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 discombobulated me by flooding my brain’s ventral tegmental area with waves of dopamine with her irresistible smile and 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


  1. But in a way you're contradicting yourself, because even though you say "things that are the same everywhere -- like love -- are a bit more interesting than things that vary dramatically from culture to culture -- like marriage," you're not really interested in the fact that love exists everywhere but in the cultural exception to marriage, like the Mosuo! What's interesting is not only that our brains are all wired the same way (i.e. to fall in love) but also what culture layers on top of that to create the differences.

    I think this tension to determine what is nature and what is nurture is what has always made anthropology interesting - we always want to understand how humans have these underlying similarities (i.e. common humanity) but we also want to make sense of the social, political and economic factors that make us different.

    Politically, the exceptions to the rule are often expedient from a progressive point of view - if anthropologists can show that while some form of marriage might be a given, cultures historically have many different varieties of marriage (from ghost marriages to woman-woman marriages in sub-Saharan Africa), so that the man-woman variety is not necessarily the only "natural" form. I'd say that while we might be wired to fall in love, marriages have so many reasons for WHY they take place (i.e. to forge political alliances, keep property in the family, etc), that the differences tell us more about particular societies but also show that our way is not the only way.

    So I wonder whether you and the "big shots" actually might agree on more than you think...

  2. Oh no! My friend. I mean the Universalism vs. Particularism debate never seems to end. Years ago when I was reading anthropological accounts of Theravada Buddhism in SE Asia, I was exposed to Melford Spiro's proposition on universal psychological processes. The title of his book pretty much elucidates his point: Anthropological Other or Burmese Brother? Anyway, I was a little surprised by your assessment of current anthropology: are most anthropologists still obsessed by human variabilities today? In Ethnomusicology, yes, postmodern theories (including anthropology) still have a dominant influence, but in a good way, for instance, the development of reflexive fieldwork and postmodern critique of globalization and music commerce ...

    BTW, there is a short documentary about the Mosuo "walking marriage" on PBS Frontline:

  3. Way to stick up for my sworn enemies, Rachel! JK.

    Of course I have to agree that I'm interested in both the constants and the cross-cultural variations.

    And the postmodern influence is not entirely negative, as Brother Wei points out, e.g., reflexive fieldwork.

    But there is the postmodern jargon, from which, I pray, we will some day be saved.

    My grumpiness is partly due to the comments of an anonymous reviewer who wagged a metaphorical finger at me when my last publication proposed a cross-cultural definition of slang. The reviewer saw no use for such an attempt -- even though scholars are routinely translating French "argot," Portuguese "giria," Mandarin "liyu," etc. all as "slang." To me it only makes sense that if you perceive these things as somehow "the same," there should be a definition based on this sameness and an effort to explain its cross-cultural existence.

    Maybe my argument would have been better received if I had jargoned it up a bit, e.g., "What I am proposing in my present paper is a problematizing of the performative aspects of affectively privileged lexemic deployments in contemporary genderscapes."

  4. I see your point, Brother Moore. Yes, I do like your jargoned-up phrase, why not? It's all about scholarlistic rhetorics and, yes, discursive strategy in scholarly presentation. ;-)

    But seriously, back to normative concepts or patterns of behavior underlying similarities across the universe (like slang), I'm sure many cultures have the concept of "slang" but the "performative aspects" of it may vary from one culture to another that are determined and conditioned by various social, political, historical, and economic elements.

    Just like in music, almost all cultures have so-called "folk songs" but do not necessarily share same sociological traits. Remember Alan Lomax's Cantometrics project? He and his collaborators tried to use measurement of musical stylistic traits to find correlation between singing styles and social norms cross-culturally. The goal was very ambitious, but there were some serious flaws in their findings. For example, based on their folksong samples collected in Spain (early 50s), they found that in the "proscriptive" south (sexual restrictively speaking) the singing voice tended to be thin, harsh and sometimes piercing whereas in the more "permissive" north, the singing voice tended to be softer and more relaxed. A trip to Italy two year later found a similar patten. Is this universally true? If yes, most Chinese, men or women, were sexually depressed as their folk singing styles are typically high pitched with intense emotional delivery (think of Peking Opera). What about some Middle Eastern singing style? ...

  5. Translation is always a bear. The same word may not point to the same concept (in two different communities), even if it's there (to be pointed to). And then, the same concept may contrast with different other concepts in the two communities. And then, the pragmatic cultural 'trains' that the concept participates in may be different, and .... Translation is a bear

    But, of course, not only do we mostly manage to figure each other out (to the extent that we're willing to put in the time and attention), but, heck, Cortez managed to figure out Montezuma, and some of M's people seemed to figure out Cortez too. Communication does not seem that hard, just sometimes takes a bit of an effort.

    Relevance ? Professor Moore clearly seems to know 'slang' when he experiences it. He's not translating, but applying an English based analytic concept--quite effectively !

    Unless, of course, "slang" is the past tense of "sling". That rang a bell, no ?

  6. Well said, GrDavid. However, it isn't me who sees slang everywhere, it's people who have been studying Brazilian Portuguese, French, etc., who translate giria, argot, etc. as "slang." So, are they wrong to do so? If they are not wrong, I'd like to know just what this cross-cultural thing is, and why it should exist.