Monday, February 16, 2004

From the Economist, the latest popular science article on how "scientific research shows something you thought you vaguely understood to be something just as vague but with more sciency words like 'dopamine' and 'promoter sequence' "

In this case, it's that old hoary chestnut revisited - the "chemical basis for love". Quite amusing, but with some rather scary bits, viz:

"That raises the question of whether it is possible to “treat” this romantic state clinically, as can be done with [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]. The parents of any love-besotted teenager might want to know the answer to that. Dr Fisher suggests it might, indeed, be possible to inhibit feelings of romantic love, but only at its early stages. OCD is characterised by low levels of a chemical called serotonin. Drugs such as Prozac work by keeping serotonin hanging around in the brain for longer than normal, so they might stave off romantic feelings. "

Conclusions include:

"So love, in all its glory, is just, it seems, a chemical state with genetic roots and environmental influences."

Hmm, what did the scientists expect they might find?
"Love discovered to be the eternal, transcendental union of two human souls"...

"Invisible arrow-wielding infant figures may be responsible for love between humans"....

This is classic, though:

"Rats can be conditioned to prefer particular types of partner—for example by pairing sexual reward with some kind of cue, such as lemon-scented members of the opposite sex."

Maybe I should try lemon-scented aftershave..."attracts members of the opposite sex while you do dishes!"

The telling admission (almost) comes at the end:

"Romantics, of course, have always known that love is a special sort of chemistry. Scientists are now beginning to show how true this is. "

Right, so, the article is littered with popular song titles and metaphors ("Addicted to love" etc.) to illustrate its points, and we learn that (surprise!) lust, romantic love and long-term companionship are all different and have different effects on behaviour. In exactly what respect, then, has 'hard science' inproved on literary, artistic and folk wisdom? And why do we necessarily need the former to validate the latter?

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