an apocryphal story, a colleague once turned to the great British geneticist J.B.S.
Haldane, and said, "Tell me, Mr. Haldane, knowing what you do about nature,
what can you tell me about God?" Haldane replied, "He has an inordinate
fondness for beetles." Indeed, the world contains over 300,000 species of
beetles. I would add that "God" loves the human mating game, for no
other aspect of our behavior is so complex, so subtle, or so pervasive. And although
these sexual strategies differ from one individual to the next, the essential
choreography of human courtship, love, and marriage has myriad designs that seem
etched into the human psyche, the product of time, selection, and evolution. They
begin the moment men and women get within courting range--with the way we flirt.
describing these strategies, I make no effort to be "politically correct'
" Nature designed men and women to work together. But I cannot pretend that
they are alike. They are not. And I have given evolutionary and biological explanations
for their differences where I find them appropriate.
from places as different as the jungles of Amazonia, the salons of Paris, and
the highlands of New Guinea apparently flirt with the same sequence of expressions.
the woman smiles at her admirer and lifts her eyebrows in a swift, jerky motion
as she opens her eyes wide to gaze at him. Then she drops her eyelids, tilts her
head down and to the side, and looks away. Frequently she also covers her face
with her hands, giggling nervously as she retreats behind her palms. This sequential
flirting gesture is so distinctive that [German ethologist Irenaus] Eibl-Eibesfeldt
is convinced it is innate, a human female courtship ploy that evolved eons ago
to signal sexual interest.
also employ courting tactics similar to those seen in other species. Have you
ever walked into the boss's office and seen him leaning back in his chair, hands
clasped behind his head, elbows high, and chest thrust out? Perhaps he has come
from behind his desk, walked up to you, smiled, arched his back, and thrust his
upper body in your direction? If so, watch out. He may be subconsciously announcing
his dominance over you. If you are a woman, he may be courting you instead.
"chest thrust" is part of a basic postural message used across the animal
kingdom--"standing tall." Dominant creatures puff up. Codfish bulge
their heads and thrust our their pelvic fins. Snakes, frogs, and toads inflate
their bodies. Antelope and chameleons turn broadside to emphasize their bulk.
Mule deer look askance to show their antlers. Cats bristle. Pigeons swell. Lobsters
raise themselves onto the tips of their walking legs and extend their open claws.
Gorillas pound their chests. Men just thrust out their chests.
gaze is probably the most striking human courting ploy. Eye language. In Western
cultures, where eye contact between the sexes is permitted, men and women often
stare intently at potential mates for about two to three seconds during which
their pupils may dilate - a sign of extreme interest. Then the starer drops his
or her eyelids and looks away.
wonder the custom of the veil has been adopted in so many cultures. Eye contact
seems to have an immediate effect. The gaze triggers a primitive part of the human
brain, calling forth one of two basic emotions--approach or retreat. You cannot
ignore the eyes of another fixed on you; you must respond. You may smile and start
conversation. You may look away and edge toward the door. But first you will probably
tug at an earlobe, adjust your sweater, yawn, fidget with your eyeglasses, or
perform some other meaningless movement--a "displacement gesture"--to
alleviate anxiety while you make up your mind how to acknowledge this invitation,
whether to flee the premises or stay and play the courting game.
gaze at each other during courtship too. These animals may have branched off of
our human evolutionary tree more than 19 million years ago, yet this similarity
in wooing persists. As anthropologist Barbara Smuts has said of a budding baboon
courtship on the Eburru cliffs of Kenya, "It looked like watching two novices
in a singles bar."
affair began one evening when a female babooon, Thalia, turned and caught a young
male, Alex staring at her. They were about 15 feet apart. He glanced away immediately.
So she stared at him--until he turned to look at her. Then she intently fiddled
with her toes. On it went. Each time she stared at him, he looked away; each time
he stared at her, she groomed her feet. Finally Alex caught Thalia gazing at him--the
he flattened his ears against his head, narrowed his eyelids, and began to smack
his lips, the height of friendliness in baboon society. Thalia froze. Then, for
a long moment, she looked him in the eye. Only after this extended eye contact
had occurred did Alex approach her, at which point Thalia began to groom him--the
beginning of a friendship and sexual liaison that was still going strong six years
later, when Smuts returned to Kenya to study baboon friendships.
these courting cues be part of a larger human mating dance?
to David Givens, an anthropologist, and Timothy Perper, a biologist, who spent
several hundred hours in American cocktail lounges watching men and women pick
up each other up, American singles-bar courtship has several stages, each with
distinctive escalation points. I shall divide them into five. The first is the
"attention getting" phase. Young men and women do this somewhat differently.
As soon as they enter the bar, both males and females typically establish a territory--a
seat, a place to lean, a position near the jukebox or dance floor. Once settled,
they begin to attract attention to themselves.
vary. Men tend to pitch and roll their shoulders, stretch, exaggerate their body
movements. Instead of using the wrist to stir a drink, men often employ the entire
arm, as if stirring mud. The normally smooth motion necessary to light a cigarette
becomes a whole-body gesture, ending with an elaborate shaking from the elbow
to extinguish the match.
there is the swagger with which young men often move to and fro. Male baboons
on the grasslands of East Africa also swagger when they foresee a potential sexual
encounter. A male gorilla walks back and forth stiffly as he watches a female
out of the corner of his eye. The parading gait is known to primatologists as
bird-dogging. Males of many species also preen. Human males pat their hair, adjust
their clothes, tug their chins, or perform other self-clasping or grooming movements
that diffuse nervous energy and keep the body moving.
women begin the attention-getting phase with many of the same maneuvers that men
use--smiling, gazing, shifting, swaying, preening, stretching, moving in their
territory to draw attention to themselves. Often they incorporate a battery of
feminine moves as well. They twist their curls, tilt their heads, look up coyly,
giggle, raise their brows, flick their tongues, lick their upper lips, blush,
and hide their faces in order to signal, "I am here."
women also have a characteristic walk when courting; they arch their backs, thrust
out their bosoms, sway their hips, and strut. No wonder many women wear high-heeled
shoes. This bizarre Western custom, invented by Catherine de Medici in the 1500s,
unnaturally arches the back, tilts the buttocks, and thrusts the chest out into
a female come-hither pose. The clomping noise of their spiky heels helps draws
synchrony is the final and most intriguing component of the pickup. As potential
lovers become comfortable, they pivot or swivel until their shoulders become aligned,
their bodies face-to-face. This rotation toward each other may start before they
begin to talk or hours into conversation, but after a while the man and woman
begin to move in tandem. Only briefly at first. When he crosses his legs, she
crosses hers; as he leans left, she leans left; when he smoothes his hair, she
smoothes hers. They move in perfect rhythm as they gaze deeply into each other's
interactional synchrony, this human mirroring begins in infancy. By the second
day of life, a newborn has begun to synchronize its body movements with the rhythmic
patterns of the human voice. And it is now well established that people in many
other cultures get into rhythm when they feel comfortable together. Our need to
keep each other's time reflects a rhythmic mimicry common to many animals. Chimps
sometimes sway from side to side as they stare into one another's eyes just prior
to copulation. Cats circle. Red deer prance. Howler monkeys court with rhythmic
tongue movements. Stickleback fish do a zigzag jig. From bears to beetles, courting
couples perform rhythmic rituals to express their amorous intentions.
courtship has other similarities to courtship in "lower" animals. Normally
people woo each other slowly. Caution during courtship is also characteristic
of spiders. The male wolf spider, for example, must enter the long, darker entrance
of a female's compound in order to court and copulate. This he does slowly. If
he is overeager, she devours him.
and women who are too aggressive at the beginning of the courting process also
suffer unpleasant consequences. If you come too close, touch too soon, or talk
too much, you will probably be repelled. Like wooing among wolf spiders, baboons,
and other creatures, the human pickup runs on message. At every juncture in the
ritual each partner must respond correctly, otherwise the courtship fails.
no ritual is more common to Western would-be lovers than the "dinner date."
If the man is courting, he pays--and a woman instinctively knows her partner is
wooing her. In fact, there is no more widespread courtship ploy than offering
food in hopes of gaining sexual favors. Around the world men give women presents
prior to lovemaking. A fish, a piece of meat, sweets, and beer are among the delicacies
men have invented as offerings.
ploy is not exclusive to men. Black-tipped hang flies often catch aphids, daddy
longlegs, or houseflies on the forest floor. When a male has felled a particularly
juicy prey, he exudes secretions from an abdominal scent gland that catch the
breeze, announcing a successful hunting expedition. Often a passing female hang
fly stops to enjoy the meal - but not without copulating while she eats.
feeding," as this custom is called, probably predates the dinosaurs, because
it has an important reproductive function. By providing food to females, males
show their abilities as hunters, providers, worthy procreative partners.
person smells slightly different; we all have a personal "odor print"
as distinctive as our voice, our hands, our intellect. As newborn infants we can
recognize our mother by her smell. Both men and women have "apocrine glands
in their armpits, around their nipples, and in the groin that become active at
puberty. These scent boxes differ from "eccrine" glands, which cover
much of the body and produce an odorless liquid, because their exudate, in combination
with bacteria on the skin, produce the acrid, gamy smell of perspiration.
in parts of Greece and the Balkans, some men carry their handkerchiefs in their
armpits during festivals and offer these odoriferous tokens to the women they
invite to dance: they swear by the results.
could a man's smell actually trigger infatuation in a woman? This possible link
between male essence and female reproductive health may provide a clue to attraction.
Women perceive odors better than men do. They are a hundred times more sensitive
to Exaltolide, a compound much like men's sexual musk; they can smell a mild sweat
from about three feet away; and at midcycle, during ovulation, women can smell
men's musk even more strongly. Perhaps ovulating women become more susceptible
to infatuation when they can smell male essence and are unconsciously drawn toward
it to maintain menstrual cycling.
woman's or a man's smell can release a host of memories too. So the right human
smell at the right moment could touch off vivid pleasant memories and possibly
ignite that first, stunning moment of romantic adoration.
Americans, the Japanese, and many other people find odors offensive; for most
of them the smell of perspiration is more likely to repel than to attract. Some
scientists think the Japanese are unduly disturbed by body odors because of their
long tradition of arranged marriages: men and women were forced into close contact
with partners they found unappealing. Why Americans are phobic about natural body
smells, I do not know. Perhaps our advertisers have swayed us in order to sell
their deodorizing products.
more important mechanism by which human beings become captivated by "him"
or "her" may be what sexologist John Money calls your love map. Long
before you fixate on Ray as opposed to Bill, Sue instead of Ceciley, you have
developed a mental map, a template replete with brain circuitry that determines
what arouses you sexually, what drives you to fall in love with one person rather
love maps vary from one individual to the next. Some people get turned on by a
business suit or a doctor's uniform, by big breasts, small feet, or a vivacious
laugh. But averageness still wins. In a recent study, psychologists selected 32
faces of American Caucasian women and, using computers, averaged all of their
features. Then they showed these images to college peers. Of 94 photographs of
real female faces, only four were rated more appealing than these fabrications.
you would guess, the world does not share the sexual ideals of Caucasian students
from Wyoming. Despite wildly dissimilar standards of beauty and sex appeal, however,
there are a few widely shared opinions about what incites romantic passion. Men
and women around the world are attracted to those with good complexions. Everywhere
people are drawn to partners whom they regard as clean. And men in most places
generally prefer plump, wide-hipped women to slim ones. Looks count.
does money. From rural Zulus to urban Brazilians, men are attracted to young,
good-looking, spunky women, while women are drawn to men with property or money.
Americans are no exception.
male/female appetites are probably innate. it is to a males' genetic advantage
to fall in love with a women who will produce viable offspring; it is to a woman's
biological advantage to become captivated by a man who can help support her young.
As Montaigne, the 16th-century French essayist, summed it up, "We do not
marry for ourselves, whatever we say; we marry just as much or more for our posterity."
AT FIRST SIGHT
this human ability to adore another within moments of meeting come out of nature?
I think it does. In fact, love at first sight may have a critical adaptive function
among animals. During the mating season a female squirrel, for example, needs
to breed. It is not to her advantage to copulate with a porcupine. But if she
sees a healthy squirrel, she should waste no time. She should size him up. And
if her looks suitable, she should grab her chance to copulate. Perhaps love at
first sight is no more than an inborn tendency in many creatures that evolved
to spur the mating process. Then among our human ancestors what had been animal
attraction evolved into the human sensation of infatuation at a glance.
infatuation fades. As Emerson put it, "Love is strongest in pursuit, friendship
in possession." At some point, that old black magic wanes. Yet there does
seem to be a general length to this condition. [Psychologist Dorothy] Tennov measured
the duration of romantic love, from the moment infatuation hit to when a "feeling
of neutrality" for one's love object began. She concluded, "The most
frequent interval, as well as the average, is between approximately 18 months
and three years" John Money agrees, proposing that once you begin to see
your sweetheart regularly the passion lasts two to three years.
Michael] Liebowitz suspects that the end of infatuation is also grounded in brain
physiology. He theorizes that the brain cannot eternally maintain the revved-up
site of romantic bliss. As he sums it up, "If you want a situation where
you and your long-term partner can still get very excited about each other, you
will have to work on it, because in some ways you are bucking a biological tide."
16 percent of the 853 cultures on record actually prescribe monogyny, in which
a man is permitted only one wife at a time. Western cultures are among them. We
are in the minority, however. A whopping 84 percent of all human societies permit
a man to take more than one wife at once--polygyny.
seek polygyny to spread their genes, while women join harems to acquire resources
and ensure the survival of their young. If you ask a man why he wants a second
bride, he might say he is attracted to her wit, her business acumen, her vivacious
spirit, or splendid thighs. If you ask a women why she is willing to "share"
a man, she might tell you that she loves the way he looks or laughs or takes her
to fancy vacation spots.
no matter what reasons people offer, polygny enables men to have more children;
under the right conditions women also reap reproductive benefits. So long ago
ancestral men who sought polygyny and ancestral women who acquiesced to harem
life disproportionately survived.
of the genetic advantages of polygyny for men and because so many societies permit
polygyny, many anthropologists think that harem building is a badge of the human
animal. But in the vast majority of societies where polygyny is permitted, only
about five to 10 percent of men actually have several wives simultaneously. Although
polygyny is widely discussed, it is much less practiced.
gorillas, horses, and animals of many other species always form harems, among
human beings polygyny and polyandry seem to be optional opportunistic exceptions;
monogamy is the rule. Human beings almost never have to be cajoled into pairing.
Instead, we do this naturally. We flirt. We feel infatuation. We fall in love.
We marry. And the vast majority of us marry only one person at a time.
is a trademark of the human animal.
we flirt, fall in love, and marry, human beings also tend to be sexually unfaithful
to a spouse. Americans are no exception. Despite our attitude that philandering
is immoral, regardless of our sense of guilt when we engage in trysts, in spite
of the risks to family, friends, and livelihood that adultery entails, we indulge
in extramarital affairs with avid regularly.
survey of 106,000 readers of Cosmopolitan magazine in the early 1980s indicated
that 54 percent of the married women had participated in at least one affair,
and a poll of 7,239 men reported that 72 percent of those married over two years
had been adulterous.
From a Darwinian perspective, it is easy to explain. If a man has two children
by one woman, he has, genetically speaking, "reproduced" himself. But
if he also engages in dalliances with more women and, by chance, sires two more
young, he doubles his contribution to the next generation. Those men who seek
variety also tend to have more children. These young survive and pass to subsequent
generations whatever it is in the male genetic makeup that seeks "fresh features,"
as Byron said of men's need for sexual novelty.
a man, a woman cannot breed every time she copulates. In fact, anthropologist
Donald Symons has argued that, because the number of children a woman can bear
is limited, women are biologically less motivated to seek fresh features.
women really less interested in sexual variety? My own modest proposal is that
during our long evolutionary history most males pursued trysts to spread their
genes, while females evolved two alternative strategies to acquire resources:
some women elected to be faithful to a single man in order to reap a lot of benefits
from him; others engaged in clandestine sex with many men to acquire resources
from each. This scenario roughly coincides with common beliefs: man, the natural
playboy; women, madonna or whore.
a recent study by Donald Symons and Bruce Ellis, for example, 415 college students
were asked whether they would have sex with an anonymous student of the opposite
sex. In this imaginary scenario, participants were told that all risk of pregnancy,
discovery, and disease was absent. The results were those you would expect. Males
were consistently more likely to say yes, leading these researchers once again
to conclude that men are more interested in sexual variety than women are.
here's the glitch. This study takes into consideration the primary genetic motive
for male philandering (to fertilize young women). But not the primary motive for
female philandering--the acquisition of resources.
is no evidence whatsoever that women are sexually shy or that they shun clandestine
sexual adventures. Instead, both men and women seem to exhibit a mixed reproductive
strategy: monogamy and adultery are our fare.
all have our share of troubles. But probably one of the hardest things we do is
leave a spouse. From the tundras of Siberia to the jungles of Amazonia, people
accept divorce as regrettable--although sometimes necessary. They have specific
social or legal procedures for divorce. And they do divorce. Moreover, unlike
many Westerners, traditional peoples do not make divorce a moral issue. The Mongols
of Siberia sum up a common worldwide attitude, "If two individuals cannot
get along harmoniously together, they had better live apart."
do people divorce? Bitter quarrels, insensitive remarks, lack of humor, watching
too much television, inability to listen, drunkenness, sexual rejection--the reasons
men or women give for why they leave a marriage are as varied as their motives
for having wedded in the first place.
adultery heads the list. Sterility and barrenness come next. Cruelty, particularly
by the husband, ranks third among worldwide reasons for divorce. I am not surprised
that adultery and infertility are paramount. Darwin theorized that people marry
primarily to breed.
to get some insight into the nature of divorce, I turned to the demographic yearbooks
of the United Nations. Divorce generally occurs early in marriage--peaking in
or around the fourth year after wedding--followed by a gradual decline in divorce
as more years of marriage go by. The American divorce peak hovers somewhat below
the common four-year peak. Purely as a guess, I would say that this may have something
to do with American attitudes toward marriage itself. We tend not to marry for
economic, political, or family reasons. Instead, as anthropologist Paul Bohannen
once said, "Americans marry to enhance their inner, largely secret selves."
find this remark fascinating--and correct. We marry for love and to accentuate,
balance out, or mask parts of our private selves. This is why you sometimes see
a reserved accountant married to a blond bombshell or a scientist married to a
poet. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the American divorce peak corresponds
perfectly with the normal duration of infatuation--two to three years. If partners
are not satisfied with the match, they bail out soon after the infatuation wears
off. So there are exceptions to the four-year itch.
IS FOR THE YOUNG
pattern to emerge from the United Nations data regards "divorce with dependent
children." Among the hundreds of millions of people recorded in 45 societies
between 1950 and 1989, 39 percent of all divorces occurred among couples with
no dependent children, 26 percent among those with one dependent child, 19 percent
among couples with two, 7 percent among those with three children, 3 percent among
couples with four young, and couples with five or more dependent young rarely
split. Hence, it appears that the more children a couple bear, the less likely
they are to divorce.
pattern is less conclusively demonstrated by the U.N. data than the first two.
Yet it is strongly suggested and it makes genetic sense. From a Darwinian perspective,
couples with no children should break up; both individuals will mate again and
probably go on to bear young--ensuring their genetic futures. As couples bear
more children they become less economically able to abandon their growing family.
And it is genetically logical that they remain together to raise their flock.
OBSOLESCENCE OF THE PAIR BOND
dearly shows several general patterns of decay. Divorce counts peak among couples
married about four years. And the longer a couple remain together, the older the
partners get, and probably the more offspring they produce, the less likely spouses
are to leave each other.
is not to say that everybody fits this mold. George Bush, for example, does not.
But Shakespeare did. Etched in Shakespeare's marriage and in all these other divorces
recorded from around the world is a blue print, a primitive design. The human
animal seems built to court, to fall in love, and to marry one person at a time;
then, at the height of our reproductive years, often with single child, we divorce;
then, a few years later, we remarry once again.
from Anatomy of Love; The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce,
by Helen E. Fisher. Copyright C 1992 by Helen E. Fisher. Reprinted by arrangement
with W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.
Helen E. Fisher
Originally published by Psychology Today:Mar/Apr 93