by Larry Young
Review by Hennie Weiss on Sep 23rd 2014
In The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction, Larry Young and Brian Alexander state that molecules in our brains drive and influence all behavior related to love, sex and attraction. In short, Young and Alexander state that our "free will" or belief in decision-making is greatly influenced, if not completely determined by these various molecules.
One thing that is important to note, and Young and Alexander express this fairly early in the book as well, is that these hypotheses provided by the authors, and by others in the same field, are not conclusive, or fact. Instead, as the authors note, experiments leading to hypotheses are usually tested on animals in laboratory settings, with the results being compared to, or linked to similar human behavior. Any testing on humans (in comparison to animals, and Young and Alexander describe some rather gruesome tests on animals) has to be done in a different manner since the standards for how we treat humans in scientific settings is much more humane than the treatment of animals. Due to ethical reasons, much research can never be done on humans, which greatly complicate scientific research, and launches arguments, not scientific fact. "It's important for us to stress that part of what we've written is argument, a group of hypotheses for a model of love. The hypotheses are based on science but are not themselves settled scientific fact. Still, we think this book is a bold attempt to explain the previously unexplainable" (p. 5).
Still, it is difficult to measure and know for certain the extent to which molecules in the brain determine behavior, especially in cases where cultural influences and social cues impact behavior. A few times in the book, Young and Alexander state that cultural influences mediate or influence behavior as well, but it seems as if this mediation only works at times, according to the authors. Gender is one of the examples where Young and Alexander fervently decry that gender could ever be influenced by socialization, or by anything else than the working molecules in our brain. Instead, they refer to the social construction of gender as a cliché, which in light of their own statement that their hypotheses are arguments, not scientific fact is slightly puzzling. It is equally interesting that in the chapter discussing gender they use particular studies of gender based toys to describe how girls tend to choose "girl toys" and boys tend to choose typical toys for boys, while excluding ones that contest these claims. The authors conclude that; "The results clearly demonstrates that socialization does not dictate toy preference" (p. 22). However, other studies of young children and socialization have proved that boys often are interested in playing with dolls, but that many parents do not allow them to do so (especially their fathers). In these cases socialization based on gendered beliefs about what is an appropriate toy for boys and girls often dictate preference.
Another area where Young and Alexander might be stepping on some toes includes sexual orientation, namely homosexuality. The authors state that "…brains have an intrinsic capability to display homosexual, bisexual, and transgender behavior" (p. 27), but that these preferences depend on how the brain is shaped during development. The authors conclude that; "A typical mammal's brain is organized to inhibit the desire to mate with a member of the same gender. Obviously, there's significant variation in the degree of this inhibition… - but the inhibition sets up an information flow within the brain telling an animal that sex with a member of the same gender is less desirable than sex with a member of the opposite sex" (p. 26-27). They note that there is variation in preference, but by using words like a "typical mammal's brain", they inadvertently make a case for homosexual brains being atypical, which might be problematic. Even though Young and Alexander do not hold these views themselves, such statements can be used to signify that homosexuals are somehow abnormal or atypical and that homosexuality is an anomaly. It is true that homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not as common as heterosexuality, but if it is true that sexual orientation stems from molecules in the brain during development, than these should not be specified as anything than normal.
Even though some readers might hold arguments that are different from that of Young and Alexander, The Chemistry Between Us is an interesting read. Using various examples, observations and experiments, the authors have managed to make a rather difficult and complicated issue easy enough to follow for those of us who are not neuroscientists. Even though the target audience is certainly other neuroscientists and those readers interested in the subject, the book is an interesting read for those in other disciplines as well. The book can also be used in the classroom in disciplines such as Biology and Psychology.
© 2014 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.