Is Romance Just Our Way of Trying to Cheat Biology?


Was at the gym today, and got caught watching “The Bachelorette,” which I’d never seen before. High drama as it was the last show of the season and the chick was picking her man from two hopefuls. I didn’t see the end as I needed a good stretch after my time on the elliptical, BUT it got me thinking about the various biological imperatives that we all operate under, which includes picking the fittest mate, staying together long enough to procreate and raise a child to an age where it is strong enough, and then ideally (biologically speaking), finding a new mate to procreate with. The above timeline lasts between 4-7 years which is typically the time most relationships last, according to research, and even holds true if no babies are born.

Multiple mates are good for both sexes as it both increases an individual’s genes moving forward (mixing with more than one mate) AND is “good” for the gene pool in general as relative fitness of a given group increases with both offspring AND variability of offspring.

In light of the above, it then makes sense that there is some kind of psychological, physical, and physiological bonding mechanism that holds people together long enough to procreate and raise a child to health. We call it love, and as we all know, it is more likely to fade than retain its original strength (though there are certain ways to prolong the physiological aspects of love, which include introducing danger or uncertainty into a relationship, which causes ancient neuron pathways to be activated, which create continued bonds. We are a group-oriented species and if the community is under threat from war, weather or other uncertainties, it makes sense that bonded pairs should stay together to make a stronger community).

But we are addicted to love.

And even though we know it, intellectually (being ‘in love’ messes with your brain to the same extent that serious drugs do), most of us still ‘believe’ in love. Kind of like believing in god, except not believing in love is seen as anywhere from vaguely to seriously pathological.

This is where romance comes in. Because unlike love, which is just an ephemeral feeling, romance is a codified cultural construct, and as such, is actually just as, or maybe more powerful than pure ‘faith’ in love. Romance is the way in which we enact love, encourage it, relish it, and attempt to sustain it. And it is through romance and it’s associated tropes that we fetishize what love is in our particular culture.

We all know what romance looks like; flowers, diamonds, long, passionate kisses, doing those things that one doesn’t really want to do but does anyway (various forms of giving up one’s own interests for that of the beloved), etc. Or at least that’s what it looks like in Western culture. But if you break them down, they all have biological (and pretty logical) reasons behind them. A man would bring signifiers of wealth and beauty (gems, flowers) to a woman, and both men and women cook for eachother, showing that they could provide for the mate and for offspring.

Long passionate kisses are an antecedent for actual lovemaking, which, if completed over a long period of time (days in bed), to the satisfaction of both parties, is proof positive of general good health and increases chances of conception. Think about it; the most passionate and best sex (in general) is after you’ve gotten to know someone well enough to feel comfortable with them (so you have both consciously and unconsciously determined their fitness and that they are a good match for you), and want to have sex multiple days, as often as possible. You do that for a year or so (longer if it’s a better match, less if it’s a less good match) which is ample time for conception for two healthy people. And then, when the passionate sex falls off (since we are having so few children now) in Western society you resort to building the relationship, based on romantic principles assigned by your culture.

But since all of this – the searching for the fittest genetic partner, the sexual excitement, the feeling of love to be pair-bonded long enough to procreate and raise a child or two- is rendered meaningless when we only have a child or two, or maybe none at all. And so we are now living in a world where millions of years of evolution, and thousands of years of cultural evolution that dovetails, echoes, and enhances the genetic strength and survivability of our offspring is rendered useless.

We no longer live in the world where our biology and complimentary cultural constructs are beneficial to us and our success.


One response to “Is Romance Just Our Way of Trying to Cheat Biology?”

  1. Really interesting post. I’d like to hear more about your conclusion – what do you mean here?:

    “But since all of this… is rendered meaningless when we only have a child or two, or maybe none at all.”

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