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The Socio-biological Theory of Romantic Love

Discuss support for the sociobiological theory of romantic love

The sociobiological theory of romantic love is based on the idea that behaviours which promote reproduction are naturally selected.  People are attracted to partners who produce healthy offspring and care for them.  Sociobiology applies evolutionary ideas to the social behaviour of animals.  It would be a mistake, of course, to think that humans and other animals are solely instinctual beings, otherwise we would all carry out exactly the same behaviour.  However, there are some fundamental behaviours that animals share.  In this essay, I will look at evolutionary theories of natural selection; the attractive qualities of aggression; the attractive qualities of resources; and the attractive qualities of appearance and what this says about health, to see what these can tell us about love and sexual attraction between human beings.

Natural selection is a process whereby the best genes are carried on to the next generations.  The result of the process, whereby genes are successfully reproduced, is called evolution.   Barash (1981) says successful genes are dependent upon their success to reproduce and evolve in all forms of life. It makes sense, therefore, that the best way to be genetically successful is to reproduce the best genes in each offspring.  To do this we have to behave in ways that a. attract a mate and b. ensure successful offspring.  In general, we may not necessarily know why we behave the way we do, nor may our genes.  Barash (1981) sites the case of those with Huntingdon’s disease, a persistent genetic illness where victims display various psychiatric problems which often lead to (amongst other things) hypersexuality.  This, Barash believes, may be the genes way of replicating and surviving (Barash 1981).

Another point about the evolution of genes is the idea of adaptation, and that what one person lacks genetically, they may find in a mate; the idea being, that together their off-spring will be enhanced by all their good genetic qualities and coding (Barash 1981).  In laboratory experiments it would seem there is no doubt that genetic memory is something that is quite easily transferred through reproduction.  Something that animal breeders have known for a long time, as they use selective breeding  to enhance the genetic fitness and success of an animal for their own purposes (Barash 1981).

Evolutionary psychologists, Berkow (1989) and Symons (1979) say that for females, reproduction is a costly, effortful, energy-zapping and time-consuming process.  Therefore women must consider carefully when choosing when and with whom to reproduce, whereas reproduction has, in comparison, much fewer costs for men.  They say that male animals would do best to have multiple partners, whereas females would do best to stick with one, carefully chosen partner (Aronson et al 1998).  Something doesn’t add up already.

Let us start by looking at aggression.  Throughout the animal kingdom, it is usually, traditionally, the male of the species that is the defender of territory.  This idea may be changing in modern times, but generally speaking, there are higher numbers of male soldiers in the British Army.  There are good anatomical and physiological reasons for this.  Women are disadvantaged in physical ability and performance overall, that men (Women in the Armed Forces 2002).  In most species it is found that the male is far more aggressive than the female.  Archer (1994) has done some extensive research on the relationship of testosterone and aggression, finding that there is a positive correlation between the two.  He has found that there is a large proportion of violence between males, or from males towards an intimate female partner.  Daly and Wilson (1994) say that this is typical of mammals, in evolutionary terms, and highlights competition amongst males for female attention as well as choosiness of females for male partners (Archer 1994).  Inter-male aggression and sexual motivation has also been studied in both avian and mammalian evolution, showing positive relationships between aggression and sexual maturity, as well as aggression and mating seasons (Archer 1988).  In 1995, Archer showed that testosterone levels were affected by their social environment especially in relation to status and anger (Archer 1995).  Barash sums up the evidence, saying that bigger and more aggressive males are more desirable partners, in evolutionary terms, because of their ability to defend against enemies and hunt (Barash 1918).  Why men became selected, genetically, for this purpose is a mystery, according to Barash.  However, it seems obvious that there are certain times, such as pregnancy, when women are more vulnerable and in need of protection.  This may be one reason.

Buss (1988) believes good resources are another cause of attraction (Aronson 1998).  Males that can gather resources useful to a female are at an advantage, as far as reproduction is concerned (Low 2000).  Men with more resources and wealth are also likely to have many more women (Low 2000).  Daniel Pèrusse discovered that high status French Canadian men had more sexual partners (Low 2000).   Looking at other animals, it is not difficult to see the similarities between ourselves.  As far as the female blackbird is concerned, there are three major considerations when choosing a partner: choosing the best possible genes to combine with their own, increasing the chances of her own genes’ success; gaining the best possible resources (food, protection etc); and, finally, to acquire a male who can contribute to these things (Barash 1981).  In the resource based mating systems, males compete for control of the best resources, whilst females breed with the winners (Barash 1981).  It has been witnessed that in Muslim and Aboriginal societies, wealth plays a huge part in attracting women to successful men (Barash 1981).

Historically, various ideas of beauty and health, in both men and women, have ensued according to the fashion at that time.  In antiquity, the Earth goddess, had the ability to give birth and nourish her children.  In later centuries, a pale complexion meant the likelihood that the woman did not have to work and was rich whereas, nowadays, a tanned skin means the affordability of a tropical holiday (Barash 1981; Low 2000).  Baby-face features in adults are thought to be attractive because they bring out nurturing feelings in the observer.  Beauty in the female is often much more associated with this look (Aronson et al 1998; Low 2000), and symmetry in body and face equates to healthiness (Aronson et al 1998).

Certain attributes, like shiny hair and clear skin denote health, whilst others like a lack of wrinkles denotes youth; waste-to-hip ration (0.7) shows the reproductive stage, as do the colour of nipples; jewellery may show wealth; clothing may indicate cultural knowledge or identity.  A healthy woman will have clear, unwrinkled skin, firm breasts and shiny hair.  Men are valued for their strength, energy and vigour.  Tattoos may reflect cultural practices (significant if it is genetically preferable to remain within one’s own culture) and tolerance of pain. Wide hips in women show that they are fertile and have a good build for childbirth.  Such things as body fat deposits (on hips, buttocks and breasts) of women, ensure stored energy should they find themselves in a harsh environment (Low 2000).

Men and women may mimic the ideal appearance.  For example, bras can make breasts look larger or younger; girdles can imitate the 0.7 hip-to-waist ratio; shoulder pads can give the appearance of a good physical condition; and make-up covers a multitude of sins, or gives us the appearance of being younger (Low 2000).  This is not new.  In the 19th century many drastic things were done in the name of sexual enticement, including belladonna in the eyes to enlarge pupils or red cheeks and lips to denote sexual excitement (Low 2000).  Healthy appearance for both men and women, not only shows their genetic fitness but also the likelihood of resistance to disease.  Gangestad and Buss (1993) showed that people indicated a strong preference for physically attractive mates where parasitic disease was prevalent (Aronson 1998).

In addition to studies in the 1980s, studies in the following century revealed different evidence.  Physical attractiveness was found to be as important to women as it was to men (Regan and Berscheid 1995; Speed and Gangestad 1997).  Studies by Jensen-Campbell, Graziano, & West (1995); Regan & Berscheid (1995; 1997) and Speed & Gangestad (1997), on importance of the man’s wealth, found that some women felt it was not important (Aronson 1998).  Some studies found the opposite, but it certainly seems there has been a shift in female thinking from 1990s onwards.  It could be that women were, and are now, more economically independent and so do not require the financial support they once did.

In conclusion, it is difficult to tie up the evidence of socio-biology with romantic love, usually associated primarily with emotions and personality of individuals; far more difficult than to tie it to the idea of purely physical attraction.  Humans have somewhat modified many of their instincts due to culture, learning and psychology, so that perhaps attraction itself evolves and we find different reasons for being in love.  However, on the evidence given here, less wealthy women are more likely to be attracted to men who can provide the resources required to bear a child.  Men are attracted to women who appear healthy and capable of reproducing successfully (Aronson 1998).  Finally, it is important to question how important wealth is to women of differing economic status, and how important, for example, the 0.7 hip-to-waist ratio is nowadays, given what is considered attractive in this decade.

Word Count 1566



Aronson E, Wilson T D and Akert R M (1998) Social Psychology (3rd ed.) Longman: New York 382-404

Barash, D (1981) Sociobiology: The Whispering Within Harper and Row: New York 26-79

Archer, J (1994) Testosterone and Aggression in The Psychobiology of Aggression: Engines, Measurement and Control The Haworth Press, Inc: NY 3

Low, B S (2000) Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behaviour Princeton University Press: New Jersey 47-86


Internet Source

A Report by the Employment of Women in the Armed Forces Steering

Group Women in the Armed Forces (2002)

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