Dear human race, Happy Valentine’s Day!
With all our love, your genes
The Times, 14 February, 2004
See The Times online archive
“ICKY POO LOVES big boy”, “Gloopy for pinky pot”. Today the red hearts and cuddly bears are out in force and we all have to put up with it, whether we are in that brief phase of romantic love or — more likely — not.
Don’t blame the evils of modern consumer society. The real culprit is evolution, and it still has us firmly in its grip.
A good way to understand this slow, haphazard and wasteful process is by looking at things from the gene’s point of view. We human beings are, in the words of Richard Dawkins, just the “lumbering robots” designed by the genes to carry them around. So why do those robots have a strange penchant for getting all soppy about each other, bad poetry and all?
The reason begins with that other human peculiarity; our big brains. Useful they may be, but they come at a cost. Giving birth for human beings is painful and dangerous — a detail not often mentioned on Valentine’s cards. Babies are born immature and helpless, and stay that way for years. Add to that a need to fill the growing brain with lots of information, and the baby is going to need long-term care. Both parents must be persuaded to stick around for enough time to finish the job.
Think of those two million years or so in which our ancestors evolved on the African plains. Lots of them died. Lots of their babies died. The genes that made it through to the modern consumer world were the genes of the few who lived. And among those would be any genes that helped couples stay together.
Mating is a nasty business. Women need to get the best genes they can, while ensuring they have a man to provide for their kids. And this doesn’t always mean having the same man for both jobs. Men need to get their genes into healthy women — and preferably lots of them — who are young enough to see the job through, while ensuring that they don’t look after other men’s children by mistake. There are countless causes for trouble and strife, desertion and cuckolding. Yet somehow the process still gives us pleasure.
This is why romance is wired into us. Our gooey ancestors, the ones who had the urge to call their mate “snugglebum”, would have passed on their genes, while their unromantic neighbours did not. Wildly beating hearts, thrilling passions, and the certain knowledge that you will love this person for ever and ever are practical aids to survival. So is the delight in giving presents and swapping endearments. So might be that embarrassing urge to tell everyone about your new squeeze, because once you have told them, they’ll try to stop you both from straying. In these ways our genes shaped our feelings, and our feelings still shape what we do.
Fast forward a couple of million years and those ancient emotions are blazoned across cards, chat rooms, cuddly toys, florist’s shops, and boxes of chocolates. But evolution can’t be blamed for Valentine cards, can it?
It certainly can. Just as genes propagate themselves, so do ideas. Humans are always creating new artefacts and ways of doing things. Most get lost, or never take off, but a few are copied. These human creations are called memes, and are passed between us in the same way that viruses spread by becoming parasites.
Take the evolution of the humble Valentine’s card. One of the earliest cards was supposedly sent in 1415 by the Duke of Orleans, to his wife, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, centuries after St Valentine became the patron of love. Someone probably saw this, copied the idea, and so began to spread the meme.
Leap a few hundred years and we saw the result: our newsagents shelves began to groan with cards. The sickly ones sold and the tasteful ones didn’t. The yucky cupids and wide-eyed kittens found buyers and the rest were left on the shelves. Next time, the shop knew just what to order and the factories now churn out yet more copies of the yuck.
It’s one evolutionary process piggy-backing on another. Those cuddly kittens appeal because our emotions were designed that way. Love makes us feel soppy, and the parasitic memes exploit that soppiness — living off our big brains and our romantic natures.
This is why we endure the Valentine’s virus year after year. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it. The memes are out there, evolving faster and faster on the mobiles, faxes, e-mails and web we provided for them. We are just the lumbering robots who can’t resist helping them along.