Courting Like Insects: Helen Fisher's Anatomy of Love
by Seduction Genie
I’m always suspicious of scientists who try to generalize from animal behavior to human behavior. Animals lack the enormously complex social structures that condition our behaviors and cultural expressions. Whether it is true, as Kant believed, that we are a step above animals because we can project ourselves into the future and envision the consequences of our actions, the fact remains that generalizing from insects to people is a rather far stretch.
Nevertheless, Dr. Helen Fisher does a remarkable job of it in her book Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. . Don’t be too aggressive in the initial stages of courtship, or you’ll end up like the male wolf spider - eaten by the female before copulation can occur. Does your man bring you gifts of chocolate or take you on dinner dates? Maybe he’s just instinctively following the same biological mandate as the black-tipped hang fly, which allows female flies to feast on his recent kills in exchange for sex. Even the discovery of the role of pheromones in insects implies that smell may play a similar role in human attraction. We can learn a lot from the animal kingdom.
Fisher’s premise is that human behavior in courtship and relationships has as much to do with nature than nurture. There are powerful biological and evolutionary imperatives that channel our behavior. While our culture will provide the form through which these predispositions are played out, there’s no pretending that we’re blank slates programmed by society into certain courtship roles. Fisher endeavors to show how we’re driven by powerful forces that aren’t too dissimilar from those shown by our fellow members of the animal kingdom.
Case in point: body language.
Fisher tells us that "women from places as different as the jungles of Amazonia, the salons of Paris, and the highlands of New Guinea apparently flirt with the same sequence of expressions" (p. 20). A woman’s smile starts off the encounter, with a quick look away as she drops her eyes and tilts her head down. She may then hide her faces, giggling behind her hands. Any man who’s the recipient of such a gaze knows what’s up.
Similarly, female possums toss coy gazes at their intendeds, cocking their heads and meeting the male possum’s eyes. The hair toss (immortalized in the 2000 movie Charlie’s Angels) is kin to the tossed heads of albatross and the moving heads of the mud turtles.
Men have their own postures inherited from the past. Fisher compares a man’s "chest thrust" (when he sticks out his chest) with the dominance-asserting messages of bristling cats and chest-pounding gorillas.
At a certain point the question becomes: is there any human behavior that doesn’t have a parallel in the animal kingdom?
Regardless of whether Fisher’s book actually proves that humans draw on many of the same courtship and mating behaviors as animals, it makes for fascinating reading.
For example, the famous courtship process observed by David Givens and Timothy Perper in American bars and clubs is not limited to human beings. Animals "flirt" as well.
You see, Givens and Perper spent countless hours in American cocktail lounges, pubs and clubs observing the courtship behavior of singles. What they found was that they could break down the process from meeting for the first time to the bedroom into distinct stages. Each stage was required before the next level of intimacy was attained.
Perper described the stages in this way: "From the Song of Songs until today, the sequence is the same: look, talk, touch, kiss, do the deed" (Psychology Today).
It makes sense. You’re unlikely to jump in the sack with someone you’ve just talked with. Each stage builds the familiarity and comfort necessary for greater intimacy.
Fisher takes the Givens and Perper data and describes it differently. In her formulation, the stages of courtship are:
- Attention-getting phase. Men and women alike "establish a territory" (e.g., find a place to sit or stand) in the bar then commence looking at those around them while simultaneously showing themselves off to best advantage.
- Recognition phase. This is when you catch a prospective partner’s gaze, and both of you respond in a way that demonstrates your interest. You may wink or smile at him, encouraging him to approach.
- Talking phase. Here is where the stakes get higher. If you don’t like his pickup line, his voice, or his topic of conversation, he’ll be crossed off your list of suitors. Similarly, it is in talking with you that he finds out about your personality and whether you’d be a suitable match for him.
- Touching phase. At this stage, the couple begins to decrease the physical distance between themselves. They may lean forward or rest an arm close to the other person. The most insignificant brush of the arm gauges the other person’s responsiveness to a sexual advance. If the other person backs away or appears uncomfortable, then the courting may be over.
- Body synchrony phase. This is the most fascinating phase of courtship, because it’s also the one most invisible to us. Leil Lowndes calls this "mirroring." It’s when you start to mimic the behavior of your partner. He lifts his glass to drink; you lift yours. He leans back in his seat; you lean back in your seat. You cross your legs; he crosses his. We do this unconsciously when we’re with someone we’re highly attracted to, as if to show that we’re "in tune" with the other person.
The next time you go to a bar or club, see if you can’t identify these stages in action. Their accuracy might just surprise you.
At that point, it’s your call whether you believe that these stages are part of our animal nature(just as gorillas swagger, moles rub noses, and stickleback fish zigzag in rhythm) or part of our human culture.
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