Human Mate Selection Is a Many-Splendored Thing
David Buss has a grand unified theory about the evolution of desire. His research has identified 115 love acts, 147 things you can do to upset or annoy the opposite sex, and 237 reasons to copulate. But can that help me find romance?
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Love will be the death of us, I can see that now. The signs have been there for a long time. Right in our midst—and glorified to boot—is a substantial threat to the continuation of our species, as much of a menace as global warming, nuclear weapons, hantaviruses, or trans fats. Please hear me out. This isn’t just bitterness or griping. Precisely how I arrived at this conclusion will take some explaining, but it all began when I went to see David Buss, the mating expert.
I’d learned of the presence in Austin of a mating expert some years earlier, long enough ago that I don’t remember what tipped me off, and I’d thought for a while of making journalistic inquiries, but it was only this year that I at last paid a visit. The impulse can’t have been purely professional, as I was reminded more than once by my psychotherapist, the ever-prescient Dr. Norwaald. For when it comes to matters of the heart, I’ve not been what you’d call a high achiever. Conjectures as to why this is so—as to whatever combination of icy wings, electrical malfunctions, crew member strikes, and/or snafus in the control tower might account for my years of sitting on the long, dark runway of love—are of limited interest even to good Dr. N (“You just need to meet more people,” she tells me). Suffice it to say that at 34, single and childless, I was in need of a little expertise, and the title of Buss’s first popular work, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, seemed to suggest that he might be the one to provide it. I was lacking in strategies—decent strategies anyway.
And yet Professor Buss is not some specialist in truisms from daytime TV. He is one of the founders of the academic field known as evolutionary psychology, whose practitioners study the manner in which our present-day minds have been shaped over the long, long term by the sculpting hand of evolution. A person’s predilections for spicy food or wrestling tournaments or zaftig young ladies in shiny clothing, for example, are believed to reflect inherited mental constructs that helped our Pleistocene ancestors survive and beget. Buss has expended his considerable energies on a range of subjects, but he is best known as an investigator of human mating behavior and its ancient roots. An authority on prehistoric nooky—who wouldn’t want to ask the man a few questions?
It was an overcast afternoon in early January when I arrived at his office, located in an airy new building on the north end of the University of Texas campus. The door was wide open, and I found myself at the threshold of a bright and tidy room, dominated by a big wraparound desk and a big window behind it and a big, vital man with strong features and wispy white hair.
We started off stiffly, due, I believe, to our mutual tallness. I took a seat, then discovered that the batteries in my recorder had died, and he vanished down the hall and returned with new ones. I then attempted to atone for my amateurish start with small talk. Which is admittedly not one of my strengths. Did he have a family in town? Was he married?
He stared. He has relatively small eyes—relative, that is, to a rather commanding head—which in that moment made his expression all the more cryptic.
“Well, I’m, uh … mated,” he said, explaining that because he studies mating, he is private about his own mating life.
Fair enough. It was the principles and not the practice I’d come to discuss, one evolved brain engaging another on the subject of its own origins. Buss encountered the theory of evolution during his freshman year of college, he told me once we’d settled in, and it was the first idea that really excited him—“turned me on” were his exact words. Until then an indifferent student, he was inspired by the thought that humans had evolved by natural selection.
As our bodies evolved, so did our brains. Our modern minds contain vintage information processors, he explained, designed to negotiate the problems of survival and reproduction that we confronted back in the Stone Age. (I imagined something like an ancient instrument panel inside my skull.) “The human mind contains hundreds and possibly thousands of evolved psychological mechanisms. Now, some people say, ‘This is just preposterous. This is mechanisms gone mad.’ My response is, well, if you look at the human body, that’s precisely what you see. You see hundreds of bodily mechanisms—you see a liver, lungs, a heart, kidneys, the visual apparatus. And within each of those are numerous sub-adaptations. No one ever says, ‘Well, this is ridiculous.’ ” If the eye alone is an intricate composite of specialized adaptations, he said, surely the workings of the brain are no less complex.
This, he continued, is the beauty of evolutionary theory: It explains the emergence of fantastically complex and diverse phenomena by appealing to principles a grade-schooler can grasp. He sprang out of his chair, withdrew a copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from a bookshelf, and read aloud the famous final paragraph: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
It was a splendid passage, I had to agree. To contemplate what evolution has wrought is to shudder at the sheer unlikeliness of it all, the minuscule probability that this moment of your life would have ever come to pass, not to mention the near impossibility of your very life to begin with, predicated as it is on millions of years of struggle, of small victories, of accidents deflected, poisons avoided, food procured, and intercourse perpetrated—so that the members of our lineage, in a matter of millennia, could trace a course from whatever aboriginal jungle or cave or plain all the way to the here and now, to a January afternoon on the third floor of the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Building.
I might have hoped that this deep-time vantage would serve as an antidote to the sort of unfortunate bathos that can infect a single girl in a fecund season, when her friends suddenly all turn up pregnant and she’s left paging through animal shelter Web sites in search of a reliable companion. But as I walked back down that empty hallway after the interview and out into the muddled gray of a winter afternoon, such thoughts were of little comfort. On the contrary, my record of mating-related failures began to take on a darker cast: Am I being selected against? Maybe it wasn’t just a matter of regrettable choices and bad timing and better luck next round. The verdict was taking shape.
I was going extinct.
Evolutionary theory has a name for my nemesis: sexual selection. The term originated with Darwin himself, that meticulous observer, who noticed that certain animal traits—the peacock’s extravagant tail, for example—did not appear to help an individual to survive. Just the opposite, it would seem. What purpose could possibly be served by such a useless gewgaw, which had the clear disadvantage of attracting predators? The very sight of a peacock’s tail, Darwin once wrote, made him sick. Yet he did arrive at an explanation: The ornate tail attracted peahens, thereby helping the peacock to reproduce. While garden-variety natural selection favored traits that enhanced an organism’s survival skills, sexual selection favored traits that gave an individual an advantage in the mating game.
The division made sense to me. I was surviving quite well, yet my maternal odds were dropping. Sexual selection, which I couldn’t help but imagine as a sort of collegiate admissions office, seemed to have sent me an incriminatingly slim envelope. But there must have been some mistake. I should have been the one choosing, at least according to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, which stipulates that males compete among themselves for access to females, and females select from among the males.
It’s a counterintuitive picture—at least to women like myself, for whom the search for a mate is no saunter through the produce department—and it didn’t exactly catch on with Darwin’s Victorian contemporaries. The idea of sexual selection gathered dust for a century, until biologists began thinking again about an evolved basis for social behavior. In 1972 a biologist named Robert Trivers published a crucial paper, “Parental Investment and Sexual Selection,” which went a long way to resurrect the theory. Trivers explained differences in sex roles as the consequence of biologically mandated differences in “parental investment,” defined as any investment of time or energy a parent devotes to one offspring at the expense of that parent’s ability to invest in other offspring.
Usually it’s the female whose minimum investment is larger. In humans and other mammals, males need merely ejaculate, while females must gestate, give birth, and nurse to produce a child. So males compete for a shot, as it were, at that lucrative female investment. Females, on the other hand, discriminate in order to obtain resources and quality genetic material from males. In the case of the peacock, the offspring of males with more-ornamented tails have been shown to enjoy higher survival rates: A better tail seems to signal a peacock with a better genetic endowment. So the peahens are not mere avian aesthetes, enamored of tails for tails’ sake; they are savvy gene shoppers. (Perhaps the problem was that I was not so savvy myself. If I were a peahen, I’d probably be cawing after the smart-ass peacock with no interest in breeding, or the nearsighted peacock that used to get beaten up by the other peacocks and so quit spreading his tail entirely and instead took up a musical instrument.)
Buss was a new assistant professor at Harvard when he came across “Parental Investment and Sexual Selection.” “I just went, ‘Whoa, this is amazing,’” he told me. “It just blew me away.” At the time—this was the early eighties—evolutionary psychology did not yet exist as a field. Buss had pushed his Darwinian enthusiasms to one side while he pursued his doctorate in personality psychology, yet he’d long been eager to incorporate evolutionary thought into his own work and was inspired by Trivers and by a book called The Evolution of Human Sexuality, by Donald Symons, an anthropologist. Where Trivers’s paper was technical, with analyses of mating patterns in birds and lizards, Symons had written a wide-ranging and engaging treatise, replete with flashes of wit and allusions to Proust and Byron and starring that popular sixties-era hero Man the Hunter, along with his faithful companion, Woman the Gatherer. Because humans had lived in small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers for most of our several million years of existence, Symons argued, many of our behaviors must be adaptations to the Stone Age environment. And because men and women faced different problems, they would have developed separate mating-related adaptations. Men would have competed for younger, more fertile women and desired sexual variety; women would have selected men with greater hunting prowess or other cues to resources and status.
To test Symons’s conjectures—along with the hypotheses of several other scientists—Buss added questions about “mate preferences” to a study of married couples already in the works. The responses were consistent with his predicted sex differences. “I went around to different people and asked them how they would interpret these sex differences,” Buss recalled. “Almost everyone I talked to said that these sex differences were the result of culture. I asked them if they thought they were universal, and virtually everyone said no. My biggest regret is that I didn’t ask these people to write down their predictions and sign off on them.”
With his imposing stature, Buss must have cut a striking figure as he strode around the Harvard campus. (There, he would later write, he first felt “the bliss of total freedom of intellectual pursuit.”) As he well knew, definitive conclusions about human nature couldn’t be generated from a pool of respondents restricted to married couples in Cambridge (unless those were conclusions about the appeal of watching Fassbinder films, perhaps, or eating lentils). So bit by bit, he started gathering a wider sampling of data, in what he would eventually call the International Mate Selection Project. Over the next four years he extended the study to 37 countries, wherever he could find a willing data collector—in Brazil, in China, in a Zulu area in South Africa, in Iran. Participants, 10,047 of them in all, were asked to rate on a scale from 0 to 3 the importance of various qualities in a partner (“good cook and housekeeper,” “chastity,” and “emotional stability and maturity,” to name a few) and to rank a separate list of characteristics from most to least important. Data arrived back in Buss’s office by the boxload. Although analysis revealed that the qualities that people claim to desire most in a mate—dependability, kindness, good hygiene, and so on—are shared by both sexes, and more or less attainable, it also exposed those same sex differences. Men desired younger women with a specific set of attractive features, while women wanted men with earnings potential and ambition. (Homosexuality was not a target of the survey, nor has evolutionary psychology arrived at any consensus interpretation of it.)
It was a study unprecedented in magnitude, and it turned the conventional wisdom of the time on its head. Censure came even before Buss had gone public with his findings: One day, following a presentation he made at the University of Michigan, a woman approached and asked him not to publish the results, for fear that they would upset other women. When the study did appear, in 1989, it was criticized, as his work would be for years to come, by those who believed that cultural factors play a greater role in determining human attitudes. (“Everything I’ve ever done has been attacked,” Buss says.) He was accused of being parochial: Though the surveys had been distributed in 37 countries, his critics argued that the populations surveyed were still mostly Western or Westernized. He was accused of ignoring the simple economic reasons that a woman might prefer resources in a mate, i.e., that in many societies marriage is her only route to better circumstances. And he was accused—as all of evolutionary psychology has been—of telling “just-so stories,” inventing evolutionary fables and bolstering them with flimsy evidence. (Buss would counter that he had made every effort to include non-Western cultures and that women’s desires for men with resources do not abate when women themselves are better off.)
Controversy aside, the principles of mating put forth by Symons, Buss, et al. have taken root in the popular imagination over the past twenty years (at least in part because members of the press, Lord forgive us, can never resist reporting on them). It is now a relatively common idea that, for example, men like younger women because youth was a sign of fertility way back whenever.
Common, and yet terribly unfortunate for me. I was an old maid by Pleistocene standards, and evolutionary psychologists’ further investigations of men’s yens—revealing, for instance, that men prefer women with a low ratio of waist size to hip size—only underscored my unsuitability. Here is how Buss describes the standards of female attractiveness in a paper called “The Evolution of Love”: “Clear skin, smooth skin, lustrous hair, long hair, symmetrical features, absence of open sores, pustules, or lesions, relatively small waist, relatively large breasts, and a low waist-to-hip ratio.” Of those, I can lay claim to clear skin. Shapely hips and weapons-grade knockers had all been handed out when I reached the front of the girl line, and my hair is neither long nor lustrous. (I should maybe play up my lack of pustules?) My type is tall and thin, and though that may have some cultural cachet nowadays, it apparently wouldn’t have turned the head of a troglodyte.
That I might have been better off with a different set of attributes wasn’t exactly news so much as a stirring up of old worries—worries that Dr. Norwaald assured me were nothing more than manifestations of neurosis and cultural brainwashing. (“You just need to meet more people,” she keeps telling me.) Still, I wasn’t ready to give up on extracting a practical take-home from Buss’s theories. He was about to head to Rochester, New York, to start an East Coast lecture tour, but I thought if I could just talk to him about his recent research, I might hit on something useful. Almost twenty years had passed since the publication of the original study on mate preferences; one could only assume that in the interim, under the journalistic radar, its conclusions had been refined and expanded upon. There had to be more to mating than child-bearing hips, tonsorial luster, and symmetrical ears.
The flight to Rochester went smoothly enough. I had loaded up my roller bag with turtlenecks and plenty of spare batteries and booked a room in the same Radisson where Buss himself was staying. Stalking a person is never terribly comfortable, but Buss was obliging, even going so far as to agree to meet for a drink the night of our arrival. There in the hotel bar, I hoped, he would dispel my confusions. “Female choice” may work for peahens, but it didn’t exactly fit with my understanding of how women had been mated for most of human history; at best, it seemed like a recent development. And as far as preferences were concerned, had subjects of the International Mate Selection Project admitted to what they really preferred? Even if they had, did the preferences motivate actions consistently enough to drive natural selection?
My questions wouldn’t be answered that night, though. Because of a snowstorm somewhere over Middle America, Buss was forced to reschedule his flight, and so I was left to nurse a glass of plonk in solitude. Nor would I have a chance the next day. Buss arrived in the afternoon, rumpled and without a warm coat, and was hurried from rescheduled event to rescheduled event. And the subject of his lecture that evening was not even mate selection; it was murder, another focus of his research. (Homicide, Buss has concluded, is an adaptive solution triggered in certain specific contexts; as evidence he points to the near universality of homicidal fantasies.) Nevertheless, my sights were still trained on mating. At the end of the murder talk I bought my own copy of The Evolution of Desire, and that night, in the comfort of my hotel room, with its adjustable bed and profusion of pillows, I riffled through its pages. Consistent with the back cover’s promise of a “unified theory” of love and sex, the book ran the gamut, from casual sex to long-term relationships, jealousy to menopause, infertility to “women’s hidden sexual strategies.” Intriguing as that last topic was, I zeroed in on chapter five, “Attracting a Partner.” First came strategies that men use to attract women (namely “Displaying Resources,” “Displaying Commitment,” “Displaying Physical Prowess,” and “Displaying Bravado and Self-Confidence”), followed by a review of women’s “attraction tactics.” I snapped to attention, plumped my pillows, opened my notepad.
“Enhancing Appearance” was tactic number one. Women must look young and attractive or else “lose a competitive edge.” So we females wear makeup, get implants, and pursue those elusive lustrous locks: “Women highlight, bleach, tint, or dye their hair, and they give it extra body with conditioners, egg yolks, or beer.” (A ray of hope: I had not yet tried yolks or beer.) However, these cosmetic interventions serve better to win short-term paramours, the book explained. “Women who seek a lasting mate,” I was reassured to learn, “have at their disposal a wide range of tactics, including displays of loyalty, signals of common interests, and acts of intelligence.”
This wide range of tactics—here is what I needed! Sadly, that was the last mention of them. Also cataloged were the strategies of playing hard to get or putting down other women who might be rivals. Then came the strategy of making sexual overtures: According to a study of men in bars, some good strategies were rubbing your chest or pelvis against a man, looking at him seductively, puckering your lips and blowing kisses, sucking on a straw or finger, and/or bending over to accentuate your curves. I made a note of it: Suck on finger. Finally, acting “submissive, helpless, or dumb” can sometimes help a woman lure a man under the pretense of no-strings-attached sex. If she is wily enough, she can then insinuate herself into the man’s life and dupe him into a commitment in spite of himself.
I shut the book and turned on my laptop. There was an e-mail from my little sister, who lives in Los Angeles and who had lately plunged into the Internet-dating fray; a guy she had seen a few times was coming over the following evening to play the word game Boggle. (She’s a big Boggle fan—in fact both a big fan of Boggle and a fan of a variant with a larger letter grid sold under the name Big Boggle.) She was, she wrote in her message, a little apprehensive about how things would go. I thought about the evolutionary advice I might give her—put beer in her hair, insult other women, act stupid, blow kisses over the Boggle set, rub her pelvis against her date while sucking on her finger—but in the end I just wished her good luck.
The next day, I followed Buss to Philadelphia, where he gave another talk, on “Sexual Conflict in Human Mating,” at Villanova University. This one I’d been looking forward to, for there’s nothing like a broad, sweeping title to make you believe something’s in it for you. (Not at all conforming to the picture of the narrowly focused academic, Buss will never deliver one of those talks on, say, “Seasonally Dependent Patterns of Allergies in Six Women from Fiji.”) The day was altogether easier than its predecessor. The Pennsylvania cold nipped but didn’t stab, and there was time to spare. At a leisurely lunch Buss traded recollections with a deadpan psychologist colleague who, like Buss himself, had gone to Berkeley for graduate school. The talk was later that afternoon, in a basement classroom, where students were seated in rows behind fixed tables. They seemed to pay close attention, perhaps because they were as keen as I was to have their romantic lives explained by an expert.
The first slide was of an iceberg. What is known about sexual conflict, Buss announced, is just the very tip. We were back to sexual selection, my Darwinian bugaboo—but with a twist. For while it may seem obvious that male-female conflict is a significant force in the dynamics of mating, such conflict didn’t figure largely into classical sexual selection theory, which emphasized traits that help males compete and females choose. Theorists of evolution have since recognized that selection may be driven by the clash between a male’s and a female’s interests, what Buss called a “sexually antagonistic coevolutionary arms race.” Just as parasites evolve to outwit a host’s immune defenses and the host’s defenses counter-evolve, a behavior in one sex that puts the other at a disadvantage may, over the long evolutionary haul, provoke a countering tactic. So men lie about the depths of their affections to get women into bed; women become better at detecting lies. Men attempt to coerce women; women develop ways to protect themselves from coercion.
A little ways into his presentation, Buss paused to tell a favorite joke. “I’m sorry, I’ve been painting a bad picture of men,” he said. “One postdoc student of mine, after I was done presenting all these data on men, she said, ‘David, I have a hypothesis that can explain all your data.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ And she said, ‘Men are slime.’”
Indeed, it’s not hard to see why evolutionary psychologists have from time to time been accused of waving the banner of science over things your grandmother might have told you about the opposite sex. Invoked in this talk were the same male and female types that Buss has alluded to in other work: randy men and fastidious women (though not, it should be said, chaste maidens; “short-term mating” and “extra-pair copulation” have become well-recognized components of women’s mating strategies). For Buss, whether or not his version of relations between the sexes conforms to your grandmother’s is beside the point; his mission has been to measure the differences in men’s and women’s sexual psychologies and to weave them into a broader theory, or set of theories, that can generate falsifiable predictions. In his conflict lecture, as in his later investigations of mating, he placed a more elaborate frame around the original preferences, casting them in the light of—there was that word again—strategies. There were short-term and long-term strategies and counterstrategies and counter-counterstrategies, every man or woman a kind of cyberneticist of the heart. Meanwhile, the underlying grandmaternal picture hadn’t changed much: Men are more desiring, women choosier.
But with sexual conflict the very topic before us, and the possibility of coercion having been mentioned, I again wondered in what sense women had “chosen.” And if women had in fact been coy and discriminating, what had led us to be that way? For it’s not as if Trivers’s theory of sexual selection requires females to be sexually stingy; other species behave differently. A primatologist, Sarah Hrdy, was one of the first to point this out back in the seventies; her studies of langurs showed the females to be quite sexually promiscuous—a counteradaptation, she theorized, to defend against the threat of male infanticide, since a male who had copulated with a mother in the past was less likely to kill her infant. So much for passive, discriminating females. More recently, a biologist named Patricia Adair Gowaty has argued for a model in which the rivalry between males and females to control the means of reproduction is seen as the basis not for uniform behavioral traits but for the ability to adjust to varying environments. It’s been demonstrated in crickets, guppies, and frogs, among other species, that as a female’s probability of survival drops, she becomes less and less choosy about her mate.
By the end of the lecture, though, the real mystery was human monogamy. Some form of marriage exists in every known culture, yet how strange it all starts to seem when you step back and contemplate the utter fallibility of intimate relationships. How could any process of selection or acculturation or chance have contrived such a precarious norm, something so uneven and flawed and fragile and contingent? How did we get this way? To what end? And how can an institution so ubiquitous seem so unnatural, requiring the force of custom and law and $50,000 weddings to prop it up? In the abstract, what Buss would call “long-term mating” is simply bewildering.
And yet you do feel the lack of it, sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes surging up at odd moments, like when you are traveling home from Philadelphia with an expert on human mating and all of a sudden remember, viscerally, how it is to walk through the airport with someone.
I was beginning to get a little paranoid. Was this it? The DNA stops here? I paced around the house, resenting not men or fate but the sheer waiting, the not knowing. I was left with questions I hated: If no family was forthcoming, where did that leave me? Who would I be? I’d always consoled myself for never having been a girlie girl, a babe in a bikini, a long-lustrous-haired flirt, with the thought that I might be the other thing, a mother—a tall, goofy one with applesauce on her sleeve, a regular embarrassment to her children, who in my imagination are always groaning, hands over their faces. Would I forge ahead with test tubes, third-world orphans? I was drawing a blank. Oh, for Chrissakes, I said to Dr. N. Here I thought I was so advanced and yet basically all I can conceive of is whore, Madonna, none of the above. How’s that for ingrained psychology?
There was a spell before and after the East Coast trip when it seemed as if Buss would send me something daily, another paper he’d written or a book chapter or an excerpt from the new edition of the evolutionary psychology textbook he’d authored. He is a publication machine, an omnivorous researcher, and a tireless cataloger of behaviors (he has identified 19 tactics of mate retention, 115 love acts, and 147 things you can do to upset or annoy the opposite sex). Although I had started to suspect that he didn’t have the type of information I was looking for—I needed a fortune-teller for that—I still perked up at obliquely suggestive terminology like “mating intelligence.” Buss had written a foreword to an entire volume on that subject, and I read it straightaway, though I could guess what I was in for—more adaptive strategies. Sure enough. In a table, under “Mate Preference Adaptations,” were listed modifications a person might make to rise to the challenges of being single: “Calibrate mate preferences to one’s current mate value,” the list started off. According to Buss, this concept of “mate value” plays a major role in choosing a partner: In youth we assess our own value, largely through trial and error, and then seek someone of comparable worth—if you are a 7, in this view, you date a 9 or a 10 at your peril, infidelity and breakups being more common under those circumstances. I wanted to ask Buss what my mate value was, but I was too self-conscious. Besides, it wouldn’t have done me much good; when it comes to men, I don’t know how to tell a 5 from a 6 from a 7.
Back in Austin, Buss and I agreed that we would try once again to rendezvous for a drink. We met at an upscale Mexican restaurant, in a foyer dense with tropical fauna and noisy with drinkers’ raised voices. I found him behind some palm fronds and came clean about my newest confusion. If our mate preferences had evolved, I asked him, what might they have evolved from? Some orgiastic Stone Age frenzy, men lusting after senior citizens, women pursuing unreliable drifters?
Not so, he said: “If you took a snapshot of half a million years ago, no, it’s not the case that people were mating with, you know, plants.”
The waitress appeared, and we ordered some calamari. A little while later, though I hadn’t thrown anything too outlandish at him, Buss suddenly asked me, with a hint of exasperation, whether I believed there were any evolved sex differences in the brain at all. Sure, I said. Most men are attracted to women, most women are attracted to men.
“What about the other sex differences? Like sex differences in mate preferences for youth and appearance?”
“That I buy, but I’m not as sure about women and resources.”
“So you find some hypotheses about evolved sex differences more plausible than others.”
He was growing impatient, I could tell. But I still had doubts about his model—about the hundreds of mechanisms and the storied Stone Age world that gave rise to them. More than that, I was turning over, in my own insufficiently evolved mind, a reservation that I couldn’t articulate. I hemmed and hawed and misspoke; the waitress brought a plate of large, overly battered calamari rings; we tried them and agreed they were lousy; and in fact, what it all had started to seem like was a bad date.
It was when Buss sent me a paper he’d written arguing that love is itself a useful mechanism that I drew the line. He characterized love as “an evolved solution to the problem of commitment.” Your beloved might be tempted to stray if someone with a better sense of humor or more resources comes along, yet “if your partner is blinded by an uncontrollable love that cannot be helped and cannot be chosen, a love for only you and no other, then commitment will not waver when you are in sickness rather than in health, when you are poorer rather than richer.” In other words, while our mating mechanisms are doing their work, while we’re implementing our (possibly unconscious) strategies and calibrating our preferences, sucking our fingers and flashing our wallets and singing our serenades, in comes love to make it all stick.
Would that it were so. If only human mating really could be reduced to evolutionarily attuned mechanisms at work, preference mechanisms picking out persons, and love mechanisms sealing the deal. But since all too often we fall for the wrong people and squander our fertile years, might love be counterproductive—and counter-reproductive? I’d dated perfectly intelligent, reliable, commitment-capable men with excellent hygiene and earnings potential; and then I’d gone and fallen in love with the other sort, and not just once. Even if I was suffering from some form of mating retardation, it’s not as if I was the only one.
God knows I’m no expert, but it seems to me romantic love could just as easily be the star-crossed product of our general capacity for emotional attachment and our tendency to idealize. It’s easy to go parsing the mind into mechanisms whose operations can be quantified like the choices of peahens. But what is a preference? To express one, in the abstract, is to picture an ideal, to draw on our evolved capacity to imagine things not present, whether big boobs or unicorns. To choose among ideals is distinct from choosing among actual people, because ideals—I’ve learned this much—are not our mates. And they don’t necessarily point us in the right direction. Call me cynical. But the way we go about trying to attain love, delaying reproduction and frittering away resources—it can’t be good for the species.
I didn’t spill my half-baked theory of love to Buss, since I knew he wouldn’t be too impressed. But I did let it slip, in an e-mail, that I was an unsuccessful mater, and kind and action-oriented as he is, he immediately proposed we have lunch to address the problem. Because I knew his work, I was somewhat concerned about what he might suggest. Breast implants? Botox? A painfully honest assessment of my mate value? But there was none of that.
His advice, first and foremost, was that I just needed to meet more people.