Saturday, June 26, 2010

Call it Love If You Like

The Tribune, Sunday, March 25, 2001 Lead Article

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

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

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

Dylan Evans, Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy, King's
College, London spoke exclusively to The Tribune about romantic
love.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

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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