Why do we love someone? I guess it depends upon what you think love is. Lately researchers have been concentrating on voles. “Vole” is an anagram for Love the way “Dog” is backwards of God. These days we trust animals a lot more than the supernatural. For some people, love is a human version of domestication and for them, voles are encouraging, but only “prairie voles.” The mountain version is a Don Juan. Once the scientists noticed this, they went after the DNA of voles to figure out which genes made the difference.
“ . . . After an extended courtship – about a day – the first sexual tryst between male and female will generally excite a lasting bond, with the pair settling down to raise a rapidly growing family until death do they part – which admittedly, given the perils of prairie life, usually occurs within a year or two.
“Give a male vole an alcoholic drink, however, and the animal’s natural inclination to monogamous love and commitment evaporates like dew on a mid-western plain under the hot morning sun.
“This finding comes courtesy of research by neuroscientists Andre Walcott and Andrey Ryabinin of Oregon Health and Science University in the US, who plied otherwise content vole couples with booze and then pimped a second female into the equation to observe the response. When the couple both drank, they continued to cuddle up together; when only the male drank, his ardour for his partner waned.”
There’s an alternative approach to domestication when the animal can talk, with some folks enjoying the priming and others exploring the slow-lingering embers. Aeon “magazine” is English-based, very literate but not pornographic (whatever that is), sort of BBC-like where the love generally includes some talk about money.
If you think love is chemical, molecular and based on blood-distended tissues, then voles might be your guide. If you think it’s about pretty words and big ideas, then clearly you should follow Aeon, even though they’ve started to charge fees now, which is what always happens when something is a big success. (Ask a sex-worker.)
But there are still far more mysterious reasons why people fall in love, enough to justify the idea of fate or some other supernatural intervention. For instance, people can fall in love because of their sameness, but also because of their difference. Sometimes because the love object is so very inscrutable that those who love them can spend a lifetime unraveling the mysteries. Others love the transparent, the consistent, the no-effort ease of just being aware of them.
Wise men say that love happens when the conditions come closest to the first love one has known, the arms and face of the maker, feeder, and comforter — the ones who kept you warm and never dropped you. BUT if that first caretaker was prone to abandoning, occasionally got cross and yelled or even slapped, then no other love throughout life will ever feel complete unless that later object duplicates the experience complete with the negatives.
In fact, some feel that those who love only when there is abuse, terror, and spaces of emptiness are helped by molecular intervention but some are comforted never at all. Some think this is where artists come from. No one has figured out how to test a vole for the molecular imprint of infant neglect and abuse, but I expect they will.
The problem with these animal experiments is that so much about love comes from the culture and culture, though incremental up through the more complex animals until we get to the primates, is not so powerful until we get to humans. But we should remember that primates are not our precursors, but our fellow evolvers coming alongside us, and Jane Goodall found they were quite cultured, though not literate. And makers more than hoarders. They seem to love their mothers and it is returned generously.
But if we see love as domestication, in the sense of sharing domiciles and preferences for sleep and food and equipment, then the love of pets becomes a better example. Dogs who love will love unconditionally. There are dogs imprinted with fear and the need to defend and they are dangerous, though there are always folks who love the challenge of bringing them into the circle of embrace. Those folks enjoy cats, who often enjoy teasing: today I love you, tomorrow I nip you. Love strategy. Intrigue.
For control freaks dogs are a better choice but the object and means of that control will matter. A helper for someone in a wheelchair is different from a bird dog eager to splash into a lake. And a dog lover who is willing to risk the death of a dog, say for law enforcement, is not a good choice if you don’t want to be in a human relationship where the lover is willing to . . . you can imagine.
Love doesn’t even feel the same for different people. Some need a hand to hold, others are happy for a relationship in which they only hold a pen. A keyboard is not quite the same, but it will do for those who live in words.
There used to be toys that were shrunk down to dots, there is tea that is compressed into knots, and both in water will grow into fabulous objects from giraffes to chrysanthemums. That’s how love on the page can be. Not even necessarily sonnets but maybe as simple as “be sure to wear dry socks.”
So now I’ve talked myself into a vision of a vole wife whose husband is about to go find whatever it is that voles eat (I think they’re vegetarian but might enjoy a grasshopper or two) and bring it home for the babies and she has knitted him some new dry socks, which he admires as he steps along.
But under that is the memory of sliding a sleep-warmed hand over the smooth hip of someone who has turned his back on me. And loving his back as much as his front.