Why true love isn’t just a lucky dip

From left: Iain, Ian, Anna, Kieran, Moira, Maurice, Emma, me, Sarah, Alison, Andy, John, Kirsty
From left: Iain, Ian, Anna, Kieran, Moira, Maurice, Emma, me, Sarah, Alison, Andy, John, Kirsty. Photo by Claire Merrick. (Click to enlarge)

This was in Saturday’s paper, but for reasons that will become obvious I didn’t have the time to publish it here, so I hope you won’t mind my putting it up late.

This week, one of the great writers of the internet generation, Randall Munroe, has been musing on the statistics of soul mates. What, he asks, would it mean if we each had one soul mate, assigned randomly at birth?

Using a few assumptions (our soul mate would be born within a few years of us; we immediately know our soul mate the moment we lock eyes with them; the average person locks eyes with a few dozen strangers a day), Mr Munroe establishes that about one person in every 100,000 would be lucky enough to meet their cosmically designated other half. The other 99,999 would be condemned to a loveless life of solitude or a sham of a marriage.

It’s a little depressing, or would be, if I believed in soul mates. (Mr Munroe imagines industries springing up, in which people would pay to stand on conveyor belts, whirring past thousands of possible partners an hour, making eye contact after eye contact. He reckons most of us could find our mates within a couple of decades that way.)

This subject is on my mind, because as you read this, I’ll be in Suffolk, getting married. Am I, then, that one in 100,000? A winner in the lucky dip of love?

Of course not, lucky though I am to have met Emma. In the real world, people aren’t paired off in a mystical lottery, and  we can all be grateful for that. Instead couples select each other, in an intricate piece of evolved behaviour. Some of the facts about it are strange: men are more likely to choose partners who have similar facial features to themselves, for instance. This so-called “assortative mating” goes much deeper: we are likely to end up with people of similar intelligence and socioeconomic status, and who have similar political or religious views.

Assortative mating isn’t the only system we employ. Among many other criteria men use to choose women are a youthful appearance and a waist-to-hip ratio close to 0.7; among those women use to choose men are “masculine” features and status, including money and power. Among those that are attractive to both are intelligence and affable personalities. Symmetrical features are another plus point for both sexes; it is suggested that they indicate health and an absence of parasites, which saves you having to say as much on your dating website profile.

Does this take the magic out of it? Well, if so, I’d rather lose the magic than face a one-in-100,000 shot at happiness. But I say it doesn’t lose the magic at all.

All these calculations are going on subconsciously: the person involved feels the thunderbolt of attraction, and knows nothing of the whirring of variables or the workings of our instincts. It only destroys the magic if you think magic and mystery are the same thing: so a rainbow can only be beautiful if you don’t know it’s created by the refraction of sunlight through 10 billion raindrops.

When I say “I do”, at about 3.30pm, I’ll know that evolution has equipped me to try to find the best mate available. But that takes nothing at all away from the glorious fact that I’ve been lucky enough to find her.


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