Book Reviews

Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.
By Dr. Helen Fisher

Book Review by William A. Spriggs, June 14th, 2009

This is Helen Fisher’s fourth book and it represents Dr. Fisher changing direction decidedly toward a wider, more commercially slanted audience that constantly seeks guidance on romance, mating, and marriage from “experts.”  I would call Dr. Fisher’s new movement, a sort of, “mainstream chemical romance” venue: the nurture, cultural side of our population meeting the nature, scientific side.  Or, to paraphrase Dr. Fisher on the website, is that she is using emerging research that goes beyond convention ways of testing personalities to match people based on a broader and deeper understanding of biology and behavior.

One could argue that Dr. Fisher has “sold out” and has abandoned her core academic studies and has shamelessly decided to pursue greener and richer pastures following in the footsteps of many personalities who have reached a high level of notoriety.  Well, I suppose one could argue that side of the argument; however, I prefer to argue that the good doctor has worked hard all these years in the halls of academia and she deserves to make as much money as the market will bear; why should just the men get the big bucks?

After all, Dr. Fisher is now a principle figure in the match-making enterprise called, whose goal, like other match-making enterprises have the same mission statement: to get males and females to find each other within their confines, and just like Mother Nature – get them together long enough to pass their genes into the next generation.  The modern, electronic, savvy humans who pursue each other on the internet today are no different from our biological ancestors on the African plain thousands of years ago – the sexual drive is the universal same -- it’s just the path we take to passing our genes has evolved.

But, the other side of the coin is that her approach is still educational in scope.  What’s wrong with simplifying your message to widest audience possible?  That’s what Evolution’s Voyage has been doing all along since 1995 – taking the complex world of academic journals and spinning that knowledge into common language usage; it’s a form of language interpretation and translation – not “dumbing down.”

Another point to argue in Dr. Fisher’s favor is that throughout all of her books, there has always been a general slant toward the simplification of her academic language toward the common person.  If you go back to her first book, The Sex Contract, turn to page 41 and you will find a fictional account of what it must have been like some 20 million years ago in the jungles of East Africa.  In this short passage, Dr. Fisher writes of an imaginary male going through a typical day in the pre-human dawn of civilization.  She even gives him a name – Dryopithecus. 

And so, as Dr. Fisher wrote on page 41 of the same book, “…because Dryopithecus is the creature from which we diverged to follow our winding road toward human life today…so the story of the sex contract begins with him…”  From the very first book, Dr. Fisher has continued her research for the scientific reasons and evolutionary pressures of the human reproductive dance since the publication of her first book in 1982. 

But I believe the best reason for Dr. Fisher to take this wider audience reach, is that out in big world of culture, political power, and in most nuclear families today, there still is this mind-boggling lack of understanding how the feminist movement is completely in the dark about why women want don’t want to burn their bras and take to the streets to demand equal rights like the movement did in the 1970s.  After all, it wasn’t a male who campaigned against the ERA – Equal Rights Amendment -- and shouted in victory over its defeat in 1982 – it was Phyllis Schlafly.  The answer lies in the biological:  Women want men because they did need them to reproduce.  Of course they can use other methods, but the old-fashioned method seems to prevail, and the tried and true method for hundreds of years, has been the honorable path of seeking the profession of match-makers.  And to quote Dr. Fisher:

“…men look for sex objects and women look for success objects.” p. 114.

“Those who love and mate and breed will pass on their genes toward posterity, while those who lose in love and sex and reproduction will ultimately die out.” p. 173

The origin of the word, “Loser” is much more deeply entrenched into our culture than most realize.  As you can see, it has an evolutionary basis.

And the vast majority of the women today do not want to be reproductive losers.  And the way they do that is to use all means available including, hair styles, make-up, teeth whitening products, nip and tuck plastic surgery, sexy undergarments, alluring perfume, and seductive body language.  Women are highly competitive, reproductive-seeking creatures, and despite we male’s belief that we are the sexual aggressor’s in the mating hunt, boy, have we got it wrong; women know what men want and a good percentage know how to use it skillfully.  Burning bras is not one of those attractants.

In this book, Why We Love, Helen Fisher brilliantly adds to her previous scientific work and makes the connection between the planet’s poets, muses, playwrights, and philosophers.  In this book, you will find more mention of poets than a college secondary course in English literature:  Just look at this impressive list (I think I got most of them).  Now would a stuffy, old, male evolutionary biologist take the time to study, or muddle through all that mushy “romantic” stuff?  Dr. Fisher would, and as a result, we, as a species, get to reap the rewards of her efforts.

Matthew Arnold
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Browning, Robert
Andreas Capellanus, (Andreas the Chaplain)
Alain Chartier
Geoffrey Chaucer
e.e. Cummings
John Donne
Michael Drayton
Tony Hoagland
John Keats
Henry King
Pablo Neruda
Li Po
Ezra Pound
Sir Walter Raleigh
William Shakespeare
Rabindranath Tagore
William Walsh
Walt Whitman
Yvor Winters
Donald Yates
William Butler Yeats

And all of the above poets, philosophers, playwrights, and muses attempt to answer pretty much the same question down through the ages: What is this thing called love?  What is it that causes the mood swings between elation when we are in love, and the depression over its loss?  This thing called love appears to have no bounds on geography, gender, or time; that’s why it is universal.  And if it’s universal, it’s biologically innate.  And, of course, who better to make the connection between the poets and science then Dr. Fisher?

This complete whirlwind tour of the planet’s poets and their expressive totality on the subject of romantic love could not have arrived to Dr. Fisher in a mere flash since the publication of her last great researched book, The First Sex.  One does not just jump from science to the romantic world of literature overnight without raising a few questions.  I’ve always have the distant feeling that Dr. Fisher always wanted to write romantic fiction as her first calling.  This is just a hunch, but I’ll bet you half a dozen stale Krispy Kreme Donuts that she has an unfinished romantic novel tucked away in one of her drawers or in a dust covered box in an attic storeroom.

But, let me give you a short tour of her research for this book: She and her colleagues found more than forty men and women who were “wildly in love.”  The science team then split the group into those whose love was reciprocated and the rest who had recently been rejected by someone they highly adored.  They then stuck these individuals into an MRI imaging machine and showed them pictures of objects of their affection or rejection.  Over a period of six years she collected over 144 pictures of brain activity of both of the groups and compared them, and, as she tells us: “the results were startling.”

The best place to begin is at the beginning, and here, Dr. Fisher gives us brief introduction to the larger picture of the various stages of our species’ mating voyage where she makes the connection of poet world with the science of biology.

“Romantic love, I believe, is one of three primordial brain networks that evolved to direct mating and reproduction.  Lust, the craving for sexual gratification, emerged to motivate our ancestors to seek sexual union with almost any partner.  Romantic love, the elation
and obsession of “being in love,” enabled them to focus their courtship attentions on a single individual at a time, thereby conserving precious mating time and energy.  And male-female attachment, the feeling of calm peace, and security one often has for a long-term mate, evolved to motivate our ancestors to love this partner long enough to rear their young together.” p. xii.

The only thing that Dr. Fisher has changed from her past research [1999, Human Nature 9 (1):23-52]. Human Nature] is that she has replaced the word Attachment with the phrase, Romantic Love.  She most certainly did this to ease her way into the hearts and minds of the common reader – I don’t care, she is doing the world a great service.

These three basic blocks of mating mechanisms are so important that I wanted to dwell on them more from Dr. Fisher:

“Each of these basic mating drives travels along different pathways in the brain.  Each produces different behaviors, hopes, and dreams.  And each is associated with different neurochemicals.  Lust is associated primarily with the hormone testosterone in both men and women.  Romantic love is linked with the natural stimulant dopamine and perhaps norepinephrine and serotonin.  And feelings of male-female attachment are produced primarily by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.

“Moreover, each brain system evolved to direct a different aspect of reproduction.  Lust evolved to motivate individuals to seek sexual union with almost any semi-appropriate partner.  Romantic love emerged to drive men and women to focus their mating attention on a preferred individual, thereby conserving invaluable courtship time and energy.  And the brain circuitry for male-female attachment developed to enable our ancestors to live with this mate at least long enough to rear a single child through infancy together.

“All three of these brain networks – lust, romantic attraction, and attachment – are multipurpose systems.  In addition to its reproduction purpose, the sex drive serves to make and keep friends, provide pleasure and adventure, tone muscles, and relax the mind.  Romantic love can stimulate you to sustain a loving partnership or drive you to fall in love with a new person and initiate divorce.  And feelings of attachment enable us to express genuine affection for children, family, and friends, as well as a beloved.” p 78.

So, if all of this chemistry is innate, then there has to be an evolutionary pressure that created that innateness.  What could be the evolutionary purpose for the chemistry of love?  Dr. Fisher argues:

“So here’s my theory: perhaps like robins, foxes, and many other serially monogamous creatures, ancestral humans living some 3.5 million years ago paired with a mate only long enough to rear a single child through infancy – about four years.” p. 143.

Man, now there’s a Tough Love theory; but no one has said that life was easy back then.  She muses at length about this in the following pages by arguing that once a mother no longer needs to nurse an infant, and can pass the infant on to grandma or siblings; she basically no longer needed a full-time partner to ensure the survival of her child and could “divorce” her helper mate (She means, us guys!).  And, Dr. Fisher then comes up with the evolutionary pressure for serial monogamy – the human tendency to get bored with their partners and, seek out new adventures. : “Primitive divorce even had genetic payoffs: Men and women who “remarried” could bear young with a different partner – creating beneficial variety in their lineages.” p. 134. 

Another interesting slant to Dr. Fisher’s findings is the opposite of attraction; and that is rejection; and to a point, depression, anger, and in some rare cases, absolute rage.   Here, Dr. Fisher gives us her theories of some of those biological origins:

“So I have come to think that abandonment rage evolved to serve another purpose: to drive disappointed lovers to extricate themselves from dead-end matches, lick their wounds, and resume their quest for love in greener pastures.  Moreover, if the rejected person has produced babies during this bankrupt partnership, abandonment rage may give them the energy to fight for the welfare of their children…I am not surprised that abandonment rage sometimes erupts into violence.  Jilted men and women have wasted priceless reproductive time and energy on a partner who is deserting them…Their self-esteem is severely damaged.  And time is dribbling by.  Nature has given us a powerful purgative mechanism to help us release a rejecting mate and get on with living: rage.” p. 167.

And where would poets be without the woeful cries of depression? Where is the biological pressure behind depression?  Dr. Fisher again:

[She lists a group of scientists] These scientists believe that the very high metabolic and social cost of depression is actually its benefit: one’s depression is an honest, believable signal to other that something is desperately wrong.  Hence depression evolved, they say, to enable stressed ancestors to signal for, and acquire, social support in times of intense need.” p. 171.

I could go on and on about this magnificent book, but then, if I did that, you would have no need to purchase the book.  Dr. Helen Fisher has made a significant contribution to the understanding of “The Madness of the Gods” – this thing that we call love that on occasion drives us mad.

Why We Love, the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love gets my highest rating in my recommended reading list for its evolutionary psychological base with the ease of understanding a difficult and long standing mystery that all humans share.  I predict that it will stand the test of time and be a classic in the annuals evolutionary thought.

Click here to learn more or purchase from

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995 - 2011