Falling In Love by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

An ancient and famous human institution is in pressing danger. Sir George Campbell has set his face against the time-honoured practice of Falling in Love. Parents innumerable, it is true, have set their faces against it already from immemorial antiquity; but then they only attacked the particular instance, without venturing to impugn the institution itself on general principles. An old Indian administrator, however, goes to work in all things on a different pattern. He would always like to regulate human life generally as a department of the India Office; and so Sir George Campbell would fain have husbands and wives selected for one another (perhaps on Dr. Johnson’s principle, by the Lord Chancellor) with a view to the future development of the race, in the process which he not very felicitously or elegantly describes as ‘man-breeding.’ ‘Probably,’ he says, as reported in Nature, ‘we have enough physiological knowledge to effect a vast improvement in the pairing of individuals of the same or allied races if we could only apply that knowledge to make fitting marriages, instead of giving way to foolish ideas about love and the tastes of young people, whom we can hardly trust to choose their own bonnets, much less to choose in a graver matter in which they are most likely to be influenced by frivolous prejudices.’ He wants us, in other words, to discard the deep-seated inner physiological promptings of inherited instinct, and to substitute for them some calm and dispassionate but artificial selection of a fitting partner as the father or mother of future generations.

Now this is of course a serious subject, and it ought to be treated seriously and reverently. But, it seems to me, Sir George Campbell’s conclusion is exactly the opposite one from the conclusion now being forced upon men of science by a study of the biological and psychological elements in this very complex problem of heredity. So far from considering love as a ‘foolish idea,’ opposed to the best interests of the race, I believe most competent physiologists and psychologists, especially those of the modern evolutionary school, would regard it rather as an essentially beneficent and conservative instinct developed and maintained in us by natural causes, for the very purpose of insuring just those precise advantages and improvements which Sir George Campbell thinks he could himself effect by a conscious and deliberate process of selection. More than that, I believe, for my own part (and I feel sure most evolutionists would cordially agree with me), that this beneficent inherited instinct of Falling in Love effects the object it has in view far more admirably, subtly, and satisfactorily, on the average of instances, than any clumsy human selective substitute could possibly effect it.

In short, my doctrine is simply the old-fashioned and confiding belief that marriages are made in heaven: with the further corollary that heaven manages them, one time with another, a great deal better than Sir George Campbell.

Let us first look how Falling in Love affects the standard of human efficiency; and then let us consider what would be the probable result of any definite conscious attempt to substitute for it some more deliberate external agency.

Falling in Love, as modern biology teaches us to believe, is nothing more than the latest, highest, and most involved exemplification, in the human race, of that almost universal selective process which Mr. Darwin has enabled us to recognise throughout the whole long series of the animal kingdom. The butterfly that circles and eddies in his aerial dance around his observant mate is endeavouring to charm her by the delicacy of his colouring, and to overcome her coyness by the display of his skill. The peacock that struts about in imperial pride under the eyes of his attentive hens, is really contributing to the future beauty and strength of his race by collecting to himself a harem through whom he hands down to posterity the valuable qualities which have gained the admiration of his mates in his own person. Mr. Wallace has shown that to be beautiful is to be efficient; and sexual selection is thus, as it were, a mere lateral form of natural selection–a survival of the fittest in the guise of mutual attractiveness and mutual adaptability, producing on the average a maximum of the best properties of the race in the resulting offspring. I need not dwell here upon this aspect of the case, because it is one with which, since the publication of the ‘Descent of Man,’ all the world has been sufficiently familiar.

In our own species, the selective process is marked by all the features common to selection throughout the whole animal kingdom; but it is also, as might be expected, far more specialised, far more individualised, far more cognisant of personal traits and minor peculiarities. It is furthermore exerted to a far greater extent upon mental and moral as well as physical peculiarities in the individual.

We cannot fall in love with everybody alike. Some of us fall in love with one person, some with another. This instinctive and deep-seated differential feeling we may regard as the outcome of complementary features, mental, moral, or physical, in the two persons concerned; and experience shows us that, in nine cases out of ten, it is a reciprocal affection, that is to say, in other words, an affection roused in unison by varying qualities in the respective individuals.

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Of its eminently conservative and even upward tendency very little doubt can be reasonably entertained. We do fall in love, taking us in the lump, with the young, the beautiful, the strong, and the healthy; we do not fall in love, taking us in the lump, with the aged, the ugly, the feeble, and the sickly. The prohibition of the Church is scarcely needed to prevent a man from marrying his grandmother. Moralists have always borne a special grudge to pretty faces; but, as Mr. Herbert Spencer admirably put it (long before the appearance of Darwin’s selective theory), ‘the saying that beauty is but skin-deep is itself but a skin-deep saying.’ In reality, beauty is one of the very best guides we can possibly have to the desirability, so far as race-preservation is concerned, of any man or any woman as a partner in marriage. A fine form, a good figure, a beautiful bust, a round arm and neck, a fresh complexion, a lovely face, are all outward and visible signs of the physical qualities that on the whole conspire to make up a healthy and vigorous wife and mother; they imply soundness, fertility, a good circulation, a good digestion. Conversely, sallowness and paleness are roughly indicative of dyspepsia and anaemia; a flat chest is a symptom of deficient maternity; and what we call a bad figure is really, in one way or another, an unhealthy departure from the central norma and standard of the race. Good teeth mean good deglutition; a clear eye means an active liver; scrubbiness and undersizedness mean feeble virility. Nor are indications of mental and moral efficiency by any means wanting as recognised elements in personal beauty. A good-humoured face is in itself almost pretty. A pleasant smile half redeems unattractive features. Low, receding foreheads strike us unfavourably. Heavy, stolid, half-idiotic countenances can never be beautiful, however regular their lines and contours. Intelligence and goodness are almost as necessary as health and vigour in order to make up our perfect ideal of a beautiful human face and figure. The Apollo Belvedere is no fool; the murderers in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s are for the most part no beauties.

What we all fall in love with, then, as a race, is in most cases efficiency and ability. What we each fall in love with individually is, I believe, our moral, mental, and physical complement. Not our like, not our counterpart; quite the contrary; within healthy limits, our unlike and our opposite. That this is so has long been more or less a commonplace of ordinary conversation; that it is scientifically true, one time with another, when we take an extended range of cases, may, I think, be almost demonstrated by sure and certain warranty of human nature.

Brothers and sisters have more in common, mentally and physically, than any other members of the same race can possibly have with one another. But nobody falls in love with his sister. A profound instinct has taught even the lower races of men (for the most part) to avoid such union of the all-but-identical. In the higher races the idea never so much as occurs to us. Even cousins seldom fall in love–seldom, that is to say, in comparison with the frequent opportunities of intercourse they enjoy, relatively to the remainder of general society. When they do, and when they carry out their perilous choice effectively by marriage, natural selection soon avenges Nature upon the offspring by cutting off the idiots, the consumptives, the weaklings, and the cripples, who often result from such consanguineous marriages. In narrow communities, where breeding in-and-in becomes almost inevitable, natural selection has similarly to exert itself upon a crowd of cretins and other hapless incapables. But in wide and open champaign countries, where individual choice has free room for exercise, men and women as a rule (if not constrained by parents and moralists) marry for love, and marry on the whole their natural complements. They prefer outsiders, fresh blood, somebody who comes from beyond the community, to the people of their own immediate surroundings. In many men the dislike to marrying among the folk with whom they have been brought up amounts almost to a positive instinct; they feel it as impossible to fall in love with a fellow-townswoman as to fall in love with their own first cousins. Among exogamous tribes such an instinct (aided, of course, by other extraneous causes) has hardened into custom; and there is reason to believe (from the universal traces among the higher civilisations of marriage by capture) that all the leading races of the world are ultimately derived from exogamous ancestors, possessing this healthy and excellent sentiment.

In minor matters, it is of course universally admitted that short men, as a rule, prefer tall women, while tall men admire little women. Dark pairs by preference with fair; the commonplace often runs after the original. People have long noticed that this attraction towards one’s opposite tends to keep true the standard of the race; they have not, perhaps, so generally observed that it also indicates roughly the existence in either individual of a desire for its own natural complement. It is difficult here to give definite examples, but everybody knows how, in the subtle psychology of Falling in Love, there are involved innumerable minor elements, physical and mental, which strike us exactly because of their absolute adaptation to form with ourselves an adequate union. Of course we do not definitely seek out and discover such qualities; instinct works far more intuitively than that; but we find at last, by subsequent observation, how true and how trustworthy were its immediate indications. That is to say, those men do so who were wise enough or fortunate enough to follow the earliest promptings of their own hearts, and not to be ashamed of that divinest and deepest of human intuitions, love at first sight.

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How very subtle this intuition is, we can only guess in part by the apparent capriciousness and incomprehensibility of its occasional action. We know that some men and women fall in love easily, while others are only moved to love by some very special and singular combination of peculiarities. We know that one man is readily stirred by every pretty face he sees, while another man can only be roused by intellectual qualities or by moral beauty. We know that sometimes we meet people possessing every virtue and grace under heaven, and yet for some unknown and incomprehensible reason we could no more fall in love with them than we could fall in love with the Ten Commandments. I don’t, of course, for a moment accept the silly romantic notion that men and women fall in love only once in their lives, or that each one of us has somewhere on earth his or her exact affinity, whom we must sooner or later meet or else die unsatisfied. Almost every healthy normal man or woman has probably fallen in love over and over again in the course of a lifetime (except in case of very early marriage), and could easily find dozens of persons with whom they would be capable of falling in love again if due occasion offered. We are not all created in pairs, like the Exchequer tallies, exactly intended to fit into one another’s minor idiosyncrasies. Men and women as a rule very sensibly fall in love with one another in the particular places and the particular societies they happen to be cast among. A man at Ashby-de-la-Zouch does not hunt the world over to find his pre-established harmony at Paray-le-Monial or at Denver, Colorado. But among the women he actually meets, a vast number are purely indifferent to him; only one or two, here and there, strike him in the light of possible wives, and only one in the last resort (outside Salt Lake City) approves herself to his inmost nature as the actual wife of his final selection.

Now this very indifference to the vast mass of our fellow-countrymen or fellow-countrywomen, this extreme pitch of selective preference in the human species, is just one mark of our extraordinary specialisation, one stamp and token of our high supremacy. The brutes do not so pick and choose, though even there, as Darwin has shown, selection plays a large part (for the very butterflies are coy, and must be wooed and won). It is only in the human race itself that selection descends into such minute, such subtle, such indefinable discriminations. Why should a universal and common impulse have in our case these special limits? Why should we be by nature so fastidious and so diversely affected? Surely for some good and sufficient purpose. No deep-seated want of our complex life would be so narrowly restricted without a law and a meaning. Sometimes we can in part explain its conditions. Here, we see that beauty plays a great role; there, we recognise the importance of strength, of manner, of grace, of moral qualities. Vivacity, as Mr. Galton justly remarks, is one of the most powerful among human attractions, and often accounts for what might otherwise seem unaccountable preferences. But after all is said and done, there remains a vast mass of instinctive and inexplicable elements: a power deeper and more marvellous in its inscrutable ramifications than human consciousness. ‘What on earth,’ we say, ‘could So-and-so see in So-and-so to fall in love with?’ This very inexplicability I take to be the sign and seal of a profound importance. An instinct so conditioned, so curious, so vague, so unfathomable, as we may guess by analogy with all other instincts, must be Nature’s guiding voice within us, speaking for the good of the human race in all future generations.

On the other hand, let us suppose for a moment (impossible supposition!) that mankind could conceivably divest itself of ‘these foolish ideas about love and the tastes of young people,’ and could hand over the choice of partners for life to a committee of anthropologists, presided over by Sir George Campbell. Would the committee manage things, I wonder, very much better than the Creator has managed them? Where would they obtain that intimate knowledge of individual structures and functions and differences which would enable them to join together in holy matrimony fitting and complementary idiosyncrasies? Is a living man, with all his organs, and powers, and faculties, and dispositions, so simple and easy a problem to read that anybody else can readily undertake to pick out off-hand a help meet for him? I trow not! A man is not a horse or a terrier. You cannot discern his ‘points’ by simple inspection. You cannot see a priori why a Hanoverian bandsman and his heavy, ignorant, uncultured wife, should conspire to produce a Sir William Herschel. If you tried to improve the breed artificially, either by choice from outside, or by the creation of an independent moral sentiment, irrespective of that instinctive preference which we call Falling in Love, I believe that so far from improving man, you would only do one of two things–either spoil his constitution, or produce a tame stereotyped pattern of amiable imbecility. You would crush out all initiative, all spontaneity, all diversity, all originality; you would get an animated moral code instead of living men and women.

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Look at the analogy of domestic animals. That is the analogy to which breeding reformers always point with special pride: but what does it really teach us? That you can’t improve the efficiency of animals in any one point to any high degree, without upsetting the general balance of their constitution. The race-horse can run a mile on a particular day at a particular place, bar accidents, with wonderful speed: but that is about all he is good for. His health as a whole is so surprisingly feeble that he has to be treated with as much care as a delicate exotic. ‘In regard to animals and plants,’ says Sir George Campbell, ‘we have very largely mastered the principles of heredity and culture, and the modes by which good qualities may be maximised, bad qualities minimised.’ True, so far as concerns a few points prized by ourselves for our own purposes. But in doing this, we have so lowered the general constitutional vigour of the plants or animals that our vines fall an easy prey to oidium and phylloxera, our potatoes to the potato disease and the Colorado beetle; our sheep are stupid, our rabbits idiotic, our domestic breeds generally threatened with dangers to life and limb unknown to their wiry ancestors in the wild state. And when one comes to deal with the infinitely more complex individuality of man, what hope would there be of our improving the breed by deliberate selection? If we developed the intellect, we would probably stunt the physique or the moral nature; if we aimed at a general culture of all faculties alike, we would probably end by a Chinese uniformity of mediocre dead level.

The balance of organs and faculties in a race is a very delicate organic equilibrium. How delicate we now know from thousands of examples, from the correlations of seemingly unlike parts, from the wide-spread effects of small conditions, from the utter dying out of races like the Tasmanians or the Paraguay Indians under circumstances different from those with which their ancestors were familiar. What folly to interfere with a marvellous instinct which now preserves this balance intact, in favour of an untried artificial system which would probably wreck it as helplessly as the modern system of higher education for women is wrecking the maternal powers of the best class in our English community!

Indeed, within the race itself, as it now exists, free choice, aided by natural selection, is actually improving every good point, and is for ever weeding out all the occasional failures and shortcomings of nature. For weakly children, feeble children, stupid children, heavy children, are undoubtedly born under this very regime of falling in love, whose average results I believe to be so highly beneficial. How is this? Well, one has to take into consideration two points in seeking for the solution of that obvious problem.

In the first place, no instinct is absolutely perfect. All of them necessarily fail at some points. If on the average they do good, they are sufficiently justified. Now the material with which you have to start in this case is not perfect. Each man marries, even in favourable circumstances, not the abstractly best adapted woman in the world to supplement or counteract his individual peculiarities, but the best woman then and there obtainable for him. The result is frequently far from perfect; all I claim is that it would be as bad or a good deal worse if somebody else made the choice for him, or if he made the choice himself on abstract biological and ‘eugenic’ principles. And, indeed, the very existence of better and worse in the world is a condition precedent of all upward evolution. Without an overstocked world, with individual variations, some progressive, some retrograde, there could be no natural selection, no survival of the fittest. That is the chief besetting danger of cut-and-dried doctrinaire views. Malthus was a very great man; but if his principle of prudential restraint were fully carried out, the prudent would cease to reproduce their like, and the world would be peopled in a few generations by the hereditarily reckless and dissolute and imprudent. Even so, if eugenic principles were universally adopted, the chance of exceptional and elevated natures would be largely reduced, and natural selection would be in so much interfered with or sensibly retarded.

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In the second place, again, it must not be forgotten that falling in love has never yet, among civilised men at least, had a fair field and no favour. Many marriages are arranged on very different grounds–grounds of convenience, grounds of cupidity, grounds of religion, grounds of snobbishness. In many cases it is clearly demonstrable that such marriages are productive in the highest degree of evil consequences. Take the case of heiresses. An heiress is almost by necessity the one last feeble and flickering relic of a moribund stock–often of a stock reduced by the sordid pursuit of ill-gotten wealth almost to the very verge of actual insanity. But let her be ever so ugly, ever so unhealthy, ever so hysterical, ever so mad, somebody or other will be ready and eager to marry her on any terms. Considerations of this sort have helped to stock the world with many feeble and unhealthy persons. Among the middle and upper classes it may be safely said only a very small percentage of marriages is ever due to love alone; in other words, to instinctive feeling. The remainder have been influenced by various side advantages, and nature has taken her vengeance accordingly on the unhappy offspring. Parents and moralists are ever ready to drown her voice, and to counsel marriage within one’s own class, among nice people, with a really religious girl, and so forth ad infinitum. By many well-meaning young people these deadly interferences with natural impulse are accepted as part of a higher and nobler law of conduct. The wretched belief that one should subordinate the promptings of one’s own soul to the dictates of a miscalculating and misdirecting prudence has been instilled into the minds of girls especially, until at last many of them have almost come to look upon their natural instincts as wrong, and the immoral, race-destructive counsels of their seniors or advisers as the truest and purest earthly wisdom. Among certain small religious sects, again, such as the Quakers, the duty of ‘marrying in’ has been strenuously inculcated, and only the stronger-minded and more individualistic members have had courage and initiative enough to disregard precedent, and to follow the internal divine monitor, as against the externally-imposed law of their particular community. Even among wider bodies it is commonly held that Catholics must not marry Protestants; and the admirable results obtained by the mixture of Jewish with European blood have almost all been reached by male Jews having the temerity to marry ‘Christian’ women in the face of opposition and persecution from their co-nationalists. It is very rarely indeed that a Jewess will accept a European for a husband. In so many ways, and on so many grounds, does convention interfere with the plain and evident dictates of nature.

Against all such evil parental promptings, however, a great safeguard is afforded to society by the wholesome and essentially philosophical teaching of romance and poetry. I do not approve of novels. They are for the most part a futile and unprofitable form of literature; and it may profoundly be regretted that the mere blind laws of supply and demand should have diverted such an immense number of the ablest minds in England, France, and America, from more serious subjects to the production of such very frivolous and, on the whole, ephemeral works of art. But the novel has this one great counterpoise of undoubted good to set against all the manifold disadvantages and shortcomings of romantic literature–that it always appeals to the true internal promptings of inherited instinct, and opposes the foolish and selfish suggestions of interested outsiders. It is the perpetual protest of poor banished human nature against the expelling pitchfork of calculating expediency in the matrimonial market. While parents and moralists are for ever saying, ‘Don’t marry for beauty; don’t marry for inclination; don’t marry for love: marry for money, marry for social position, marry for advancement, marry for our convenience, not for your own,’ the romance-writer is for ever urging, on the other hand, ‘Marry for love, and for love only.’ His great theme in all ages has been the opposition between parental or other external wishes and the true promptings of the young and unsophisticated human heart. He has been the chief ally of sentiment and of nature. He has filled the heads of all our girls with what Sir George Campbell describes off-hand as ‘foolish ideas about love.’ He has preserved us from the hateful conventions of civilisation. He has exalted the claims of personal attraction, of the mysterious native yearning of heart for heart, of the indefinite and indescribable element of mutual selection; and, in so doing, he has unconsciously proved himself the best friend of human improvement and the deadliest enemy of all those hideous ‘social lies which warp us from the living truth.’ His mission is to deliver the world from Dr. Johnson and Sir George Campbell.

For, strange to say, it is the moralists and the doctrinaires who are always in the wrong: it is the sentimentalists and the rebels who are always in the right in this matter. If the common moral maxims of society could have had their way–if we had all chosen our wives and our husbands, not for their beauty or their manliness, not for their eyes or their moustaches, not for their attractiveness or their vivacity, but for their ‘sterling qualities of mind and character,’ we should now doubtless be a miserable race of prigs and bookworms, of martinets and puritans, of nervous invalids and feeble idiots. It is because our young men and maidens will not hearken to these penny-wise apophthegms of shallow sophistry–because they often prefer Romeo and Juliet to the ‘Whole Duty of Man,’ and a beautiful face to a round balance at Coutts’s–that we still preserve some vitality and some individual features, in spite of our grinding and crushing civilisation. The men who marry balances, as Mr. Galton has shown, happily die out, leaving none to represent them: the men who marry women they have been weak enough and silly enough to fall in love with, recruit the race with fine and vigorous and intelligent children, fortunately compounded of the complementary traits derived from two fairly contrasted and mutually reinforcing individualities.

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I have spoken throughout, for argument’s sake, as though the only interest to be considered in the married relation were the interests of the offspring, and so ultimately of the race at large, rather than of the persons themselves who enter into it. But I do not quite see why each generation should thus be sacrificed to the welfare of the generations that afterwards succeed it. Now it is one of the strongest points in favour of the system of falling in love that it does, by common experience in the vast majority of instances, assort together persons who subsequently prove themselves thoroughly congenial and helpful to one another. And this result I look upon as one great proof of the real value and importance of the instinct. Most men and women select for themselves partners for life at an age when they know but little of the world, when they judge but superficially of characters and motives, when they still make many mistakes in the conduct of life and in the estimation of chances. Yet most of them find in after days that they have really chosen out of all the world one of the persons best adapted by native idiosyncrasy to make their joint lives enjoyable and useful. I make every allowance for the effects of habit, for the growth of sentiment, for the gradual approximation of tastes and sympathies; but surely, even so, it is a common consciousness with every one of us who has been long married, that we could hardly conceivably have made ourselves happy with any of the partners whom others have chosen; and that we have actually made ourselves so with the partners we chose for ourselves under the guidance of an almost unerring native instinct. Yet adaptation between husband and wife, so far as their own happiness is concerned, can have had comparatively little to do with the evolution of the instinct, as compared with adaptation for the joint production of vigorous and successful offspring. Natural selection lays almost all the stress on the last point, and hardly any at all upon the first one. If, then, the instinct is found on the whole so trustworthy in the minor matter, for which it has not specially been fashioned, how far more trustworthy and valuable must it probably prove in the greater matter–greater, I mean, as regards the interests of the race–for which it has been mainly or almost solely developed!

I do not doubt that, as the world goes on, a deeper sense of moral responsibility in the matter of marriage will grow up among us. But it will not take the false direction of ignoring these our profoundest and holiest instincts. Marriage for money may go; marriage for rank may go; marriage for position may go; but marriage for love, I believe and trust, will last for ever. Men in the future will probably feel that a union with their cousins or near relations is positively wicked; that a union with those too like them in person or disposition is at least undesirable; that a union based upon considerations of wealth or any other consideration save considerations of immediate natural impulse, is base and disgraceful. But to the end of time they will continue to feel, in spite of doctrinaires, that the voice of nature is better far than the voice of the Lord Chancellor or the Royal Society; and that the instinctive desire for a particular helpmate is a surer guide for the ultimate happiness, both of the race and of the individual, than any amount of deliberate consultation. It is not the foolish fancies of youth that will have to be got rid of, but the foolish, wicked, and mischievous interference of parents or outsiders.

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