The Null Device

The evolutionary origins of romance

Evolutionary biologist Carl Zimmer looks at evidence suggesting that romantic love is a biological adaptation, and is not unique to humans; a far cry from the blank-slater hypothesis that romantic love is a cultural construct invented by mediæval troubadors and/or Mills & Boon, and before that everything was unromantically practical arranged marriages and dynastic property transactions:
There are reasons to conclude that romance as well was shaped by the unsentimental hand of evolution. We humans don't have a monopoly on oxytocin and other molecules linked to feeling in love. Love may switch on reward pathways in our brains, but other animals have similar--if simpler--reward pathways too.
In her experiments, Haselton finds evidence for love as an adaptation. She and her colleagues have people think about how much they love someone and then try to suppress thoughts of other attractive people. They then have the same people think about how much they sexually desire those same partners and then try again to suppress thoughts about others. It turns out that love does a much better job of pushing out those rivals than sex does. Haselton argues that this effect is exactly what you'd expect if sex was a drive to reproduce and love was a drive to form a long-term commitment.

There are 6 comments on "The evolutionary origins of romance":

Posted by: Greg Mon Feb 4 08:07:33 2008

I've been reading the 2007 Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. As you'd expect, it has a whole section on "mating, reprocution and life history". A chapter by Panksepp covers the neurochemistry of love - oxytocin and all that. Gangestad's chapter, in the context of reproductive strategies, refers to another author's speculation that love evolved as "an honest signal of intent ... it couldn't pay someone to take on its costs if they were only in the relationship for the very short term". This is a step beyond Zimmerman IMO as it introduces within-pair strategy. It's a great (big) book btw.

Posted by: Greg Mon Feb 4 08:08:19 2008

pardon my typos

Posted by: acb Mon Feb 4 10:17:20 2008

By "love", you mean the OCD-like state that occurs in bonding, right? So that's sort of like a peacock tail to prove investment?

Posted by: Greg Mon Feb 4 23:38:00 2008

I don't think the peacock tail is a good analogy. The tail is a signal of good genes. In pair-bonding species, animals considering mating are also looking for a sign of the potential mate's honest intention to resource the children rather than abandon them to mate with someone else. It's hard to read minds or tell the future, so this is a major risk with major repercussions. Anything one can do to ascertain the other's future movements is used. Some scientists believe "love" evolved as an honest signal because it's costly and hard to fake. The "arms race" that would result from this is obvious.

Posted by: acb Tue Feb 5 01:01:17 2008

There are similarities to the peacock's tail; in each case, it's a phenomenon which is, in itself, expensive and counterproductive to the individual but serves a signalling role.

Posted by: Greg Tue Feb 5 05:48:04 2008

Sorry, yes, they are similar. I was focusing on the (relatively small) difference - whether they signal good genes or good parent - under the influence of being mid-stream through that book. Members of species in which both parents raise the young want their mate to offer both good genes and good parenting. But potential mates may offer only one of these features. So mate-seekers may treat the features differently in their strategies One of the authors calls this differentiation "Dad or Cad".

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