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What's Love Got To Do With It?

secaldwe's picture

          In my last web paper, I latched onto the idea of desire preceding all sexual acts.  I found a few intriguing articles with various studies using focus groups of men and women and monitoring their response to stimuli.  It came out that desire might actually come after sex: a neurological response that allows human beings to engage emotionally with their mate/potential mate.  This time, I’m taking a look at the history of sexual response by taking a cue from Darwin.  Psychologist Geoffrey Miller wrote a paper entitled The Mating Mind which explores the evolutionary aspect of the mating game.  My quest was to find out just how much of human reaction to sexual advances is universal.  It’s a common collegiate experience to go to a bar with friends and spend half the night rejecting unwanted come-ons from gross dudes whose clothes smell as though they haven’t been washed in weeks or from frat boys dowsed in Crave body spray.  Many Bryn Mawr Women can put names to the two extremes from two neighboring schools.  I wanted to know why we’re so picky and if it’s always been that way.

            Does it take two to tango?  Yes, women are stereotypically the choosy ones and many scientists are backing this stereotype, at least in theory.  Dr. Bailey of Northwestern University says, “the systems for sexual orientation and arousal make men go out and find people to have sex with whereas women are more focused on accepting or rejecting those who seek sex with them” (1).  Does that mean we have the final say, evolutionarily speaking?  It seems to me that women are more flexible when it comes to sex.  We have to be, both physically and emotionally speaking, especially when it comes to childbirth.  Are human beings programmed to fall in and out of love easily (see 12-18 month infatuation period and then poof!) so that we can genetically strengthen our offspring? 

            Dr. Miller writes, “sexual selection often creates an evolutionary positive-feedback loop that is highly sensitive to initial conditions” (2) but what does this mean?  Is this another way of supporting the choosy female claim?  If we think about the human mating game, it does fall in step with what Darwin originally argues in the late 19th century.  He believed that such creative products like language and music, such elemental yet complex entities, were first developed in early hominids to offer an advantage to masters of the forms.  It makes sense to me.  Birds sing to attract mates, so do whales and each song is unique.  However, language is interesting.  Thinking of my own experience and the experience of millions of women out there, the most eloquent and articulate men usually make the grade while those who resort to grunting noises or fart jokes pale in comparison to their sophisticated competition.  Was it the same for our ancestors millions of years ago?  Was language wielded as a way to woo a la Cyrano de Bergerac?  Amazing thought!

            Now as to Miller’s positive-feedback loop, what if early hominids kept choosing the same types of mates.  What if intelligence and strength didn’t matter to early women?  Would it mean that Darwin was wrong and we really are just primates after all?  I don’t see an alternative to sexual selection: it has to exist or species die out, just like natural selection but why do only humans seem to select for capacity for higher brain functions in mates?  What do we see that chimps and bonobos cannot?  Is this another neocortex deal?  If all mammals have a neocortex that regulates things like motor command, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and, for us at least, language, do we all have that drive to find the prettiest and most appealing partner?  Ornamentation is important for peacocks and cuttlefish.  It is highly important for many humans, too.  Why?  Why is pretty always better? 

            It may be useful to take Miller’s model for the purposes of ornamentation in courtship.  He writes, “a number of psychological biases (including sensory, perceptual, cognitive, and emotional attunement to certain stimuli) influence mate choice and hence the design of sexual ornaments.  There are analogies between courtship and marketing, and between sexual selection and venture capital which considers the possible interactions” (2).  The venture capital metaphor is alarmingly accurate, especially in the context of Darwin and my previous paper.  I hate to sound cynical in this, my final thoughts for the semester, but I see many parallels between investor (the female) and the firm providing services (male).  Thinking about all those hormones raging during sex, it makes complete sense that desire would come later, after there’s been a “deposit,” so to speak.  That way, we ensure the well-being of our fetus my becoming attached to the male who traditionally would have provided for us.  We make a commitment, even temporarily, to nurture and be fed, hoping that our investment pays off and furthers our gene pool.  A smart move in the market means regular gratification for us, food for the baby, and everyone wins in the end – everyone attractive and desired, that is.  Maybe our ancestors had it right, putting brains before beauty.  After all, they didn’t know about divorce. 


(1) Pas de Deux of Sexuality is Written in the Genes.  By Nicholas Wade


(2) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.  By Geoffrey Miller.