Book Reviews

Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray.
By Helen Fisher, Ph.D.
Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1992

This is the second of Dr. Fisher’s five books.  Gone is the fictional component found in her first book, which I found to be refreshing break from the usual science subject-oriented book, but at the same time, being a creature of habit in the old traditions, found the fictional discourse also distracting at the same time.  Perhaps her editor or publisher forced any future fiction from the pages, or perhaps, the early flirtations with fiction were part of another dream from another time and place in her development.

But, whatever the case of how Dr. Fisher presents her work, the second book continues to be rooted in the biological behaviors with the wider eye on the social implications of those behaviors; she firmly sets her feet in the “romance” part of our human social behaviors.  I don’t know if Dr. Fisher planned her path from biological to social sphere from the beginning, but I heartedly thank her as seeing the need to simplify stuffy academic writing and making it more widely acceptable to the larger masses.  Here is a breakdown of the chapters that she offers to her readers:

1. COURTING; Games People Play; 2. INFATUATION: Why Him? Why Her?; 3. OF HUMAN BONDING: Is Monogamy Natural?; 4. WHY ADULTERY?: The Nature of Philandering; 5. BLUEPRINT FOR DIVORCE: The Four-Year Itch; 6. “WHEN WILD IN WOODS THE NOBLE SAVAGE RAN”: Life Among Our Ancestors in the Trees; 7. OUT OF EDEN: A Theory on the Origin of Monogamy and Desertion; 8. EROS: Emergence of the Sexual Emotions; 9. THE SIREN’s Web: Evolution of Human Sexual Anatomy; 10. WHY CAN’T A MAN BE MORE LIKE A WOMAN?: Development of the Human Sexual Brain; 11. WOMEN, MEN, AND POWER: The Nature of Sexual Politics; 12. ALMOST HUMAN: Genesis of Kinship and the Teenager; 13. THE FIRST AFFLUENT SOCIETY: A Flowering of Conscience; 14. FICKLE PASSION: Romance in Yesteryears; 15. “TILL DEATH US DO PART”: Birth of Western Double Standards; 16. FUTURE SEX; Forward to the Past.

In the first chapter, Dr. Fisher presents what I consider to be one of the most important scientific observations that would be largely dismissed with the general public: That women generally start the courting sequence.

“American women generally initiate the courting sequence – starting with subtle nonverbal cues such as a slight shift in body weight, a smile, or gaze.  Women began two-thirds of all the pickups that Perper witnessed ( T. Perper, 1985.  Sex Signals: The Biology of Love, Philadelphia: ISI). P. 32.

“… although most peoples think men are supposed to take the initiative in sexual advances, in practice women around the world actively begin sexual liaisons. P. 32.

“…Westerners cling to the concept that men are the seducers and women the coy, submissive recipients of male overtures.  This false notion is probably a relic of our long agricultural past, when women were pawns in elaborate property exchanges at marriage and their value depended on their “purity.”  Hence girls were strictly chaperoned, and the sex drive was denied.  Today, however, Western women have regained their sexual freedom.  Released from the world of arranged betrothals and sexual subservience, they are often pursuers too. P. 33.

“Eventually, however, the man must respond to the woman’s overtures if the liaison is to proceed.  As one woman reported to Perper, “At some point the man should get the hint and take it from there.”p. 33.

This next entry is very important if we are truly seeking the truth; notice the shift in roles after the male has picked up the cues that he should begin to “put the moves on the female.”

“Men seem to sense this shift in leadership, a shift that Perper calls initiative transfer.  It normally occurs just after the couple has left the bar (Most single Americans gather at “single bars”).  Now the male must begin his “move” – put his arm around the woman, kiss her, woo her into the mood for coitus.  And it is interesting how well men know their role.  When Perper asked thirty-one of his male informants to describe the pickup sequence, all but three skipped over the initial parts – those directed by the woman (underline emphasis mine).  Only one man could recall the details of who spoke first, who touched whom when, or how either partner began to express interest in the other.  But all thirty-one men spoke at length about their own duties, how they started to kiss, pet, and maneuver the woman into bed. p. 33.

How interesting all this is. 

So, who is the prey and who is the predator here?  It seems to me quite obvious: This is female sexual selection in full swing.  The female chooses whom to mate with, but gives the subtlest of signals – perhaps to see if the male is “intelligent” enough to catch the slightest hint of the signals sent.  The evolutionary argument here is that the more intelligent the male (notice, I said, intelligent, not “the strongest”), the better chance for survival for her progeny.  The “dumber” the male, the more obvious the signals that have to be made, and the evolutionary logic for the female would be to move on and seek another potential mate – if one is available at the local environment.  The female will go with the best choice available at the select moment in time and circumstance within the local environment if she chooses to go forward.  And sadly, in many undeveloped countries where religious fundamentalism reigns supreme, the choices are limited.

As for the male not remembering in exact detail who started to flirt, this fits perfectly in the knowledge that male anthropologists in the early 1970s concluded that it was “man the hunter” that provided our early ancestors with sustenance.  This theory, of course has been totally reversed by solid research and the advancement of women into the science halls of academia.  But, once again, to my evolutionary feminist friends reading this – this also adds proof that it is the women who selected this evolutionary path by selecting aggressive males (like male anthropologists of the 1970s) and who brought home resources for the female to support her progeny and whom to forget to be appreciable to those same women for the tasks they perform.

In the second chapter, Infatuation, Dr. Fisher teaches us how important timing is in the mating process:

“When individuals are looking for adventure, craving to leave home, lonely, displaced in a foreign country, passing into a new stage of life, or financially and psychologically ready to share themselves or start a family, they become susceptible…[or]..Infatuation occurred only after one had become ready to shower attention on a love object.” P. 48.

Dr. Fisher reminds us why we tend to be comfortable around those who are like us:

“Last, as a rule we are drawn to people like ourselves.  Likes tend to marry likes – individuals of the same ethnic group, with similar physical traits and levels of education, what anthropologists call positive assertive mating.” P. 48.

Well, we have all felt the burning passion of infatuation during our mating years and Dr. Fisher teaches us that it’s all chemistry, people!

“Alas, infatuation fades.  As Emerson put it, ‘Love is strongest in pursuit, friendship in possession.’  At some point, that old black magic wanes…there does seem to be a general length to this condition.  Tennov (Tennov, D. 1979. Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. New York: Stein and Day.) measured t140he duration of romantic love, from the moment infatuation hit to when a ‘feeling of neutrality’ for one’s love object began.  She concluded, ‘The most frequent interval, as well as the average, is between approximately 18 months and three years.’” pp 56 & 57.

“Liebowitz (Liebowitz, M. R. 1983. The Chemistry of Love. Boston: Little, Brown.) suspects that the end of infatuation is also grounded in brain physiology.  He theorizes that the brain cannot eternally maintain the revved-up state of romantic bliss.  Either the nerve endings become habituated to the brain’s natural stimulants or levels of PEA (and/or other natural amphetamine-like substances) begin to drop.  The brain can no longer tolerate the onslaught of these drugs.” P. 57.

In the chapter titled, Why Adultery? Dr. Fisher reinforces our understanding of patriarchy as a cultural force that was forged with the agrarian plow.  It took strength beyond the early female’s capabilities during the early years when our ancestors took up the plow and domesticated animals and farming.

“A woman’s worth was measured in two ways: her ability to increase her husband’s property and prestige with the dowry she brought into the marriage and her womb’s capacity to nurture her husband’s seed.  Because a woman’s responsibility in life was to produce descendants for her mate, she had to be chaste at marriage and sexually faithful to her husband all her life – paternity had to be secure so as not to jeopardize her husband’s family line.  As a result, a respectable girl was often married off by age fourteen, before she succumbed to clandestine suitors.  Then she was tethered to her husband’s home under lifelong surveillance by his kin.” P. 80.

On page 89, Dr. Fisher starts an interesting debate: Which Gender Philanders more?  She brought up some interesting points as to dismiss the notion that the female is the lesser to the two gender’s that philanders less. 

[A native !Kung tribal woman]…“summed up in a few sentences a fine adaptive explanation for female interest in sexual variety – supplementary subsistence.  Extra goods and services would have provided our adulterous female forebears with more shelter and extra food, perquisites that gave them more protection and better health, ultimately enabling their young to survive disproportionately.  Second, adultery probably served ancestral females as an insurance policy.  If a “husband” died or deserted home, she had another male she might be able to enlist to help with parental chores.  Third, if an ancestral woman was ‘married’ to a poor hunter with bad eyesight and a fearful or sunsupportive temperament, she stood to upgrade her genetic line by having children with another man – Mr. Good Gene.  Fourth, if a woman had offspring with an array of fathers, each child would be somewhat different, increasing the likelihood that some from among them would survive unpredictable fluctuations in the environment.” P. 91.

Dr. Fisher sends us on an aside for a brief moment and instructs us on the cultural beliefs of some established patriarchies and their belief structures towards women:

The custom of the veil evolved in Moslem societies partly because Islamic people firmly believe that women are highly seductive.  Clitoridectomy, the excising of the clitoris, is done in several African cultures to curb the high female libido.  Talmudic writers in the early Christian era stipulated that is was a husband’s duty to copulate with his wife regularly precisely because they thought women had a higher sex drive then men.  The Cayapa Indians of western Ecuador think women are lechers.  Even the Spanish men who strut, preen, and philander in the small towns of Andalusia are convinced that women are dangerous, potent, and promiscuous – hence the practice of the chaperone.” P. 92

The idea that women are sexual creatures who seek sexual variety as much as males is the really the norm as opposed to the chaste American view as Fisher quotes Kinsey.

“Kinsey agreed, saying, ‘Even in those cultures which most rigorously attempt to control the female’s extramarital coitus, it is perfectly clear that such activity does occur, and in many instances it occurs with considerable regularity.’  All these data certainly lead one to suspect that women avail themselves of illicit lovers with relish, perhaps even as avidly as men.” P. 93.

Fisher then leads back into time to dwell on primate ancestors and goes into detail of the bonobos; she sheds light on no new information, but just after that section, she does instruct us on a very important finding into what she calls, “The Four Year Itch.”  Now, we all remember the 1955 Marilyn Monroe movie, The Seven Year Itch, right?  I mean, you’re old enough to remember the lead character, (Tom Ewell) as the married male who sends his wife and kids off to summer vacation and then begins to lust after his young, single, and beautiful upstairs neighbor?  The “itch” of course is the male desire to stray from his cultural confinements and “scratch” the itch by planting his seed.

Trying to get information on divorce, Dr. Fisher turned to demographic yearbooks at the United Nations and found that three remarkable patterns emerged; all of which ring very loudly as evolutionary in nature:

“Most striking, divorce generally occurs early in marriage – peaking in or around the fourth year after the wedding – followed by a gradual decline in divorce as more years of marriage by…Actually I was disappointed to discover this; I had expected to find a divorce peak during and around the seventh year of marriage.  Not to be.” P. 112.

The second factor in divorce that Dr. Fisher discovered is that divorce is for the young.

“Eighty-one percent of all divorces occur before age 45 among women; 74 percent of all divorces happen before age 45 among men…This seem strange.  You would think that partners would become bored or sated with one another as they age, or that they would abandon their marriage after their children have left home for work or college.  Not so.  Instead men and women divorce with impressive regularity when they are in their twenties – during the height of their reproductive and parenting years.” P. 113.

The third pattern to emerge is “divorce with dependent children.”
65% of divorces occurred with partners with one or no children and occurring with less frequency the more children the couple would bear.

“…it makes genetic sense.  From a Darwinian perspective, couples with no children should break up; both individuals will mate again and probably go on to bear young – ensuring their genetic futures.  As couples bear more children they become less economically able to abandon their growing family.  And it is genetically logical that they remain together to raise their flock.” P. 113.

In her Out Of Eden chapter, Dr. Fisher covers most of what she covered in her first book, The Sex Contract.  And she does it with superior logic from bipedalism that changed the structure of the female ancestors’ hips, and thus, her birth canal, and from there she writes about the sexual revolution which the forces that made “the time…ripe for the evolution of the husband and the father.” P. 149.

And it also is in this chapter that Dr. Fisher cleverly brings us back the UN demographics and the “four year itch” in explaining pair-bonding and birth spacing – the average age between births for hunter-gatherer women today.

“Although birth spacing varies among populations of hunter-gatherers, and maternal age and number of children previously born to a woman affect birth intervals, these data have led anthropologist Jane Lancaster (1983.  Parental investment: The hominid adaptation.  In how Humans Adapt: A Biocultural Odyessey, ed. D. J. Ortner.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press) and others to conclude that a four-year pattern of birth spacing – caused by frequent exercise and the habit of continual nursing through the day and night – was the regular pattern of birth spacing during our long evolutionary past…Thus the modern worldwide divorce peak – about four year – conforms to the traditional period between human successive births -- four years.

“So here is my 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… The seven-year itch, recast as a four-year human reproductive cycle, may be a biological phenomenon.”  Pp. 154 & 155.

This is an extremely important book filled with many details; I know that I have extracted much knowledge from within these pages, but I think that need to jump over some items of that I feel you should return to later because of the length of the review already (It’s easy to get lost in genius logic, isn’t it?). In particular I wanted Chapter Nine: The Siren’s Web: Evolution of Human Sexual Anatomy.  If you wanted a great down to earth explanation between the differences between Natural Selection versus Sexual Selection, you’ve arrived at the right place.  Here’s an opening:

“…sexual beings are like ornamented Christmas trees, bearing an arsenal of accoutrements to win their fortunes and their futures through copulation and reproduction.  We human beings have a fantastic array ourselves.  Among them are large penises, beards and fleshy breasts, everted reddened lips, continual female sexual receptivity, and other beguiling male and female traits that are like a siren’s web, sex lures that evolved over millennia of seductions.” p. 175.

Included in your research should be such items as: the female clitoris and multiple orgasms on pages 182 and 183; Silent ovulation on page 187; The entire chapter 10; Why Can’t a Man be More Like a Woman, on the cultural myths surrounding both sexes starting on page 189; The human species’ (particularly males) obsession with hierarchy, page 212; Power Plays, on page 214; Peacemaking on page 223; Symbolic thinking on page 242; Menstrual Taboo myths, page 253, and the emergence of “Love” and “Romantic,” page 259.

But, I would be deeply remiss if I did not include this final section on chapter 15, “Till Death Us Do Part”: The birth of Western double standards starting on page 275.  In particular, I wanted to draw your attention to her theory that the agricultural plow gave rise to patriarchy and the double standard.

“The Plow.  There is probably no single tool in human history that wreaked such havoc between women and men or stimulated so many changes in human patterns of sex and love as the plow…In cultures where people garden with a hoe, women do the bulk of the cultivation; in many of these societies women are relatively powerful as well.  But with the introduction of the plow – which required much more strength – much of the essential farm labor became men’s work.  Moreover, women lost their ancient honored roles as independent gatherers, providers of the evening meal.  And soon after the plow became crucial to production, a sexual double standard emerged among farming folk.  Women were judged inferior to men.” Pp. 278 & 279.

“The first written evidence of women’s subjugation in farming communities comes from law codes of ancient Mesopotamia dating from about 1100 B. C. where women were described as chattels, possessions…Unlike women in nomadic foraging societies who left camp regularly to work and brought home precious goods and valuable information, who traveled freely to visit friends and relatives and ran their own love lives, a marming woman took her relatives and ran their own love lives, a farming woman took her place in the garden or the house – her duty to raise children and serve a man…With plow agriculture came general female subordination, setting in motion the entire panorama of Western sexual and social life.” pp. 279 – 281.

Patriarchy emerged because of the plow.  I believe in 90% of this theory based on the female infanticide rates found in rural China and India where customs evolved from the agrarian past (See, Bare Brances: The Security Implication of Asia's Surplus Male Population by Valerie M. Hudson & Andrea M. den Boer. What’s missing of course is that the majority of women accepted this role quietly, and hence, with their consent.  I know, I know, ladies -- I’m just another masculine jerk reveling in my superior position.  But, the point that I am trying to make is that this is the path that evolutionary pressures were placed before your ancestral sisters -- it's not written in stone that is the way it will be in the future.  These "enemies" of feminine equality are the Phyllis Schlafy's of your ancient past who accepted those restrictions and knew innately that they would benefit her children over some other female in her local enviornment; it was their children that reaped the advantageous of their mother's selfish mechanisms -- and that benefit was passed to your free-thinking radical feminist's sisters of the American 1970s movement.

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