Legislating Love

Love: modern invention or biological reality?

Brooke Magnanti, better known by her nom de plume Belle du Jour, is a biologist, blogger and author, who rose to fame following the publication of her 2005 book Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, later adapted for television. Below, she discusses whether love is an artificial construct and if people should be allowed to marry their first cousins.


There have been suggestions that love is a modern invention. Do you think that love is intrinsic to the human condition or in some way artificial?

I think we have exaggerated certain aspects of love, especially romantic love, what we expect it to be and expect it to become: this idea of fidelity and two people loving each other forever. Yet we can't deny that there is a biological underpinning to all of it.

In the initial stages of attraction, when your body is producing adrenaline and norepinephrine, and later when you start bonding through oxytocin, you can’t deny that it is happening over and over again. When you're feeling that first intense rush of love, that is something biological that is happening to you.

I suppose the question that I was interested in is exploring whether it's right to take those first, early stages and then say that we can make it into something that lasts forever. Is it even possible to do this?

And do you think that it is possible to love the same person forever?

Not to be too crass about it, but I think that you can game love, you can hack love. You can take a genuine loving attraction and, once you get past those initial stages, continue to do things that are interesting and exciting. For example, you go on a new journey together – that really does keep the intense attraction alive, and that's what makes all the difference.

You see people who have been together for decades, they talk about doing new things together, they’re on each other’s team; its like having a partner in crime. And to me the perfect ideal of love is having a partner in crime.

Do you think the traditional structure of relationships is the best mould for us biologically, or is there scope for us to diversify our relationships?

I think it really depends on the people involved. This is where a certain element of honest communication comes into play because some people can be satisfied with one person until the end of time, but not everybody’s relationships are going to be like that. Some people do better with open relationships, some people do better with honest acknowledgement of outside affairs and we really shouldn’t judge.

From day one, though, people tend to have high expectations. What is the thing we always hear? They lived happily ever after. It's in every children's story and every fairy tale, but they never tell you what comes after the happily ever after, or after the marriage. How do you do happy ever after?

Do you think happily ever after is possible?

I think it is possible, but I think it’s hard work. There does seem to be an assumption, especially with some of the myths surrounding romantic love, that as soon as you’ve found that perfect person things will fall into place and you'll automatically know what to do. Actually, it's never going to be that easy. Successful relationships are really about work, but it's worth the work and it’s worth putting the time in.

Do you think there should be any kind of legislation or interference around love, for example incest and polygamy?

That’s a really interesting question. Apart from the potential health-related problems of incestuous relationships – especially parent-child or brother-sister – often when you hear of incestuous relationships they are people who are genetically related but who haven't grown up with one another.

You don’t fall in love with the brothers you see rolling around in the mud every day, it's the twin that was taken away from you before you could even remember. There have been so many cases where people have had this intense attraction to someone only to later find out that they were genetically related.

And is this something that we should allow?

I'm not sure we can stop it happening to be honest. If you look at a lot of cultures around the world, there are many countries where you are allowed to marry your first cousin, where you and your cousin only share about 1/16th of your DNA. In many cultures, marriage to uncles is also allowed and that's around 1/8th shared DNA, which as far as risks of genetic abnormality go, isn't actually that high. But, if you have generation after generation, the inbreeding coefficient, as they call it in genetic epidemiology, goes way up. There are some countries where cousins marry every generation and the inbreeding coefficient is such that it's almost as if brothers and sisters were marrying instead.

So do you suppose that there is any type of love that we should forbid?

I suppose any type of love where consent isn’t honoured. If we think about what constitutes normal limits of consent, well to be quite crass, obviously dead people can’t consent; animals can’t consent in the same way that humans can; and of course young children can’t consent.

Once you get past those limitations it's very difficult because, to most people, those are quite obvious limits of consent and anything beyond that is probably permissible.

Do you believe in economic strains of consent, for example, cases where people can’t afford not to consent?

It’s such a grey area. When we’re talking about levels of coercion, particularly where economics is involved, it's so hard to draw the line between someone, say, who feels coerced into being a sex worker and someone who is being coerced into a marriage because their family are pressuring them for financial reasons.

These are very subtle issues and in the end we have to respect how people report their own experiences, assuming that people are telling the truth about their lives. Anything more than that is just suggesting that we’d be able to read other people’s minds.

Do you think that we could still exist without love, as a species, as a society?

Maybe we could, but we wouldn’t have remotely as much fun.

Do you think that there’s been a fundamental change to the idea of love, or has it been the same throughout human history?

I think there have been things that we’ve called by the same word, meaning love – we could be talking about parental love, or lust, or the feelings between people who have been together for decades. But I think we all recognise that these are all the same basic emotion.


Image credit: Linus Kendall.

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