Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: There are many ways to put a human life together, including for sex and love. Each path has tradeoffs.

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I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”

There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

“Mom, love is love, whatever you are.” These words of wisdom came from Jackson, the 12 year-old son of actress Maria Bello, after she revealed to him that she had fallen in love with a woman. Bello’s essay, Coming Out as a Modern Family, appeared in last November’s New York Times, where she bravely reflected on her handful of past romantic relationships (mostly with men), her trepidation in revealing her evolving feelings on love, and the variety of meaningful relationships – platonic, familial, romantic – she had in her life.

In the most important sense, which is of course the sense that Jackson meant, love is love, irrespective of one’s sexuality, gender, or ethnicity. Studies from neurobiology reveal that people in the early stages of romantic love show consistent activation in specific brain regions (the ventral tegmental area and caudate) when viewing a photo of one’s partner. This was true for (1) men and women, (2) hetero- and homo-sexuals, and (3) American, British, and Chinese adults (Zeki and Romaya 2010; Xu et al. 2011). Not that Jackson needed it, because a person’s choices in love should be respected regardless of what neurobiology tells us, but he has science on his side.

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Did Pairbonds Evolve to Be Asymmetrical?

“I know you belong to somebody new, but tonight you belong to me.” Rose and David 

“I wanted love, I needed love. Most of all, most of all.” Auerbach and Carney (1)

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Several researchers have attempted to reconstruct the very difficult problem of why pairbonding may have evolved in humans (I wrote about this here, but a decent guess is that this began around 2 million years ago. Maybe). Those reconstructions often come with an addendum, which predict that pair-bonds would not be completely symmetrical. Instead, either males or females would have more of an incentive to initiate or maintain a long-term bond, and this would depend on the reasons that pairbonding evolved in the first place.

For example, here is David Buss, explaining why males are more likely to fall in love first:

“Because love is an emotion tethered to long-term mating; because fecundity and reproductive value is so critical to men in selecting a long-term mate; and because physical appearance provides an abundance of cues to a woman’s fecundity and reproductive value, we can predict that men will experience “love at first sight” more often than women. The empirical evidence supports this prediction.” (Buss, 2006: 69)

Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy"), out with her date. Source.

Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”), out with her date around 3.6 mya. This portrayal of an early pairbond is speculative, but it ‘s probably not accurate. Source: AMNH.

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Part 14: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Paleo Hookups & Archaic Lovers

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: Genetic evidence shows that various Pleistocene populations interbred, including humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Is it possible to know whether these could have occurred in pair-bonded relationships? What were the evolutionary origins of pair-bonds in hominins, or are single explanations too simple? 

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Paleoanthropologist John Hawks created this great infographic that summarizes what we know about ancient human interbreeding, based on recent genetic discoveries (this link to his site has a larger version). The graphic shows that several archaic populations mated with each other, although likely at low rates, including modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans. There are also a couple of mystery populations in the mix, whose existence is known solely based on the DNA they left behind. Very cool stuff.

Who Interbred with Whom in the Pleistocene. (Figure by John Hawks).

Who Interbred with Whom in the Pleistocene. (Figure by John Hawks).

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Flexible Love, at Any Age

The New York Times runs a series of short videos titled “Modern Love” (does David Bowie know about this?). The latest installation is narrated by a 71 year-old woman who describes the experience of falling in love at her age, comparing it to her younger days. She talks about differences in preparing for dates, perceptions of the concept of ‘soulmates,’ the sense of urgency, jealousy, ephemerality of life and relationships, and the pain of loss. Pretty thorough for a 2 minute video.   

To me, the most interesting part is that love really can strike at any age, illustrating the gap between proximate and evolutionary levels. Evolutionary hypotheses for the origin of pair-bonding (and love) often highlight some function related to reproduction. Robin Dunbar  summarized four possibilities: 

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Part 13: Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Is Monogamy ‘Natural?’

This is part 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.

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(Left) My paternal grandparents with my father as a toddler. (Right) Their 50th anniversary.

Left: My paternal grandparents with my father as a toddler. Right: their 50th wedding anniversary (it’s the best picture I could find).

Are humans naturally monogamous? Oprah Winfrey says ‘no.’That settles it, then. Maybe.

Oprah (she needs no last name) was a guest on a morning talk show, and the topic of discussion was two recent articles on the origins of monogamy in mammals (Lukas & Clutton-Brock, 2013) and another specifically on primates (Opie et al, 2013). Both articles are impressive for their large databases and attention to detail. The first looked at 2545 species of mammals while the Opie article examined 230 primate species.[1]

Both studies focused specifically on social, rather than sexual, monogamy. This distinction is important because sexual exclusivity was not what was being measured here. Rather, social monogamy was defined by both studies as simply living in breeding pairs. The Lukas & Clutton-Brock paper added that in social monogamy the pair shared a common territory, and “associate with each other for more than one breeding season” (p. 526).

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Erotic Laundry Lists

As I continue to read up on the evolution of human mating, a theme that keeps recurring is how complex people are in what they want from their erotic pursuits. Many books, journal articles, and even popular magazines compile lists about the physical features we consider attractive, the traits we look for in a mate, etc. In those lists, we can find patterns, but none can ever be perfect because we are complex, individually and culturally variable, and always in flux, trying to balance an array of wants and needs that shift over time along with our circumstances. No single variable will ever be sufficient to explain what people want. Sometimes it’s Arthur Miller; sometimes it’s Joe DiMaggio.

Marilyn Monroe

Here is a sample of the complexity, in list form:

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