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Entertaining, engrossing, and, in places, misleading
on April 27, 2011
Anatomy of Love offers an anthropological history of human
mating, marriage, and infidelity written from an evolutionary
perspective. A primary aim of author Helen Fisher is apparently
to demythologize love, sex, adultery, and related topics, instead
investigating them as nonjudgmentally as possible from a
scientific perspective. She is especially ambitious in writing
this book not for experts in her field but for a popular audience
of varied backgrounds. That's a tall order for which she is
partially successful. In the "To the Reader" preface, the author
describes herself as an ethologist who believes that humans have
unconscious, inherited behavioral tendencies that influence, but
do not determine, our behaviors. I respect her sincerity in
stating up front what her viewpoint (some might say "bias", but
we all have one) is.
The open-minded, critical reader will gain much from both this
book's strengths (it is an engrossing, provocative read) and, as
importantly, from appreciating its weaknesses. For me, the
challenge in writing this review is explaining why I reduced the
five stars I much wanted to award to three stars.
Her overall message is convincingly argued and is this. We humans
have an "ancient blueprint for serial monogamy and clandestine
adultery [onto which] our culture casts its own design" (p. 310).
Social change over the last century, most of all the growth of
women in the workplace, suggests that the nature of marriage and
the balance of power between men and women is shifting. The
patriarchal, agrarian script that has held for the last several
millennia is now yielding to a return to an earlier, more
egalitarian nomadic, hunter and gatherer script. Changes abound,
as we all can see, but, contrary to the fears of some, the family
is hardly an endangered institution. Rather, she says, it is
remarkable for its resilience and adaptability (p. 304).
At the personal level, men and women are indeed biologically
different in abilities and personalities (Chapters 10 and 11),
yet the culture we create can mitigate or accentuate those
differences. Some of the most intense and personal experiences in
our life -- falling in love, for instance -- have a biochemical
basis to them as well as an evolutionary history. Infatuation and
love at first sight, for example, is mediated by the
neurotransmitter phenylethylamine acting on the limbic part of
the brain (pp. 52-3). [For more on this, see Fisher's more recent
books.] Common courtship behaviors, such as caressing, are seen
across cultures and among most mammals (pp. 28-9). While the
scientific, anthropological perspective offered may diminish the
mystery of love, it might also allow us to develop more realistic
expectations for our relationships. That was my hope when I began
I have two serious problems with Fisher's methods and
presentation. As other reviewers have noted, Fisher's
anthropological history of humans frequently appears as
speculation presented as storytelling. In Chapter 7, we get a
life story of Lucy, a three million year old hominid whose
fossilized remains were discovered in 1974. Fisher's intent is to
demonstrate that our "basic human mixed reproductive strategy"
(p. 158) had already been adopted by Lucy's time. Maybe, or maybe
not. My sense is that fossil evidence is too scanty to either
prove or disprove. (Incidentally, that same point is made by
Fisher in dismissing a rival theory. See endnote 31 on p. 335.)
Even worse is use in Chapter 14 of interviews with Nisa, a female
member of the !Kung tribe in southern Africa, and Ketepe, a male
member of the Mehinaku tribe in South America. From these two
individuals, Fisher builds a grand story of mating among our
distant Cro-Magnon ancestors. I worry about over generalization.
Are Nisa and Ketepe typical of their tribes, and are their tribes
at all representative of human society tens of thousands of years
ago? Storytelling itself is not the problem. In fact, it can be
an excellent way of imagining how life may have been. Rather,
stories built from scanty evidence and over generalization ought
not to be presented as if they were established fact.
Fortunately, one could leave out Chapter 14 and still have a
Examining human anatomy and behavior from a Darwinian
evolutionary perspective is both a major strength of this book as
well as source of my second problem. Fisher states (in italics,
no less), "After all, reproduction is the primary purpose of any
organism. Nature would have done shoddy work had she not produced
powerful mechanisms to make us breed and breed again" (p. 174).
However, evolution (i.e., "nature") is NOT purposeful and does
not design or produce mechanisms. Rather the tendency to breed
arises through random mutation and, as Darwin said, is
incorporated via natural selection. (See Alan Lees's 2004 review
of this book for more.)
Most supporters of evolution, myself included, would agree with
the her first sentence concerning the primacy of reproduction.
But there too is the rub. So much of human (more generally,
primate or mammalian) sexual behavior is superfluous by
reproductive standards. I mean sex with contraception, sex by
women after menopause, masturbation, sex between men, sex between
women, etc. It seems that for every plausible evolutionary
explanation offered, contradictory cases can readily be found.
For example, in their reproductive strategies, men are said to
compete, while women choose (p. 179). Yet, Fisher follows this
observation with an example suggesting just the opposite: the
evolution of large breasts in women presumably to signal
fertility to males. It looks like the women are competing for
men. I applaud Fisher for providing such contradictory examples
but am concerned that she does do enough to explain them.
Biology, no doubt, is more complicated than we can imagine. Yet
it is that sense that biology is complicated, and that evolution
works in strange ways that is not fully elaborated in this book.
Her conclusions often seem too neat and facile. I wish that
Fisher had devoted more discussion to how evolution works and why
contradictions so often pop up. Her statement above suggesting
that nature is purposeful leaves me wondering whether she truly
In conclusion, do read this book, carefully. It is hardly the
last word, but it does get one thinking.