Why a foolish instinct?

By Razib Khan | April 9, 2013 10:29 pm

I remember the specific moment when I was 13 that I became aware of the 1950s hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. I’m rather sure I heard it before, but it didn’t penetrate my consciousness. But as we all know puberty changes things, and the idea of love becomes more comprehensible. As I’ve grown older I’ve also started to ponder the lyrics a bit more. Not out of any sense of sensitivity toward music criticism, but because of the evolutionary implications. Here are some relevant sections:

Why do fools fall in love?
Why do birds sing so gay?
And lovers await the break of day
Why do they fall in love?

Love is a losing game
Love can a be shame
I know of a fool

And lovers await the break of day?

Why does my heart skip a crazy beat?
Before I know it will reach defeat!

 

A few quick points about these selections of the lyrics. They allude to the possibility of love among birds. This is appropriate because birds are notionally monogamous. Though the anthropomorphizing is probably not for the best, there is a real analogy with the pair bond; the behavior of lovers has analogs in the wider world. It’s not just a human creation. Second, the reference to the skipping of one’s heart beat points to the physiological reality of how love manifests itself. Love and infatuation aren’t abstract concepts, they’re made real by the fact that they change your own internal equilibrium. Third, love is often unrequited. The physiological responses in this case are not very appealing, and likely they put one in a vulnerable situation, increasing stress and reducing fitness.

So the question then comes back to why? And this is an evolutionary question. In some domains of biology one focuses on proximate function and mechanism, but in evolutionary biology it is important to consider the contextual whole, and evaluate the trait’s function and utility over time. If romantic love is so often miserable, then it must pay in some fashion, no?

One possibility is that it is a necessary side effect of other important traits and functions. For example, romantic love could be modeled as a secondary derivative of the love that mammals feel toward their offspring. Or more precisely, the capacity for love that one exhibits toward the offspring one is born with becomes co-opted by other relationships. And then there is the idea of love as an invention of a particular culture. This seems ridiculous, but I have read before that romantic love was invented by the Arab or Provencal poets of the High Middle Ages! In a straightforward sense this seems false on the face of it. The tensions which arise due to romantic love seem to figure in the myths of all people. Love is primal, a genuine human universal, and the constraint of love is a cultural invention, not love itself. In cultures where marital bonds are controlled by the family love is bad only insofar as it conflicts and interferes with other socially valued interests. The banishment of love is a necessary evil (contrast this with homosexuality, which is labeled ‘unnatural,’ not just inconvenient).

The evolutionary biology and neuroscience of love has been addressed in several books. Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind, and Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. My mild frustration is that more scholars haven’t taken up the project of constructing a scientific study of the question of love. Though I am generally skeptical of most strict genetically determinist “hard-wired” arguments, in the case of love I believe that this capacity is lacking only in those with pathology (I hope as whole genome sequencing to high coverage comes online we’ll see that sociopathic tendencies aren’t low frequency morphs, but the tail of the mutational load distribution).

When reading Nature’s Oracle I was struck by the author’s descriptions of W. D. Hamilton’s darker conclusions derived from evolutionary biology, in particular the tendency toward faction and inter-group conflict. And yet though I’m no acolyte of Rousseau there is hope, because the germ of human goodness is also in our natures. It’s cliche (and correct) to say that it’s not about nature vs. nurture, but nature and nature. But it’s also true that nurture can cultivate aspects of our nature. With eyes wide open perhaps we can allow for the flourishing of what is right, good, and true in the world.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
  • ohwilleke

    “My mild frustration is that more scholars haven’t taken up the project of constructing a scientific study of the question of love.”
    My recollection is that this took up very large shares of my textbooks in anthropology, culturally history, social psychology, psychology, and sociology, that it is heavily studied by zoologists (and botanists, if you can call that love), that economists and legal scholars have something to say on the subject, and as you note that neuroscientists and geneticists also get into the act (and this, of course, entirely neglects art history, music history, and literature). The press release journalism of Science Daily offers multiple stories every week on the topic. I am quite sure that the scientific study of the question of love has string theory beat when it comes to publication volume.

    The problem is not an absence of scholars taking up the task, it is an absence of scholars coming up with compelling hypotheses backed by enough evidence to become useful consensus views.

  • marcel proust

    Or more precisely, the capacity for love that one exhibits toward the offspring one is born with becomes co-opted by other relationships.

    And then, of course, there is the question of why is it that the capacities one is born with don’t last? Once upon a time I had a decent attention span, one that lasted more than a half-second or two. I had to read this sentence several times before it made sense, because as I read it, I overlooked/forgot its first half so kept on thinking that “one is born with” modified “offspring”, and thought “Not in any mammals that I know about.”

    particular the tendency toward faction and inter-group conflict. And yet though I’m no acolyte of Rousseau there is hope, because the germ of human goodness is also in our natures.

    I don’t have a copy ready at hand, but there is a passage in Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir (maybe 2) where he compares baboons and chimpanzees, the 2 species (in this view) being similar except that baboons, lacking a well developed prefrontal cortex, tend to squabble within the troop while chimps engage in border patrols and attacking neighboring troops. This led 1 colleague of his to suggest despairingly (and not entirely seriously), that humans are naturally inclined toward either homicide or war

  • JonFrum

    Someone has a W.D. Hamilton obsession. ;-)

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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