What Love Is and What It Could Be, by Carrie Jenkins

Polyamory could shed light on whether love is mainly biological or social, says Jane O’Grady

February 9, 2017
Science of love
Source: iStock

Philosophising about love should begin with the personal, writes Carrie Jenkins. This book opens with her morning musings, as she walks from her boyfriend’s flat to the home she shares with her husband, about whether or not she can be said to be in love with both of them. Impatient with the way romantic love is presented as mysterious, and therefore unchangeable, she reminds us that loving is something we do, and can perhaps do differently and better. Whether we can depends on how far love is biologically hard-wired, and therefore subject to the slowness of evolution, and how far socially constructed. Jenkins seems to promise a key debate, which, although hardly new, will be conducted from the original angle of polyamory.

Unfortunately, this book is slipshod, repetitive, and full of rambling assertions rather than fine-grained philosophical analysis. For scientific backing Jenkins relies almost exclusively on an experiment by the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, in which subjects (recruited via posters asking “have you just fallen madly in love?”) have their brains scanned to see which brain areas “light up” (sustain increased blood flow) when they look at photos of their beloved in contrast with photos of unknown others. The answer, apparently, is the areas associated with reward, and in some cases with stress.

Jenkins admits that the experiment’s methodology is flawed, heavily based on self-reports and tendentiously set up, but seems to share Fisher’s blithe expectation that “love consists of these [or, if not, some other] specific biological mechanisms”. She thus simply replicates Fisher’s question-begging confusion between identity and correlation, failing to debate just how “science can finally tell us what love really is”. Since she rejects Fisher’s evolutionary account of love, all she is ultimately discussing are merely the neural areas whose stimulation is also associated with gambling, dangerous sports and anxiety, mysteriously cut off from the rest of the body or from any biological purpose. She is similarly sprawling and inconclusive in discussing the social construction of love, offering us tantalising but discrete dabblings in vampires, the medieval humours, Sappho, Ovid, Plato and Shakespeare, while neglecting to suggest how these coalesced into the cultural love brew they became.

“I propose a new theory of romantic love,” Jenkins declares. Just as when watching an actor perform we are simultaneously aware of the actor inhabiting the character, and of the character itself, so (says Jenkins) love’s dual nature is instantiated in “ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role”. But how does that work? Jenkins never fleshes out her airy claim, and annoyingly conflates the origins of love in human history and in the history of a particular human. The crucial allied question of how romantic love fuses genitals and sonnets is never touched on.

Polyamory provides a promising tuning fork for sounding the nature of romantic love, and whether focusing exclusively on one person is essential to it. Jenkins arouses expectations that she will philosophise on this and similar questions via her own feelings, but ultimately offers little in the way either of emotion or philosophy.

Jane O’Grady is visiting lecturer in philosophy of psychology at City, University of London, and co-founder, London School of Philosophy.

What Love Is and What It Could Be
By Carrie Jenkins
Basic Books, 224pp, £26.26
ISBN 9780465098859
Published 24 January 2017


Print headline: Fusing genitals and sonnets

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