Search for love's formula

By Alice-Azania Jarvis

The quest for the perfect partner is not always straightforward. Photo / Getty Images
The quest for the perfect partner is not always straightforward. Photo / Getty Images

Love, supposedly, is many things. Blind, if you ask Shakespeare. All you need, says John Lennon. But scientific? Subject to a set of specified natural laws? Nothing more than a simple mathematical equation? It doesn't sound terribly romantic. Still, it is a prospect that has got matchmakers excited.

It started with a sweaty T-shirt. Everyone's heard of the infamous T-shirt tests, the one where women are invited to sniff a selection of dirty laundry, and then rank items according to attractiveness. Scientists in Switzerland concluded that we're more likely to favour the smell of partners with dissimilar immune systems from our own, so our offspring have a broader range of immunity.

In California, it was that we liked smells which were similar to our dads'. Combined, the results leave a complex picture of human attraction: we like people who smell different, but not too different. Immune system is important, but so is familiarity.

The idea is that, somehow, attraction comes down to our genes; specifically, the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Pick a mate whose MHC is too similar to your own and there is less chance that you will reproduce. Scientists have speculated as to our ability to taste it in one another's saliva.

So it is not surprising - given the number of adult humans looking for love - to find those willing to pass up conventional mating rituals (dinner, a movie, a bottle of red wine) in favour of something a little more scientific-sounding. is among several DNA dating websites to have sprung up. Would-be couples can have their DNA analysed to assess one another's compatibility. The website promises "a successful relationship, a more satisfying sex life and higher fertility rates". And, after all, who doesn't want all that?

"Facial analysis" offers similar reassurances, with services such as Find Your FaceMate drawing on a cluster of theories linking physical traits to compatibility. When eHarmony enlisted Oxford University academics to devise more than 200 compatibility-based questions, they claimed to have found the "scientific formula for true love".

And, of course, there are all the other principles we are advised to adhere to, be it a matter of body language (it's all about staring into a date's eyes, concluded one psychologist), environment (experience an adventure together and the adrenaline released will act as a bond), and behaviour (have regular sex to keep feel-good hormones flowing).

But is there any truth in it? The idea that it is possible to boil down romance into a simple formula is understandably attractive. But does it amount to much?

One of Denmark's leading authors on the subject, Lone Frank, examines the question in her book My Beautiful Genome - Exposing our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time. For all the sweaty T-shirt tests and psychological trials, she remains unconvinced of their relevance to real-life dating.

Genetics in particular, argues Frank, is susceptible to being misinterpreted.

"There is DNA in everything, so it plays a role in those, but it doesn't dictate them. To say that you can find the person who is scientifically right for you is just not true."

If love were a straightforward case of X + Y, we'd all be happy as Larry. The fact that there are still so many of us out there floundering about is testament to the fact that it's not.

As a relationship counsellor, Mandy Kloppers says regardless of how well-matched individuals may appear, their fate will continue to rest on circumstance.

"You can't predict the psychological issues that will come into play."

So what next? Give up seeking the magic answer, the foolproof method of finding The One? Given the money to be made, that seems unlikely; after all, it costs about US$249 ($310) be genetic compatibility tested.

But perhaps the discerning romantic should leave it up to chance a little more. Love can be found in the most surprising places.


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