The Heart and the Helix

By Jeffrey Kluger|Wednesday, February 1, 1995
For most people, learning the ways of romance can be a tricky business. For me, it was even harder. On the whole, I blame Camp Comet.

Camp Comet, as the name suggests, was a space age summer camp established in the early 1960s, during the just-post-Sputnik era. The announced purpose of the place was to provide American boys with a better grounding in both sports and twentieth-century technologies so that they could better catch up with their presumably vigorous, presumably satellite- savvy Soviet counterparts. The thinking evidently was that if the United States was lagging behind in aerospace engineering, we could still thump the Russians but good in the cutting-edge fields of tetherball technology and moccasin stitching.

What Camp Comet had to offer those of us who spent our summers there, however, was not science or sports or even the opportunity to pick on Edgar Weiner from the beginning of July to the end of August. What Camp Comet had to offer us was Camp Wohelo. Located on the opposite side of a moatlike lake, Camp Wohelo was a tantalizingly close all-girls’ camp that, as a federal statute at the time apparently required, bore a vaguely Native American name.

For those of us on the boys’ side of the watery divide, the presence of Camp Wohelo was, at best, a distraction. Put 200 boys with a median age of 15 anywhere near an equal number of girls, and you create a level of sexual tension that can be picked up on NORAD missile-tracking systems. To prevent a hormonal meltdown that would threaten at least three outlying counties, the elders of the two camps would periodically schedule what they called socials--highly elegant affairs in which the entire boys’ camp, dressed in white T-shirts, blue shorts, and regulation penny loafers, would travel to the girls’ camp for an evening of socializing.

For midteens, of course, socializing can be a clumsy business, and in general the hours the two camps spent together involved little more than a group of boys and a group of girls standing on opposite sides of a recreation hall while somebody played Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye) on a Close ’n’ Play for two or three hours. Occasionally, one or two of my more courageous friends would ask one or two horrified girls to dance, but a 15-year-old male trying to lambada while dressed like the Campbell’s Soup boy is not a pretty picture, and for most of the night the gulf between the two groups remained unbridgeable.

What effect, I’ve often wondered in the years since my last summer at camp, did such an awkward introduction to the art of romance have on me? Can a bad social in your early years make you less social in your later years? Do teenage romantic lessons determine adult romantic patterns? Is it our experiences that determine our courtship capabilities, our passion potential, or, as with other aspects of our personalities, is it our genes? Niels Waller and Phillip Shaver think they might know.

Waller and Shaver are psychologists at the University of California at Davis, and in 1990 they decided to study just what it is that makes some people lucky in love, while others are unable to locate Cupid with a Filofax and an E-mail address. The roots of human personality are elusive at best, however, and no one has ever determined whether it is nature or nurture that makes us the complicated beings we are. Nevertheless, over the years there have been some indications that our character dice are genetically cast before we even get into the game. Research has at least suggested that children born to depressive parents but raised by adoptive parents tend to grow up gloomy themselves. Similarly, shy parents often seem to produce equally diffident issue, hyperkinetic parents yield frantic issue, and even such obscure traits as vocational interests, social attitudes, and religiousness appear to be encoded in advance on the hard disk of our chromosomes. According to Waller and Shaver, however, love is the exception to this preordination rule.

You would think that something this fundamental would have genetic roots, Waller says. Every psychological variable I’ve studied has always had a strong heritable part. The fact that genes played almost no role is surprising.

Waller and Shaver began their exploration of the roots of romance five years ago by studying one of nature’s most enduring curiosities: twins. If most of us give any thought at all to twins, it doesn’t go much beyond Castor and Pollux, Patty and Cathy, and Harmon Killebrew. For geneticists and behavioral scientists, however, twins amount to nothing short of a walking control experiment.

Identical twins occur when a fertilized egg splits in two within the first 14 days after conception, creating a pair of viable zygotes and transforming an already cozy womb for one into a hopelessly cramped nine- month share. Since the two babies-to-be originate from the same egg and sperm, their genetic makeup is identical down to the last strand of DNA, and so too will be their eventual appearances and temperaments. Nature creates human twins sparingly, making these chromosomal carbon copies in only three out of every thousand births. While it’s tempting to wish such fetal fission happened more often--imagine a scat-singing quartet made up of two Sarah Vaughans and a pair of Mel Tormés, or an FDR-FDR presidential ticket--it’s probably just as well that it doesn’t. Would you want to live in a world with a Stan and Ollie North able to commit perjury before both houses of Congress simultaneously? A Tad and Ted Koppel able to have two bad hair days on two networks at once? A Ringo and Bingo Starr both trying to sing?

More common than identical twins are fraternal twins, occurring in about eight out of every thousand births. Fraternal twins are created when two ova are released into the womb and are fertilized by two different sperm. Genetically, the siblings created by this most primal of double dates are no more alike than any other pair of brothers or sisters, sharing about 50 percent of the DNA that makes them who they are. Temperamentally, however, they’re often quite similar. Spending your first nine months with a sibling who’s in your face before you even have a face creates a closeness that defies measurement. After birth, the onetime wombmates often move through childhood in lockstep, going to the same schools, making the same friends, and generally forging a lifelong bond that makes the Smith Brothers look estranged.

Waller, like most behavioral psychologists, has long been fascinated by both types of twin--so much so that he has devoted a large part of his career to studying them. My training was at the University of Minnesota, and I worked on twin studies there, he says. When I moved to the University of California, I decided to create a twin registry out here. So far we have approximately 3,000 pairs of fraternal and identical twins on file, ranging in age from one day old to 92 years.

In their effort to crack the code of romance, Waller and Shaver figured this preexisting sibling list would be just the thing. If the courtship figure we cut depends more on our genes than our jeans, they figured, the identical twins in their directory should have fairly similar relationship patterns--far more alike certainly than those of fraternal twins. If the answer lies instead in what we learn, the siblings built from the same genetic schematic should be no more alike than the siblings built from two different ones.

In order to take their subjects’ amorous measures, Waller and Shaver relied on a model created by psychologist J. A. Lee in 1988. Lee defined a number of romantic personality types, all of which are found in every one of us to different degrees and in different combinations. In a world in which women and men increasingly need the assistance of Madeleine Albright and a UN peacekeeping force before they can so much as meet for coffee, you would think we had enough interpersonal differences. Lee, however, insisted that things are even trickier than we dreamed, describing no fewer than six romantic temperaments, all of which take their names from the Greek, and each of which can make for a formidable dinner date. Composing Lee’s roll call of romantic temperaments are:

Eros: Enjoy intimacy, fall in love quickly, consider themselves hopeless romantics; least likely to believe in extended imprisonment for the person who wrote the lyric Someone left the cake out in the rain.

Ludus: Prefer fun and excitement in relationships, often with multiple serial partners; consider no evening complete without an arraignment.

Storge: Value friendship, companionship, and reliable affection at the expense of passion. Sex symbols: Leon Panetta, Camilla Parker- Bowles.

Pragma: Highly pragmatic; enter relationships only if practical needs such as financial stability are met. Most likely to shop for lingerie in the Land’s End catalog.

Agape: Consider other people’s needs above their own; more oriented toward what they can give than what they can receive. Make excellent parents, grandparents, major-organ donors.

Manic: Desperate and conflicted about romance; yearn intensely for love but see it as a source of pain, jealousy, anxiety, and obsession. This category includes every species on the face of the planet with the exception of a few recently discovered arachnids.

Armed with these personality profiles, Waller and Shaver assembled a sample group of 345 pairs of identical twins and 100 pairs of fraternal twins. Additionally, they randomly selected the spouses of 172 of the individuals from both groups. All 1,062 subjects were then asked to complete two personality surveys. The first, designed specifically to measure romantic styles, required respondents to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with such statements as I fall in love at first sight, I try to keep my partner uncertain about our commitment, and I frequently fantasize about former directors of the Office of Management and Budget. The second questionnaire, intended to measure overall personality, elicited subjects’ responses to a series of more general questions on everything from family relationships to job satisfaction to World Geography for $100.

All of this Q&A; was expected to yield a lot, and in fact it did. To study gene-linked traits in any two family members, psychologists try to figure statistically how likely it is that a temperamental or physical characteristic that manifests itself in someone will also manifest itself in a close relative. The higher the number, the likelier it is that the trait is genetically based. Identical twins are 50 percent concordant for schizophrenia, for example--a probable sign that genes are involved--and 90 percent concordant for autism, an all-but-certain one. Absolute overlap of any characteristic is extremely rare, but on occasion it does occur. Large singing families from Salt Lake City, for example, appear to be 100 percent concordant for dirigible-size hairstyles; British royal families that can trace their lineage back before the Magna Carta seem genetically required to manifest the personality of couscous. In the case of love styles, things were not so clear.

Tallying their data, Waller and Shaver found that on a number of scales, identical twins were not only not very similar to each other but were actually less similar than fraternal twins. For psychologists, this kind of finding is the reddest of red flags, indicating that genes play a small role, if any, in a behavior being studied. In the Storge category, for example, the responses to the questionnaires suggested that only 11 percent of the similarities or differences between any two twins--whether identical or fraternal--was attributable to their genes; the rest was attributable to experiences that had occurred after birth. In the Pragma group, the heritability was even lower, factoring out to just 8 percent; in Eros, it was only 5.

Low as these numbers were, Waller and Shaver were even more surprised when they computed the results from the Ludus and Agape categories, in which the genetic component was just about zero. The only time the researchers saw any significant overlap at all was when they looked at the figures from the Manic group. As the apparent heritability of depression, obsessive-compulsiveness, and other psychological conditions suggests, emotional disorders may be bequeathed to us, at least in part, by our chromosomes. The Manic group, characterized by anxiety, unpredictability, and conflict, seemed to confirm this, with a comparatively high figure of 17 percent.

If the majority of non-Manic twins seemed to have almost nothing romantically in common, however, spouses turned out to be quite another story. Members of even the most incompatible couples can be surprisingly similar, with many husbands and wives finding that they can predict each other’s thoughts, finish each other’s sentences, and occasionally pose for each other’s driver’s license photos. To be sure, this is not always a good thing. If you’re Mrs. Sam Nunn, you may not want to think that you’re destined to develop the charisma of a saltine. If you’re Mrs. Sam Donaldson, you may not want Leonard Nimoy’s eyebrows. While these traits may or may not be shared by partners, love styles clearly are.

Our study, Waller says, shows that people do pick their mates based on love styles. Using a statistical correlation formula in which higher numbers indicate greater temperamental similarity and lower numbers indicate less, Waller and Shaver compared spouses’ romantic personalities as well as other shared traits. Measuring, for example, husbands’ and wives’ sense of general well-being, the researchers came up with a low correlation figure--only .04. Measuring social effectiveness, they came up with a similarly modest .05. In love styles, however, things were much closer, with the Eros trait, for example, showing a .36 correlation, Pragma a .29, and Storge a .22. This phenomenon, Waller explains professorially, is known as assortative mating and shows, he adds more folksily, that birds of a feather choose each other.

Persuasive as Waller and Shaver’s findings are, of course, they are by no means conclusive. Just because environment trounces heredity in this round of the love wars doesn’t mean that the mystery of human romance is solved, and other researchers armed with other methods will no doubt continue to seek other answers. What is it, for example, that makes a man on a first date think that a woman wants to spend at least 20 minutes listening to his imitation of Sonny Corleone? What is it that makes a woman think that the sixtieth minute of the seventh game of the Knicks-Bulls playoff is the right time to begin discussing caulking the guest bathroom? What is it that makes a couple as a whole think that a living room full of party guests really hoped to see their upholstery swatches? Until these questions are answered, romance science will remain incomplete. Le coeur may have ses raisons, but a good research grant wouldn’t hurt either.
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