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?

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

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