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Of Love, Brunettes, and Biology

Richard Carrier

I have come to my own personal conclusion that the magazine U.S. News and World Report is, apart from the tabloids, the most truly awful news weekly in print. Mind you, this is simply an editorial opinion on my part, but let me exhibit at least a few of my reasons, which are most relevant to secularists. Only a week ago the magazine did a six-page cover story on Hell (January 31, 2000, pp. 44-50), even though the article was shallow, simplistic, uninformative, and not even remotely newsworthy (the only event it was tied to was an editorial in an obscure Italian church circular, written almost a year ago--apparently the U.S. News editors missed the word "new" in news). But at least now I can't wait for the six-page cover story on Atlantis!

I would have forgiven this as just another example of the bogus fluff that American journalists think we Americans really want to know--we Americans who subscribe to journals with the words "U.S. News" and "World Report" in their titles on the apparently unreasonable expectation that they will contain news about the United States and a report on world events. But consider the most recent cover story: "Why We Fall In Love: Biology, not romance, guides Cupid's arrow" also known as "It may be a many-splendored thing, but romance relies on Stone Age rules to get started" (February 7, 2000, pp. 42-48). This is fair enough--it is newsworthy and interesting. But it is also misleading, and remains as terminally shallow as a lot of what passes for journalism these days.

The article's thesis is generally correct: what we identify as beautiful or sexy is biologically determined. Of course. If I were a jellyfish, I'm sure I'd find a nice healthy gleam of slime to be the height of goddess-hood in my mate. Science confirms the obvious. But there are three grand problems with this article. First, in a typical, scientifically-ignorant fashion, the authors forgot to emphasize the difference between averages and individuals. Though they correctly report that a ratio of 0.6 to 0.7 between a woman's waist and hips is most widely considered to be the "ideal" in a feminine figure, they fail to mention that nature thrives on variation: though the average man may prefer this, there are millions of men who no doubt have different preferences, for thinner or wider ratios, and thus women who deviate from the ideal have no grounds for utter despair. The authors try to make the same point in the end, but only to say that people can "compensate for looks," never realizing that many people won't have to: their looks, unaltered and uncompensated, could well be quite moving to someone out there already. Nature likes it that way--she knows that things can change at any moment, so it is best to have many variations of the game in play. And the most obvious case of this variation is found in genetically-determined homosexuality, which never gets a single mention in this article. The authors choose to explain beauty solely in terms of reproductive interests, a concern that fails to account for why nature creates homosexuals, or how their notions of beauty are biologically determined, if at all--a significant omission in my opinion, since there is a lot of scientific research out there to report on.

Second, the authors give only scant attention to environmental causes, covering only the ambiguous finding that (again, on average) people prefer mates who resemble their cross-sex parent (e.g. men like women who remind them of their mothers, etc.). And even this is problematic. In my experience, nothing is a bigger sexual turn-off than a woman who looks like my mother. Thus, what this study found is probably similarities of personality between mate and parent, and it is understandable that a personality type that we have grown accustomed to, and have acquired a lot of experience with, might also be one we might at times prefer in a mate (though one can surely think of exceptions). But the environment is a bigger issue than even this. I doubt biology explains my own predilection for brunettes. Especially since I am fairly sure I know the cause: my first and best friend as a child was a brunette, and when I was young the two women on TV that I most wanted to marry, because I perceived their personalities as interesting and fun, were either Morticia of the original Adam's Family or Nora Charles of the Thin Man films (i.e. Myrna Loy). My fate was no doubt sealed forever by these experiences of enjoyment and familiarity (disclosure: my wife is a buxom brunette).

But third, and most important, the authors confuse sexual attraction with love. Perhaps this is just a sign of "Hollywooditis", the tendency of people to be converted to the religions of vanity and superficiality by insipid and shallow romantic dramas, wherein a five-minute sex scene is considered the most efficient way to communicate to the audience that the main characters are now in love (Jane Austen would be appalled). But this is where I find the most relevant problem with articles like this, which report on this or that scientific finding of biological or environmental predestination. One of the most important things that really distinguish us from, let's say, jellyfish, is our capacity to love. Thus, one must really be careful not to confound the importance and meaning of love in an article about sexual attraction. No wonder theists raise alarm at atheism, a view that--one might imagine after reading articles like this--proposes accepting a world in which the only reason we love our wives is because our genome thinks she's the best baby machine in town.

And so we see how uninformative and shallow journalists can be in covering a story that they see as nothing more than a cute slice of "science and life," never realizing that there is a bigger picture, a far more important context, into which such newsworthy ideas should be placed for the reader to understand how this really affects the human condition. Now, I admit that I am a determinist, though what I actually am is technically called a compatibilist--I believe free will is not escaping causation, but doing what we want. And in my opinion, even so-called "quantum randomness" is not really random, just unpredictable. But even if there were a true randomness at the subatomic level this would do nothing to rescue so-called "libertarian free will" from the throes of so-called "fate." But does this commit me to thinking that the only reason I love my wife is because I was biologically and environmentally "cursed" by fate to really, really like her a lot?

Not so. For though I admit that what I find physically beautiful in my wife is determined by my childhood experiences and my typically-masculine genetic construction, this is not what makes me love her. After all, I am very attracted to Gillian Anderson of the X-Files, too, but I don't love her (though I have a hard time explaining this to my jealous wife). Love is not just about attraction. Though I personally believe that at least some attraction is necessary, it is not sufficient to inspire love. For love involves our entire being--our character, knowledge, desires, interests, and ideals. It is what happens when we encounter someone or something that fits so well with what we want, what we enjoy, what we have constructed as our ideals and dreams, that we are moved by this, and come to realize that this is in fact the most important reason anyone can ever have to live, in any possible universe. Love is the realization of an end to every despair--the despair of loneliness, the despair of never knowing comfort or trust, the despair of meaninglessness--for when you find a mutual love, you now mean something to someone other than yourself, you can get close to someone and learn more about them than about anyone else, you can enjoy things about them that were otherwise invisible. The relationship is itself the height of friendship and partnership, and glorified all the more by a sexual passion that can be far more substantial than any other. There is more than mere biology and environment at work here: there is an emergent pattern that is unique and precious.

Of course, the natural retort is that all these things--my character, knowledge, desires, ideals--were determined by biology and environment after all. True. But irrelevant. In the first place, it does not matter how I got to be the person I am today. What matters is that I like who I am. Many people do not like who they are--or would not if they bothered to examine themselves--and my advice to them is to seek every avenue of change, where change is feasible and reasonable, or else to realize that their dislike of themselves may be groundless. The ultimate test: Could you like a person who was just like you? If the answer is yes, then stop whining. If it is no, get to work. But if you have lived the self-examined life and are still content with who you are, then it makes no sense to despair that fate has smiled upon you. Fate has given you the one and only thing any conscious being would ever need in any world in order to be truly happy, and what you then fall in love with--the career you love, the mate you love--will simply be an extension of what you already see as the fundamental truth of happiness. And this love will be a hell of a lot more than admiration for a 0.7 ratio between your wife's waist and hips, no matter how determined that love was by fate. For it is the character of love itself that gives it value in our eyes. Where that love came from is irrelevant.

But there is more to the story than that. For though much of my opinions on physical beauty were decided by biology and upbringing well before my reason could be employed to examine and set myself in order, my opinions on love are far more the product of me than is, one might say, my fascination with brunettes. For once I had enough knowledge and awareness, and was given the impetus, to examine myself and correct and mold my being in a more rational fashion, who I was became more mine than what I was before. And though even this maturation of character was ultimately determined, the point remains that I--my personality, awareness, reason--was far more causally involved, far more necessary an element, in forming my mature self, than these other outside causes, which merely gave birth to the nascent character and power of reason and consciousness, the things which in turn got to work in building who I am now. And that is no trivial matter.

When I fell in love with my wife, it was not her beauty, and certainly not her potential as a child factory, that truly moved me. It was who she was. Her very character and knowledge and manner were what I realized to be most in tune with my own ideals. She represents the sort of human being I wanted the world to be populated with, the sort of human being that in my opinion made humankind worth existing at all. To me, the decisive thought was not "will she be great in bed?" or "will she be a healthy mother to my children?" but "will I be happy living with her the rest of my life?" When the answer to this last question is not only "yes" but a resounding "damn straight!" then what you have is love.

The U.S. News cover story might leave us with the impression that this is all sideshow, that physical attraction is the real thing going on, but anyone who has been in love knows that this is naive. Love, after all, is the ultimate sensation we feel when we contemplate anything that makes life not only worth living, but incredibly exciting. An attractive body may thrill me, but it can hardly give my life meaning. But when that meaning is found, the power of that realization is awesome. That is why love is so moving and exciting a sensation--it is telling us that something is moving and exciting us in the profoundest way our brains can calculate. And pardon me if that sounds less like biology than romance. Biology is just the wiring, the chalkboard, the clay. Love is the product, the picture, the sculpture, made possible by this substrate of biology that makes us uniquely human: the power to understand, to reason, to have ideals. And that is what I call news you can use.

Published:
  2000-09-10

Categories:
  Not Categorized.

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