restricted access Mutations of Romance: Evolution, Infidelity, and Narrative
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Mutations of Romance:
Evolution, Infidelity, and Narrative

Dear Dr. Tatiana,

My husband and I have been faithfully married for years, and we are shocked by what we read in your columns. As black vultures, we engage in none of the revolting practices you advocate so regularly, and we don’t think anyone else should either. We suggest you champion fidelity or shut up.

Crusading for Family Values in Louisiana

—Olivia Judson, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation

Since its reincarnation in the early 1990s under the new disciplinary title of evolutionary psychology, sociobiological thought has appropriated, dominated, and refashioned popular discourses of gender and sexuality.1 Advocating an understanding of gender roles and sexual behavior as written in the human genome, evolutionary psychologists have portrayed modern humans as driven by their Pleistocene adaptations, or, as one sociobiological account apocalyptically puts it, as “hunter-gatherer women and men lost in a concrete jungle” (Potts and Short 312). These visions of innate gender characteristics and sexual dispositions are usually argued with reference to what some have called the neo-Darwinian reproductive imperative: the urgent need for organisms to propagate in order to guarantee the passing [End Page 592] of their genes to subsequent generations.2 This logic assumes that almost any behavior—including our twenty-first-century fantasies and obsessions—contributes to the reproductive fitness of the organism or is the end product of past reproductive successes. Within such framework, all deeds and desires serve reproductive ambitions.

In evolutionary psychological accounts of human evolution, promiscuity and infidelity are often portrayed as the ultimate expression of this reproductive imperative. Resonating closely with popular assumptions about gender relations as a heterosexual battlefield, evolutionary stories about infidelity have proved extremely compelling as cultural narratives. These narratives have repeatedly appeared across the popular cultural spectrum from afternoon talk shows, prime-time television series, and Hollywood cinema to advertising, magazine articles, and self-help books such as John Gray’s best-selling Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.3 In popular science this evolutionary infidelity narrative is often spelled out in the very titles of texts; consider, for example, Tim Birkhead’s Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition, Robin Baker’s Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles, or Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. Such texts typically proceed from a simple statement of a clash between male and female reproductive interests— synecdochically represented by the endless multitude of minuscule sperm and the large but rare eggs—to an extended speculation of how evolutionary mating strategies are visible in today’s gendered sexual norms and practices. Reflected in such chapter titles as Matt Ridley’s “Polygamy and the Nature of Men” and “Monogamy and the Nature of Women” and David M. Buss’s wonderfully euphemistic “What Women Want” and “Men Want Something Else,” this strict gender dichotomy organizes the texts’ discussions of specific instances of behavior that, with very few exceptions, are always reduced back to the reproductive imperative.

One of the most striking features of the evolutionary infidelity narrative is its insistence on the genetic hardwiring of human emotions. As cultural critic Roger N. Lancaster somewhat sarcastically puts it: “Supposedly, the evolutionary effects of natural selection on the endocrine system have rendered us ‘prewired’ to have certain feelings, and (non sequitur) to express these emotional dispositions in certain pre-given institutional forms” (Trouble 208). In particular, the evolutionary infidelity narrative has moved romantic love from the pedestal on which it has historically been placed and challenged its cultural status as a unique, near-transcendental experience. Viewed as a mere trick of our selfish genes in evolutionary psychological discourse, romantic love exists only to improve our “reproductive [End Page 593] fitness” (that is, to make us copulate with the right kind of person in the right circumstances and stick with that person for the period of time that most likely leads to optimal reproductive success for the given individual). As feminist psychologist Angie Burns observes, when “love is grounded in sexual and reproductive imperatives, it becomes explainable in biological and sociobiological or evolutionary terms as part of...