In the latest Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh argues (with her usual panache) that the institution of marriage is passé, and that it’s time to cast off the antiquated concept of eternal monogomy:
Sure, it [marriage] made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?
This post isn’t about whether Loh is right; I’ve only been married 9 months, so I’m not qualified to hold an opinion on whether or not the institution is hopelessly retrograde and really does, as Loh suggests, lead to sexless misery. But I did want to point out that the scientific evidence Loh trots out to defend her thesis (and it’s really an unnecessary reference, since she’s making a cultural argument, not a biological one) is bunk. She uncritically references the anthropologist Helen Fisher, and quotes her thusly:
Fisher, a women’s cult figure and an anthropologist, has long argued that falling in love–and falling out of love–is part of our evolutionary biology and that humans are programmed not for lifelong monogamy, but for serial monogamy. (In stretches of four years, to be exact, approximately the time it takes to get one kid safely through infancy.)
Why Him? Why Her? explains the hormonal forces that trigger humans to be romantically attracted to some people and not to others (a phenomenon also documented in the animal world). Fisher posits that each of us gets dosed in the womb with different levels of hormones that impel us toward one of four basic personality types:
The Explorer–the libidinous, creative adventurer who acts “on the spur of the moment.” Operative neurochemical: dopamine.
The Builder–the much calmer person who has “traditional values.” The Builder also “would rather have loyal friends than interesting friends,” enjoys routines, and places a high priority on taking care of his or her possessions. Operative neurotransmitter: serotonin.
The Director–the “analytical and logical” thinker who enjoys a good argument. The Director wants to discover all the features of his or her new camera or computer. Operative hormone: testosterone.
The Negotiator–the touchy-feely communicator who imagines “both wonderful and horrible things happening” to him- or herself. Operative hormone: estrogen, then oxytocin.
Fisher reviewed personality data from 39,913 members of Chemistry.com. Explorers made up 26 percent of the sample, Builders 28.6 percent, Directors 16.3 percent, Negotiators 29.1 percent. While Explorers tend to be attracted to Explorers, and Builders tend to be attracted to Builders, Directors are attracted to Negotiators, and vice versa.
She fails to note that Fisher is a paid consultant to Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com which uses these vague neurosciency profiles as a selling point. While Fisher has done some interesting work on romantic attachment in the past, it’s worth pointing out that there’s exactly zero evidence that people have “dominant” or “operative” neurotransmitter system, or that being exposed to oxytocin in the womb makes us touchy-feely. (There is evidence, however, that various polymorphisms for specific receptor subtypes, such as the DRD2 dopamine receptor, do correlate weakly with attachment style.) As Vaughan Bell smartly notes in a MindHacks critique of Fisher, his “dominant chemical is caffeine”. This time of year, my dominant chemical would be ethyl alcohol, preferably in the form of a pale ale or rose wine.
Of course, such neurobabble is only the latest (pseudo)scientific evidence used to critique the institution of marriage. Before testosterone and dopamine, there was the Freudian id, followed by the misapplication of strong versions of evolutionary psychology. This doesn’t mean that Loh is wrong; maybe marriage really deserved to die with the 19th century. But that’s an argument about property rights, the legal system, childcare, etc. It has nothing to do with dopamine.