Biologizing Eros: The Problem of Love in an Age of American Social Science, 1890s-1950s




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This dissertation emphasizes the importance of evolutionary theory and its accompanying mode of thinking—functionalism and developmentalism—for attempts by social scientists, novelists, and filmmakers to biologize erotic attraction between heterosexual persons. It identifies the 1890s as a key moment in the United States when construction of a tentative “science of love” emerged. The German-derived model of a “physiological psychology” was incorporated by American thinkers, such as William James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Watson, and utilized as a foundation for understanding human relationships under the lens of Darwinism and naturalism. Later, during the age of mass culture, these ideas were assimilated by novelists and pulp-fiction writers employing hard-boiled characters. Specifically, I analyze the works of James Cain, Vera Caspary, Erle Stanley Gardner, and David Goodis. These stories display conscious and unconscious patterns of love derived from Watson’s major statement published in 1924: Behaviorism. Finally, this dissertation examines sociologists and sexologists to understand what social-scientific and biological information about love was available for filmmakers to utilize during the classical Hollywood studio system. The subgenre “human-animal” film demonstrates that human mating practices were resembling the ideas of Charles Darwin and evolution in general. The major argument of this paper is that, despite efforts by professional social scientists, erotic love remained a mysterious idea and force during the heyday of American social science (1890s-1950s). Competing discourses from psychological (Freud and Watson) and biological (evolutionary) spheres generated a bewildering set of explanations about the nature and purpose of love. I conclude by demonstrating that love continues to be an enigmatic object for modern “science of love” experts touting its role for contemporary Americans. In this sense, it continues to be a “problem” in that it has evaded reductionistic paradigms.



History, United States, Psychology, Psychobiology, History of Science