Monday 2 July 2012

Conflicting Love Interests

Dario Maestripieri’s Games Primates Play, An undercover investigation of the evolution and economics of human relationships has some interesting theories.  One which has been lingering in my mind is his theory that romantic love evolved from maternal love.

There have been a number of studies noting the parallels between courting couples and mother and baby.  They both touch much more frequently than necessary, they look at each other to the exclusion of the world around them, etc.  There’s a self-absorption between the two of them, ignoring everything else. 

I’m drawing together ideas from a lot of different sources so if this gets disjointed, I apologize.

A lot of new fathers complain about feeling supplanted by the new baby in the family.  I can see that.  It’s like watching your wife fall in love with someone else.  A short, somewhat irritating someone else who moved into your house and took over your wife.  If Maestripieri is right, then they might have a reason to complain.  Maternal affection has likely been around for a long time since the majority of primates are cared for exclusively by their mother until independence.  Involved fathers only appear in species with highly dependent young, where a mother can’t care for them independently.  And no babies on the planet are more dependent than humans.

Now to bring in the next thread: Natalie Angier’s theory that intelligence and sentience evolved as an adaptive trait to allow a child to convince a wide variety of individuals to take care of it, increasing it’s chance of survival.  She noted that in hunter-gatherer societies, older women help to provide food for their daughter’s, niece’s and cousin’s older children, particularly after the birth of a new baby.  She believes human evolution went like this: we started to survive beyond our reproductive years and the older women of the group started bringing in a significant number of calories; the children started having to compete for this extra food, encouraging social awareness and early intelligence.  This set the stage for true sentient intelligence to develop.  It was okay for children to go through an extended development because they had the food from the extended kin group and smarter, more social children got more food.

So where did this leave fathers?  As children took longer and longer to be independent, they would have become increasingly vulnerable to irritated males looking to mate with the mother.  It would be evolutionarily adaptive to start drawing men into the extended family.  They can protect the children from other men and would provide access to a whole other kinship group.  Those families who had an attentive, caring male parent as well as the female kingroup would have done the best, allowing their genetic legacy to be dominant.

But this model doesn’t explain why couples break up (which they do with surprising regularity).  If two caring parents give the best shot to a child, why wouldn’t humans be better suited to being in a relationship?  Maybe it’s still a work in progress.

Maestripieri suggests that human pairbonds are designed to last around seven years, enough time to have a child (or two) and see them past the most vulnerable first few years.  After that, the needs of the individual change and being in a couple might no longer suit both of them.

Or maybe it’s long enough for the father to give up hope of regaining being number one in his wife’s affections.  It’s a long held truth.  In crisis situations, men save their wives and mothers save their children.  Perhaps its why men are so vulnerable to affairs, because the mistress puts them at number one.

Babies tend to be cared for by the mother and the extended female kin group in most societies.  Fathers get bumped out of significant roles.  Interestingly, in cultures where fathers are directly encouraged to bond with their child, the rates of divorce tend to stay the same but lack of child support becomes a much less common phenomenon.  If the only tie to the family is through the mother, it’s easy for a father to walk away from the entire family.  But if he gets tied to his children, he’ll be there for them even if he and the mother split apart.

It’s all interesting fodder to explore.  I like looking at different cultures and seeing what could be.  I think it’s neat to figure out how we became what we are, since it gives opportunities to guess how we might have been different.

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