The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
In the eloquent words of our amazing and genius editor (she told us we have to call her that… or else), “love sucks.” We’ve all heard it and felt it- but why? In my second post of the True Love’s Kiss series, I’ll be delving into the really shitty aspects of love and emotions, and what my Godless take on it is.
EVOLUTION! As any regular readers will quickly learn, I’ll look to evolution for complicated answers faster than a Christian can say “God works in mysterious ways.”
Most of what we think about when we feel like love sucks is the pain we feel when it’s not returned, or the absolute hell we often put ourselves through for our love interests. And there’s a pretty good reason we feel like this. You’ll need some background first, so just bear with me.
The easiest way for me to think about this is to follow our ancestral history from around the time we split from chimpanzees up through the present. It’s pretty well established that we went separate ways at least 6 million years ago, so let’s start there.
As Dr. Bernard Chapais (anthropology, University of Montreal) discusses in his book Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society, the ancestor that we both came from must have had a mating structure that could lead to both the modern chimpanzee system and the modern human system. The ancestors that started down the path to chimpanzees were more successful with males that competed intensely for mating rights in groups of sexually promiscuous males and females, while our predecessors fared much better with something closer to monogamy, allowing for greater parental devotion. And what better way to promote teamwork than forming a physiological and psychological bond as partners?
If we fast-forward to the point in time where the genus Homo is already bipedal and developing a big brain, we’ll see the logic of the dramatic shift in sexual practice. It was at this point, around two million years ago, that our ancestors’ brains grew at an astonishing rate- about 10,000 neurons per generation (at 1 million neurons per mL, an increase of 1000 mL, and 100,000 20 year generations), as the benefits of the intellect required to navigate complex social systems far outweighed the detriments of losing our physical defenses like large canines and muscle mass; we only have access to so much energy, and it was better devoted to mental prowess.
Think for a moment about other species’ babies, like foals than can gallop alongside their mother within a day. Then think about our babies, weak little helpless worm-things that can’t even hold up their own head for months. What gives? Modern humans have brains the consume about 20% of the calories we take in, and babies’ brains can gobble up to 60% while they soak up information like a sponge. This is necessary to survive in a system where social navigation is the key to success, but obviously it comes at a price: the parents (and often immediate family) must dedicate immeasurable energy and resources to keep the infant alive until it becomes less wormy and more humany.
But Katie, you ask, what the hell does this have to do with love? I’m getting there, I promise.
Our ancestors didn’t have government-sponsored help for single mothers, or daycare centers. Fathers were all but required to invest more and more in their offspring as babies became increasingly helpless (or “altricial”). If they didn’t, their offspring were much less likely to reach reproductive age. Both males and females were much more successful if they stuck together to care for their worm-things, and experiencing a strong bond encouraged that behavior. For the sake of the genes, we started falling in love.
And leaving love sucks. It makes sense. We’re chemically addicted to love, and the pain of losing it (or never having it reciprocated in the first place) is akin to withdrawal. It’s why we do stupid things for our partner and make bad choices and ignore our friends telling us what a douchebag we’re dating; we’re high on oxytocin.
It can be a beautiful thing, my most favorite feeling, but its devastation is ruthless. There’s not much you can do about it, but maybe understanding why it happens can be comforting; it is for me.