Customer Reviews: Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray
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on April 10, 2000
I found this book completely engrossing. Her detailed explanations of human evolution and her logical, clearly thought out and well-supported hypothesis about early sexual behavior allowed me, as a reader, to develop a rather comprehensive picture of patterns in human sexuality. More than any other book I've read on the subject, this one seems to balance the 'biology is destiny' concept with the acknowledged influence of cultural factors. I highly recommend this book for anyone even remotely interested in evolution, human sexuality or a perspective on modern relationships.
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on February 15, 1997
Love was once a popular topic for scientists. It lost popularity for a while as a 'fuzzy' and perhaps even unknowable topic of study. Now we are again studying it, chemically, socially, psychologically, and also from the perspective of how it evolved. The evolution of mating behavior is the topic of "The Anatomy of Love." Evolutionary psychologists have come up with various stories about such things as why women might have orgasms, even though they don't seem to need them to reproduce. Can we ever really know what forces caused such behaviors to be selected ? Should women really accept unquestioningly, as evolutionary psychologists like Fisher propose, that their interest in sex is always secondary to their biological purpose to reproduce ? Thought provoking counter-arguments to some elements of this view are found in anthropologist Meredith Small's "What's Love Got to Do with It ?" Helen Fisher does an enviable, if sometimes tedious job laying out the evolutionary story of love, but is it the only story we can make from the evidence of modern human relationships ? Readers who apply these lessons to their own lives would do well to appreciate that human behavior has a flexibility that sometimes defies our interpretations of our own biology, and that those interpretations often change over time. Read this excellent account of how evolutionary psychologists believe love was selected through evolution, but keep in mind the limitations of our knowledge of what really happened early in our evolutionary history. Bone structure may leave fossillized evidence, but love and sex leave very few clues over the eons
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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
convincing book.

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
understands evolution.

In conclusion, do read this book, carefully. It is hardly the
last word, but it does get one thinking.
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on March 11, 2006
I was intrigued by the topic, cover, and title for Dr. Fisher's Anatomy of Love. From the start I was interested. I was especially drawn-in after the first chapter where "the gaze" is discussed as the "most striking human courting play." The Anatomy of Love is a detailed account of human attraction; the book attempts to explain why humans mate, marry, and stray; citing both conjectural, biological and literately evidence. Four pages into the book and the reader discovers a table of contents with such titles as "Why Adultery", "Eros", and "Fickle Passion"; any reader would have to be at least intrigued. And so confirms the theme of the book. Biology plays a role, a fundamental role, in human attraction, marriage, and even divorce. This book is not designed for those who believe solely in fate; it is not designed for romance novel readers. Dr. Fisher presents a persuasive explanation for the purpose of human attraction devoid of political correctness. She provides surprising facts, "most people think men are supposed to take the initiative in sexual advances, in practice women around the world actively begin sexual liaisons." Dr. Fisher presents an interesting, research-based account of sex and relationships, allowing the readers to decide if they believe the research.

Anatomy of Love is written as a sweeping tour of the landscape of love. Her writing style is simple, concise and thorough. Dr. Fischer provides just enough narrative and conjecture to allow this book to be more than a typical biology textbook on love and relationships. She tells the story from the point of view of a casual observer into the human psyche; supporting each discussion points with multiple forms of evidence. She does not hesitate to draw from multiple hard sciences (biology, chemistry, etc.) while combining them with historical, anthropological, or social sciences to further elaborate on her points.

I caught myself thinking back to a time when I was dating where I wished I had been more aware of the fundamental techniques explained by Dr. Fisher in an attraction game. One line described the male response to a female's first attempt at overt flirtations, "...instantly if he flinches, the pickup is over. If he withdraws, even barely, the sender may never try to touch again," (p. 28) outlines how touchy Dr. Fisher views love, attraction, and sex. It also provides a hearty example of the feeling the book gave. As I read the book I felt like I had to rush to find information, I had to watch for the clues she was leaving. I found at times Dr. Fischer did tend to make sweeping arguments, "there is a great deal of ancillary evidence to suggest that some of these patterns are universal to humankind (p. 29)." But overall I believed the points she was making. Once I finished, I wondered whether Dr. Fisher intended the reader to react to the book in much the same manner a human would in trying to figure out the anatomy of love - maybe it is all basic biology but not are we ever really consciously aware of it. I think the major strength of this book was its believability around a topic approached in countless of different genre. Overall I would recommend the read.
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on May 3, 2004
To be fair, if I had read this book when it was first published in 1992, I would probably have given it a better review. One of the problems of this book is that it is now 2004, and this book is showing its age. To a certain degree, this is inevitable for a book that was on the cutting edge of a new and exciting field when it was published, but this is exacerbated by the highly speculative nature of the book. Fisher takes some basic ideas from the research of the time, and then uses them to indulge in speculation (in my opinion often wildly and excessively). Whole portions of the book (for example, the chapter on Neanderthals) have been rendered largely obsolete by more recent discoveries.
I was often concerned at the lack of supporting evidence that Fisher presented for many of her assertions. In fairness, I didn't read the end notes, but there were many times when I looked for a supporting reference and none was provided, leading me to question whether what I was reading was based on any sort of sound research.
Finally, I was also disappointed in the quality of the writing. On the whole, the prose lacked elegance, and there were a few times when the author's meaning became entirely unclear, due to ambiguous sentance construction. Contrdictory statements sometimes followed one after another.
I must say that, in spite of my criticism, I did appreciate some of Fisher's ideas, and the book has certainly helped to deepen my understanding of this topic. Unfortunately, I was left with the feeling that there must be someone else out there who would better provide this fascinating material with the presentation that it deserves.
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on July 5, 1997
Through a careful analysis of a vast archive of anthropological and psychological research, Dr. Fisher constructs a cpmprehensive theory that explains why we love, how it happens, and why it (often) doesn't last. Her style and arguments are persuasive--I have had many occasions to refer back to this book since I read it; It is full of useful insights, particularly on the physiological nature of 'passion', that ecstatic feeling that makes lovers feel joyful or anguished. Written with outstanding clarity
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on September 10, 2003
As I biologist, I am constantly frustrated by the unscientific (and often ultra-philisophical) interpretation that goes on when considering humanity, and particularly love. This book took the extreme interest that exists about human sexuality and love, and places them in a scientific light, without necissarily demonizing or undermining the amazing feelings that go along with love; Fisher simply explains the science behind these amazingly rich and powerful feelings in an attempt to better know ourselves.
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on January 24, 2008
The book is full of interesting data. I fell in love with the book but sadly you have really read it. The author tries to express her ideas as scientific or historic facts. Here are a couple of examples of her writing.

I will maintain that monogamy, or pair bonding, is the hallmark of the human animal, there is no question that a minority of men and women follow other sexual scripts. Page 66

On the same page she states, Only 16% or 136 of 853 cultures that exist are monogamous. 84% of the cultures permit a man to take more than one wife at a time. In Africa 25% of all older men, have two or three wives at once.

On page 154 the author states her theory:

Like pair bonding in foxes, robins, and many other species that mate only through a breeding season, human pair bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single dependent child through infancy, the first four years, unless a second infant was conceived.

On the same page the author states the following;

How serial monogamy evolved can only be surmised. Our earliest ancestors probably lived in communities much like modern chimps. Everyone copulated with just about everybody else, except with mother and close siblings. Then gradual monogamy emerged. The lifestyle of olive baboons provides a fascinating model, however, for how pair bonding, the nuclear family, and divorce could have evolved in these primal hordes.

On Chapter 10 the author states
At times in history the Egyptians, Iranians, Romans, and other sanctioned brother-sister incest for special groups such as royalty. But with these curious exceptions, mother-son, father-daughter, and brother-sister mating have been forbidden; incest taboo is universal to humankind. It is fair to assume that the human incest taboo had emerged among Cro-Magnon or long before-for several reasons. (This is an unsubstantiated opinion without any scientific base.)

But the best is in Chapter 15;

After the reformation marriage became a civil contract, rather than a sacrament, for Protestants. So beginning in the 1600s women in non-Catholic countries could obtain a divorce from civil authorities. In fact, divorce rates clearly fluctuated throughout the centuries following Christ's call for monogamy.
In here the author did make a statement, which is based on false premises. In the Bible there is not a single attributed statement to Christ about monogamy. What Christ said was that a man should never divorce a woman. Why? Up to that point in history the sole source of food, shelter, and protection of women was the man. In the Jewish society, and Christ was speaking to the Jews, woman was a non-entity without any rights to property or rights whatsoever. Therefore, a divorce was the equivalent of an assassination. In a divorce a woman was thrown outside the protection of the family and household and left to the elements of nature and for other men, and wild beasts to ravish her.

So after reading the book and taking 29 pages worth of notes in MS Word I can say that the book is a defense of monogamy and feminism in which the author had gone to extremes to try to justify her ideas. But after a thorough reading I can say that her research is great but it is a piece that has to be taken with great and extreme caution. If you do not have any real religious and scientific background you can end up beliving everything stated in the book.

Nevertheless the book is good one, but not for ignorant! I really like the book, but not her struggles trying to justify monogamy and her femenist ideals. You cannot change or alter reality to accommodate your beliefs, and that is what she did!
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on March 13, 1999
As a scientist (chemist) I enjoy reading science books in other diciplines. Fishers' book was well written and researched, a joy to read. It gives an evolutionary view of how we evolved in body and brain with regards to sex and love, and a great deal of attention is given to the effects of brain chemicals, discovered via modern research. This is a thoroughly enlightening book, and to be read by people with and open mind, in other words, this book does not support the Creationist view of life.
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on August 12, 2011
Helen Fisher's "Anatomy of Love" offers an excellent account into the nature of love. Fisher use evolutionary explanations, based on an interdisciplinary approach, to explain how love has evolved into its present form.

The first five chapters are dedicated to modern human relationships. Fisher uses statistics to show modern trends in courting, infatuation, human bonding, adultery, and divorce. Anthropological evidence is used to provide an evolutionary basis of why we go through a four year stage of sex, marriage, and divorce. The last half of the book is dedicated to how these innate tendencies have developed over the eons.

"Anatomy of Love" has several problems. First, it's dreadfully out of date. It was published in 1992 and most of its empirical evidence comes from the 1970's and 1980's. The fields of Anthropology and Geology are constantly changing. The fundamental tenets, like evolution, remain the same. The specifics, like how homo sapiens evolved, change. Fisher's account of ancient man is highly speculative. The probability of this speculation being completely accurate has decreased significantly with modern discoveries.

Second, Fisher constantly uses an evolutionary approach. This is a significant factor in modern behavior. However, at times it seems Fisher overlooks cultural factors in trying to explain why phenomena occur. Her speculative explanations, based on anthropological evidence and modern animals, may not be as important as she claims.

With that said: "Anatomy of Love" is an excellent read that has held up relatively well with time.
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