Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Origins of Love

In relation to my recent more open atheism, a Christian friend of mine suggested I think about where love comes from.  I've experienced it, both loving and being loved, so I have my own observational evidence that it exists.  But where it comes from is a much deeper question; is its source external to us, from a soul or a god, or is it something formed entirely out of the human mind, with its biological basis?  On my friend's advice, before seeking out what others had said, I gave it some thought myself, in the context of my atheism and skeptical method of inquiry.  Is there a reasonable explanation why humans would experience love, or is it something inexplicable by purely naturalistic means?

Love is an emotion, and it isn't uniquely human; other animals experience and express feelings, notably primates, and especially notably chimpanzees.  This suggested to me that it is likely an evolved trait, something that is advantageous to us in some way.  But in my experience of love, it isn't solely reproductive in nature; it isn't just lust.  Its much broader; it encompasses affection for friends, family, even my country and humanity as a whole.  Now, I'm not a biologist, or a sociologist, so this is very speculative, but it seems to me that love has to do with groups, with being interested in and caring about more than one's self.  With that in mind, I took to the Internet, and started at my usual jumping-off point for research.

Here, I found some confirmation of my original thoughts.  "Helen Fisher, a leading expert in the topic of love, divides the experience of love into three partly overlapping stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. Lust exposes people to others; romantic attraction encourages people to focus their energy on mating; and attachment involves tolerating the spouse (or indeed the child) long enough to rear a child into infancy."  From that perspective, love provides a reproductive advantage; it promotes the creation of new generations, and it promotes protecting that new generation.  We love our children, and because of that we're likely to keep them safe from harm.

Understanding biology far better than sociology, I still found the psychological arguments compelling.  They spoke to the more expansive experience of love that I've had.  Its about bonding with others, forming attachments.  However, the recent concepts describing love as either both feeling and action or just as a series of actions rather than a feeling at all didn't really make sense to me.  It was then that I recalled a couple of comments from Carl Sagan (Surprise!  Get used to this from me.) that provided some additional illumination on the subject.  Both are from his book Cosmos:
As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we've accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we've also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us.
Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing. 
Humans are social creatures; we live in groups, and those groups are continually expanding.  Perhaps love began as compassion for individual mates, and for our children.  That makes sense, as I noted above.  But what made humans so successful, at least in part, was our ability to extend that love to others.  Social animals care about the larger group, but that group usually has a limited definition; chimpanzees only care about their own communities, which is very helpful, but they don't extend it to other, unknown members of their species.  They certainly don't contemplate loving all of chimp-kind.  We humans seem to have been able to take that beneficial caring, the drive to care about and thus protect the group, helping it to survive as a whole rather than as individuals or families, and extend it further than other animals.  Love, in humans, can even be applied outside our species, or even to more abstract concepts.  We can love our country, and work to protect it, and that provides us with an advantage.  We can love humanity, and try to make life better for everyone, and that helps the species survive.  And importantly, we can know that we are loved.  That may not be uniquely human, but I know I've felt it, from family and friends, and from groups of people I don't even know.  And there's something to be said for the strength we gain, the will to survive that rises up, when we know that someone else cares.

I'll probably keep looking into it, and I look forward to hearing what others may have to say.  But I've pretty much come to the conclusion that love comes from within us, not without.  It arises in us, at its most basic, from human consciousness and human essential drives, and the chemical and quantum effects that drive them.  That may not sound as nifty as receiving love from God, at least on the surface; shouldn't there be something more to a concept as huge as love than chemicals and evolution?  But I think its really pretty cool, and I think science can provide us with just as much exhilaration and wonder as anything else, if not more.  One last quote from Sagan, because he got this one right, too:
It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

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