Sunday, February 14, 2010

Helen Fisher's "Why We Love": Book Review

Playing devil's advocate teaching "Othello," I argued to my class about Iago's sensible, rational view of lust as nature's trapping us into coition, genetic reproduction, and then our own obsolescence. I wondered if any scientists backed him or me up, so I read this popular survey by a leading anthropologist of romance.

Fisher sprinkles literary allusion and ethnographic musings throughout a brisk, accessible, if summarily brief text. Iago gets a nod, as he should, for Shakespeare's confrontation of rational control (although Iago's hardly in the long run the epitome of detachment) over one's longings appeals if by its very un-humanness to us four centuries later. Fisher maps, congruently, why we find ourselves enslaved to passion, and then calmed by peace-- until the next onslaught brought on by perhaps a passing glance, a flirtatious gesture, or a past flame's return.

Using brain chemistry as the central topic, and how dopamine can mirror the rush of drugs upon our receptors, Fisher in accessible language-- although I felt it often too perfunctory, too content not to delve deeper into the physiological workings-- shows how we have evolved for such strategies as falling for two mates at once: dual reproductive strategies designed to enhance our genetic dispersion. Norepinephrine and dopamine release appear at the heart of the book's argument but they get treated in rather cursory fashion. Insights like how seminal fluid contains chemicals that release passion within the female also needed more attention than a paragraph. Too much of the hardcore science in this narrative gets summarily treated, compared to the well-chosen but rather tangential literary allusions and apposite citations generously scattered in these pages instead.

Still, this being a topic few of us can turn away from we find such lessons as how the rage we feel when dumped may cause us to fight harder for our offspring's welfare. The depression we may also feel when jilted may have developed to warn our intimates and companions of our need for care, and a demand that the offending lover be banned from the clan. Fisher shows how defensive and offensive strategies burrow into our instinctive behavior from hundreds of thousands of years ago.

However, she defends monogamy and denies polyamory. (I thought the latter merited more consideration as a modern coping strategy hearkening back to primitive models, but Fisher appears determined to reject it outright with little patience for its proposals.) She offers advice on getting over love and finding it, and on how, based on the studies integrated into the text of rejected lovers, we can learn to cope with one of the most common of all human experiences.

Antidepressants and therapy, for Fisher, serve as models of healing, and she seeks to demonstrate how we can learn patterns that force us, as it were, to re-enter the arena of love's combat once again. There, as a reader finishing this book, you may be reminded of the happier times of Othello and Desdemona, rather than the tragic aftermath of destructive rage engendered within Othello by Iago. Both reactions, it appears from Fisher's laboratory observations and historical research, appear deeply rooted within nearly everyone of us who identifies as a human being. Lust, romance, and long-term attachment play out a very old game. (Posted to Amazon 10-24-09.)


tamerlane said...

Based on your review, and those at Amazon, it seems that Fisher was circling right around the heart of the matter, but allowed her preconceptions to obscure the full truth.

I'd like to know more why she insists humans are incapable of being "in love" with more than one person at at time -- perhaps some focus groups or interviews might expand her comprehension.

Her explanation for serial monogamy - it was necessary stay together only long enough to wean the child -- was one I'd always suspected.

As for 'getting over' love, that is not an issue when one is not attached to outcome in general.

For a similar discussion, cf. Keith Oatley, "Emotions: A Brief History."

Fionnchú said...

TL, does sociobiology offer insights? From your reading of E.O. Wilson, I figure he weighs in here. Your last statement about "outcome" is provocative, but so compressed it leaves me curious what it's about.