“Love conquers all.” “All you need is love.” “Love wins.”
You’ve heard it all before, and you’ll surely hear it again. It never ends. We grow up consuming Disney movies about the princess’s quest for true love like they’re candy, passing Hershey Kisses and neon Nerds boxes dotted in cartoon hearts around our elementary school classrooms on Valentine’s Day before we even know what it means. We grow up, and it turns into huddling around the cafeteria table to talk about who asked who out and scrolling through dream prom dresses on our bedroom floors.
We humans undoubtedly love to love. But sometimes the exaggerated emphasis on romantic relationships can suffocate one’s understanding of it. Many years of my life sans romance have been full of love: falling asleep next to my friends after long beach days, laughing with my sister as our brother sneers at whatever chick–flick we made him watch, and looking out into the stands at sports meets at my parents cheering me on.
But why, according to so much of the world around me, is that not enough?
Evolutionary biology offers a new understanding of love and relationships, one that takes into account the importance of nonromantic relationships. Platonic relationships are evolutionarily indispensable. Human socialization is remarkable for its complexity. Our ability to cooperate as a group, form communities, and foster intricate social webs is one of the defining features of humans as a species, and friendship’s role in this mechanism cannot be overstated. The energy expenditure is well worth it when we look at how platonic relationships and the social webs that come with them have allowed us to develop as a species.
The plurality of friendship makes the building of an individual’s social structure extremely efficient; there’s an exponential payoff that comes from making one friend. In a purely biological sense, it takes a lot of energy to create a bond of trust between two individuals. It requires vulnerability, compromise, and risk, all of which can be counterproductive to the ultimate evolutionary goal of survival. However, by creating a network of trustworthy people, mechanisms to expand sociality can develop safely and efficiently. Think of all the times you’ve been in situations where the friend–of–a–friend has given you information about a class, had something you could borrow, or been the only familiar face at an overwhelming event.
The efficiency of this process has allowed the human social structure to expand to an unprecedented degree, and with this interconnection comes increased innovation. The spread of early humans’ stone technology is an early example of the innovation cascade that comes with social connections and learning, and the pattern has carried on as we exchange information with people in our extended social web. Now, we use the internet, but earlier technologies such as the telephone, the worldwide postal system, and trade routes allowed for robust discourse between loosely connected groups. Having a social mechanism to interact with unfamiliar people was critical to this phase of technological development, and remains important today.
Social media is the newest conduit through which innovation spreads. The absurd amount of content on TikTok, for example, allows people to learn everything from the newest way to program your phone home screen to how to life–hack a five–minute dorm room dinner to buying and selling NFTs. Forums such as Reddit allow users to learn from each other, with forums of individuals across the globe bouncing ideas on investing, engineering, coding, you name it, off each other. While this might all seem trivial in comparison to what is touted as technological advancement, these social connections are instrumental in the small revelations that bring us as a species forward, and what might seem like small, isolated instances of human cooperation may eventually manifest themselves as steps towards great discovery.
It can feel cynical to look at love through a biological lens. We’re not guinea pigs or lab rats, and it’s slightly spooky to look at this transcendent, joyful thing in our lives and flatten it down to fit into a scientific concept.
And yes, friendship is so much more than just a biological mechanism for survival and success the same way that we are all individually much more than a collection of cells, and our emotions are more than just an electrical signal traveling through a synaptic gap. But that doesn’t take away from the value of studying these entities in a scientific way. After all, while it’s obviously an entity of enormous personal significance, friendship is the base unit to the incredible social network that has played a critical part in allowing humanity to advance the way it has. If anything, this new evolutionary understanding of friendship only serves to expand our collective appreciation for the indispensable relationships we have.
I think friendship is a million and one things, especially at college. We live with our friends, we’re around them 24/7, and if we’re not, odds are we’re texting them about everything that’s happened over the past week or two. Friendship is the heart and soul of a lot in our lives—the backbone and support system that gives us the security we need to launch into new experiences—and at this particular moment in time for most of us, we’re seeing that more than ever.
So while it may seem easy to overlook platonic relationships when faced with heart–shaped candy boxes and the slew of new rom–coms that are sure to be upon us this Valentine’s season, it’s important to remember that the human concept of love is so much more than romance. Love is going home and realizing that your roommate bought your favorite pretzels from Acme. Love is sneakily tapping away at iMessage in the middle of class because you just heard something that would make your friends at home laugh. Love is waking up to a pink foil–wrapped Hershey Kiss and a hastily scrawled Post–it note reminding you that your bad day is going to pass.
Love is the basis of modern society as we know it, the foundation that gave us the ability to learn from, share with, and trust each other. None of our gleaming skyscrapers, microchips, or rocket ships would be possible without the power of platonic love. So, in a month and time that can feel lonely for those who feel excluded from Valentine’s Day festivities, take some time to examine the love in your life in all its forms and understand that it is much more than you may have known it to be.