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Romantic love? Taking out the trash on evolutionary psychology

Helen, approx 450bc/ Campana Collection, 1861

Sal Cordova quotes this summary of a pop news mag’s evo psych claims about romance:

Romantic love is the latest subject for evolutionary speculations. According to a recent review, love is nothing more than our ‘ancestors’, on the ‘plains of Africa 4 million years ago’ who are ‘whispering in our ears’.

We have allegedly inherited the predisposition for such love behaviour as gazing deeply into another’s eyes because such strategies helped our ancestors to survive. When humans first began walking upright, say evolutionists, it made the whole person visible ‘for the first time’ and so each person had ‘a unique allure’.

The ‘four-year itch’—the tendency for couples to divorce after the first flames die out—is blamed on the fact that primitive pairs stayed together ‘just long enough to rear one child through infancy’.

The same article blames adultery on inheritance from our ‘primitive ancestors’.

TIME, 15 February 1993.

The original article doesn’t pop out at me but the quoted part certainly sounds like the usual noise, and this source seems to have borrowed a fair chunk.

Evo psych is one of the most wretched outcomes of Darwinism: It is the belief, against all the odds, that we can recover what “primitive” (essentially, pre-human) ancestors were like by studying presumed survivals in the culture around us today. It’s the sort of nonsense against which reason makes no impact because those who believe it either want or need to believe it, or both, and can always summon up the plate armor of self-righteousness needed to defend themselves against the forces of “anti-science.” The only value in even discussing it lies in the opportunity to point to more plausible sources of insight into our submerged ancient past. Incidentally, many evolutionary biologists who are Darwinists think evo psych is a load of French-for-fertilizer, probably for at least some of the reasons set out below.

Clearing out the clutter first: A contradiction lies at the heart of evo psych. If what they say is true, then little evolution has taken place. Yet their thesis depends on evolution actually happening. For example, suppose it is true that there is a four-year itch because primitive pairs stayed together “just long enough to rear one child through infancy.” Obviously, for as long as we have been recognizably human, it takes far longer than four years (more like 16) to raise a child to the point that others can and will count and treat the person as an adult. So all the factors that are supposed to enable evolution to adapt us to our circumstances to enable survival didn’t work? We are then well advised to dismiss the supposed insights of evo psych.

That is an especially easy judgment when you consider that young children strain an adult relationship, no matter what is going on with evolution. Under the strain, either the relationship matures or it dies. If it matures, it continues to develop around long-term realities (= he’s no movie star but I can always trust him; she’s no pinup, but she’s been here for me through the worst times). Or the relationship dies as the partners look elsewhere for the old thrills. None of this needs an evolutionary explanation; it is a simple dynamic that is recreated every time a baby enters a two-parent household, however the baby or the household got started. Why the difference around four years old? Because by then the child is usually starting to make progress in noting and conforming his behaviour to others’ needs and expectations. He starts to be easier to live with.

A much bigger problem is the apparent assumption that through most of human history, people got to be with whoever they were attracted to. This simply wasn’t true and couldn’t have been true. For that, you need a wealthy society of rootless individuals with no fixed, inherited responsibilities—pretty much the society evo psych has taken root in around modern universities, but very few, if any, previous ones.

Traditional human societies had to restrict who married and had children with whom because the right mix of adults was needed just to keep the show going. Most early romantic literature involved escaping these restrictions, often with the help of supernatural beings or events, or one-in-a-million chances (which gives you a fair idea of the odds). The penalties for going outside the system, even with good intentions or motivated by true love, could be severe. Ask descendants of Shechem or Paris, but no wait, that’s why those people aren’t around. And that’s why the stuff evo psych papers talk about today, in terms of random human attraction, was in those days filed under Fairy Tales.

If you really want to know about how people thought many thousands of years ago, it is possible to reconstruct a large part of it through what we now call superstitions. But they used to be thought of as the way things actually worked, conventional wisdom.

File:JamesGeorgeFrazer.jpg

J. G. Frazer (1854-1941)

A valuable source is J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890):

The underlying theme of the work is Frazer’s theory of a general development of modes of thought from the magical to the religious and, finally, to the scientific. His distinction between magic and religion (magic as an attempt to control events by technical acts based upon faulty reasoning, religion as an appeal for help to spiritual beings) has been basically assumed in much anthropological writing since his time. Although the evolutionary sequence of magical, religious, and scientific thought is no longer accepted and Frazer’s broad general psychological theory has proved unsatisfactory, his work enabled him to synthesize and compare a wider range of information about religious and magical practices than has been achieved subsequently by any other single anthropologist.

The main reason that Frazer’s proposed ordered development came to seem unsatisfactory is that all these modes of thinking are usually going on at the same time at any given moment in history, rising and falling in popularity (alongside others) as they make the world seem credible (or don’t). But his account of modes of thinking that have largely vanished in our own time and place is illuminating, for example beliefs around hair and nails:

But even when the hair and nails have been safely cut, there remains the difficulty of disposing of them, for their owner believes himself liable to suffer from any harm that may befall them. The notion that a man may be bewitched by means of the clippings of his hair, the parings of his nails, or any other severed portion of his person is almost world-wide, and attested by evidence too ample, too familiar, and too tedious in its uniformity to be here analysed at length. The general idea on which the superstition rests is that of the sympathetic connexion supposed to persist between a person and everything that has once been part of his body or in any way closely related to him. A very few examples must suffice. They belong to that branch of sympathetic magic which may be called contagious.

Read sections of The Golden Bough as an antidote to floods of rubbish pouring out of the local evo psych department, about how some such practice evolved to spread one’s selfish genes. The fact is,  people have accepted different accounts of reality from the ones we do for tens of thousands of years, whether or not they benefitted them or spread their selfish genes – or made any difference at all. And we accept the accounts we do in the same fashion. It’s just in the nature of being human to develop an account of reality. How that evolved is not known.

Now, it’s Valentine’s Day, so go be nice to someone who didn’t expect any consideration. This, by the way, was the original St. Valentine(s).

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3 Responses to Romantic love? Taking out the trash on evolutionary psychology

  1. Evo-Psych fails as an enterprise in explaining the origin of human psychology, but a few of the really good evo-psychologists to the extent the de-emphasize evolution but emphasize the genetic and chemical basis for human psychology do work that is somewhat favorable to ID and creationism.

    A large part of human psychology is pre-programmed in us. The Bible teaches however what was once good pre-programming has now become malware after the fall from grace.

    I speculate “the Garden of Eden” pattern has been embedded in our genes. These embedded ideals express themselves in romantic literature through the ages and human behaviors. Many churches seem to sanitize out some passages in the Bible and pretend such soap opera dramas weren’t part of the ancient world, but they were.

    The idea that romantic love may have a chemical component may be revolting to some, but to me this is like saying a beautiful painting is not beautiful because the paints have chemical properties to make the picture beautiful.

    Where the evo-psychologists fail is in there explanation for the origin of romantic love that is stored in DNA, and if it is in the DNA, it is in every cell of our lives.

    I believe romantic love is an artifact of the Garden of Eden — man keeps wanting to go back to it. But that explanation, which seems to me the most sensible, won’t be accepted in scientific circles, even though it explains the post-Garden of Eden world far better than any evo-psych theory.

    Men and women long to go back to Eden. It is written in our genes, and sometimes we’re tempted to rob and steal and do whatever immoral thing there is to go back there.

    Here was my failed attempt to go back to paradise:
    Love Doctor Comment #6

    The Garden of Eden pattern in my heart seemed more real than almost anything I’ve perceived. Perhaps that’s why I believe Eden once existed.

  2. Hey, no way doubting the importance of romance here.

    Whether it played much of a role in shaping human evolution is much more dubious because 1) actual circumstances didn’t usually allow it to be a deciding factor in mate choice, and 2) the bulk of earlier popular literature suggests that it wasn’t.

    You read the Bible regularly, so you will recall that Saul offered to give his eldest daughter to whoever killed Goliath. Some readers may scoff that that is only a story. But the point is, it was considered a believable story for millennia, and no one even considered doubting the story on the ground that the girl “might not agree.” Trust me, that tells us something.

    True, Saul didn’t keep his promise (because he hadn’t expected David to survive anyway and feared that he could then make a pitch for the throne). Another daughter did want to marry David, and Saul allowed that, because it suited him to keep David close at hand. Indeed, “1 Samuel 18:20 says that Michal loved David, the only place in the Bible where a woman’s love for a man is recorded, according to footnotes in The Jewish Study Bible.”
    http://ancienthistory.about.co.....Michal.htm

    But they fell out later and had no children.

    Given that this general kind of environment was quite common through the ages at most class levels and in most cultures, I think we should recognize the power of romantic attraction BUT be properly skeptical about “evolutionary” theories built on it.

  3. Agreed! And astonishing to me is that even today there is an abundance of arranged marriages. One doesn’t find out about it until one is outside of the West.

    Perhaps a story closer to recent day in Western Culture is Mary Queen of Scots, betrothed at age 5!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary,_Queen_of_Scots

    With her marriage agreement in place, five-year-old Mary was sent to France to spend the next thirteen years at the French court.

    In addition to Saul there was the levirate marriage described below (which may result in forced polygamy). Further the husband was required to get his new wife pregnant:

    5 “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And the name of his house[a] shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’

    Deuteronomy 25

    God actually killed Onan because he didn’t fulfill his levirate duty (Genesis 38:9) and get his brother’s wife pregnant.

    It appears a levirate marriage was in play in the case of the father of Samuel (the one who anointed King Saul and King David). The man had two wives and he loved one and not the other:

    1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. 2 He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

    3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.[a]

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