Dr. Justin Garcia is an optimist when it comes to love and relationships. An evolutionary biologist and post-doctoral fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, Binghamton University alumnus Garcia studies the evolutionary implications of changing patterns of human romantic pair bonding and courtship.
To avoid the sticky situation of bringing in couples to do the dirty in a lab setting, Garcia has done research on sexual behavior by everything from mailing out surveys to taking DNA samples of patrons of a Las Vegas sex club. At TEDx on Sunday, Garcia shared his findings on contemporary hook-up culture and “the fall and rise of dating in America,” telling the audience to prepare for a “romantic revolution.”
For Garcia, who has two books out this year — “Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior” and “Evolution’s Empress: Darwian Perspectives on the Nature of Women” — courtship is something that is essential to human life, and though many, including The New York Times, are claiming that we have arrived at the “death of dating,” Garcia believes this to be untrue.
Garcia said that intimacy and love are vital elements of human existence, trumping even economic and political concerns in America, and that isn’t going away anytime soon.
“I think the desire for love is so essential to what it means to be human that we can’t see the end of it,” he said. “When we see the end of the pursuit of love, we will see the end of our species.”
Though one-third of the American adult population is single, an unprecedented statistic, Garcia said this doesn’t mean that they are no longer looking to be in committed romantic relationships. According to a three-year study he conducted with Helen Fischer for online dating site Match.com, most singles participate in one-night stands and friends with benefits situations — the average college student admits to having two hook-ups for every first date — but they haven’t given up on love. Garcia referred to this new trend as “copulation courtship,” and said that though the order of events has changed and sex prior to a relationship is more common, the end result is surprisingly similar.
“We’re a social species,” he said. “We eat together, we fight together, we live together, we have to have sex with another person in order to reproduce; this characterizes our living, this characterizes who we are as a species, and these courtship patterns, although they might be changing, they can’t totally go away.”
Garcia conceded that technology and social media are changing romantic relationships, but shied away from deeming this shift good or bad. He did acknowledge that using new technology for dating was counter to some of the ways humans have evolved, because for thousands of years humans have relied on body language, social cues and sensory information to assess potential partners. But he also said that online dating and technology allowed for some groups, like sexual minorities, to more easily meet potential romantic partners.
The most important thing for Garcia is that courtship and dating continue, even while incorporating innovative new means of meeting people and communicating. He ended his talk with a word of advice to the audience: “If the American people are serious about reinvigorating dating culture today in a way that perhaps is more overt … then the next time you meet someone and you feel that push and pull of romance, whether it be in a coffee shop, or on an online dating site, or in your local farmer’s market … go up to them and ask them on a date. The worst they can say is no.”
Pipe Dream: What research are you working on currently?
Justin Garcia: So for the last three years we’ve been doing a study called “Singles in America.” It’s the largest study ever done of U.S. singles across demographics, ranging from the ages of 21 to 65-plus. At the moment about one-third of the U.S. adult population is single, so it’s a historically unprecedented proportion of the population. And how might this group be impacting all aspects of American life and American culture? So we’re interested in that and it’s sort of become a new big area, it’s a study that’s funded by Match.com in collaboration with Helen Fischer. And that’s one of our big projects that we’ve been working on more related to dating and relationships.
PD: Can you talk a little bit about social media and how that’s impacted dating?
JG: Social media and technology has very much changed the very way that we engage with each other. We’re so highly evolved over millions of years as a social species, so how does technology change that? It changes the very way we communicate and we engage with each other. We use cues from each other, like sound and sight and smell and taste, and in some ways we’ve taken those out of our social engagements. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it changes, it’s putting us into uncharted waters, waters where we haven’t evolved necessarily specialized skills. So it’s changing many things and if it’s changing our general social relationships, it must fundamentally be changing our romantic and sexual relationships.
PD: What do you think is in the future for dating in America?
JG: I’m hopeful and I don’t want to say it’s bad, I think it’s changed a lot but I’m hopeful. I think we’re at a point where America wants to reclaim dates, and in one study the average college student had two hook-ups for every first date, and I think we’re at a turning point now of new technology that the date is going to reemerge. And I don’t think dating ever died, despite kind of recent social commentary. I think it’s transformed, but we’re about to see the date reemerge like a phoenix from the ashes.