If you have experienced love, you know its power. The intoxicating emotion has been credited with the rise and fall of empires. It has created billion-dollar industries and inspired an endless list of books, movies and songs.
People in all cultures around the world glorify love, particularly romantic love. It is enshrined as the cornerstone of a happy mating relationship, but why?
David M. Buss, a University of Texas at Austin psychology professor, argues the universality of love goes beyond the traditional arguments of “nature versus nurture” and straight to the heart of our evolutionary history as a species.
“Although we do not have a videotape of our ancestors, abundant evidence tells us that the capacity for love is a human universal,” says Buss. “Love evolved over many eons in the context of long-term mating. To paraphrase a popular song from many years ago, ‘Without love, where would we be now?’ ”
Buss is one of the founders of the field of evolutionary psychology and believes all our emotions and behaviors can be explained in the context of evolution.
Natural selection explains not only why we stand upright but also how we think about the world, who we are attracted to, and yes, how we love.
“Love is a psychological adaptation,” he says, “and probably the most intoxicating and bracing emotion humans have.”
Psychological adaptions, according to evolutionary theory, are mechanisms our species develops to solve problems. These adaptions are passed on to future generations if they contribute to our survival and reproduction.
And what might be love’s evolutionary contribution? Simply put, it serves as a commitment device.
“Some other species, such as some bird species, form long-term pair bonds. But even our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, do not form long-term mateships. Because love evolved as part of our long-term mating strategy, humans may be unique among primates in having the emotion of love,” he says.
Unfortunately, you can’t speak about the evolution of love without talking about what happens when love is lost. The vast majority of humans experience a failed love. Studies have shown that 85 percent of us have experienced at least one romantic breakup. So, what evolutionary role does heartbreak play?
“Being one of the most important emotions humans experience, it’s important to understand the evolution of love because it is also linked with terrible outcomes when it shatters,” notes Buss.
Recovering from heartbreak, he argues, is an evolutionary strength. Viewing relationships in the context of humanity versus our individual situations is quite comforting.
As Buss wrote for the Austin American-Statesman last Valentine’s Day, “Humans are remarkably resilient. We rally from setbacks. Despite myths about ‘the one and only,’ most people recover and often discover love anew. More people should know that evolution has equipped us with the glories of love, the strength of spirit to rebound from its loss, and the fortitude to throw ourselves back into life again.”
David M. Buss is credited as one of the founders of his field. He published the first and most widely used textbook in the field, “Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind” in 1999 — now in its fifth edition. His foundational and continued efforts recently earned him a Lifetime Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution from the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.