Is Love Something More?

A recent Time cover story swallows evolutionary psychology wholesale:

Losing our faculties over a matter like sex ought not to make much sense for a species like ours that relies on its wits. A savanna full of predators, after all, was not a place to get distracted. But the lure of losing our faculties is one of the things that makes sex thrilling–and one of the very things that keeps the species going. As far as your genes are concerned, your principal job while you’re alive is to conceive offspring, bring them to adulthood and then obligingly die so you don’t consume resources better spent on the young. Anything that encourages you to breed now and breed plenty gets that job done.


But mating and the rituals surrounding it make us come unhinged in other ways too, ones that are harder to explain by the mere babymaking imperative. There’s the transcendent sense of tenderness you feel toward a person who sparks your interest. There’s the sublime feeling of relief and reward when that interest is returned. … If human reproductive behavior is a complicated thing, part of the reason is that it’s designed to serve two clashing purposes. On the one hand, we’re driven to mate a lot. On the other hand, we want to mate well so that our offspring survive. …

Cultural customs that warn against sex on the first date may have emerged for such practical reasons as avoiding pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, but they’re also there for tactical reasons. Males or females who volunteer their babymaking services too freely may not be offering up very valuable genes. Those who seem more discerning are likelier to be holding a winning genetic hand–and are in a better position to demand one in return.  The elaborate ritual of dating is how this screening takes place. It’s when that process pays off–when you finally feel you’ve found the right person–that the true-love thrill hits, and studies of the brain with functional magnetic resonance imagers (fMRIs) show why it feels so good.

But then the last paragraph retreats to delusion:

Survival of a species is a ruthless and reductionist matter, but if staying alive were truly all it was about, might we not have arrived at ways to do it without joy–as we could have developed language without literature, rhythm without song, movement without dance? Romance may be nothing more than reproductive filigree, a bit of decoration that makes us want to perpetuate the species and ensures that we do it right. But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn’t something more at work–and the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced. That’s a nut science may never fully crack.

Geez.  Me, over here, I’m convinced.  Joy, literature, song, and dance are just as easily explained as the other phenomena the article discusses. 

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  • Manon de Gaillande

    What about over-altruistic behavior, such as “just wanting your beloved to be happy” (i.e. willingly let your potential mate choose someone unrelated instead), refusing to cheat on someone even when the benefits (for the offspring) far outweigh the costs, removing yourself from the gene pool (either killing yourself or turning down other mates) after your SO leaves you or dies? Those are distant outliers, but they do exist, and actually attract praise.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unholysmoke/ Ben Jones

    But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn’t something more at work…

    …and that would be? C’mon, don’t leave us hanging here!

    It’s a testament to how dyed-in-the-wool evolutionary psychology is that even when you can comfortably quantify something like love or music, it doesn’t diminish that heady thrill one bit. If you want the essence of humanity, there it is. I sometimes worry that a future living in computers with nanobots might diminish that.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    Manon de Gaillande, we should expect those behaviors to attract praise. They are things we (or rather our genes) would want from other people. In terms of maximizing your reproductive effectiveness, you want a partner who is willing to let you reproduce with others, who will not do so him/herself, and who will continue raising your offspring after your death rather than seeking a new mate. So we should also expect those traits to continue because your offspring with such partners will inherit those tendencies, and those tendencies will make them attractice partners to future mates.

  • Ian C.

    I don’t mean to show my bias, but journalists are generally not the sharpest knives in the drawer!

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    Why are we resistant (and I think we generally are) to evolutionary explanations for things like love? Does it interfere with an impulse to frame things in altruistic terms to play up our value to others?

  • Caledonian

    We are resistant to any attempt at explanation of why we feel. Higher thought competes with emotional arousal, and understanding makes it difficult for us to give ourselves to our desires.

    People tend to avoid that which causes dissonance.

  • Nominull

    “Romance may be nothing more than reproductive filigree, a bit of decoration that makes us want to perpetuate the species and ensures that we do it right. But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn’t something more at work–and the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced.”

    This is quite a reasonable statement, if you look at what it actually says. Maybe love is a simple matter of gene survival, but humans are wired to think of it as something more, so you’re going to have a hard time convincing anybody.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Why are we resistant (and I think we generally are) to evolutionary explanations for things like love?

    Among other things, it reminds us that we’re matter and when we die we stay dead.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unholysmoke/ Ben Jones

    Are the actions love makes us take indicative of a bias then? And if so, is it one we should be seeking to overcome?

  • Silas

    Robin_Hanson: I’m having trouble reading your tone from the few words you added. Are you criticizing Time‘s acceptance of the science it quoted? If so, didn’t you previously say that evolutionary psychology is the most successful application of evolutionary theory?

    Here’s something that might be relevant: A theory about sperm competition that explains why men want to have sex so much with their wives after a prolonged separation.

    Yep, that’s right: we were mystified why men are like that until the sperm theory.

  • Unknown

    I wonder if Eliezer would be convinced. Given what he said about the idea of deliberate fitness maximizers, it would seem that he is one of those who would rather not be convinced.

  • http://www.scheule.blogspot.com Scott Scheule

    Silas, Robin’s not being sarcastic. Though I can see why you’d be confused–a critic of ev psych could have written the exact same words with an implied sarcasm.

    Robin, I like that “Geez” has become your catchphrase.

    My general impression is there’s much skepticism of the explanatory value of evolutionary psychology. These repeated criticisms of “just-so stories” are not baseless.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Scott, yes there is much to criticize about the practice of evo psych. But that doesn’t seem to be the basis for the “something more” claim.

    Ian, reporters are often very sharp – I think this is much more about knowing what their audience wants to hear.

  • http://www.scheule.blogspot.com Scott Scheule

    Robin,

    I thought your point, that joy, literature, song and dance could be easily explained, was presuming they’d be explained through evolutionary psych.

    And it seems to me that complaints about evolutionary explanation are at the heart of the “something more” claim. If evolutionary explanations fail, then the suggestion is that there’s “something more.”

  • Z. M. Davis

    Unknown, you’re not seriously suggesting that humans really are deliberate fitness maximizers, are you?

    There’s nothing irrational about wishing that something weren’t true, as long as you make your best effort not to let that preference interfere with forming an accurate belief (i.e., your utility function and pdf get drawn separately.) For example, I’m one of those people who finds certain propositions made by evolutionary psychologists to be rather offensive. But I know that my offense has no bearing one way or the other on whether or not the propositions are true. I don’t deny that human nature exists–I just think that it’s something to be mitigated rather than embraced. And I think everyone agrees with me there, to one extent or another. None of you people actually give a damn about maximizing fitness. I should hope none of you are in favor of perfectly natural horrors like rape or war. &c., &c.

  • Acheman

    I’m always puzzled when this blog talks about popular resistance to evo-psych explanations. What I see is the exact opposite: many, many people, especially those who are ‘just educated enough’ – middlebrow, middleclass people who interact with ideas more through dinnerparty conversation than through real wrestling with difficult ideas – are strongly attracted to evo-psych explanations because of their simplicity when compared to more complex sociological or psychological accounts and the fact that they can easily be interpreted as a ‘justification’ of the status quo (Even here, I recall Robin from time to time labelling behaviour that doesn’t further the reproduction of one’s genetic code ‘irrational’). Because of this second feature, I’d say that the vulgar, oversimplified evo-psych we’re talking about here is more dangerous than its predecessors in terms of trendy theory, bastardised Freudianism and crude, bowdlerised Marxism (the latter was always a little too radical-sounding to be quite as popular as the other two, but it came close). And no, the counterargument the article presents isn’t any good either. But between lazy cod-theorisation and mysticism, I’m not sure there’s a clear winner in the least-worst game. And of course this reminds us that we shouldn’t be looking just at the article’s ‘conclusions’ as much as the way it frames the argument as taking place between these two poles.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Unknown, what the heck are you talking about? “Human beings do not deliberately maximize fitness” is the standard view in ev-psych.

    The last paragraph reflects the natural belief that, due to the Law of Similarity (“effects resemble causes”), anything that feels wonderful must be due to something equally wonderful like fairy dust, rather than something that everyone thinks is mundane like anything to do with science.

  • anonymous

    Acheman, Z. M. Davis, the article’s counter-argument is not based on mysticism or wishful thinking. Once the assumption is made that ev-psych is the main factor behind human behavior, explaining why humans are not deliberate fitness maximizers is non-trivial at best. Since it is self-evident that people do care about such things as mysticism, novelty and complexity – things which are quite incompatible with the overarching goal of evolutionary psychology – their offense and skepticism is quite justified. This is in addition to the dubious, “just so” nature of most evolutionary explanations.

    As an aside, this point was comprehensively discussed back in November: it seems that we’re getting quite repetitive.

  • Unknown

    Eliezer, I wasn’t referring to the claim that human beings aren’t deliberate fitness maximizers; of course they aren’t. I was speaking of your reaction to the idea of a deliberate fitness maximizer as something horrifying.

    Another point that was in my mind: At one time Robin suggested that honesty required that people admit that they don’t care as much as they say do about things like science, wisdom, beauty, music, and so on, given that their actions do not actually show that they care much about these things. If I remember rightly, you characterized this as “giving in to bias” rather than overcoming bias. This seems to suggest that you think either that people do care as much as they say, or that they “should” care as much as they say they do. But how can it be true that you “should” do something that you cannot do? And given the origins of people’s desires, it is impossible for them to care as much about such things as they necessarily desire to seem to others to care. In other words, your disagreement with Robin in this matter, to me, suggests discontent with evolutionary psychology.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    It is not noteworthy or surprising that Time cannot print two paragraphs on evolutionary psychology without getting delusional in the third paragraph! Evolutionary psychology is among the more difficult scientific fields — less talented scientists should stick to rocket science — and Time regularly falls down on simpler science. Time journalists are very sharp and invariably went to elite universities, but journalists succeed or fail by being perceived among their colleagues as influential, as well-connected or as having their pulse on current popular opinion. Competing on these criteria is mostly incompatible with the demands of continuous scientific learning.

    It is also not noteworthy for a nonexpert to have a false belief about joy or love, and if Robin wants to quote an expert’s belief about joy or love, he should IMHO quote a source harder to knock down than Time to avoid giving impressionable readers the impression that Time is scientifically reliable.

    Maybe the fact that Robin is a professor (inside the Beltway at that) explains his otherwise-hard-to-explain scientific attention to a Time journalist: if both professors and journalists are informal employees of the permanent government, Robin’s will tend to consider journalists colleagues — or those whom Robin considers colleagues will tend to consider journalists colleagues, which will tend to cause Robin to regard them more highly or at least pay more attention to them.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Eliezer, I wasn’t referring to the claim that human beings aren’t deliberate fitness maximizers; of course they aren’t. I was speaking of your reaction to the idea of a deliberate fitness maximizer as something horrifying.

    A deliberate fitness maximizer would be nothing like a human. So how do you get from there to the idea that I would find humans horrifying?

    And given the origins of people’s desires, it is impossible for them to care as much about such things as they necessarily desire to seem to others to care. In other words, your disagreement with Robin in this matter, to me, suggests discontent with evolutionary psychology.

    If by that you mean that I think humans should become more like we wish we were, then yes, that is where I think Earth-originating intelligent life ought to grow up to. If by that you mean that I think the theory of natural selection doesn’t describe humans, then hell no.

    See also Hypocrisy or Akrasia? on the point that being unable to care as much as you wish you cared doesn’t necessarily make you a hypocrite; who says that our emotions are our true selves and our propositional moral beliefs are a facade rather than, say, the other way around?

  • Z. M. Davis

    I’d say this is time for a disagreement case study, but it’s not even obvious what we’re disagreeing about. Here’s how the situation seems to me (anyone please correct me as I am likely to hopelessly mistaken): Hanson et al. argue that evolutionary psychology shows that people don’t actually care about refined values (science, “true love,” beauty, &c.) in themselves, but that these things are valued as signals of fitness (or whatever the exact evolutionary mechanism is). Whereas Yudkowsky et al. think that evolutionary psychology can explain how minds with refined values can come about in terms of things like fitness signals, but that this does not mean that people don’t actually have refined values, but rather merely that their dispositions to have these values have a “unrefined” evolutionary cause. To Hanson, evopsych is a teleology, to Yudkowsky, it is merely an etiology.

    Maybe it would help if Hanson would clarify what he thinks the difference is, if any, between genuinely caring about something and erroneously believing that one cares about something. It’s not obvious to me that there is a difference. Certainly people can be mistaken about their own nature (e.g., by believing in vitalism or libertarian free will), but it’s hard to see how people can mistaken about their subjective experiences. When we say that we care about something, isn’t it a claim about the subjective experience of caring? The sequence of events that led to the adaptation in the brain that produces the experience is entirely besides the point. And when people don’t live up to their stated values, does it really make sense to say that therefore they don’t actually hold those values? Isn’t it more reasonable to say that they do have the values they believe they do, but that they’re just not smart or rational or strong-willed enough to carry them out?

    In other words, um, “What Eliezer said.”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    PS: Oh, yeah, because it’s Valentine’s Day, right?

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    who says that our emotions are our true selves?

    Amen. My true self is whatever plans I can somehow contrive to advance every day and whatever policies I can somehow contrive to follow consistently.

    In the short term, my emotions have a lot of influence over that. In the long term, psychological knowledge will allow an individual to make their emotional responses fit their plans and policies.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    ZM, when people are conflicted, not all their behavior is consistent with a single integrated set of motives. So we instead describe their actions as the result of two or more integrated sets, each of which explains some parts of their behavior. If most behavior is explained by one set, and only a small fraction is explained by another set, it makes some sense to call the first set the “real” motives. Of course this requires some way to weigh amounts of behavior.

  • anonymous

    Robin, see Eliezer and Richard Hollerith. Defining “motives” as simply the most parsimonious explanation for behavior makes sense in some contexts, but this ignores the issue of deliberation and subjective experience. It’s counterintuitive to define “real motives” to mean something other than the goals and values of concious planning.

  • tcpkac

    I remember at age about 13 being shattered by someone’s remark that, according to Freud, love was ‘just a fixation neurosis’. That really took the magic out of magic.
    It took me a good many years to understand that neither the etiology nor the teleology changed one iota of what I felt.
    The question ‘Is there something more ?’ can only mean ‘is there something more than the Universe, than the totality of the present moment ?’.
    All the rest is reductionism : how far can I reduce the label of the present instant until I feel the label is too narrow for the reality, and therefore brings it to shame.

  • anonymous

    tcpkac, that’s actually a very nice example. An aetiological explanation of love (or science, art, mysticism etc.) as a psychoanalytic phenomenon might elicit some opposition, but it doesn’t seem nearly as hard to accept as an evolutionary explanation. It seems that both magical thinking (“an awe-inspiring effect cannot derive from a common cause”) and the perceived inconsistency between teleology and subjective agency are important factors.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Since anonymous cites me to support his position, I will voice my disagreement with his It’s counterintuitive to define “real motives” to mean something other than the goals and values of concious planning.

    I believe for example that my neighbor’s real motive in lobbying for environmentalist and progressive causes is to appear nonexploitative or valuable in some other way to prospective friends even though it is not part of her conscious planning about her lobbying. (That is consistent with my previous comment because the people I refer to in my previous comment have much more intelligence about their own psychology and motives than my neighbor has.)

    I’ll stop commenting now because my name now appears 3 times in the sidebar!

  • http://n8o.r30.net/ Nato Welch

    I know I’ve seen people feel that ev psych is an insufficient – or perhaps merely unsatisfying explanation for romantic feelings. But I don’t, and never have, understood what’s so unsatisfying about the explanation. I can still as thoroughly enjoy the consequences of my genetic heritage even if I think I understand a little more about how it works.

    Anyone who thinks romantic feelings are somehow beyond technoscience has probably never done MDMA.

  • Peter Saintonge

    I like Geoffrey Miller’s take on love. In his view, just as we need to sign a contract in order to convince a landlord to rent to us, we need a guarantee to each other in order to initiate deeply altruistic partnerships. And so love, defined as the credible guarantee that we’d suffer massive disutility if we were to lose our partner, is the guarantee that cements pair-bonding.

    Seen in this light, wasteful sacrifices are seen as “romantic” because they illustrate that material concerns pale in comparison to this “doomsday device” that is the threatened disutility of love lost. And so diamonds are romantic, vacuum cleaners are not.

  • mitchell porter

    It would be useful to talk in terms of proximate and ultimate causes. “Proximate causation: Explanation of an animal’s behavior based on trigger stimuli and internal mechanisms. Ultimate causation: Explanation of an animal’s behavior based on evolution – why this specific trait was favored by natural selection.”

    Evolutionary psychology seeks ultimate causes. The TIME journalist is talking about proximate causes. And really, you could see it as another variation on the problem of qualia. Granted that certain physical behaviors have certain adaptive outcomes, why does it feel like that to engage in them? Ev-psych might explain why it’s adaptive to feel a certain emotion at a certain time. But it will not, in itself, explain the existence of emotions.

  • Wendy Collings

    I know it’s usual to discuss love as though it’s a single emotion, but it seems to me that it’s actually a cocktail of several emotions, such as protectiveness, loyalty, fascination, comfort, trust, vanity, physical attraction, tenderness, security – and all the others I haven’t thought of off-hand.

    Everyone makes their own cocktail from the bar; a different mix for each potential partnership – and the mix usually changes over time, too; adding new ingredients, letting others go stale.

    Sometimes evolutionary psychology can explain everything that’s in the cocktail, sometimes it can’t. I’d say there’s often “something else”. I don’t mean something(s) that can’t be explained scientifically; I just think it doesn’t work to force a single explanation onto a complex mix.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Acheman, how many people has Marxism killed? How many people has evolutionary psychology killed? Read “The Blank Slate”.

    Robert Lindsay claims altruism does not exist. I discuss that here.

    Many people don’t, but I find humans horrifying.

  • Acheman

    Dinner-party Marxism has killed almost nobody. You’re talking about a different bowdlerisation. I’d argue that dinner-party evolutionary psychology may be killing people right now by encouraging, or rather reinforcing, an ‘every man for himself’ ethics and a resistence to societal change and personal self-examination, particularly among those doing rather well out of the status quo. I’d agree with Eliezer that there is no inherent logical progression from one to the other, although I suspect he wouldn’t agree with me altogether in my belief that the cultural/ideological need for scientific narratives that can be easily used in such a way is currently skewing funding and publication decisions – I suspect the predominance of poorer-than-average-quality research in this area is a sign of this.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Eliezer doesn’t seem content with “no inherent logical progression”. That’s why he’s had a long string of posts on Aristotelian categories and the definitions of words. Marxism, dinner-party or otherwise, killed tons of people by “encouraging, or rather reinforcing” hate and authoritarianism. Here in the land of “every man for himself” ethics the main cause of death is being old and having had too much to eat.

    In what area do you think there is higher than average quality research? How do you determine quality?

  • Acheman

    Please don’t say ‘dinner-party or otherwise’. It’s wilfully missing my point, which is that there are different belief-systems which, although genealogically classifiable under a single banner, don’t correspond to one another in terms of effects, coherence, believer-base and so forth. I’m doing this partly to be kind to evo psych, which I know I’m not encountering in its strongest form most of the time.
    You think we live in a just world. I don’t. I suspect it’s going to take a long time to argue each other out of that one. I’d suggest that you recognise, however, your strong interest in rejecting all the arguments I or another person might make, and looking into the matter accordingly. Please note that I’m *not* trying to claim some Super Rationality Prize for believing something that in many ways puts me in a tight spot – I’m just asking you to recognise that some beliefs might be harder, psychologically, to get your head round than evo psych.

  • http://www.scheule.blogspot.com Scott Scheule

    The debate here is between Robin and allies, who find the idea that materialism could fail worth a “geez,” and the journalist and his ilk, who are skeptical of the idea it could succeed. Alternatively, the journalist et al do think materialism true, but doubt science will ever be able to explain it. Alternatively, Robin and allies think materialism false, but true about such cultural issues as joy, love, dance, et al. Or, more unlikely, think reductionist explanation will work here, even if there are immaterial truths that it ends up reducing to.

    All of these positions are defensible. I read a recent paper on the topic–the context is the dualist/monist debate, but many of the arguments are applicable, just replace “consciousness” with “love” or “dance” etc.

    http://www.unc.edu/~ujanel/Du.htm

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    You think we live in a just world
    When you assume too much you make an ass of you and you. I don’t believe in the concept of “just” at all.

    looking into the matter accordingly
    Looking into what?

    I’m just asking you to recognise that some beliefs might be harder, psychologically, to get your head round than evo psych.
    Quantum mechanics, for sure. Did you have something else in mind?

  • anonymous

    I believe for example that my neighbor’s real motive in lobbying for environmentalist and progressive causes is to appear nonexploitative or valuable in some other way to prospective friends even though it is not part of her conscious planning about her lobbying.

    More plausibly, your neighbour sees environmental advocacy and progressivism as being consistent with their morality (possibly involving some amount of hypocracy, akrasia and etc.). That’s where the buck stops as far as “real motives” are concerned. Social network phenomena are clearly relevant as an empirical matter, but very few people would claim that e.g. extreme religiousness is only really motivated by social concerns even though the same dynamics are applicable.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I’m not sure the adjective “real” in the phrase “real motive” is really helping anyone. Propositional beliefs are real. So are emotions. So are evolutionary histories. Whatever is, is real.

  • Silas

    Scott_Scheule and Robin_Hanson: my biggest objection to explaining love, dance, architecture, etc. through signaling is that, well, those seem to be *extremely* roundabout ways of spreading one’s seed. It’s like someone should have tapped Michaelangelo on the shoulder and said, “you know, there’s a simpler way…”

    But I freely admit I may be missing something.

  • http://www.scheule.blogspot.com Scott Scheule

    Eliezer:

    It seems like a perfectly sensible way of describing things. One can have false motives and true motives, and we usually use “real” to mean the true motives. Would you prefer they talked about one’s true motives as opposed to their false motives?

    Silas:

    I wasn’t endorsing Hanson’s view, just explaining it. I agree with you.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    In my experience, a statement encountered at random in an article or on the internet about evo psych is more likely to be false than a statement encountered at random about quantum physics.

    This comment is a response to TGGP’s assertion that quantum physics is “harder, psychologically, to get your head round than evo psych” (whatever that means).