Subscribe to Discover magazine for awhile, read a few books like The Naked Ape and The Selfish Gene, and you quit believing in the whole thing. Love, it seems, reduces to sex, and sex in its turn reduces to chemistry—the literal kind. All the supposedly higher emotions unfold like algebra from the givens of our DNA; romance turns out to be nothing special, just one more corollary of molecular mechanics.

You can get a jolt, for instance, from the information that even plants have sex. Bad enough that those clouds of ragweed gametes keep you sneezing all April; far worse that this seems to be a vegetable version of dating. You object to thinking of your sinuses as boudoirs for the trysts of dicotyledenous plants, none of which will phone the next day. And what does it say about your own yearnings, that the dandelions on your lawn are similarly afflicted?

When we come to animals, the picture is sometimes brighter. Romantics can take inspiration from the Emperor Penguin, who for two months stands like a post on the Antarctic ice, stoically awaiting the return of his mate, sheltering their one egg under his brood pouch. Upon her return even he decamps rather abruptly, however, off to the sea to feed in his turn; and at equal but opposite latitudes we find the polar bear, who is the biker boyfriend of plus-size mammals. His one concession to romance is to beat up two or three rivals before he has his way with the female, briefly and furiously, whereupon he departs for the open ice, taking no interest in the cubs unless, much later, he gets a chance to eat them.

All in all, the news from Nature does not seem cheery. Gentle Cyranos like the swan and the male Black Widow are overshadowed by ruthless Casanovas like the sage grouse, the harem-keeping elephant seal, and the alpha baboon, and even where behavior is more swainish than swinish it has a grim little evolutionary explanation. The name of the game is genetic poker: portray your own endowments to best advantage, conceal any defects, and try to improve your long-term fortunes by welding your DNA to that of the best mate you can win, buy, or fool. Male chimpanzees hunt and kill small monkeys exclusively for the purpose of presenting them to females in return for sexual favors, but the gesture seems too businesslike to qualify as true gallantry. Male birds, in one especially interesting Discover article, pull crazy stunts, flying right under the noses of predators in an all-out attempt to establish their genetic superiority. This looks like ego, not tenderness. Peacocks deploy huge tails that severely disadvantage them for everything besides display, famously, an example that Darwin said made him “sick” until he hit upon the theory of sexual selection: the realization, that is, that competition for mates is uniquely consequential and formative, since other victories amount to nothing if the organism does not reproduce. Do not be fooled by the gorgeousness of the male peacock. All he wants is womb-space for his DNA, which he drops off like someone leaving an infant at the door of an orphanage, whereupon he is off to try his luck with another peahen. The brute.

For humans it would be easier to ignore the feathers of the peacock, the horns of the elk, the hooked jaw of the spawning salmon, and so on, if we ourselves were free of such extravagances. Unhappily, engineering per se fails to account for the human bosom. What are boobs for? Check out most other mammals, and you see a tubular design far better adapted for simple feeding. In The Naked Ape, pop zoologist Desmond Morris proposed that the fleshy breasts of Homo sapiens must have evolved soon after the upright posture, by way of mimicking and replacing what had been the primary sexual signal of the all-fours stage: the presented buttocks. Conceivably the same theory could explain the romantic associations of the full moon, but no one has written the grant yet.

Morris’s theory has been hotly rebutted by at least one writer I know of—Naomi Weisstein, in the early feminist essay “Psychology Constructs the Female”—and it does seem a little top-heavy with conjecture. But there is a Discover magazine consensus on at least the basic point, that breasts evolved primarily for display and mate selection—which is to say, more or less, for beauty. And in truth the theory seems more feminist than not. If breasts are like the peacock’s tail, a grand extra flourish added for style, it follows that, in our species, the female has assumed some of the more typically male role of courtship competition, while men have been partly recruited to the task of caring for the young. Also worth mentioning is that in Homo sapiens the female has availed herself of what is elsewhere a male prerogative: orgasm. The species itself seems bi-curious and cross-gendered.

For millennia the Catholic church taught that reproduction was the sole purpose of intercourse, and history records that someone once believed this, a Moldavian monk in the sixth century whose name I forget. The rest of us have always understood that sex is about much more than making babies, just as breasts are about much more than feeding them. Your dog or cat can tell you how much sex is necessary if offspring are your only aim: once or twice a year will do nicely, thanks. Anything more is surplus, luxury, lagniappe: so how do we account for our own excesses in that line? It is like trying to explain a one-inch cake with two yards of frosting on it.

The answer has to do with a bizarre long-shot investment our ancestors made in the evolutionary Nasdaq. While all the sensible species were busy whelping offspring that were hardy, self-reliant, and quick-growing, our own Offspring Design Division came in with a plan for a real monstrosity: a pollywog-headed weakling, hairless and uncoordinated and absurdly dependent for an absurdly long time. The goofy little bit of lion bait required years of intense protection while it mastered the intricacies of walking, speech, predator avoidance, and non-poisonous diet—taking advantage of the expanded cranium that seemed the single advantage of the new design—and this meant that the bond between sire and dam must be far more robust than such bonds usually are. Serious students of intercourse agree that it performs this function, holding male and female together, inclining them to cooperation and sociability rather than, say, cannibalism. In time, of course, the bubbleheaded architecture of Homo sapiens would reveal spectacular advantages, causing things like agriculture, civilization, history, and the Dixie Chicks; but all this could be accomplished only by detaining the adults of the species in a state of perpetual rut. The lechery of the breed is a necessary co-condition of higher intelligence.

But even a very smart, very sexy Homo sapiens would still have been buzzard fodder if not for another advantage: social organization. Other primates show a sort of rudimentary, herd-like sociability, but in Homo sapiens this suddenly becomes an amazing degree of specialization, integration, and interdependence; and this knack, too, seems to have developed hand in hand with our distinctive mating protocols. Gorillas and baboons reserve all the whoopee to a few dominant males while the females patiently (one supposes) wait their turns. The disenfranchised males plot insurgencies and form governments in exile, and the whole arrangement plays hell with the troop’s ability to conduct business, though it makes an excellent system for breeding individual chest-beaters. Our own commitment to comparatively equal sexual opportunity may cause us to take along a few wayward genes now and then (how else to explain a taste for Barry Manilow?), but it provides the emotional wherewithal for complex social organization.

So finally sex is all about the kids, those darling envelopes in which we mail our genes to eternity. In this sense the Catholic church was right after all, in a somewhat roundabout fashion, and we do well to draw Cupid as a little rosy-rumped cherub. One Discover magazine theory holds that romantic infatuation is genetically programmed to last approximately four years, the point at which a couple’s first baby would be weaned and walking and able to forage. In year five both male and female enter free agency, with a possibility of contract renewal but no guarantee. The measure of culture’s influence over nature—powerful, but not all-powerful—is that we speak of the seven-year itch, not the four-year.

But where exactly does sex become love? No one can say. In sensible species one passion follows the other in orderly sequence, as the brief frenzy of mating gives way to a still comparatively brief interval of child-rearing, wherein the mother duckling or father penguin or even (to stretch a point) male Black Widow suddenly exhibits a startling altruism, putting the survival of the young before its own. Popular stereotypes of evolution notwithstanding, such behavior is in fact perfectly consistent with the basic rule of the game: selection of the genes—not the individuals—voted most likely to succeed (a point wonderfully explained by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene). In Homo sapiens, though, the whole cycle is prolonged, intensified, repeated, overlapping. We seem deeply mixed up about this whole mating business. We are not just permanent lovers but permanent parents, and permanent babies too, so over-equipped with basic family drives that we lavish them all over the place, nurturing not just offspring but partners, pets, backyard gardens, friends, and abstract ideals, while we attach feelings of infantile dependency to sports teams, heroes, nation states, and God.

Like everything else this strange sentimentalism must have adaptive value, and it is not hard to see how this would be, back on the savannah. Sociobiologists agree that we spent most of our evolutionary history in small, isolated groups of fifty to a hundred, roaming in search of game and edible plants. Intensely interdependent and inbred, such groups would turn evolution into a sweetly corporate affair. Individuals who perished in service of the group would defend and preserve copies of most of their genes, albeit in other bodies, and so altruism on behalf of the group, not just one’s young, would be a favored and selected trait.

So if we tailless apes must blush to acknowledge ourselves sex junkies, we can take comfort that we are also (and therefore) the most generous and public-spirited of species. Blushing itself affords a neat example at the level of involuntary reflex: it announces the individual’s emotional state to the group, more to their advantage than to his. What psychological research has found to be a bone-deep resistance to committing homicide likewise seems more altruistic than selfish. Menopause shows the same generous tendency: old women cease breeding, but then hang around for an oddly extended cronehood that makes their knowledge available to the tribe; meanwhile the old men, with their higher caloric demands and more problematic tempers, obligingly die off. Our breed’s penchant for homosexuality looks like a positive adaptation—not a “crime against nature”—that obtains for the group some of the benefit of hyperselective breeding without the anarchic backlash it causes in langurs and lions and NBA franchises. Send a gay friend a Valentine this year, but don’t mention this theory, which presupposes that homosexuality must be largely elective. What Steven Pinker has dubbed “the language instinct” obviously favors personal survival, but in many ways looks more like a social instinct: shouting “Look out for the lion!” may get you eaten, but puts useful information at the disposal of the group. That oddly fanatical penchant we all have for correcting one another’s grammatical mistakes is definitely social: it can get you punched in the nose, but favors preservation of the language, that most important of public resources, in a tidy and useable condition. Analogously, the whole impulse to create culture—painting the walls of the cave, dancing around the campfire, making stump speeches, rearranging the living room, or writing this article for free as I am doing—relates more to group welfare than to individual survival.

Inevitably, our sociability makes us sexual busybodies. Group sex per se is frowned upon, but there are collectivist overtones to romantic practices far closer to the mainstream. We mate less like bears, encountering each other in solitude in the woods, and more like Galapagos seals, heading to the islands each year for spring break. Before consummation in private comes a lengthier phase of basically public courtship that allows the social group to sign off on the prospective pair bond. Teenagers do not go directly to lovers’ lane, but first spend a few hours at the dance, being seen at their beautiful best. Even at fifty a night out is considered an appropriate romantic prelude, allowing both for a traditional love-gift of concentrated protein and a chance for witnesses to see that one prizes and is prized. Weddings in all cultures are riotously polyvalent, with friends and relatives all but eclipsing the literal bride and groom in a delirious general sensation of everyone marrying everyone else. In all this there is an implicit acknowledgement that, in our species, the community has a large stake in the cut and shuffle of individual DNA.

Small wonder, then, that we have a semiofficial holiday to celebrate the depredations of Eros (or Cupid, as the Romans and fifties lyricists called him). For the past eight millennia or so, history has been busy assembling Homo sapiens into larger and larger units, building that freakishly improbable thing called civilization, and Eros has been the glue used to do this, holding together tribes and states and nations. Arguably at least, what has made us masters of the universe is not so much the opposable thumb or language or intelligence itself, but our capacity for crying at bad movies.

It seems likely, indeed, that Valentine’s Day would be a bigger holiday than it is, a feast among feasts, if not for certain setbacks Eros has suffered fairly late in the game, as ape-hordes have clustered into megastates. Ever since the agricultural revolution, societies have had a chronic need to control population in good times and to make war in bad. Since intercourse produces babies on the one hand and pacifistic sentiments on the other, some curtailment of Eros has been inevitable, the more so as this seems to create a surplus of dammed-up sexual energy that can then be directed to other uses. Societies are often forced to adopt the viewpoint of my high school football coach, who declaimed fiercely against the idiocy of thinking we could win football games if we were dating; or of Freud, who coined the term libido and regarded it as the indispensable oil and coal of the psychic economy, the basic reservoir of unhappy will-power that got things done in life. So Eros has to yield top billing to another love-god, from whose cult expressly sexual elements have been expunged, as if life could be endless parenting with never a moment for mating. Eros does not even get to appear as himself, but has to adopt the guise of St. Valentine, a minor sidekick of the usurper; and his holiday gets pushed back nearly to the equinox.

But never mind; at the level of popular culture and daily life, as opposed to religion and official ideology, the diaperless archer reigns supreme. The huge preponderance of our movies, stories, and songs are in one way or another observations in an unofficial cult of Eros, celebrating the old lusts and affections, feeding our appetite for vicarious romance. Salutary and oddly sophisticated guidance in the ways of love can be observed very early on, as in the little skip-rope rhyme:

Dressed in yella
Went upstairs
To kiss her fella.

Made a mistake
Kissed a snake
How many doctors
Did it take?
One, two, three, four . . .

Gleeful at middle childhood’s exemption from cravings that torment the grownups, the skip-rope rhyme nevertheless warns of dangers down the road: careful going upstairs with your boyfriend: mistakes made there may be so grave that a doctor’s help is required. Little Red Riding Hood depicts a similarly astonishing mistake, when the girl accepts the wolf as Grandma and climbs into bed with him, and even in toned-down, post-Grimms versions of the tale the cause, clearly enough, is erotic dizziness brought on by the wolf’s seductive wiles. Both the tale and the poem seem to warn children, well in advance of the event, that sex may feel wonderful, but will prove violent and injurious if you mistake your partner.

But in the full-featured love story, we press on past misadventures and caveats to triumphant correction and recovery. In the ancient Greek tale of Eros and Psyche, the lovers at first meet only at night. Naïve and impressionable, Psyche has the idea planted in her mind by her busybody sisters that the god of love is actually “a huge winged serpent,” making a reader wonder just what marriage manual the couple is using. Stung by these doubts, Psyche confronts Eros by lamplight and Discovers him to be his beautiful self, but in the process wounds him and unintentionally drives him away. What follows seems as familiar as the new movie opening this week: a long interval during which the lovers, separated, pine, repent, mature, and clear away various difficulties in preparation for a happy reunion, in daylight and in public this time. Here the snakiness or bestiality of the male proves to be an ugly rumor, a mirage of social repression rather than the hidden truth of the swain’s intentions, and it is the heroine rather than the hero who walks through Hell (literally) to redeem her error, so that love can ripen from a confused and chancy transgression into a sanctioned social fact. In many other “animal-groom stories,” as they are called, the hero really is a beast, at least for a while, but the woman is able to redeem him through a combination of goodness, beauty, and exquisitely calibrated teasing.

The point in either case is to tame and civilize Eros, and love stories are as firm as Dr. Ruth in their conviction that this can be done. They have their own version of natural selection, celebrating the regular evolution of the human male, his transformation from marauding polar bear (in his fantasies, anyway) to Emperor penguin, useful to his spouse, his offspring, and society, and to his own surprise much happier that way. The female, somewhat less visibly, tends to evolve from flirtatious self-centered Jezebel, only a little less ready than the Black Widow spider to take a man for all he’s worth, to a Ruth or Cinderella or Elizabeth Bennett, entitled to share the hero’s fortune precisely because she has not connived at getting it. Often the love story incorporates instructions for accomplishing such transformations. Modern versions of “The Frog Prince” allow a single kiss to elevate the beast to physical and social acceptability; the older Grimms’ version more realistically prescribes throwing him against a wall, hard, indicating that most boyfriends need a thorough bruising before they become good husband material.

In fact there is widespread agreement on this point: the thing most needed to convert lust or infatuation to real love is a healthy dose of pure pain. Even the initial surge of attraction is pain of a sort, as the iconography of Cupid’s arrows reminds us; but more important is the long middle stretch of nearly all love stories, a purgatorial phase wherein the intentions and virtues of the principals are repeatedly proved, improved, torture-tested. It takes a long time to rear Homo sapiens, so the tryout for parenthood has to be suitably rigorous. In action adventure films it is customary to have the hero shot six or seven times before he at last bursts in to save the girl, prettily bleeding, each wound a valentine. She, meanwhile, has refused a marriage proposal from the devastatingly handsome CEO of International Conglomerates Conglomerated, even though he has backed it up with a forged photograph of the hero in a hot tub with five supermodels, a ruse she has penetrated by sheer innocent intuition, bolstered by secret admiration for a stud who could attract so many beauties at once. At this point we understand that these two are in it for the long haul. They may breed with our blessing. We feel happy for them, understanding that their good fortune is also ours.

This necessity of pain goes far to explain what Percy Shelley called “that melancholy that is inseparable from our pleasure at the sweetest melody.” If love songs are sad five out of ten times on rock stations, and eight out of ten on country stations, why do we listen to them with such pleasure? Partly, at least, because we understand them as excerpts from the search-and-suffering phase of a longer story that may turn out happily. The lovers’ pain pleases us because it points to a bright future in the long term, after he moves out of his mother’s apartment and she quits the job working for her former boyfriend. Even where the outcome is nominally tragic—in Romeo and Juliet, say, or Leader of the Pack—the final effect leans toward the comic because the power of love itself has been confirmed, with cheery implications for the tribe if not for these particular lovers. Social theorists worry about the morally harmful effects of rock lyrics and racy movies, for good reasons no doubt, but I wonder if anyone notices that this particular glass is mostly full. Taking them all in all, romantic songs and stories perform vital cultural work, recasting raw appetite into feasible and acceptable forms, quietly renewing social bonds, providing needed guidance.

Read Discover magazine long enough, and you believe the whole thing after all. You arrive at the place where the poets have been waiting for you all along, checking their watches, ready to tell you that what matters most is love, that love will make you a fool, a wretch, a dupe, and a martyr, but that it is all worth it in the end. The irrational turns out to be rational; the whole nutty system runs along smoothly as a new Porsche. What is offered is not just genetic immortality, but a kind of personal redemption, the chance to be a new and better person, the prince instead of the frog, the queen instead of the kitchen wench.

So you are eager to take your mate out on the town, to spend quality time gazing into each other’s eyes, to let the world see you exchanging the traditional love gift of charred dead animal parts. You feel ready to charge up Purgatory Mountain with Dante, a well-thumbed copy of Discover in your backpack, till you are reunited with Beatrice and behold “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Dante put a sign over the entrance to Hell—“Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.” If he had put one over the gates of Paradise, it would have had to say something like, “Mate with caution, folks, as it tends to be a rather permanent relationship; but do have a good time.”

© John Kilgore
Reprinted by permission from The Vocabula Review
See the Talent Index for more of Kilgore's writing in TheScreamOnline.

Photo © Dawn M. Turner

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