ONE BOOK ATTEMPTING
TO EXPLAIN LOVE FROM BELOW: 

CHEMICALLY, BIOLOGICALLY,
BASED ON ANIMAL RELATIONSHIPS

{In the following review, the black text attempts to present what the author said.
The critical comments in red come from James Park, the reviewer.}



Helen Fisher
Why We Love:
The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love


(New York: Holt, 2004)       302 pages
(ISBN: 0-8050-6913-3; hardcover?)
(ISBN: 0-965-92053-4; book club edition)
(Library of Congress call number: BF575.L8F53 2004)


    Helen Fisher attempts to understand human romantic love
by studying the mating behavior of animals.
Thus, she firmly believes that romantic love
is a phenomenon arising from 'human nature',
which shows itself in somewhat different forms in the animal kingdom.

    After reading this whole book carefully,
this reviewer is not convinced.

But other readers might need to read this book
to understand such reductionist thinking,
which is quite common in the academic world.



Chapter 1: "What Wild Ecstasy": Being in Love

    In the first chapter Fisher presents a good description of romantic love.
This shows that she really understands the experience of 'falling in love'.
She is discussing the same phenomena explained in other ways by other thinkers.
And she offers quotations from literature that is more than 800 years old.

    If these quotations are being correctly interpreted,
then the phenomenon of romantic love as experienced today
does have roots in human nature as far back as recorded history goes.

    But quotations from ancient literature are all translations
since the English language is only about 500 years old.
And the translations were often made by people
who implicitly believed the romantic mythology of their times.
So often they 'find' romantic themes
where none actually existed in the original texts.

    Because Helen Fisher and many others who write about 'love'
have not clearly distinguished romantic responses from sexual responses,
many of the ancient texts were probably talking about sexual feelings,
which have been 'translated' into English words
that suggest our common, enculturated romantic responses.

    Another possible distortion common among anthropologists
is conflating family feelings with romantic feelings.
Everywhere human beings have always lived in groups.
And they necessarily developed deep feelings for their kin
whatever kinship system was prevalent.
And human beings are known especially for their pair-bonding.
We tend to settle into a relationship with one other person
that is more important than all others.
But kinship, pair-bonding, marriage, & other forms of familiarity
can exist and have existed independent of romantic love.

    For a deeper discussion of such other human experiences
that are frequently confused with romantic love,
see the introduction to my Romantic Love Test:
http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/RLT-WEB.html
This Romantic Love Test contains the explicit definition of romantic love,
which is the background for criticizing this book.

   
Those who want to explore when romantic first appeared
should read "When Was Romantic Love Invented?":
http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/Q&A-800.html


   
Chapter 2: Animal Magnetism: Love among the Animals

    The second chapter tells several stories
of animals who were very interested in each other.
And Fisher notices patterns of animal behavior
that she believes are very similar to teen-agers 'falling in love'.

    But these similarities seem very superficial.
Mating behavior found among animals can be explained biologically:
It is encoded in their genes, not learned from observing
the behavior of other members of their species.
Animal sexual behavior is quite complex and often elaborate.
And we human beings do have much of the same sexual anatomy
and hormones as the other mammals,
but human sexuality seems to have largely transcended the animal kingdom.

    Why are we so drawn to animal-models for understanding human sexuality?
Perhaps it is because we feel so out-of-control when it comes to sex.
We want to believe that we are not responsible for what happens to us sexually.
We feel more comfortable believing that
our 'animal nature' is controlling our sexual responses.

    This reviewer is one of the few thinkers
who disputes claims about the animal basis of human sexuality.
Fisher and others believe that romantic love is a by-product of sex.
If so, then studying animal sexual behavior
will provide deep insights into human sexual behavior.
For such reductionist thinkers, love is a sub-category of sex.

    Fisher presents data about animal mating.
Some species mate for just one season, some for life.
And almost all species show preferences for particular mates.
They develop definite patterns of mate-selection and persistence.

    Are we attracted to animal explanations
because we do not understand what we are doing when we create pair-bonds?
When romantic love seems to draw us together with people we barely know
do we like to think that we are being controlled by natural forces
in the same ways that animals might be caused to connect and stay together?
Some mythologies claim that we are controlled by the Gods.
Fisher's book claims that we are controlled by our biology.



Chapter 3: Chemistry of Love: Scanning the Brain "in Love"

    The author shows certain changes in blood flow in the brain
when subjects who are 'in love' look at pictures of the objects of their love.

    But she did not test other kinds of emotional states,
such as being emotionally engaged in supporting a sports team
or in supporting one's own nation during wartime.
We already knew that being 'in love' is an emotionally-aroused state.
But does it differ (in terms of measurable blood flow in the brain)
from other emotional states of arousal and involvement?

    Perhaps Fisher has discovered and measured emotional arousal,
but this does not show that romantic love is universal or natural.
Support for a sports team is also emotional,
but no one claims (as far as I know) that sports-emotions are universal.

    Fisher took her hypothesis as far as it would go.
But she did not look at similar emotional states,
some of which are well-known to be enculturated feelings.

    Those who want to explore the programming of romantic love should read:
"Romantic Love is a Hoax! Emotional Programming to 'Fall in love' ":
http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/CY-HOAX.html



Chapter 4: Web of Love: Lust, Romance, and Attachment

    Helen Fisher does distinguish between lust and romantic love.
And she cites studies that show sexual arousal
involves different parts of the brain than romantic love.

    However, she still assumed that lust is a natural event,
citing animal studies to explain various aspects of human sexuality.

    Sometimes lust leads to romantic love.
People who have been having sex
develop the signs of romantic passion.

    But Fisher and I seek different explanations of both phenomena.
She keeps looking for biological explanations.
But I believe that romantic love is a learned emotion
and that sexual fantasies are imprinted.

    Next Fisher looks for chemical to explain attachment.
And she begins with animal studies:
What keeps animal pairs together?
What causes them to look for new mates?

    Can human mating be explained by the chemicals we share with animals?
Fisher would like to find an 'attachment chemical'.
I would explain mating as types of familiarity:
Family structures are very strong among humans.
And when people like each other,
they tend to continue spending time together.

    Should we speak of the need for families?
We can at least speak of the benefits of families.
Siblings can also form families with one another.
Parents and children necessarily constitute families
because the children will not survive without parents
or someone else to act as parents.

    Interpersonal attachments and family structures are clearly real,
but I do not think brain chemicals will do much to explain them.

    According to Fisher, parents stay together to raise their children
because of the chemical of attachment,
which frequently replaces the chemical of romantic passion.

    The author of this book is attempting to explain
very complex human choices and patterns of relationship
by means of brain-chemicals.
In my view, this does not succeed.
But it might still be useful to know something about the chemical in our brains.
However, our behavior is better explained by our choices than by our chemistry.
And our choices are often conditioned by complex social factors.
I even believe we have freedom to choose against what we have learned.

    Fisher acknowledges that her three factors
romantic love, sexual response, & attachment
can sometimes be independent of one another.
They can be directed toward different individuals at the same time.
You can be married and attached to one person
the spouse.
And you can have romantic feelings for another person.
And you can even have a sexual response to a third person.

    I agree with these observations,
but I would not seek all of the explanations in brain-chemicals.
Attachment, familiarity, & mate-selection
are all deeply affected by social learning.
The examples of other people's relationships
are the strongest inputs for how we structure our personal relationships.
Marriage is the major example.
Would Fisher attempt to explain marriage by referring to brain chemistry?

    Fisher acknowledges that other thinkers (ancient and modern)
have tried to explain all of the phenomena called "love"
using different concepts.
But these might be various combinations of Fisher's three
romantic love, sexual response, & attachment.

    This reviewer is still not convinced.
It can often be useful to attempt to explain human behavior
by referring to simpler principles.
But when this effort is taken too far, it becomes reductionism.
I think the phenomena under consideration
are more likely to be explained as social learning
than as resulting from anything biological.

    This reviewer's essay on romantic love was already linked above.
Those who want to explore the imprinting of sexual responses should read:
"Sources of Sexual Fantasies":
http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/CY-SSF.html



Chapter 5: "That First Fine Careless Rapture": Who We Choose

    Helen Fisher notes that we project romantic fantasies on strangers
more readily than we 'fall in love' with people we already know.
We choose when we are ready for a new partner.
We choose partners from the same social class, usually.
We choose partners with symmetrical bodies.
And men choose women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 70%

    But all such statistical studies can never account for the individual factors,
which might be even more important for a unique relationship.
When men and women are relating generically,
they are responding to their internalized romantic fantasies
and their imprinted sexual responses.

    Judged by personal ads and scientific studies,
men sell themselves to women by their wealth and power.
Women sell themselves to men by their beauty.

    Fisher assumes (without explaining why)
that all people are trying to reproduce.
So our mate-selections will be based
(perhaps unconsciously) on reproductive potential.
I do not believe this.
But for a reductionist, it could make perfect sense.
I believe that pair-bonding is much more cultural than biological.
And we can choose each other for highly individual reasons,
that have more to do with who we are choosing to be
than anything that could be explained biologically or culturally.
When we 'fall in love', we are usually not thinking of reproduction.

    One fellow-psychologist even interprets all human behavior
as attempts to impress a mate.

    This view could only arise if mating is the only purpose on the radar.
But we all have many other purposes in life.



Chapter 6: Why We Love: The Evolution of Romantic Love

    Helen Fisher correctly recounts the emergence of the human species in Africa.
When our ancestors came down from the trees 7 million years ago,
the females had to carry their young in their arms instead of on their backs.
This made it difficult for them to gather food and defend themselves against predators.
So having a mate around became more important for the survival of the young.

    This would account of pair-bonding but not for romantic love.
Clearly family structures were required for groups survival.
In some cultures, the brothers of the females
were the ones who protected the offspring
(and other sisters and their offspring).

    Fisher continues her account of human origins.
We know that males and females got together to reproduce.

    And when human males and female get together today,
they often connect by means of romantic love.
I think Fisher is projecting current experiences with romantic love
back onto our ancestors of millions of years ago:
Because they 'got together', they must have been 'in love'.

    What if Fisher became convinced
that romantic love is a recent invention of human culture?
Then would she call the phenomenon she studies "sexual attraction"?
And even today, we know that sexual responses
can happen in the absence of romantic love.
Human sexual attraction has large cultural components,
but there are also some dynamics we share with the other animals.

    As I read these pages, I think that Fisher could have decided
to study human sexuality with as much validity
as she attempts to study romantic love.
Concerning our ancestors of millions of years ago,
I think we will never be able to separate sexual responses
from whatever forms of emotional connections they might have had.
So why not just call it sex?
After all, animals have also been mating for millions of years.
Yet, with respect to most animals,
no one believes that they have anything like romantic love.
Does Helen Fisher wants to find romantic love among the animals
because of her ethno-centrism?
Does she see everything thru Western eyes?
Is that why she finds romantic love in prehistoric cultures
and even in the animal kingdom?

    Helen Fisher discusses the development of the human brain.
We have lots of special capacities not shared by the other animals.
Chief among these is the capacity for language.
But even before language development, human beings were mating.

    Before the emergence of language about 100,000 years ago,
I think human beings were mating mainly for sexual reasons.
And I see no need to hypothesize that they experienced
anything like our modern feeling of romantic love.

    Our larger brains also allowed us to develop
more complex ideas about sex and mating.
But our prehistoric ancestors could have had a very complex culture
of sexual interactions without any romantic love.
In fact, I believe that human cultures did grow and thrive
for thousands of years before any romantic love emerged.
I compare it to any given style of music.
Rock-and-roll was always possible.
But as a matter of historical fact,
it did not emerge until the 20th century.

    And as we do better anthropology,
studying all cultures that left any records
telling about their patterns of mating and having families,
we will discover that only a few, recent cultures
were driven by romantic traditions.

    I remain open to any record from any culture
that tells of romantic love (as distinct from sexual attraction)
that existed before 1200 AD.

    Helen Fisher is aware that modern people do have sex outside of marriage.
She thinks that this has the evolutionary purpose
of having more off-spring.

     Do people who are having sex outside of marriage really want to reproduce?

    And woman want to gain more protection for the children they already have.

    This reviewer remains unconvinced.
Such evolutionary explanations of human behavior
would need much better evidence.

    The human passion of romantic love does not last long.

    This is certainly a valid observation.
However, if romantic love (like the English language) is a cultural invention,
then there is no need to seek a biological basis for it.
Romantic illusions are just some examples of the artificial emotions
that human beings have developed over their long history.



Chapter 7: Lost Love: Rejection, Despair, and Rage

    When Fisher notices something like rage and pain in rejected lovers,
she looks to animals for parallels.
In this case, baby animals suffer when their mothers leave.
Similar chemicals are working in the bodies of humans
when they are rejected or abandoned.

    There might be some connections,
but the loss of human love is much more
than worry about food and companionship.
When teen-love disappears, no one starves.
And the victims of abandonment are not left without any human contact.
We have complex thoughts and feelings
that have no parallel among the animals
because we human beings have abstract language
thru which we understand our relationships.

    Fisher believes that the end of a relationship
means starting over with a new partner to have children.

    She does not ask actual people who have lost in the game of love
whether they are worried about parenting possibilities.

    Rage, hatred, & despair are useful feelings.
They help with giving up the lost partner
and moving on to a new partner.

    This reviewer is not convinced.
I doubt that the desire to have children figures in many broken relationships.
When people get jealous, reproduction is far from their thoughts.
But such is the way that an evolutionary biologist would see it.
Most of this book suffers from the same presuppositions.
It might be useful to add such animal parallels.
But the higher dimensions of love
which only humans have
are more helpful in explaining hurt feelings when love goes bad.



Chapter 8: Taking Control of Passion: Making Romance Last

    Since the loss of love is a bio-chemical state of the brain,
we can attempt to counter-act these chemicals with other chemicals.
Anger and regret can be overcome with positive chemicals.
Helping our bodies to become more healthy
is one way to recover from romantic disappointment.

    Fisher has recognized the real sense of loss
that comes with the collapse of romantic illusions.
But attempting to explain it all by chemicals
does not do justice to the problem or the solution.
Her treatments might be more appropriate
for the depression that results from a losing season
in one's favorite sporting team.

    Reports of more studies that show people are more prone
to 'fall in love' when they are emotionally excited.
When we control these chemicals,
we have more continuing feelings of being in love.

    Fisher's first response to any new phenomenon
is to look for the chemicals that might be the basis of that experience.



Chapter 9: "The Madness of the Gods": The Triumph of Love

    More claims that romantic love is universal.
Exploring some different patterns of relationships:
polygamy, multiple loving, arranged marriages,
being in love with one person while married to another,
love possible for people of all ages.

    This reviewer remains unconvinced to the end
that romantic love is universal.
And Helen Fisher's attempt to explain romantic love
bio-chemically are also unconvincing.
But I offer these summaries for people
who might be interested in reading this book for themselves
to draw their own conclusions.


slightly revised 4-11-2009; 9-23-2010


Go to reviews of books critical of romantic love.



Go to a complete listing of resources critical of romantic illusions:
The Romantic Love Portal .


Return to the beginning of this home page:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum .








The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.