Love, science, and meeting Steven Pinker

by adamsopticks

See bottom of post for Steven Pinker’s response.

Reading popular science works by rationalist, neo-Enlightenment thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker is something that has a powerful emotional effect upon me. It’s not a purely cerebral thing – it also fills me with a great sensation of understanding, and certainty, and control.

When dealing with a bad break-up earlier this year, it occurred to me how valuable it would be to me to read what these men might have to say about ‘love’ as a phenomenon. What I wanted was to extend those same feelings of certainty and control into an area of my life that had recently made me feel so fraught and powerless. And yet amongst all the talk of brains, evolution and consciousness in their literature, there is next to no mention of love.

I had the briefest of chances to mention this thought to Steven Pinker himself last night, after a talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. He laughed knowingly, and pointed me to a 3-page extract in his book, How the Mind Works, which I’ve not found yet, though I suspect corresponds to this warbly Youtube clip. It’s a brief game-theoretical analysis that argues that because it is almost always irrational to make a lasting commitment to another person (who knows – you might meet someone better?), the sensation of love must be dramatically irrational in order for people to pair up at all.

Still… only 3 pages, in a 700-page book, amongst shelves and shelves of tomes by Pinker and his ilk. Why is it that the single most important concern of art and fiction is so neglected by these men of science? Why don’t Dennett or Dawkins or Wilson say anything at all? Pinker’s suggestion, at the autograph table last night, was that they are philosophers and biologists rather than psychologists – but I found this notion unsatisfying. Don’t biology and philosophy have very important things to say about love? And since when have any of the above authors proved shy about crossing disciplinary boundaries in order to weave sweeping syntheses on questions of religion, society, or the origin of human instincts?

Of course it may be that love is either too simple or too fuzzy a concept to waste much ink on, but my suspicion is that perhaps Pinker’s bite-sized theory gets at something quite important. If it is true that love must be ‘irrational’ (i.e. fiercely emotional) in order to make sense in evolutionary terms, then perhaps it is that fact that makes even scientists a little queasy about subjecting it to too much cold analysis. Or perhaps they’re just afraid of offending their partners with too much talk of cost-benefit trade-offs. Either way, it seems to me that explaining love may be a taboo even greater than denouncing God.

UPDATE: Steven Pinker responds via email:

Steven PinkerThanks, Joe! The two main discussions of love in my books can be found in the section “Fools for Love” in chapter 6 of How the Mind Works (with a bit more in the section “Men and Women” in the following chapter), and the conclusion to the chapter “The Many Roots of Our Suffering” in The Blank Slate.


Had better get reading then!