Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Anti-Love Drug in the New York Times


Ok, quick rant about the above-linked article in the New York Times, which is titled "Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss" and which chronicles a study of prairie voles to try to understand human pair bonding. In it researchers and the reporter both equate love and sexual neurochemistry:

"reducing love to its component parts helps us to understand human sexuality, and may lead to drugs that enhance or diminish our love for another, says Larry J. Young."

Why prairie voles? 'Cuz:

"These mouselike creatures are among the small minority of mammals — less than 5 percent — who share humans’ propensity for monogamy."

I'd love to see the studies classifying humans as a monogamous species. "Love", for the purposes of this study, apparently means "monogamy," and is hence a squarely sexual phenomenon. Love is just the emotional/neurochemical rollercoaster which enforces (ha!) monogamy in humans:

"'Some of our sexuality has evolved to stimulate that same oxytocin system to create female-male bonds,' Dr. Young said, noting that sexual foreplay and intercourse stimulate the same parts of a woman’s body that are involved in giving birth and nursing. This hormonal hypothesis, which is by no means proven fact, would help explain a couple of differences between humans and less monogamous mammals: females’ desire to have sex even when they are not fertile, and males’ erotic fascination with breasts. More frequent sex and more attention to breasts, Dr. Young said, could help build long-term bonds through a 'cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,” like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.'"

"Unproven" is the key here, but this speculation is still the crux of of the NYT's article. 

There's something in here that should disturb even you die-hard romantics out there, namely the subtle implication that love is outdated. According to this article (and, apparently, the assumptions of mainstream science), the intense emotions that we feel are just instinctual leftovers from a less civilized age. The article goes on to talk about the inappropriateness of cupid's oxytocin arrow hitting during a business meeting, and speculates about how useful it would be to have a "vaccine" that got rid of the emotional mess alltogether

All too often I see love discussed in terms of loose neurochemistry and even looser evolutionary psychology. The idea seems to be that the complicated emotions that we feel for one another only make sense in contexts outside of our understanding- the complicated mathematics of hormone interaction and Bedrock, respectively. I'm not willing to give up so easily. Love isn't just a chemical burden passed down to us from homo erectus, it's something that is profoundly shaped and reshaped by cultures across geography and time. 

Love is around because it makes our lives better and because it makes our society tick. Understanding the neurochemistry of love might help big pharma's bottom line, but ultimately it won't help us understand how the things that we feel and the relationships that we have can genuinely improve our lives. To do that, we have to think about love in the context that where we feel it. Neurochemistry won't help us unless we want to start interacting with romance through drugs. Evolutionary psychology won't help us unless we want to hit on australopithecus. But if we can begin to seriously talk about, study, and understand the structure of relationships then we may just get somewhere.


ACH said...

Gotta love science reporting. In describing humans as a "monogamous" species, I believe that they are referring to the cross-cultural tendency for people to form pair-bonds with sexual partners, rather than saying that they are actually monogamous in practice. (Though often that is considered the ideal.)

From what I understand of this theory from other work, here the romantic attraction involved is sometimes seen as not necessarily sexual. (In Lisa Diamond's paper "What does sexual orientation orient?" she first argues that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are separate systems, and then the second half is speculation based on prairie vole research.)

The prairie voles are used because they are one of the few mammalian species that, like humans, form pair-bonds. (In fact, they have been observed to form both same-sex and other-sex pair-bonds.) More importantly, current ethical guidelines allow for injecting stuff into prairie vole brains to see what happens, but not so much with human brains.

I'm suspicion of this theory for a couple reasons: first, it predicts that everyone should be biromantic. (Parent-child pair bonds form with both male and female children, so if the systems are in fact the same, adult pair bonds should be independent of the gender of the partner.) One way I've seen to deal with this is to say that sexual orientation causes people to spend lots of time together--especially physically [which may or may not be sexual] which in turn causes romantic attraction. It has no way of accounting for romantic orientations among asexuals.

Moreover, because most mammals don't pair-bond, the pair-bonding mechanism in prarie voles and in humans must be seen as analogous, not homologous. (i.e. they evolved separately after the species split.) This makes saying that they are also homologous (i.e. both derived from parent-child bonding mechanisms) possible but a little fishy.

One also wonders how they're going account for males who aren't so interested in female breasts, not to mention the fact that some cultures seem more interested than others.

The Impossible K said...

Hmm... and what of this "genetically limited vasopressin response"??
As interesting as the speculation may be, I can't help feeling skeptical as I read it... There's definitely a bias in this that favors pharmaceutical companies- and consequently downplays personal responsibility. Do we really need a drug to take away those "oh-so-sexual urges"?? I vote- no.

Anonymous said...

Alternative scenario: What if you were bothered by an obsessed stalker, who claims to be stalking you because he's madly in love with you and "just can't help himself"? I have read articles about stalking, and the point was made repeatedly that stalkers are allowed to get away with their behaviour because everyone in our society has been socialized to (grudgingly) accept the "passion" of a hopeless Romanic. (This goes back to what I said before about sexual compulsion configured as "passion", or the "I just can't help myself" excuse.)

Wouldn't you consider your stalker being given such a pill, so that the stalker would calm down and conclude it is better to leave you alone?

[BTW, I am not in favour of happy-pills. Happy-pills were very popular in the 1990s in The Netherlands but have since lost their appeal in favour of talking-shop therapy. I am just trying to look at this from their perspective.]