If you're one of those depressed single people posting "Fuck Valentine's Day" statuses on Facebook, I've got great news for you: According to science, love doesn't exist, so there's nothing to get worked up about.
Scientific study into mating and pair bonding behaviors leaves little alternative. Granted, science isn't one monolithic entity that collectively agrees on things. Plus you supposedly can't prove a negative, but Bill Nye in particular seems to be into debating that things don't exist lately. So while there's not an open debate about love, I'd love to moderate one. Bill Nye would be on one side, vivisecting love. On the other side would be Zach Braff and Oprah.
Right now there's a meme going around in interviews with psychologists about this animal called the prairie vole that engages in perfect monogamy, almost without exception. Prairie voles are so totally monogamous that they pair bond instantly after mating. As Abby Marsh, psychology professor at Georgetown University, said to a documentary crew, "Compared to a lot of other mammals, the male doesn't just disappear. He sticks around." When she says "other mammals," she probably means us.
So scientists cut open the vole's brain and found, according to Marsh, "really dense oxytocin receptors in regions like the nucleus accumbens." The nucleus accumbens is the reward center. "When they mate, it triggers a flood of oxytocin to be released. That triggers a flood of dopamine to be released to the nucleus accumbens which causes the female to find that particular male really rewarding to be around." This is an animal that, if its mate dies, won't choose another mate. Instead it'll just die alone. Imagine how this vole thinks about its little partner vole. Imagine that love feeling. Are you imagining it?
Voles in love via
Next, because scientists are assholes like that, they gave the voles a drug that cut off their oxytocin receptors. Sure enough, Marsh says the vole is now, "uninterested in forming pair bonds," and its behavior will be essentially the same as its cousin, the polygynous Montane vole, which fucks everything in sight because it favors quantity of litters over its offspring's having the protection of two parents, a perfectly valid position for a vole to take.
It's the same with humans, Marsh says. "Humans are probably built similarly. People who excite romantic feelings in us probably also trigger increases in oxytocin, which results in this increase in dopamine when we find that person." We're just not as good at it as the vole, even without a scientist fucking with our oxytocin receptors.
No one should be surprised that pair bonding has been linked to biology, but think of it this way: We knew a long time ago how chemistry was involved in the reproductive component of what we interpreted to be love, in our narrow definition, and we figured how to turn that off via castration or oophorectomy. But there was still the pair bonding. Now we can shut that off too.
Which capacity would you rather have permanently turned off, mating or pair bonding? You have to say mating, not bonding, or you're a monster, right? Someone who can mate but can't bond doesn't love, do they? Besides, bonding and mating can't be all there is to love, can they?
For the past few decades, scientists and philosophers armed with pop sensibilities and book deals have done a lot of work compiling arguments in layman's terms that each explain away some socially toxic aspect of love: heteronormativity (you have to be a man and a woman to be in love), gender binary (you have to be either a man or a woman to be in love), along with patriarchy, monogamy, and exclusivity—all the tattered legacy of our superstitious ancestors.
There's enough mainstream science literature that you can cherry-pick until the explanation gels with your worldview. Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate explains much of human behavior as part of our biological programming, but he arguably gets too infatuated with 1950s gender roles, and in some circles he has become a symbol of sexism in science. For a while, it was tough to find intelligent discourse about this, what with the term "evolutionary psychology" being hijacked by fedora-wearing men's rights activists who used it to justify their "biological imperative" to "spread their seed."
Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, who were rightly critical of Pinker, came out in 2011 and became the go-to explanation for humans as a non-monogamous species. It's now used by people in poly marriages to explain how weird they aren't, or brought to the table when people have the "I want to open up this relationship" talk. The book very successfully rips apart the idea of monogamy as a set-in-stone human instinct, but it also tends to be a little saccharine about our species' supposed preference for peace over war, and a suppressed instinct for conflict resolution through blowjobs.
Christopher Ryan is now America's leading anti-monogamy pundit. He told this to CNN:
"The human body tells the same story. Men's testicles are far larger than those of any monogamous or polygynous primate, hanging vulnerably outside the body where cooler temperatures help preserve standby sperm cells for multiple ejaculations. Men sport the longest, thickest primate penis, as well as an embarrassing tendency to reach orgasm when the woman is just getting warmed up. These are all strong indications of so-called sperm competition in our species' past."
But science doesn't just hold that we're a non-monogamous species. We're also fickle. Rutgers University psychology professor Helen Fisher, who spends most of her public speaking time talking about the science of attraction, theorizes that there's a four-year cycle on passion for couples. She ties it to the idea that you meet someone, mate, and raise a child until it can at least run from predators, and then one partner gets bored and leaves. Here's Fisher in a much less controversial mode:
That's not to say, by the way, that men leave. Any member of any couple could well want to take off, male or female, gay or straight. Sarah Hrdy's Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species is a brutal, unsentimental take on female sexual and maternal instincts. Totally intuitive statements from Hrdy like "Wherever women have both control over their reproductive opportunities and a chance to better themselves, women opt for well-being and economic security over having more children," shouldn't blow anyone's mind, but they often do.
But even while we keep redefining it, love remains this enduring literary concept that consoles us when we try to tackle the cosmic void. Carl Sagan pulled readers out of the darkest, most despairing chapters of his books about the infinite abyss with famous quotes like, "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love," but what's really left of love after some time in the cold hard light of science?
While writers of bestsellers usually won't explain away love completely, the philosopher Judith Butler seems willing to go there but stops just shy. In a letter that was published in 2007 she wrote about grappling with the concept of love. She frames it as a series of transactions: "One finds that love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision."
At the end of my aforementioned hypothetical debate, Bill Nye would force Zach and Oprah to agree to something like the conclusion Judith Butler came to. Love is just a behavior acted out by choice, because of forces within society. It means something to us not because it's a tangible thing that exists but because we've agreed to pretend it exists, like money, or Christmas.