Part 8. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Evolution, Love, & Suffering

This is part 8 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.



we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or our love.” – Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents)


One of my more vivid memories from early childhood is of Tammy and her two friends. I was about 6 years old, and in the first grade. They were third graders, a couple of years older. By coincidence, our two classes had arrived simultaneously at the hallway outside the girls’ lavatory. In those days, teachers took their entire class to ‘the lav’ for efficiency’s sake, and every day the boys finished our business promptly then lined up in front of the teacher as we waited for the girls to finish theirs. On that day, our schedule happened to align with grade three.

1st grade

1st grade

I can still remember Tammy looking at the note I had written her, passed along by a friend earlier in the day, with her friends on either side. Exactly what I wrote is lost to time, but I recall the romantic sentiment behind it and drawing a picture of a boy and a girl kissing. Today, such behavior (or going even further) could actually get a young child suspended from school.

What compelled me to write the note, I don’t know. I do remember that Tammy seemed kind and pleasant to look at, and that it felt right – even at that age – to try to express it. However, that feeling quickly turned to embarrassment, when she and her friends waved, laughed in unison, and –in sing-song fashion – said “Hi, Patrick.” We were all just kids and no harm was intended, but at that point, I wanted to hide. And, though I can’t remember this part very well, I probably wondered why the third grade teacher was so slow in taking her students back to class.

It wasn’t clear where I went wrong, but my interpretation of Tammy’s behavior was that my private feelings of attraction, which came pretty easily, somehow violated the rules. Early experiences carry a lot of weight, and that incident taught me that revealing private emotions was a risky endeavor. It’s tempting to want to hide them away[1]

With Valentine’s Day just behind us, I wanted to develop on some of the elements in this innocent story in a couple of posts (update: part 9 here), such as where attraction and its hypertrophic cousin, romantic love, originate, and even why they might show up in early childhood.

The other element is the more negative aspects of romantic pursuits, which extend well beyond the embarrassment of childhood puppy love and into profound despair and suffering. Perhaps the cynics have good reasons to feel that it is somewhat myopic to give love its own day to be celebrated while glossing over the countless people it has wounded over the millennia. Homer Simpson, in his toast to inebriation, once referred to alcohol as “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” I don’t think too many people would object if we replaced the word ‘alcohol’ with love.

So, what is this thing that nature has given us?

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The Christmas Truce (Yet Again)

A couple of years ago around this time, I wrote a post titled Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914,” which is by far the most read thing on on this site.  Last year I had a lesser viewed follow-up about a man named Julio Diaz, a New Yorker who responded to a teenage mugger with compassion, which led to a conversation at a diner and the teen voluntarily handing over his weapon. 


Together, the two posts address some attributes we have as a species that facilitate cooperation,  even in times that are enormously challenging. These include, but are not limited to: empathy, the benefits of mutualism, and trust. We can find certainly find many counterexamples lately, with people inflicting great pain and suffering on each other. In recent memory, these include the horrific shooting deaths in Newtown, Connecticut  or the use of cluster bombs against civilians in Syria. This makes examples of cooperation all the more necessary.


To continue with this late December tradition, here is the story of a German fighter pilot from World War II named Franz Stigler and an American bomber pilot named Charles Brown:

On Dec. 20, 1943, a young American fighter pilot named Charlie Brown was on his first World War II mission. Flying in the German skies, Brown’s B-17 bomber was shot and badly damaged. As Brown and his men desperately tried to escape enemy territory back to England, a German fighter plane pulled up to their tail. It seemed certain death. Instead of shooting the plane down, however, the German pilot, Franz Stigler, escorted the Americans to safety.  (source)

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Egalitarianism & Arrogance

When men are most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have then given views to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.”                            – David Hume


Person 1: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ ”

Person 2: “True, but there is an ‘M’ and an ‘E.’ ” 

On occasion, I have been arrogant at times in my life. To be fair to myself, I believe such episodes have been rare, and most people who know me would probably describe me as introverted, possibly even timid. More than once, I have been told that I am “too nice” and overly conciliatory. During my pre-tenure review, one committee member told me that my autobiographical narrative was too modest, and that “in academia you need to toot your own horn because nobody else is going to do it for you.” That’s probably true in most fields, but it often makes me uneasy. And if you spent some time in the cacophony in my head, you’d see there is plenty of self-doubt and insecurity in here (you’re better off not doing that). Still, like everyone else, I am complex, and have had enough instances of arrogance that they irritate me and force me to consider from where they originate.

I bring this up now because I’ve been reading about hunter-gatherer societies, and was reminded of this famous passage from the anthropologist Richard Lee (1979) on egalitarianism in the !Kung of Namibia and Botswana.

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Cosmically Connected Primates

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”                 

– Carl Sagan, Contact

Three different people have shared the inspirational video below with me in the past two days, and I thought it deserved to be disseminated as widely as possible. It’s the response of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to the question: “what is the most astounding fact you know about the universe?” In his answer, Tyson elaborates on the majestic idea that the heavier elements crucial for organic life owe their origins to the incredible pressures created within aging stars. Those stars then exploded and released their newly forged contents into surrounding space, some of which eventually coalesced into us (to make a long story short).

By itself, that concept is sublime, and it should be enough to sustain one’s sense of awe for a long while. But Tyson also goes a bit farther, speculating on why this idea elicits such an emotional response within us. 

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Further Strides toward Reconciliation

One of the major themes of this blog has been reconciliation and cooperation under difficult circumstances. Below are three pertinent, hopeful stories on reconciliation that I’ve collected over the last few months.

1. Colombia to Spend $30 B to Compensate War Victims (AlertNet; Jan 24, 2012)

Reparations to victims of Colombia’s long, bloody armed conflict will reach as much as $30 billion in the next 10 years, the government said on Tuesday… The reparation program will benefit more than 3 million victims of the war, which has dragged on for nearly five decades.”

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Roundup (Jan 10, 2012)

I generally don’t do roundups, but below are a few things I thought worth sharing. If “a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library,” as Daniel Dennett put it, then this is what I’ve checked out lately.


Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology has begun a new series on anthropology and the evolution of human sexuality, titled: “The Long, Slow Sexual Revolution.” I’ve been looking forward to it for a few weeks since Greg first told me he was working on this, and I can say that the wait was worth it (and not just because he kindly cites some of my stuff from the Blank-ogamous series). He takes a *very* big picture approach, and what I liked most about it was that it stressed the need to confront the evidence while also keeping an eye on context and complexity, and avoiding overly simplistic narratives. As he wrote:

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Conduct Your Triumph as a Funeral

With the news of Osama bin Laden fresh, I’m reminded of a passage (#31) from the Tao Te Ching on humility and military victory:

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Demography and the Possible

Living in New England, we have older cemeteries than most other areas of the country (though Eastern hemisphere readers might scoff at what Americans consider ‘old’). I frequently walk with my sons and nephew through a cemetery near my home, as it is a tranquil place away from traffic, where we can go through the woods and throw rocks in the pond. We do this so often that the headstones sometimes become little more than a forgotten backdrop.

However, I do make an effort to remind myself that these headstones are markers of actual human lives. One recently caught my attention, the story of Henry and Susan Battey. I have no knowledge who these individuals were what they looked like, where they lived — other than their names, vital statistics, and the names of their children. It is their children on the backside of the headstone that struck me. The Batteys had three children, losing all of them as infants. That occurs to me as nature (or poverty, or whatever the cause) at its most cruel and indifferent.

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Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (May 29, 2017)

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi

On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.

Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during  ‘the Secret War. To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons). Continue reading

Evolutionary Aesthetics

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’ – John Keats

Van Gogh's Starry Night

In 2004, Kevin Kniffin (a former classmate of mine at Binghamton) and David Sloan Wilson, published an article in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior revealing their results from three different studies on perceptions of beauty. Among their findings was that, for people who knew each other, ratings of physical attractiveness were strongly influenced by the personality traits of those persons who were being rated. In other words, when rating potential mates, ‘inner beauty’ augmented perceptions of external appearance and overall attractiveness. The reason behind this likely has Darwinian roots. According to Wilson:

“The fitness value of potential social partners depends at least as much on non-physical traits — whether they are cooperative, dependable, brave, hardworking, intelligent and so on — as physical factors, such as smooth skin and symmetrical features.”

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