Sex, Biology and Unlocking the Mysteries of Love and Attraction

By Ross, Martha | Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), February 13, 2016 | Go to article overview

Sex, Biology and Unlocking the Mysteries of Love and Attraction


Ross, Martha, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)


For a Saint Mary's College course on the biology of love and attraction, junior Noah Yang volunteered to fill out a survey asking him to name specific qualities that drew him to certain women.

Eyes? Body? Personality? He couldn't put his finger on any one thing.

"I thought of my first girlfriend," he said. "There was just that connection. It's like an intangible thing."

Yang joins everyone from ancient Greek philosophers to modern- day self-help authors in trying to understand the mysteries of love and desire. As with everything in human behavior, this intangible thing -- which every Feb. 14 we honor with a shower of roses and chocolate -- is a subject of scientific inquiry. That makes today as good a time as any to explore recent breakthroughs in genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology that offer new insights into whom we love -- or lust for -- and what we do about it.

While there may never be a definitive answer about what is it about a person that makes our heart sing -- or break -- recent insights suggest the extent to which we highly evolved humans are still creatures of our biology, with our drives encoded in our genes, wired into our brains and even communicated subconsciously through airborne signals our bodies excrete to attract potential mates.

"We are a highly complex interplay of nature and nurture," said Sonya Shuh-Huerta, a professor and reproductive biologist who taught the seminar at Saint Mary's, in Moraga. "Some of these core human attributes -- or traits that are part of the human experience -- have a strong biological basis."

Her class, taught in January, touched on such recently established research as the role hormones play in pair bonding and social connection and why, in defiance of post-feminist societal norms, men are hard-wired to go for attractive young women, and women want good providers. It also noted another, recently discovered genetic driver: the need of organisms to produce offspring with healthy immune systems.

A growing body of research suggests that humans subconsciously look for mates with dissimilar MHC (major histocompatibility complex) genes, which are involved in the immune system. Diversity in the MHC genes better prepares our bodies to fend off a wider variety of infectious microorganisms -- and, in Darwinist terms, promote the survival of the species.

To that end, researchers believe, our bodies excrete pheromones, or molecular signals, to trigger responses in potential mates via the sense of smell.

In his famous sweaty T-shirt study from the 1990s, Swiss biologist Claus Wedekind asked a group of female college students to smell T-shirts that had been worn by male students for two nights, without deodorant or scented soaps. He found that the female students overwhelmingly preferred the odors of men with dissimilar MHC genes.

Yang laughed at the idea that his interest in his ex-girlfriend was MHC-driven, but doesn't discount it. The pheromone idea prompted classmate Lauren Ramos to admit something about her boyfriend: "I like his natural smell. I can smell it when he's not wearing deodorant, or when he's playing basketball. …

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