»  National Review Online

February 14, 2009

  Love, Love, Love

Cue the Beatles … or, in my case, recollections of the large poster on the wall of my classroom in Deng Xiaoping's China, exhorting students to practice the Three Loves:  "Love the Party!  Love the Country!  Love Socialism!"  (I hope I'm not giving the Obama administration any ideas.) What is this thing called love, and where are we going with it?

Back to the Old Stone Age, quite possibly. There has been a theory buzzing around for a year or so in the human sciences, backed by some research data, along the following lines:

•  Before the rise of agriculture 10,000 or so years ago, when human beings lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, men and women treated each other in a fairly egalitarian sort of way, but innate male-female differences in traits like recklessness (more in men) and emotional responsiveness (more in women) were freely and fully expressed. Mating was based on straightforward mutual affection, constrained only by incest taboos and tribal solidarity, but complicated, no doubt often fatally, by love triangles. Then …
•  With agriculture came the higher-density, better-organized, hierarchical and more constrained societies we are familiar with. The sexes were less egalitarian in the way they treated each other. (Think of Chinese foot-binding.) On the other hand, paradoxically, innate male-female personality differences were squished down by all that social pressure: men constrained to be less reckless, women less emotional. Mating was way constrained: think of the plots of Romeo and Juliet and La traviata, or the poor lass at number 222 here. The older, freer, wilder ways of mating lived on in myth and folk memory — think of the plot of Tristan. Now …
•  Modern post-industrial society is taking us back to the Pleistocene. Once again we are egalitarian in our treatment of each other; but our inner Mars and Venus are freer to express themselves without restraint than in those laced-up millennia of agricultural-industrial patriarchy. (Think of the plot of Fatal Attraction.)

John Tierney covered this theorizing in the Science Section of the New York Times last September. (The Science Section is the sole reason for hoping that the Times survives its financial troubles.) He quotes David Schmitt of Bradley University:

"Humanity's jaunt into monotheism, agriculturally based economies and the monopolization of power and resources by a few men was 'unnatural' in many ways," Dr. Schmitt says, alluding to evidence that hunter-gatherers were relatively egalitarian. "In some ways modern progressive cultures are returning us psychologically to our hunter-gatherer roots," he argues. "That means high sociopolitical gender equality over all, but with men and women expressing predisposed interests in different domains. Removing the stresses of traditional agricultural societies could allow men's, and to a lesser extent women's, more 'natural' personality traits to emerge."

Note that phrase "to a lesser extent." Dr. Schmitt thinks it's men who are doing most of the changing.

You get the same impression from the University of Iowa study that FuturePundit reports on, and links to, here (with a good discussion following in FuturePundit's comments thread). The Iowa study covers male and female mating preferences under 18 headings ("ambition," "similar political background," "good looks," etc.), with statistics going back to 1930 for comparison.

In the 1930s male respondents were seeking a dependable, kind lady who had skills in the kitchen. Chastity was more important than intelligence.

Now, guys look for love, brains and beauty — and a sizable salary certainly sweetens the deal. Men ranked "good financial prospect" No. 12 in 2008, a significant climb from No. 17 in 1939 and No. 18 in 1967 … Chastity — which men ranked at No. 10 in 1939 — fell to dead last in 2008.

I'm a bit surprised to learn that our grandfathers didn't think more highly of chastity. These respondents are all college students, though. In the 1930s that would have skewed the respondent sample towards the better-off, who perhaps were less prudish than the still-proletarian sons and daughters of the immigration Great Wave. That chastity has completely lost its market share among male preferences is anyway not surprising. What would be the point of preferring it nowadays?

The rising male attention to a woman's earning power is not surprising, either. As well as the difficulty of supporting a family on one income, it's clear from the latest unemployment statistics that women's jobs are more secure than men's. The New York Times reported the other day that:

 … a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men, who are heavily represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs … [My italics]

Look at those rankings from the Iowa study I cited above, showing men's preference for a woman's "good financial prospect." From No. 17 out of 18 in 1939, the ranking went down to dead last, No. 18, in 1967. That was the peak of the postwar one-earner nuclear family. Last year the ranking was up at No. 12, and I think it's safe to predict it will go on rising. Fast.

The interesting thing on the female side is the drop in a preference for niceness:

Women ranked "pleasing disposition" as significantly less important in 2008 than they have ever before. Pleasing disposition — presumably interpreted to mean being a nice guy — fell from a steady ranking of No. 4 throughout the second half of the 20th Century to a significantly lower rank of No. 7 in 2008.

Guys:  Sell niceness, buy attractiveness.  Gals:  Sell chastity, buy earning power. Not that we have quite entered the Age of Roissy: women still want a guy to settle down and raise kids with them. They just don't mind so much if we forget the St. Valentine's Day flowers. (Eeeeek! …)

I'm not quite sold on this back-to-the-future theory of mating. For one thing, it will have to be squared somehow with the argument of Cochran and Harpending's brilliant just-published book The 10,000 Year Explosion — the argument being that natural selection was at work all through those civilized millennia, causing changes in human personality. Perhaps 200,000 trumps 10,000, the former number being how many years homo sap. lived as a hunter-gatherer, the latter the span of human civilization. Perhaps these recent changes are just bumps and creases on a big, solid shape already formed in the Paleolithic. That's for the researchers to thrash out among themselves. There is, in any case, something intuitively plausible about the notion that our open, unstructured societies of today are closer to Jean Auel than to Edith Wharton.

"Mutual attraction and love" is at the top of both men's and women's lists in the Iowa study. We all want to love and be loved. Didn't we always? — but with constraints of class, rank, race, and religion all relaxed, we now have better prospects of fulfillment.

"Better" won't mean "perfect," of course. Love triangles, love unrequited, and what Robert Burton called "love melancholy" (he gave it over 200 pages in the Anatomy of Melancholy) will be with us for ever. We at least have a better chance to love and marry whom we please than our grandfathers did, though, as good a chance as our foraging ancestors in the Old Stone Age seem to have had. Love-wise, the last few thousand years of civilization may all have been a ghastly blunder.