Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sociobiology 2: Love Still Matters to Selfish Genes

I thought it appropriate for Valentine's Day to take up a question that always bothers people about sociobiology: doesn't it ignore the importance of love?

The key problem in picking a mate is "Will it last? Is this the one for life?" This problem is especially important for women, because they bear the greater risk in the relationship.

For sociobiology, this is where love comes in. Love is the single best guarantor of commitment. Break out the hearts and flowers!

Ok, that account seems a little flat. Love is reduced to a means to another end, and a fairly mean means, too. In real life, beyond scientific theory, love is huge, transformative, the most emotionally gripping part of life. Love is what makes life worth living. Marital love is the greatest bond we choose, the great tie of adult life.

So is sociobiology just wrong, or simple-minded, about love? I don't think so. I think sociobiology is very helpful in keeping a just perspective on the place of love in marriage. Love is huge, but marriage is bigger still. Or, put another way, love is half of what marriage is about. The other half, though, is the very material, very risky commitment to tie your fortunes to another person for life and for children. Indeed, children are the main point of marriage for society, and the main source of risk.

On this day of all days we are inclined to think of love as an emotion that adults seek and cultivate with one another for their mutual happiness. This is true – there is no sham in thinking that love does help bring and assure happiness. But it is also important and bracing to remember that marriage as a social institution is a material partnership to support each other and our children. This remains true even if love is at low ebb, and the family carries on by duty, love for the kids, and sheer material necessity. And sticking to marriage in these predictable ebb tides is one of the things that makes love grow again.

So here's to love. And clear-eyed mate selection.


Anonymous said...

Sociobiologists are a little late to this particular party, given that the Catholic Church has consistently taught that, to quote Pius XI, “The primary end of marriage is the procreation and the education of children.” As a St. Valentine's Day aside, neither sociobiologists nor Catholic pontiffs are likely to make a great living writing for Hallmark. However, my sense is that this would be about the only issue on which SBs and RCs agree.

Gruntled said...

Part of the reason that I think sociobiology is true is that it largely confirms traditional wisdom, though on a different empirical base.