What is Love? vs. What is Love for?
Let’s take a brief look at Darwin’s theory of evolution. His theory suggests that traits and characteristics that arise from random genetic mutations are passed on from one generation to the next if these traits are advantageous to the survival of the species. In competitive environments, those who are better equipped to survive are more likely to produce offspring. Thus, beneficial traits will gradually appear with greater frequency, while useless or redundant traits will gradually diminish and eventually disappear. Memory, language, emotion and consciousness all serve some sort of function, resulting from the many millions of years of natural selection. All of these traits had to have some sort of beneficial advantage over those who did not possess these abilities or traits. The psychological state of mind that we call love should also, therefore, serve some kind of function to make us more adaptive.
Men and women are fundamentally different from one another. But please, before you whip out that feminist cudgel and start beating me with it, keep in mind that I’m speaking strictly in the sense of biological reproduction, not social roles in society. The optimal strategy for reproductive success is not the same for men as it is for women and so, some conflict of interest is inevitable. A male can increase his chances of reproductive success by simply having more sex and impregnating more women. A women’s reproductive success, on the other hand, is severely limited by biological factors. She has a very limited number of eggs compared to the amount of sperm men produce, and she cannot carry more than one fetus in the womb at a time (usually). In a hunter-gatherer society that humans lived in for most of their existence, resources were ridiculously scarce. Since women were going to be nearly incapacitated when she is carrying for a child, both in the womb and several years afterwards, she needed to be picky and choose that one mate that would give her the best odds of delivering and nurturing a healthy offspring.
Although, it may seem like men are less inclined to be faithful than females, the human race has evolved such that both males and females have to expend a great deal of energy on their young in order for them to survive. A pattern of promiscuous couplings and swift departures would have translated into less reproductive success for human males. Genes that produced promiscuous behavior would be strongly associated with infant mortality, which would translate into fewer offspring, and effectively diminishing them from the gene pool. In contrast, monogamous pairs that direct and expend their energy into one mate and one offspring have a higher likelihood of raising their vulnerable offspring into sexual maturity. Thus, natural selection has shaped us into a predominately monogamous species.
Love Helps Our Species Survive
Love organizes our behavior in such a way that compliments monogamous pairings, which, as mentioned before, increases the likelihood of reproductive success. One of the most prominent symptoms of people who are in love is obsession. The most obvious similarity between someone with OCD and people who have fallen in love is their inability to govern the contents of their own mind. Thoughts and images of loved ones enter our awareness and cannot be dismissed. Lovers ruminate, worrying excessively about the relationship not ‘working out,‘ or read into every little detail of their partner for hints of infidelity to the point of paranoia. But how is this adaptive?
We tend to view obsession in modern times as problematic and disruptive, it is actually an evolutionary advantage. Obsession works so that we do not easily forget our mate and makes us focus our energy and resources on that one person. Resource allocation is vital to both parties and if the male cannot remember which woman is carrying their progeny, well, he has other problems. But the bottom line is that if he cannot focus his energy on one mate and spreads his resources thin, the chances of him having a successful offspring are greatly reduced.