Why We Love:
The Evolution of Romantic Love

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever,
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle:--
Why not I with thine?
Percy Bysshe Shelley
“Love’s Philosophy”

"I seem to have loved you in numberless forms / numberless times, / In life after life, in age after age forever . . . / Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end / in you, / The love of all man's days both past and forever." Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore sensed that his passion for a woman had come across the eons from a mind built long ago. Indeed, we carry embedded in our brains the whole history of our species, all the circuits that our forebears built as they sang and danced and shared their wisdom and their food to impress their lovers and their friends, then passionately fell in love with "him" or "her."

How did we come to court and love the way we do? Bad Bull didn't shower Tia with poetry to prove he was king of elephants. Skipper found his little beaver mate one spring evening; he didn't sing rock 'n' roll songs to a thousand assembled female beavers to impress them first. Misha fell in love with Maria the moment Maria wagged her doggy tail and invited him to play. All animals have mating preferences. And most have evolved courtship plumage of one kind or another to dazzle their would-be lovers. But no creatures except human beings parade about with such extravagant displays as sonnets and skydiving.

As psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues, many of our exceptional human traits, such as our ornate language skills, our affinity for all kinds of sports, our religious fervor, our humor and moral virtue, are too ornate, too metabolically expensive, and too useless in the struggle for existence to have evolved merely so we could survive another day. They must have emerged, at least in part, to help us court and win the mating game.

Moreover, I have proposed that along with all the magnificent courtship ornaments that we flaunt to persuade prospective mates, men and women have also evolved a specific brain network to respond to these traits: the circuitry for romantic love. This passion, a developed form of animal attraction, emerged to drive each of us to choose from among these myriad courtship displays, prefer a specific individual, and begin the primordial mating dance exclusively with "him" or "her."

But Miller never tells us when, where, or why human beings evolved these special talents. And I have not explained how our species transformed from creatures who felt a temporary attraction for a "special" individual into men and women who are willing to die for "him" or "her." Something happened deep in time to produce the human drive to love.

Love in the Trees

Palm trees, fig trees, wild pear trees, mahogany trees, evergreen trees, trees, trees, and more trees carpeted East Africa 8 million years ago. Here lived the last of our forest-dwelling ancestors. Anthropologists have little direct evidence of their daily lives. But our first forebears probably lived much as modern chimpanzees do. We share over 98 percent of our DNA with these creatures. "Common" chimps and their smaller chimp relatives called bonobos still live in what is left of that primal African environment. And chimps display many traits that our common ancestor most likely shared.

Like today's common chimps and bonobos, our first forebears must have lived in communities, often consisting of eighty to a hundred males and females. They slept high in the forest canopy, arose after dawn, and descended to the jungle floor to wander well-worn trails in their mutual home range. Members must have met and mixed singly or in small parties, eating and socializing intensely. These human ancestors knew who was family, friend, and foe. And they chattered among themselves with at least fifty different kinds of hoots and barks, as well as with about thirty varied gestures.

Like today's chimps, they probably used stone hammers to crack nuts, toothpicks made of twigs, and napkins from wadded grass. Like chimps they probably hurled rocks and sticks to spar for dominance, hunted monkeys, shared the meat, and made war on chimp neighbors to usurp their lands. Some were pranksters, some leaders; others brave, deceptive, curious, or belligerent. And many made friends and enemies, gave twigs as gifts, defended comrades in spats, and lingered near dying relatives.

They also made love. Today's chimps and bonobos are among the most sexually active animals on earth. They kiss -- sometimes with the deep "French kiss," walk arm in arm, hug, stroke, pat, groom, bow to one another, and often copulate throughout most (if not all) of the female's monthly estrus cycle. But unlike human beings, our last tree-dwelling forebears were almost certainly promiscuous -- just as chimpanzees and bonobos are today.

At the height of estrus, an ancestral female may have joined a single male and left the community to copulate with him in private. But this bond was temporary; most likely they never paired for more than a few days or weeks.

Nor did they fall in love. Undoubtedly our first relatives had "favorites," like all other creatures. But these distant kin showed none of the obsessive focus on a single mate that is so characteristic of human romantic passion. And they probably never formed a partnership to rear their young. A mother didn't need a mate to help protect or provide for her and her child. So like chimps, mothers raised their infants by themselves.

Nevertheless, some of our forest-dwelling ancestors must have felt more attraction for a mating partner than others did, an affinity that would eventually develop into human romantic love. When, where, and why humanity started to love with new vigor, no one knows. But I think this journey began soon after our forebears began to descend from the trees of East Africa to build a new world on the perilous ground.

(From the book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher, Ph.D., Published Henry Holt; February 2004; $25.00US/$36.95CAN; 0-8050-6913-5)

Copyright © 2004 Helen E. Fisher

Author's Bio: 

Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is one of this country's most prominent anthropologists. Prior to becoming a research professor at Rutgers University, she was a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Dr. Fisher has conducted extensive research on the evolution, expression, and chemistry of love. Her two most recent books, The First Sex and Anatomy of Love, were New York Times Notable Books. She grew up in Connecticut and lives in New York City.

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