Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Call It Love if You Like


No one seems to know what love is. Some even doubt its existence. Of late love has attracted the attention of a group of people who are supposed to have nothing to do with gentler emotions: the scientists. While poets, writers, and artists have only made wild conjectures about love, scientists and evolutionary psychologists may have grasped the meaning of romantic love, says Kuldip Dhiman

"One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life. That word is love," said Sophocles 2400 years ago. You might forgive Sophocles for saying this, but anyone who ever fell in love might vehemently challenge these words. Far from freeing us from all the worries of life, love quite often does the opposite, the great initial high notwithstanding. In spite of all this, people have been falling in love for ages, and shall continue doing so.

Why do people fall in love? Would it make any difference to the world if no one ever fell in love? And if love is such a wonderful thing, why does it turn sour with time? If love is good for mankind, why does society create obstacles in the path of love?

Poets and writers have for centuries written reams and reams on love, but have so far not given us any insight into it. If anything, they have confused the issue, because being a highly subjective experience; love means different things to different people. We have heard their version for centuries, now let's hear what the scientists have to say about it. But could love ever be understood by the cold logic of science?

In his recent book Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, published by Oxford, Dylan Evans, Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at King's College, London, presents a scientific study of emotions, and also devotes time to an emotion peculiar, as far as we know, to humans: romantic love.


Evans tells us that love is after all not such a metaphysical subject. We fall in love for very practical reasons. Further, if we wish to take romantic love to the lab, so to speak, we would first have to follow the demands of the scientific method. And the first step is to find a basic definition of love. After studying various cultures, anthro-pologists have come up with this working definition of love: a powerful feeling of sexual attraction to a single person, feelings of anguish and longing when the loved one is absent, and intense joy when he or she is present.

Some people may squirm at the very idea of defining love. Love knows no definition, they might say, knows no bounds, has no reasons. Actually love does have its reasons although most of us don't seem to understand them.

But if love is an emotion, how is it different from other emotions like anger, fear etc. Why do we have these emotions in the first place? Wouldn't we be better off without emotions? Not at all. Without emotions, living beings would not have evolved at all. If we did not have the emotion of fear, for instance, we would walk into a fire, walk over cliffs, not run away at the sight of predators. In other words we would not see danger, and, as a result perish. Evolution would never have got going. Perhaps evolution equipped us with emotions so we could survive in the tough battle of survival on this otherwise inhospitable planet.

Apart from the basic emotions like fear, anger, disgust etc. that are necessary for our very survival, we also have some culturally specific emotions that are peculiar to certain cultures. For example, in India, some people appear to be under the spell of spirits, and as a result they behave in a strange way. Similarly, the Gurumbha people of New Guinea get into an emotional state of 'being a wild pig'. When they get into this state, they behave as wild pigs. This emotion is culturally specific, as it is not experienced by peoples of other cultures.

Now, is love a basic emotion or is it a culturally specific emotion? Speaking exclusively to The Tribune, Dylan Evans said: "Many people have argued that romantic love is a culturally specific emotion like 'being a wild pig'. They say it is not seen in many cultures, and most of us would not have fallen in love if we hadn't heard of it. But this view has come under attack these days. After studying various unrelated cultures all over the world, anthropologists found that it was common for people to experience romantic love. They also listed other elements including elaborate courtship gestures such as giving gifts and showing one's love in song and poetry. They then examined the anthropological literature and counted the number of cultures in which this collection of features was described. To their surprise they found that it was described in 90 per cent of the cultures on record."

Developing the point further, Evans says, "Romantic love may not be a culturally specific emotion, but nor is it a basic emotion like fear. The philosopher Paul Griffiths has argued that there are not two kinds of emotion but three. In addition to basic emotions and culturally specific emotions, he claims that there are 'higher cognitive emotions.' This is fine so long as we realise that these categories are not black and white.

"As well as differing from basic emotions in their degree of innateness," believes Evans, "higher cognitive emotions also differ in a number of other ways. They are not so automatic and fast as basic emotions, and nor are they universally associated with a single facial expression. Love is a case in point. Although love at first sight is possible, it is relatively rare. It seems much more common for love to grow gradually over the space of several days. Contrast this with the emotion of fear, which typically overtakes a person in a matter of milliseconds. And, while fear is easily recognisable by its typical facial expression, there is no specific facial expression associated with the emotion of love." This perhaps explains why some of us are incapable or not very good at expressing our love.

The reason Paul Griffiths proposes emotions like love should be called 'higher emotions', is that they involve much more cortical processing (Done by the cerebral cortex: the extensive outer layer of grey matter of the cerebral hemispheres, largely responsible for higher brain functions, including sensation, voluntary muscle movement, thought, reasoning, and memory.) than basic emotions. While basic emotions are largely processed in subcortical structures (the portion of the brain immediately below the cerebral cortex) buried beneath the surface of the brain emotions like love are more associated with areas of the neocortex that is the part of the brain that has expanded most in the past five million years of human evolution, and supports most of our most complex cognitive abilities such as explicit logical analysis. The fact that the higher cognitive emotions are more cortical than the basic emotions means that they are more capable of being influenced by conscious thoughts and this in turn is probably what allow higher cognitive emotions to be more culturally variable than the basic emotions. However, despite their greater cultural variability, the higher cognitive emotions are still universal. Like basic emotions, but unlike culturally specific emotions, the higher cognitive emotions are part of human nature, shaped by our common evolutionary history.

If the main goal of life, as Darwin states, is survival and propagation of our genes, what purpose does love serve? If fear saves us from danger, and anger makes us ready for attack and thus helps us in our survival, love appears to do the opposite. We waste time thinking about our loved one, do all sorts of irrational things, ruin careers, and even commit suicide. Often, after getting the person we love, we realise he or she is not worth it.

"Love may seem irrational," says Evans, "but even its most bizarre aspects may be vital if it is to fulfil its function of helping us obtain a mate for long enough to have and rear children. Here is some of what I say about it in the book: There are lots of other situations in life when it is vital to be able to make credible promises. Robert Frank refers to all these situations as 'commitment problems', and argues that all the higher cognitive emotions solve different kinds of commitment problem. The capacity for guilt solves those commitment problems in which you have to make a credible promise not to cheat.

"Likewise, argues Frank, romantic love solves another kind of commitment problem that in which you have to make a credible promise to remain faithful to one other person. Jack and Jill may consider each other suitable mates, but they will be reluctant to commit themselves to each other unless each is sure that the other will not walk out on them as soon as someone more attractive comes along. The realisation that the other person is in love can provide this assurance. Now, basic emotions like anger and fear are easy to feign, but higher cognitive emotions like guilt, shame and love are extremely hard to feign because we have no control over them. Hence, when we see someone showing these emotions, we normally believe them to be genuine. If Jack commits himself to Jill because of an emotion he did not 'decide' to have (and so cannot decide not to have), an emotion that is reliably indicated by such physiological signals as tachycardia (a rapid heart rate, especially one above 100 beats per minute in an adult) and insomnia, then Jill will be more likely to believe he will stay with her than if he had chosen her after coolly weighing up her good and bad points. 'People who are sensible about love are incapable of it', wrote Douglas Yates."

Alas! life is not that simple. Although higher cognitive emotions are very hard to feign, it is not impossible to feign them. Most men fake them quite successfully to entice a woman into falling in love with them, only to desert her later. The world if full of free riders, who wish to have a woman without the commitment of running a household and raising children.

The game of love gets more complicated because men and women fall in love for different reasons, although these differences are of degree not kind. In the tough battle for survival on this planet, our foraging male ancestors needed to propagate their genes, and they had a better chance if they mated with as many females as possible. In order to do so they had to compete with the other males. Women, on the other hand, invest a lot more than men in a relationship because it is they who get pregnant, and have to look after the resulting offspring for years. Although they might desire more men, but as they can have only one or two children a year, it is pointless to have more partners. Since they did not have safe contraception, women had to be a lot more careful in choosing their partners than men. While men went for quantity, women looked for quality. But generally, women preferred to have one man who was willing to help her in bringing up her offspring, rather than many with no one taking the responsibility of running the household. Men may put a premium on physical attractiveness, but women go for status, wealth intelligence, and the willingness to provide resources. But we must not forget that although quality may be more important to women, they are not entirely monogamous Likewise, men might wish to have more women, but when they think about settling down, they, too, start thinking in terms of quality. All this is predicted by evolutionary theory, and was tested by David Buss in a study of 33 different cultures

It is at this point that matters began to get complicated. Since men were hunters, the better hunters among them often came back with more food than the bad hunters. The females naturally chose them as mates because more food meant personal survival as well as the survival of their future offspring. But what guarantee there was that the man who was offering food would also help in raising children. Women had to find some way of knowing who was sincere in his intentions and who was not. So they waited for the strongest possible man to approach them and propose to them. The only problem was that the strong man often tried to dominate as many women as possible, often deserting the older ones and not caring for the offspring. As humans became more cultured, women realised that the strongest man was not usually the one with the best physique, as wealth and knowledge could also make a physically weaker man very powerful in society. Quick to take a cue, intelligent men developed better ways of demonstrating their love than defeating an opponent in a duel. With time, lengthy courtship rituals developed such as singing romantic songs expressing love in poetry, or exchanging gifts. Some tried to prove their love by not taking care of themselves, not taking care of their health or appearance, harming themselves and even committing suicide. Women took this behaviour as a sign of true love. Why else would someone go through the agony? As a result, only committed men found women and dishonest men were threatened with extinction. Since no one like to be extinct, least so dishonest men, they began to mimic all the symptoms of true love in order to lure women. The story got murkier and murkier and now there is hardly any pointers left to differentiate between the honest and the dishonest. In such a scenario, how can true love prosper, and how could lovers live happily ever after?

In reply, Evans says, "The question whether men and women can live happily ever after can be answered without reference to evolutionary theory, simply by looking at the statistics for divorce. Current divorce rates in western countries of between 33 and 50 per cent do not suggest that lifelong marital happiness is common. On the other hand, the fact that a few couples do manage to stay in love until they die tells us that it is not completely impossible either."

We could produce children and care about our family without being in love. Not many married people are really in love, or whatever love they had is long since dead, but life goes on regardless.

"The idea that we could produce children and care about our family without being in love," says Evans, "is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question. Could we really be bothered to do all that without a powerful visceral feeling telling us that it was the most important thing in the world? True, love may wane after a few years, but evolutionary theory only requires that it last long enough to have and raise a child to an age at which it can get by on its own - say, about seven years. Could this be the biological explanation of the famous 'seven-year itch'?"

When spurned by a lover, why do some of us (including some animals) never marry, never go for another mate, never get on with life? Some even commit suicide. Is it not against Darwin's laws? It is one thing to emotionally blackmail the other to make them believe that we cannot live without them, but why do some carry out the threat? Why don't we lick our wounds and just find another partner?

"Depression is a mystery for evolutionists whatever its source, whether it is caused by unrequited love or anything else. There are some theories around, but they are still rather speculative."

There are some who talk about love without sex. What purpose does this serve? Is it a mere escape? Married people falling in love for the sake of love is understandable as they can have platonic love with their extramarital partners and sex with their spouses, but what about unmarried lovers?

"Romantic love without sex is, from an evolutionary point of view, an aberration, just like homosexuality. That doesn't mean that there is anything morally wrong with it, since evolutionary theory is not in the business of value-judgements. But it does tell us that our development is very flexible, and can send us down paths that are not in the interests of our genes."

Is it possible to fall in love with more than one person?

"The answer is I don't know. There seems to be a large amount of cultural variation on the issue of monogamy versus polygamy. Where polygamy is allowed, however, it is almost always polygyny (one man with many wives) and almost never polyandry (one woman with many husbands)."

Love does exist, although the concepts, the reasons for falling in love and expectations of men and women may be quite different. Thus the eternal conflict in the battle of the sexes will go on, unless lovers learn to make compromises and learn to respect the fact the other is not necessarily hell.

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