Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The passion killers

reposted from:

Chris Street comments are in bright green; highlights in blockquotes (yellow).

Julian Baggini

Once again, scientists are pouring cold factual disdain on one of the warmer areas of human interaction: falling in love.

November 7, 2007 4:00 PM

Scientists hate to be caricatured as cold, reductionist killjoys but, boy, do they ask for it sometimes.

Remember Roberta Flack's classic The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face? To Roberta, it felt as though the sun rose in the eyes of her beloved, "And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave/To the dark and the empty skies." How beautiful, and how wrong. According to new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, all that probably happened was that the man in question smiled a lot and held her gaze.

Love at first sight is a myth, you see, and it all comes down to biology and narcissism. If someone signals that they are very interested in you, you like them more, simple as that. Of course, women have known that men are this dupable for years, but now science has shown that they are just as susceptible to the charms of superficial body language.

It's hard to take this stuff seriously, but it's not clear why we shouldn't. The problem is that such reports make it sound as though we are ruled by our biology, in a hard, reductionist way. But we just know we're not, don't we?

Well, yes and no. Biology clearly does play a huge part in our lives. After all, couples may only spend a small percentage of their time doing exciting things with each others' genitals, but they don't get together with people they wouldn't want to have sex with. We are in so many ways on all fours with our fellow animals, as a trip to the zoo will readily confirm.

It's only when we try to push this too far that we talk nonsense. After all, anyone over 20 who still confuses the kindling of desire produced by a happy gaze with the signs of enduring love deserves all the disappointment they're probably going to get. They should have learned that it's the connection you feel once you get talking which provides the most reliable, though not infallible, omen.

On this, the arts are ahead of the sciences. Take Pride and Prejudice, for example. Elizabeth Bennett alone has the maturity not to run off and marry to first eligible bachelor to direct his smarmy gaze at her, while her foolish sister falls for the cad in uniform. Indeed, Elizabeth actually ends up with the man who hardly smiles at all and certainly doesn't reel her in with his seductive stares. Elizabeth does not transcend her biology, of course: she's a hetero woman who ends up with a hetero man. But nor is she a simple slave to the brute desires her body feels. The fact that we are sexed, biological beings conditions our behaviour, but it doesn't determine every facet of it.

That's a much more complete picture of human nature at its most complete and balanced than either the version which says we're all just responding to simple erotic stimuli or the one which puts rising suns into eyes.

Having said that, I know which one I'd rather have turned into a song. And if you want any further evidence of how science kills music, listen to Simon Singh's excruciating rewrite of Katie Melua's already nauseating Nine Million Bicycles. You have been warned.

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