Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright  (comedian)

 It seemed like a good idea at the time.” – S.A. (neuroscientist, friend)



Lately, I keep seeing a recurrent theme in a number of widely different sources. It’s a concept taught in Economics 101, that of tradeoff and opportunity costs – money or time invested in one object or activity cannot be spent on another. A related concept, foundational to biology, is life history theory (LHT). In his book “Patterns of Human Growth,” the biological anthropologist Barry Bogin defined LHT as:

the study of the strategy an organism uses to allocate its energy toward growth, maintenance, reproduction, raising offspring to independence, and avoiding death. For a mammal, it is the strategy of when to be born, when to be weaned, how many and what types of pre-reproductive stages to pass through, when to reproduce, and when to die.” (1999: 154)


you could be a winner at the game of life

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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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