyamory being one, largely among young people who are not ready to settle down. They want to maintain a long-term partnership but also have romances on the side. And they want to be honest and transparent about it. Many people, particularly in the west, seem to be addicted to the initial feeling of falling in love.
Damn. She was so close.
Why is it that in mentioning the bare bones basics of polyamory, the love doctor immediately begins to wag the finger, shifting dramatically to a declaration about people being “addicted to the initial feeling of falling in love.”
We are a nation of addicts, no doubt, but at this point in time, the people who are questioning monogamy are doing so from a very thoughtful point of view. Sex and love addicts act compulsively. Non-monogamous folk tend to base their behavior on their values and ideology. It’s a touch more philosophical than it is philanderous.
My best guess on all this is that what we call “love” is largely the result of what we believe about love. I mean, yes, I do agree with the basics of evolutionary biology: that at it’s core, love is a basic mating drive. But it’s more than this, because this basic mating drive also gets tangled with a good deal of other emotions and life experiences.
What we call love is a jumble of personal stuff, and it’s probably greater than the sum of its parts. How we make sense of all of the complicated and conflicting emotions and drives probably has to do with what we decide, with what we believe about love.
For some, love is about finding “the one,” that soul mate with whom one shares a life-time, for better or worse, to death do we part, etc. For others love is far more superficial, a series of good times. Yet others might experience love as a concept that evolves and changes over time.
My perspectives have certainly shifted over time. My concepts of love have shifted based on life, based on how my experiences have expanded and deepened my understanding. Yet these new ideas about love then inform and change the nature of my experience, itself. Rinse and repeat. It’s sort of a cyclical thing. Or maybe that’s just me.
Whatever you may think about love, I say to you Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day.