Too bad Jeffrey Kluger didn’t pay closer attention to Hannibal Lecter. He might have written a better article on “Why We Love,” out this week in Time Magazine, instead of giving us a flawed view of evolution and brain research. Still, in furtive glimpses of data, rather than quick quotes and pop theories, another way to think about love glides onto stage.
As I told my anthropology students yesterday, the initial assumptions we make so often dictate our ideas and our results. But those assumptions are generally presented as “facts” or assertions of truth, part of an unassailable background. So here are the ones packed into Kluger’s piece, right there at the beginning: (1) that humans rely on our wits, so “losing our faculties over a matter like sex” needs explaining (in other words, humans are rational, why have primitive passions); (2) that we evolved in a “savanna full of predators,” so getting distracted by love could be potentially dangerous, (3) that our genes have “concerns,” primary among them to make us reproduce as much as possible (“breed now and breed plenty gets that job done”), and (4) that we can extend these sorts of explanations to all “the rituals surrounding” sex, love and relationships (like a bunch of scientists drunk on their own ideas—explanatory expansion gone wild!).
Together these assumptions are presented as the best approach to answering certain questions about ourselves: “What scientists, not to mention the rest of us, want to know is, Why? What makes us go loony over love?”
If only Jeffrey Kluger had listened to Hannibal Lecter! No, not about love, but about human nature. Locked away in his cell as Clarice Starling desperately wants to know how to find another serial killer, Lecter begins:
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women…
Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?
Clarice Starling: Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir…
Hannibal Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.
Clarice Starling: No. We just…
Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?
Hannibal Lecter advocates a certain simplicity—he defines our nature by what this man does, by what he feels, by what his, and our, senses seek out. It is not a list of traits to be explained, for example, why are we loony about love. Doing, experiencing, sensing—in that first principle, Lecter tells us that we can find better answers to what our human nature might be like.
But those are not the answers the FBI agent Clarice Starling gives. Her first answer is that this man kills women. Lecter says that is incidental, and asks, What needs does he serve by killing? Clarice Starling says, “Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir…” In other words, Clarice looks at the evidence and then proceeds to the supposed traits to define the man in question. She gives her knee-jerk answers, the ones told to her in the FBI. Yet she has sought out Lecter to help her search for the truth so she can stop the killer. And Lecter says, this man covets what he sees.
In our past all sorts of varied men and women coveted each other, because that was who was around, much like the varied men and women we see today. But most pop evolution approaches are still stuck at the “lions kill women” stage, a mythical past that makes for scary bedtime stories that can be solved by large, heroic men. As the Kluger article puts it, “Women see a broad chest and shoulders as a sign of someone who can clobber a steady supply of meat and keep lions away from the cave.” If this were such a strong selective force, truly operational in our past evolution, then you would expect that every man would have broad chests and shoulders, not just the ones thrown up on billboards. (Which, seeing that over-sized image everyday, some of us might begin to covet…)
At least some pop people have gotten to the second stage of answering. Here we have the traits approach. In recent years, it’s not psychological traits like social acceptance or sexual frustration that we prize. After all, we can’t really see those. But brain images, that’s a different beast all together. These images can seemingly reveal innate traits in our brains, moral organs or mating instincts hardwired there. Thus, in the Kluger article, the “rich and complicated exchange” of postural, sensual, physical and chemical interactions is reduced to “hardwired mechanisms that process all this.” For example, in people who are newly in love, brain images show that their ventral tegmental areas are “working particularly hard.” A scientist summarizes for us, “This little factory near the base of the rain is sending dopamine to higher regions. It creates craving, motivation, goal-oriented behavior—and ecstasy.”
So today it’s not social acceptance and sexual frustration driving us to love or to kill. It’s dopamine, the new trait to explain everything. Indeed, a separate article this week has the title “Humans Crave Violence, Just Like Sex.” The basis for such a claim? “Mouse brawls,” where, one of the scientists summarizes, “We have found that the reward pathway in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved.”
While reading the Time piece, I had the good fortune to overhear my wife trying to explain to our eight-year-old son a short story he read for school. A Persian princess, having only the sons of the king’s advisors foisted upon her, creates a math riddle. The man who answers it will become her husband. A young village herder, also a lover of math, is the only one who can. They marry.
My son struggled with the first assigned question from his teachers, how did the context (defined as a specific place and time) shape who the Princess married? (As an anthropologist, I am thankful that such questions are being asked of third graders.) My wife explained how to answer this question by drawing on my son’s own life experiences, on why one neighborhood boy was his friend and another one not. The not-friend has a Play Station, and video games are certainly a passion for my son. But the not-friend doesn’t like to share his PlayStation, my wife pointed out, and you also cannot share other things that you like, such as reading books and making jokes. With your best friend, you can. You share things, and you also understand each other.
There was no mention of dopamine or brain images by my wife, no mention of hanging out on the savannah together clubbing meat. Rather, she spoke of things my son and his best friend did together. Her explanation built from everyday experience.
That’s the good part of Kluger’s article. He talks of the “visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile processes that make [romance] possible.” These are not factory machines, but part of the process, enabling what we call love to be possible. Arousal, smell, taste, these all enter into the experience of romance and love, along with the clothing we wear (or don’t), the memories we share, the cultural rituals we dance together.
I am reminded of what Agustin wrote in response to Pinker’s pop essay on the moral instinct, about the “physiological, behavioral and emotional bonding” we humans engage in, about our extension of basic primate patterns to create intense social bonds buttressed by intense social cognition that draws on “neuroendocrinological, symbolic, and behavioral processes.” We can cast this bonding net beyond ourselves, to even love the people that we shouldn’t, people from the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong family, the wrong nation. Like star-crossed lovers, “My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
It seemed Shakespeare anticipated our pop psychologists when he also wrote in Romeo & Juliet, “True, I talk of dreams, Which are the children of an idle brain, Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” A mythical dream of our past, an idle brain full of assumptions, a fantasy of explanatory extension.
I prefer a more measured approach, as Jim McKenna takes in talking about the mother-infant relationship. Most scientific research atomizes the relationship, focusing either on the infant or the mother. But it is the relationship that is evolutionarily relevant. Furthermore, McKenna urges us to “acknowledge and respect maternal capacities and biologically-appropriate emotions and motivations for mothers to sleep close to their infants” (McKenna & Gettler 2007: 272). Finally, McKenna places great emphasis on understanding the context of mother-infant interactions, not singular recommendations of “one size fits all,” whether in policy or assumptions about causality.
Relationships, emotions, contexts represent a different theoretical approach than the pop theory with its intriguing tidbits. It’s a theory that captures better what data we do have. Certainly it helps us respect one of the final examples in the Kluger article when speaking of “companionate bonding”:
“That’s not to say that people can’t stay in love or that those couples who say they still feel romantic after years of being together are imagining things. Aron has conducted fMRI studies of some of these stubbornly loving pairs, and initial results show that their brains indeed look very much like those of people newly in love, with all the right regions lighting up in all the right ways. ‘We wondered if they were really feeling these things,’ Aron says. ‘But it looks like this is really happening.”
Our relationships, what we feel, what we say, I guess for Aron, it all only happens in those pretty pictures on fMRI images of the brain. If only his machine could make him more magnetic…
My conclusion? These pop people need something harder than an apple to make them realize that their perspective is simply old assumptions repackaged as bad science. Like gravity, our everyday lives are all around us. Not attraction and repulsion, and things falling to the ground because they are heavy, but the gravity of what we do, what we experience, what we want. What we live.