Sunday, October 24, 2010

Love, Marriage and Human Nature

To me, one of the cool things about anthropology is that it can help us understand human nature. My interest in human nature pits me against most of the Brainy Ones of the discipline today. According to the most admired anthropologists these days, we should forget about broad issues of human nature; instead we should study specific individual cultures where we can “identify the deployment of discursive strategies of negotiated dynamic gender hegemony blah, blah, blah.” Or something like that.

You might say that if you’re not talking about power and exploitation in anthropology these days, you’re part of the problem, or so the anthropological heavyweights would have us believe. But I guess I don’t care what the big shots think, I just go about my merry way trying to figure out what is constant and fundamental in human nature.

I once had a brief conversation with the renowned Professor Jared Diamond in which I mentioned human nature. Diamond abruptly stopped me in mid-sentence and suggested that I not use the phrase “human nature” because it implies a too great constancy in human behavior across cultures.

Of course I understand variability across cultures, and I was about to let the eminent professor know this when I was interrupted by a colleague standing next to me who was even more anxious to impress this academic celebrity than I was. The result was I didn’t get to make my point to Dr. Diamond and so now I picture him getting up every morning and shaking his head as he thinks, “That Rollins College anthropologist really should acquaint himself with the basics of human variability!”

Oh well.

Back to my main point: Despite the current obsession with human variability, I’m still interested in things that all people do and that they do because these are rooted in their biological nature. Consider marriage and love, for instance. Almost every society known to anthropology expects most adults to get married at some point and to symbolize this marriage with a public wedding of some sort. But then there are the Mosuo, an ethnic minority from the picturesque mountains of western China. The Mosuo (aka Moso, Mosso or Na) are lovely people and very friendly as I found out when I visited them in 2008 along with my friend, Professor Wei, and three of our students.*

Mosuo Houses on Lugu Lake, Western China

The Mosuo are sometimes described as matriarchal, but they are not, as is evident as soon as you walk into a Mosuo household and notice the women doing most of the household chores. Could women doing most of the household chores be a basic, invariant feature of human nature? Just Kidding.

Mosuo Lady with Grandchild

Anyway, what most Mosuo do, instead of getting formally married, is follow a practice known in Chinese as “walking marriage,” in which men visit women in their bedrooms late at night when the household is asleep. There are no ceremonies in which a man and a woman acknowledge this relationship and it can be ended at any time by the woman refusing to admit the man into her boudoir, or by the man not showing up to visit the woman.

Young Mosuo Couple - Just Friends

So “getting married” is not a universal cultural precept. But falling in love might nevertheless be a universal feature of human nature. Many Mosuo do seem to fall in love. This substantiates a point that my friend, Professor Jankowiak of the University of Nevada has been arguing for decades: Humans are biologically wired to fall in love, and most people do so at least once in a lifetime.

The Mosuo are only different from every other culture in the world because, even when they fall in love, they don’t always institutionalize their affections in a public wedding ceremony. Actually, some Mosuo do get married, and some get married only at middle age after pursuing various “walking marriages” in their youth.

Falling in love, it turns out, has a lot to do with brain chemistry. It appears that surging dopamine and falling levels of serotonin can be found in the bloodstreams of people who are madly in love. These chemical traits are also found in the bloodstreams of people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Surprise, surprise.

I wonder if the day may come when people who have fallen out of love may be able to annul a marriage on the basis of induced insanity.

Plaintiff: “Your Honor, the defendant got a hold on my heart and made me crazy by flooding my brain’s ventral tegmental area with waves of dopamine when she wore that little black dress on our third date!”

Judge: I find for the plaintiff. Defendant is hereby directed to refrain from similar provocations in the future.

But if all of us are programmed to fall crazily in love because of our brain chemistry, what makes human marriages so variable? This is where cultural differences come into play. There are almost as many different ways to get married across the globe as there are Mormons in Utah.

Speaking of Utah, that state harbors a conservative splinter group of Mormons who follow the original teachings of Joseph Smith and who therefore favor polygamous marriages. In fact, among this Mormon minority, the more wives a man has in this life, the higher his status will be when he gets to heaven.

It seems a little depressing to imagine that status competition could continue for us even after we get to heaven, but some men might say they would be willing to endure this if it involved a triple marriage to, say, Laura Linney, Isabella Rossellini and Salma Hayek.

Of course, this leaves aside what the women in these marriages face. They, after all, will also enjoy elevated status in heaven only if they share their husband with lots of co-wives.

My main point is this: I think we Homo sapiens have some basic wiring that shapes a lot of our behavior -- though I grant that the big shots who rule the anthropological roost are right to say there is a need to explain all the variation we find as we look at one culture after another. It’s just that for me, things that are the same everywhere -- like love -- are a bit more interesting than things that vary dramatically from culture to culture -- like marriage.

And I might add that, no matter what Frank Sinatra says, the Mosuo case clearly proves that these two things do not go together “like a horse and carriage.”

*The Mosuo way of life is well described in Chuan-kang Shih's Quest for Harmony: The Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life