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on 31 May 2012
This is a lovely book - Its a bit grander in scope than the other work by Professor Dunbar that I have read and liked (on Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language). This is about "affairs of the heart". Far from being a mere neuroscience view of the processes behind falling in and out of love, it is a tour through many facets of this most complex and confusing aspect of human life. From ontogeny -- human's are late developers, completing their growth outside the womb as highly dependent beings for far longer than even our closest evolutionary cousins, which creates roots for relationships that influence our later behaviours, but also allows us to have bigger brains for our body size, which adds to the richness of our relationships and the complexity of societies that can be sustained when compared to other monkeys); on to aforesaid neurochemistry and the role (or otherwise) of various hormones in influencing the formation of close relationships (falling in love) -- on to the ways we decide to partner, both why we are largely monogamous rather than polygamous - through evolutionary arguments -- then on to how we may make very cold blooded decisions (famously Darwin himself wrote down a list of pros and cons for whether he should marry his preferred partner)..then how we perceive differently, the appearance of our potential partners, and on to how we arrange marriage celebrations as part of the social scene; and how we deal with rejection, cheating, in the real world, but also in the newer online social networked world; finally discussing the possible evolutionary stages through which we may have arrived at our current state in terms of all these different factors that cause and constrain our physiology, psychology and behaviour.

This book is by one of the world's current leading anthropologist, who writes warm, readable and intensely humanly about us. He peppers his clear, informative text with relevant and amusing quites and anecdotes, poems, stories about artists, historical and fictional characters (I delighted in the idea that a major urinary protein which functions as a mouse pheremone, darcin, is named after the heartthrob character Darcy in Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice) - there are many such moments.

I recommend this strongly - it is an example of science writing of the best kind, showing how holistic we often need to be to understand complex phenomena, and what could be more complex than love.
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on 9 July 2013
Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford and in this clearly written and entertaining book he looks, from a biological perspective, at why we fall in and out of love and how an intimate relationship looks and feels to those involved. Along the way he explores some academic controversies about the purpose and origins of pair bonding but these are never so intrusive as to overwhelm the story. While there are some descriptions of brain function and the roles of various chemicals, the narrative is lucid and tailored to the general reader.

Dunbar explores love as it is expressed between couples, mother and child, friends and relatives. Each of these kinds of love is somewhat different (and triggers different areas of our brains) but they share many of the same psychological and physical benefits. We are happier and healthier when we love someone.

Human brains are complex and despite decades of research we still know very little about how they work. The role of some key proteins and hormones is clearly important, but exactly why these are triggered and how the brain processes them remains a mystery. We are highly sensitive to physical contact with others and to visual cues from other people, the latter skill taking decades to fully develop. While other mammals fare better than us at using smell and taste to process information, we still retain a capacity to assess other people using these senses. Deep kissing is not just about checking whether those teeth are false.

The evolutionary link between brain size, language, social group size and pair bonding is complex and an area where there are competing theories. Dunbar has a preferred position but it does not stop him from presenting the other options and the thinking behind them.

What do we find attractive in others? We take into account our feelings and our personal advantage, as well as the character and physical appearance of the other person. Dunbar teases out some of the key elements, though some of the research is based on contestable methods. Essentially we prefer hourglass shaped women and tubular shaped men, the more symmetrical the better. No tubular belles, then.

Dunbar asserts that we can really only love one other person at a time, but this assumes that the love of each intimate partner always takes the same form. Observations of polygamous marriages and other ménages would suggest otherwise. There is a limit to the number of those we can love or befriend, despite what online social media would have us believe. Dunbar estimates that about 150 people is our maximum load and that includes friends and lovers now deceased. Our intimate circle, including any current partner, hovers around five people at best. Relationships require a lot of maintenance and effort, and if they are to become close this involves a lot of face to face interaction. We just do not have the time and resources to spread the love too far.

Of course, friendships and relationships fail. Over time our intimate circle can change and this is increasingly true as people participate in a globalised economy and where long distance travel and migration are more common. Yet the reasons for breaking up are relatively few and include things we can manage with a bit of effort. Jealousy though can rear its ugly head, and in the most intimate relationships can lead to violence and death.

In two of the later chapters, Dunbar looks at the history of religious love - how individuals fall in love with a spiritual being. This is an unusual kind of love because it is all created in the mind of the believer. This means the `partner' can be perceived as perfect and so any failings become the fault of the believer. Dunbar then links this to modern online relationships. For many people, those we interact with most online are also the ones we see face to face on a regular basis anyway (which rather begs the point of going online in the first place). But we can meet and develop relationships with people online that we have never met in person, and an online identity can easily be falsified. In such cases we are creating in our imaginations the person that we think we love. It is the ideal set-up for predators and scammers, but when we are besotted critical thinking takes a long and lonely hike.

While there is much of interest in this book, and many titbits that will spice up conversations and debates, there are some shortcomings. Like a lot of psychological research in particular, heavy reliance is put on correlations to show that there is a meaningful link between two things. But correlations do not prove causation, even if they are `statistically significant': not breathing is fully correlated with death, but it would be facile to argue that ceasing to breathe is the reason why people die. In many cases cited in this book more convincing evidence would have strengthened the case and Dunbar needed to be more open about the weaknesses in much of the data.

The book covers a range of relationships but very early in the piece Dunbar says that the processes he describes apply to heterosexual couples and that he assumes they will also apply to homosexual couples and all variations in between. This is a very large assumption and he presents no evidence for it. The reason is that his evolutionary psychology approach carries a supposition that the purpose of pair bonding is to reproduce the species and that relationships are structured with this end in mind (if not always consciously). Unfortunately, this is not true for many species, let alone humans. A great deal of love and physical intimacy is not directed at reproduction at all. As Dunbar notes early on, love and intimacy give us substantial psychological and physical benefits - as well as simply being enjoyable. Reproduction is one factor but by no means the only one or always the most important - we seek loving partners for a range of reasons. The book needed a much broader vision.

Long-term monogamous relationships might be an anomaly in human evolution. Dunbar notes that modern hunter-gatherers tend to practise serial monogamy and this was probably true for early humans. Dunbar's logic would suggest that the rise of settled agriculture and villages provided the conditions for long-term monogamy but he fails to explore this. In turn, modern industrial society has the potential to further change relationships. Dunbar gives little space to polyandry and indeed there are few societies where it is an accepted cultural norm. But in looking at alternatives to male-female pairs he examines mother-maternal grandmother pairs as a good child rearing option and notes these are common in poor African American households where males are mobile and often absent. A similar pattern has been observed in poor urban Aboriginal households in Australia. This is polyandry in practice: households centred around a female and male partners moving in and out of them. It seems the conditions of high male unemployment, low male education levels, policies that push mobility of labour, and welfare provision for single mothers can combine to make polyandry an attractive option. It will be interesting to see if the current economic crisis in southern Europe changes household composition in this way.

In looking at why pair bonds evolved, Dunbar favours the explanation that they did so to protect a woman and her children from the predations of other men. Dunbar in fact wavers between protection of the woman and protection of the children and his argument is not wholly convincing. The rise of religion, the fact that all major religions support the dominance of men over women, and the linkage to settled agriculture is a theme that needed to be considered in Dunbar's analysis but sadly it is entirely absent.

Finally, I think Dunbar could have said more about online relationships in the modern era. He points out some of the dangers, including impairing our ability to learn visual cues, but other benefits from face to face intimacy are also lost. We cannot touch, smell or taste someone online and visual cues are only two-dimensional, so much of the toolkit that we use to assess and understand other people is taken away from us. We are walking into an online jungle with one hand (and often both) tied behind our backs. What will this do to us as a species and our ability to fall in love?

There is much food for thought in this book. The ideas are clearly laid out and there is a rich bibliography. Dunbar is obviously very bright, but I found this book intellectually unadventurous - pleasant but safe. I yearned for a bit more excitement and a broader perspective. It's love after all - let's live a bit!
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on 5 May 2014
Not a flimsy work. Quite serious in fact. Wish I'd read this 50 years ago. Gives great insight into working of male/female minds.
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on 18 August 2014
I always enjoy reading Robin Dunbars books. And this book is no exception.
It is always very interesting to learn more about evolutionary psychology.
Put in love and betrayal and it becomes a real page turner...

Dunbar has a true gift for making (biological) observations, that are obvious, but at the same time very thought provoking.
Surely, evolution is sometimes a strange designer.
And, perhaps, by now we shouldn't be surprised by strange bodily functions or weird evolutionary psychology.
- But certainly, it is still interesting to hear about:

This book takes us through many of the most complex and confusing aspect of human life.
Love and betrayal is afterall what most human drama is all about.
Using evolutionary arguments Dunbar helps us understand what might really be going on:
In pairbonding, when humans kiss, when irrational thinking
about partners might really be the most rational thing to do, when the
brain calculates how much pain we should feel after a social rejection,
and when someone touches us.

All in all, it is all very entertaining and very thoughtprovoking.

-Simon
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on 6 May 2013
i thoroughly enjoyed this book. it is clearly written by an evolutionary psychologist so there are lots of pieces of evidence quoted and this might not interest all, but it made me want to read more from this author.
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on 1 September 2016
Bought this for my partner to motivate them to read. They could not put it down and spoke about it ridiculously excitedly!
This is a perfect gift for those that ask "why?" or those that hate cute couples or any nerdy lovebird.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 December 2013
This book, written by a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University, was published as 'The Science of Love', 2012 John Wiley & Sons. It is a psychological postulation of why humans 'fall in love'. The cornerstone of Dunbar's thesis is that 'falling in love' is part of the evolutionary process and he explains in this fascinating and enjoyable book what psychologists and anthropologists have discovered in their studies. Dunbar discusses the chemical processes that take place when people find themselves in love.

He discusses the reasons for monogamy and polygamy, pointing out among other factors, that differences in wealth tend to increase instances of polygamy. His thesis ties down the choice of mates in humans to the evolutionary instinct for survival. The reasons and basis men choose their mates are different from the reasons women choose theirs. He explores some of the reasons behind such differences, including the greater propensity of women to be religious. This 'God-factor' (though there are more men than women priests and church leaders, women form the mainstay of religious congregations - in almost all religions. Women, he writes, are drawn to charismatic figures (David Koresh was given as an example) and thus men are able to exploit this factor. This is one of the factors. Another is the need for a strong person to protect the woman and her offspring - the 'hired-gun' theory.

Although he discusses at length the subject of cheating, he reminds us that cheating forms only 20 per cent of the falling out between partners. The four causes discovered from his studies centres around four kinds of events: (1) insults (2) failure to be at an important event (birthday party), (3) spreading lies and rumours, and (4) remonstrations (scolding).

This book is about the causes for pair-bonding in humans. It has talked a lot about humans 'falling in love' and why people get attached and subsequently fall out, but it does not offer any examination of what 'love' means. It is a word that is used almost daily by almost everyone, but there is no explanation for what it means exactly. Most of the time, it merely replaces another (often more accurate) word. When one says 'I love ice-cream' he means he likes very much to eat ice cream; when a man says to a girl that he loves her, he means and intends that he wants her to himself (whether as a wife or a special partner); when a parent says she loves her child, she means that she is very emotionally attached to the child. Emotional attachment may be the closest description of love, but it is not a flawless definition. It becomes problematic when the emotional attachment of one person to another reaches obsessive levels.

A similar work, 'A General Theory of Love', was published by three psychologists in 2000 by Vintage Books. That book similarly attributed human behaviour to the mix of emotion and reason, but adding that 'Because of the brain's design, emotional life defeats Reason'. And similarly, the authors referred to love by association with conduct and thus like Dunbar, did not define what love is.

Dunbar's book may appear to take the romance out of relationships but the author does not think so. We are, he claims, biologically and evolutionarily primed to 'fall in love'. We can't help it - even though we may fool ourselves into thinking that love 'is the greatest thing on earth'. It may be a good illusion.
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on 9 June 2013
This is the second of Professor Dunbar's book that I have read - so I must enjoy them! - and is somewhat heavier, and less jokey that the other, I am relieved to say. The book is choc-a-bloc with fascinating facts about ourselves and the animal world and how we behave and why, so that although I am not a biologist, the conclusions of the various researchers including Dunbar himself seem to make perfect sense - as if one had known or should have known these things all along. In spite of this praise it often seems to me that Dunbar fails to join up the dots of his researches: the goal is open, but he shoots over the bar, for he does seem to me, it has to be said, to be the greatest Mangina, and needs a dose of Red-Pills.

By way of trivial example: at one point on crediting the author of a report he writes her entire name in lower case and explains that that is her way of doing so. That he should cave into such look-at-me pretension does not impress me at all. Then there is his praise for the black communities in American cities; most if not all studies seem to show them to be Matriarchal disaster areas. Finally by way of example of his tendencies to pedestalise he refers to female sex-tourists - something of a Canadian speciality, so I understand - to middle eastern countries acquiring males (i.e. gigolos) as a form of protection from male harassment - ye gods; that's why they go there in the first place, to seek male attention. His Hobbesian assumption that without laws we in the West would be raping non-stop, is an assumption made not only in the face of common-sense but against historical evidence, and merely parrots Feminist dogma. His suggestion that the Red Army on reaching Berlin in 1945 were given full approval to Rape and Pillage seems to me to be utterly implausible, and doubtless an example of Western propaganda. Scientists are as prone as the religious to fall prey to fashion, gullibility and belief.

I also feel compelled to refer to his discussion of spinsters in Tibet, describing their lot in life as that of a Drudge (this as opposed to being one of the few women who marry, and marry multiple men). The implication is of hardship, but given the Tibetan system where the alternatives were presumably either fighting in an army or tilling the unresponsive land, the solution for unmarried women was surely as Humane as the Tibetans could manage.

I am also somewhat suspicious of his citing reports by female anthropologists doing down the services of male hunter-gatherers. As the late great Mandy Rice Davis, might have said 'she would say that wouldn't she'. As I understand it (to make my point) studies of humans show that children of intact families comprising a man (the biological father) and a woman do better in life than any other arrangement. To reduce human success merely to mate guarding, vital though that sometimes may be, is I feel as simplistic as Marxists reducing life to pure economics or Freudians reducing life to sexual desire. Given the difficulty of understanding our past (lack of fossil evidence and then again little else but that) I fear that most deductions cannot be considered as little more than tentative suggestions, tempting though it is to come to definite conclusions.
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on 20 September 2014
Very well written piece of popularisation of a difficult subject. Quite moderate in its views.
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on 8 October 2014
Makes you think & makes you wary.
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