Science discovers love

November 27, 1992

Modern science has bequeathed many wondrous discoveries, but surely none more charming than the recent finding by cultural anthropologists that passionate, romantic love is a universal human characteristic. That captivating subject promises to be a principal topic of discussion at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco next month.

Actually, historians have long recognized that the roots of romantic love in Western countries can be traced to medieval Europe's chivalric code, with its elaborate social etiquette, storybook knights in shining armor and proverbial damsels in distress.

But until recently, anthropologists tended to dismiss evidence of romantic love in non-Western societies on the grounds that marriage there was primarily an economic and social institution that benefited families rather than individuals -- hence the prevalence of arranged marriages that paid scant heed to the partners' personal wishes. Romantic love -- defined by anthropologists as an intense attraction and longing to be with the loved one -- was thought to be a luxury available only to the educated elites of such societies.

Now, however, it appears that romantic love may have served an evolutionary purpose as well. Recent studies suggest that the brain chemistry for romantic love evolved alongside the emergence of pair bonding in the species some four to five million years ago -- or around the time people started walking on two legs.

According to this emerging view, the fact that nursing females couldn't forage for food without a partner led to a major shift in reproductive strategies -- one based on infatuation and attachment, the primary ingredients of romantic love.

Recognition that such traits are universal has forced a reassessment of the classical anthropological literature. Some now suspect that what previously was thought to be the absence of romantic emotion in traditional culture was merely a reflection of the imperative to suppress passion's unruly impulses in order to ensure social stability.

Evidence for the new view is also found in ancient legend and in the impact of modern popular culture on once isolated societies. Traditional societies have a rich folklore regarding the ecstasy and danger of passionate attachment. And in many developing countries, romantic novels, movies and television have infected young people with the notion that they should pick their own spouses rather than dutifully accept arranged matches -- an idea that has scandalized their elders.

So we now have it as a scientific fact that people the world over fall in love as a matter of chemistry, biology, psychology, economics -- and romance.

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