What Is Love?

By Paul Gray

What is this thing called love? What? Is this thing called love? What is this thing called? Love.HOWEVER PUNCTUATED, COLE Porter’s simple question begs an answer. Love’s symptoms are familiar enough: a drifting mooniness in thought and behavior, the mad conceit that the entire universe has rolled itself up into the person of the beloved, a conviction that no one on earth has ever felt so torrentially about a fellow creature before. Love is ecstasy and torment, freedom and slavery. Poets and songwriters would be in a fine mess without it. Plus, it makes the world go round.Until recently, scientists wanted no part of it.The reason for this avoidance, this reluctance to study what is probably life’s most intense emotion, is not difficult to track down. Love is mushy; science is hard. Anger and fear, feelings that have been considerably researched in the field and the lab, can be quantified through measurements; pulse and breathing rates, muscle contractions, a whole spider web of involuntary responses. Love does not register as definitively on the instruments; it leaves a blurred fingerprint that could be mistaken for anything from indigestion to a manic attack. Anger and fear have direct roles – fighting or running – in the survival of the species. Since it is possible (a cynic would say common-place) for humans to mate and reproduce without love, all the attendant sighing and swooning and sonnet writing have struck many pragmatic investigators as beside the evolutionary point.So biologists and anthropologist assumed that it would be fruitless, even frivolous, to study love’s evolutionary origins, the way it was encoded in our genes or imprinted in our brains. Serious scientists simply assumed that love – and especially Romantic Love – was really all in the head, put there five or six centuries ago when some civilized societies found enough spare time to indulge in flowery prose. The task of writing the book of love was ceded to playwrights, poets and pulp novelists.But during the past decade, scientists across a broad range of disciplines have had a change of heart about love. The amount of research expended on the tender passion has never been more intense. Explanations for this rise in interest vary. Some cite the spreading threats of AIDS; with casual sex carrying mortal risks, it seems important to know more about a force that binds couples faithfully together. Others point to the growing number of women scientists and suggest that they may be more willing that their male colleagues to take love seriously. Says Elaine Hatfield, the author of Love, Sex, and Intimacy: Their Psychology, Biology, and History: “When I was back at Stanford in the 1960s, they said studying love and human relationships was a quick way to ruin my career. Why not go where the real work was being done: on how fast rats could run?” Whatever the reasons, science seems to have come around to a view that nearly everyone else has always taken for granted: romance is real. It is not merely a conceit; it is bred into our biology.Getting to this point logically is harder than it sounds. The love-as-cultural-delusion argument has long seemed unassailable. What actually accounts for the emotion, according this scenario, is that people long ago made the mistake of taking fanciful literary tropes seriously. Ovid’s Ars Amatoria is often cited as a major source of misreadings, its instructions followed, it ironies ignored. Other prime suspects include the 12th century troubadours in Provence who more or less invented the Art of Courtly Love, an elaborate, etiolated ritual for idle noblewomen and aspiring swains that would have been broken to bits by any hint of physical consummation.Ever since then, the injunction to love and to be loved has hummed nonstop Western popular culture; it is a dominant theme in music, films, novels, magazines and nearly everything shown on American TV. Love is a formidable and thoroughly proved commercial engine; people will buy and do almost anything that promises them a change at the bliss of romance.But does all this mean that love is merely a phony emotion that is picked up where it is culturally celebrated? Psychologist Lawrence Casler, author of Is Marriage Necessary?, forcefully thinks so, at least at first: “I don’t believe love is part of human nature, not for a minute. There are social pressures at work.” Then falls a shadow over this certainty. “Even if it is a part of human nature, like crime or violence, it’s not necessarily desirable.”Well, love either is or is not intrinsic to our species; having it both ways leads nowhere. And the contention that romance is an entirely acquired trait – overly imagined literalists – has always rested on some teetery premises.For one thing, there is the chicken/egg dilemma. Which came first, sex or love? If the reproductive imperative was as dominant as Darwinians maintain, sex probably led the way. But why was love hatched in the process, since it was presumably unnecessary to get things started in the first place? Furthermore, what has sustained romance – that odd collection of tics and impulses – over the centuries? Most mass hallucinations, such as the 17th century tulip mania in Holland, flame out fairly rapidly when people realize the absurdity of what they have been doing and, as the common saying goes, come to their senses. When people in love come to their senses, they tend to orbit with added energy around each other and look more helplessly loopy and self-besotted. If romance were purely a figment, unsupported by any rational or sensible evidence, then surely most folks would be immune to it by now. Look around. It hasn’t happened. Love is still in the air.And it may be far more widespread than even romantics imagined. Those who argue that love is a cultural fantasy have tended to do so from a Eurocentric and class-driven point of view. Romance, they say, arose thanks to amenities peculiar to the West: leisure time, a modicum of creature comforts, a certain level of refinement in the arts and letters. When these trappings are absent, so is romance. Peasants mated; aristocrats fell in love.But last year a study conducted by anthropologist William Jankowiak of the University of Nevada – Las Vegas and Edward Fischer of Tulane University in New Orleans found evidence of romantic love in at least 147 of the 166 cultures they studied. This discovery, if borne out, should pretty well wipe out the idea that love is an invention of the Western mind rather than a biological fact. Says Jankowiak: “It is, instead, a universal phenomenon, a panhuman characteristic that stretches across cultures. Societies like ours have the resources to show love through candy and flowers, but that does not mean that the lack of resources in other cultures indicates the absence of love.”Some scientists are not startled by this contention. One of them is anthropologist Helen Fisher, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the author of Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce, a recent book that is making waves among scientists and the general reading public. Says Fisher: “I’ve never not thought that love was a very primitive, basic human emotion, as basic as fear, anger or joy. It is so evident. I guess anthropologists have just been busy doing other things.”Among the things anthropologists tended to do in the past was ask questions about courtship and marriage rituals. This now seems a classic example, as the old song has it, of looking for love in all the wrong places. In many cultures, love and marriage do not go together. Weddings can have all the romance of corporate mergers, signed and sealed for family or territorial interests. This does not mean, Jankowiak insists, that love does not exist in such cultures; it erupts in clandestine forms, “phenomenon to be dealt with.”Somewhere about this point, the specter of determinism begins once again to flap and cackle. If science is going to probe and prod and then announce that we are all scientifically fated to love – and to love preprogrammed types – by our genes and chemicals, then a lot of people would just as soon not know. If there truly is a biological predisposition to love, as more and more scientists are coming to believe, what follows is a recognition of the amazing diversity in the ways human have chosen to express the feeling. The cartoon images of cavemen bopping cavewomen over the head and dragging them home by their hair? Love. Helen of Troy, subjecting her adopted city to 10 years of ruinous siege? Love. Romeo and Juliet? Ditto. Joe in Accounting making a fool of himself around the water cooler over Susan in Sales? Love. Like the universe, the more we learn about love, the more preposterous and mysterious it is likely to appear.