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Love: The Perspective of Evolutionary Psychology



Many artists and poets present love to be magical, spiritual, ethereal and sublime, something that takes us beyond the selfish, the mundane and the physical. As beautiful as these portrayals are, there is also a perverse reductionist pleasure to be found in the representations of domains that disassemble love to cognitive mechanisms and their biological basis, such as evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience. In this article, I will explore the perspective of evolutionary psychology on the set of behaviours that we label as “love”. 


Evolutionary psychology is just one research tradition among many that take a biological approach to explain human behaviour (Downes, 2021). It is one of the fastest growing academic areas within psychology (Buss, 1988). Closely related to fields such as ethology, sociobiology, developmental psychobiology, etc, it examines cognition and behaviour from an “evolutionary perspective”. Evolutionary psychologists believe that human behaviours are a product of psychological mechanisms (Downes, 2021). These mechanisms are adaptations—products of natural and sexual selection. Natural selection favours the creation of adaptations, which can be anatomical, physiological or psychological solutions to recurring historical challenges to survival faced by our ancestors.  


Romantic love is a dominant factor for the survival of the human race because it decides the very “composition of the next generation”. One of the philosophers who treats romantic love from an evolutionary standpoint is the 19th century German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. In his metaphysics he describes a constant primal force called Wille zum Leben that pushes us to strive and look for our own advantage. One of the manifestations of this level is the sexual instinct, which pushes us to make decisions based on sexual drive, of which one is falling in love. Love is therefore merely primal sexual instinct masquerading as passion and romance. The base desire behind our romantic activity and love, for Schopenhauer, is procreation—the production of the next generation.

The evolutionary psychology perspective, while not wholly dissimilar, has the fundamental premise that love “represents a category of naturally occuring actions” (Buss, 1988). This is in line with the theoretical tenets of evolutionary psychology; one of which is that the brain is composed of many different special purpose programs built to respond to specific problems (Tooby & Cosmides, 2005). This is why evolutionary psychologists see romantic love as “a suite of adaptations” and by-products (Buss, 2006) as opposed to a general conceptualisation of romantic activity.


Romantic love is associated with mechanisms that are emotional, behavioural, hormonal, and neuropsychological etc (Fletcher et al, 2015). For example, romantic love implicates psychological mate choice mechanisms as well as the expression of specific genes (Bode & Kushnick, 2021). Apart from mate choice, it also serves courtship, sex, and pair-bonding functions. Romantic love is associated with cognitive, emotional, and behavioural features that result from “neural activity associated with reward and motivation, emotions, sexual desire and arousal, and social cognition as well as endocrine activity associated with sexhormones, serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol, and nerve growth factor” (Bode & Kushnick, 2021).


Thus, given that there are “numerous mechanisms recruited in romantic love” and that it serves several functions and has a great number of related psychological characteristics, is a sign that romantic love may be an “amalgamation of numerous adaptations” (Bode & Kushnick, 2021) that evolved to respond to many different adaptive challenges. Buss (1988) argued that love is not merely a state, but has overt manifestations that have tangible consequences. These acts of love are centred around reproduction and have the ultimate goal of increasing reproductive success. However, the proximate goals of love acts can be different—resource display, exclusivity, fidelity and guarding, commitment and marriage, sexual intimacy, reproduction, resource sharing, and parental investment (Buss, 1988). All the actions that humans undertake when engaged in romantic activity can arguably be classified as fulfilling one of these goals.


Going back to the fundamentals of evolutionary psychology,  Cosmides and Tooby (2005) also posit that the cognitive programs evolved by humans were adaptative in an ancestral environment and may not be adaptive anymore. This has also been called the evolutionary mismatch hypothesis. The social and natural environment that we live in today is extremely different from the historical environments. Given that our cognitive programs were supposed to interact with different environments, they may malfunction in the current situation. 


What exactly is an adaptation? Here is one definition: If the members of the current population have a certain characteristic before there was a selection for this characteristic ancestrally and having it conferred a fitness advantage because it performed a certain task, then and only then is it an adaptation (Sober, 2000). This means that traits can be adaptations even if they are not currently adaptive for humans. This can be extrapolated to the case of love, especially romantic love. 


Karandashev (2022) analysed the research done into the different love attitudes—Eros, Ludus, Storge, Mania, Pragma, and Agape—and found that Ludus and Mania both had negative consequences and were maladaptive. Evolutionary psychology also looks at traits or mechanisms as maladaptive in terms of their fitness relevant costs. Bode & Kushnick (2021) give a few “cogent” examples of this, one-sided or unrequited love, an obsessive pursuit such as stalking, and violence. Participating in romantic love can also be a maladaptive experience with negative consequences such as emotional instability, suffering, obsessive and possessive feelings (Karandashev, 2019). 


There are many grounds of criticism of evolutionary psychology, especially from philosophers of science, which this article does not have room to address (See Downes, 2021 for a detailed account). It is of course important to keep in mind that evolutionary psychology is just one of the many perspectives that explain human behaviours and comment on the human condition. However, the perspective on maladaptive traits is a key evolutionary insight into human instinct. So much about love in the way that we perform it today is maladaptive not only in the evolutionary sense but also in the colloquial sense. Philosophers have long harboured a suspicion and even disdain of base desires and drives, and it would be fruitful to address and diagnose what it is it we do when we engage in “love”.


References

Bode, A., & Kushnick, G. (2021). Proximate and Ultimate Perspectives on Romantic Love. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.573123

Buss, D. M. (1988). Love acts: The evolutionary biology of love. In The psychology of love (pp. 100–118). Yale University Press.

Buss, D. M. (2006). The Evolution of Love. In The new psychology of love (pp. 65–86). Yale University Press.

Downes, S. M. (2021). Evolutionary Psychology. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/evolutionary-psychology/

Fletcher, G., Simpson, J., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. (2015). Pair-Bonding, Romantic Love, and Evolution: The Curious Case of Homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 20–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614561683

Gaulin, S. J. C., & McBurney, D. (2004). Evolutionary psychology (2nd ed). Pearson/Prentice Hall. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip045/2003013178.html

Karandashev, V. (2022). Adaptive and Maladaptive Love Attitudes. Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships, 16, 158–177. https://doi.org/10.5964/ijpr.6283

Karandashev, V. (2019). Maladaptive Experience of Love. In V. Karandashev (Ed.), Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Experience and Expression of Love (pp. 113–121). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15020-4_6

Sober, E. (2000). Philosophy of Biology, Dimensions of Philosophy Series, Boulder, CO. Westview Press.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2005). Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology. In The handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 5–67). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Wicks, R. (2021). Arthur Schopenhauer. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/schopenhauer/


 

Simran is a philosophy student and language teacher. They have done a Bachelors in Philosophy from Fergusson College, Pune and a Masters in Cognitive Science from IIT Gandhinagar. Their research work in the domain of Feminist Phenomenology culminated in a thesis titled "The Impact of Sexual Violence on Female Embodiment". Simran’s current research interests are feminist phenomenology, feminist linguistics, ethics and queer philosophy with a focus on sexual violence and sexuality.

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