There’s an idea circulating that two people who want to be in romantic love can get there by performing a simple procedure that steps them through asking and answring 35 questions and ends with staring into each others’ eyes for 4 minutes.
I don’t know if these reports are true or not. But I’m writing to oppose the gut reaction I think most people have on hearing them, which is that it can’t possibly be that easy because romantic love is this tremendously complex mysterious mystery thing. And if it is that simple, it’s wrong.
I don’t think so. Even if this procedure doesn’t actually have a high success rate, there will be one that does, given certain basics. The basics are: the participants must be of mutually compatible sexual orientations and must smell good to each other.
Why do I believe this? Because of what romantic love is for.
It’s all about the encephalization, really. Millions of years ago our hominid ancestors stumbled onto a novel adaptive strategy: be smart, adaptable, and capable of learning rather than purely instinct-driven. Make tools; use fire; invent language.
This strategy required much, much more of our nervous systems. Because intelligence was in fact a winning strategy, we were selected for growing more complex brains capable of doing more information processing. But increasing the logic density of brains is hard; there probably isn’t a path to it through the design space that is rapidly exploitable by small point mutations. So selective pressure made our brains larger, instead.
The fossil record shows that the hominid line encephalized at a breakneck speed compared to the usual leisurely pace of evolutionary change. This had huge consequences; much of human biology is a series of hacks and kluges to support that encephalization, often in stupidly suboptimal ways.
The one that’s relevant here starts from the limited width of the birth canal. Limited, that is, by the pelvic girdle surrounding it. A skull that’s too large won’t fit through. Therefore, the genetic lines that survived were those in which babies are born with small skulls but the ability to grow them much larger by maturity. (And even so, the size of a baby’s skull pushes that limit pretty hard; this is why birth is so much more difficult and dangerous for human females than it is for other primates).
That design (be born with a small skull and upgrade it outside the womb) implied a long juvenile period between birth and physical maturity. In fact the human brain doesn’t completely finish configuring and rewiring itself until around age 25. And the long juvenile period probably also explains the exceptionally long human lifespan; whatever had to be altered in the development clock to defer stabilization into the final adult configuration probably also delayed the inset of senescence. (Direct evidence for this theory is the rare disease “progeria”).
And the dominoes kept falling. The long juvenile period implied offspring that would be incapable of fending for themselves for an unprecedently long time – on the order of decades rather than the few months to a year typical for other mammals. Consequently the selective value of extended cooperation between the parents went way, way up relative to even our nearest animal kin.
Romantic love works as an an evolved mechanism for keeping mated pairs cooperating long enough to raise multiple children. Here again, selection favors those who love more because they get to launch more offspring. We are, in fact, made to fall in love – and it would only be surprising if the mechanism for establishing it were not simple, robust, and easily triggered.
The “smell good to each other”? There’s experimental evidence that humans generally make a would-I-or-wouldn’t-I decision about a potential sex partner based on smell before they’re aware of doing so. There’s some reason to believe that good smell indicates a degree of genetic distance optimized for healthy offspring – we favor mates who smell something like, but not too much like, our own kin.
For a complicated mix of psychological and historical reasons (some of which are the lingering influence of religion) members of our civilization tend to be romantics about romance. We want it to be poetry, not mechanism. (Then, too, the scientific context in which to understand it as mechanism has only existed since Darwin around 1859.)
But reality is what it is. Even if this particular procedure doesn’t reliably deliver what it promises, we will eventually learn to work the mechanism. I think we will be happier, and more free, when we choose who we love rather than than waiting for it to strike us like lightning.