Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 13 February 2011
In the second volume of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin muses on the development of human moral qualities. That which makes us moral, which brings us together as a functioning society, lies within our social instincts and especially our family ties. Darwin writes, “These instincts are of a highly complex nature, and in the case of the lower animals give special tendencies towards certain definite actions; but the more important elements for us are love, and the distinct emotion of sympathy.”
He continues, “Animals endowed with the social instincts take pleasure in each other's company, warn each other of danger, defend and aid each other in many ways. These instincts are not extended to all the individuals of the species, but only to those of the same community. As they are highly beneficial to the species, they have in all probability been acquired through natural selection.”
In other words, love and sympathy are emotions that have enabled us to survive as a species. As Darwin humbly argued, if we had no use of these emotions, our capacity and our need to feel love and sympathy would have been lost through the natural process of evolution. Somewhere, over the eons of time, life began as the simplest organism and evolved into us, complex beings who need love and sympathy to stay alive and to continue evolving as a species.
Now I know that we could look at the whole range of human emotions and wonder which ones are really useful to us. There are certainly emotions I wish we would hurry up and evolve out of our systems. I also know that we could debate whether other animals feel love the way humans do. Dog owners will assure you that they witness their dogs’ love and sympathy on a daily basis. There are plenty of scientists researching these very questions, and they are fascinating.
But today, the day after the two-hundred and second anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the day before Valentines Day, seems to be a good day to focus on the evolutionary purpose of love for us as humans. Isn’t love one of those words that is nearly impossible to define with language? You know it, you feel it, but can you really describe it? Isn’t that why humans have been writing love poems and love songs for so long? As Rev. Bill Schultz, former president of the UUA, once wrote, anyone “who tried to capture the holistic significance of love … in terms of brain cell functioning alone could be rightly accused of displaying a pitiful [lack] of imagination.”
Yet that is exactly what evolutionary psychologists and others are trying to do as they attempt to narrow down what it is that makes us all alike in terms of love. Take this experiment for example: A few years ago, a team of scientists took MRI images of two groups of people who were madly in love. About half of the subjects in the study were in love with someone who reciprocated their love. The other half were in love with someone who didn’t love them. Loved or not, the same area of their brains showed heightened activity when they were shown photos of the person they were in love with. It was the same area of the brain that experiences the rush of cocaine. In other words, love really is an addiction. The more we can’t have the love we seek, the more craving and withdrawal we can feel. The deeper our love, the more we become obsessed and possessive. “Romantic love is not an emotion, it is a drive,” says anthropologist Helen Fisher, one of the three people who conducted the study. She puts it this way, “People live, kill and die for love. It is the most powerful brain system there is for great joy and sorrow.”
I hear this and I think, well, that may be true when you initially fall in love. I remember once seeing a documentary where a psychologist referred to that kind of intense, possessive love as “immature love.” What about mature love? I wondered. Fisher theorizes that there are really three brain systems at work when it comes to love. These systems involve three different chemically based reactions. The first, of course, is lust, or love in the sexual sense. It is an attraction that we can feel for lots of people – without necessarily being able or willing to act on those feelings. The second brain system deals with romantic love, the kind of love that focuses on one person. The third brain system deals with deep attachment. This is the powerful system that draws us into a relationship, at least long enough to conceive and raise children.
The three systems are not always conveniently connected to each other. Our thoughts can roam from our deep attachment to one person, our romantic love for another and our lust for others. We can have a lot of unhappy noise in our heads as a result. Fisher says, “We are an animal that wasn’t built for happiness. We were built to reproduce.”
That is love boiled down to its evolutionary elements. Our species survives because we love. It is biological. It is as basic as the attraction that brings other species together to reproduce and care for their young. All this talk about love has me thinking about Charles Darwin and his struggles to go public with his theory of natural selection and evolution.
Darwin had not been a successful student and his father, a wealthy doctor, had given up his hopes for his son to follow his footsteps into medicine. He had decided Charles should become a clergyman. After all, that’s what you did with incorrigible sons in those days. But Darwin had become fascinated with geology and, as chance would have it, was recommended for a non-paying post as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle, a ship headed for a major survey expedition to South America. It took Darwin’s uncle, Josiah Wedgewood, to convince his father that such a trip would not be unseemly for a future clergyman.
Five years later, when Darwin returned from his voyage, he was sure that evolution was a fact. He published a book about his voyage that was successfully popular, though he didn’t reveal his theory of natural selection then. Later, he would demonstrate that the individual organisms that were most fit for the environment survived, while those that weren’t died. In that way, newly evolved species survived and thrived. This was creation at work, without the hand of God – a theory too radical for its time.
Darwin never did enter the ministry. It would take another 23 years until he finally published the book that would launch him into permanent fame and radically change science. In fact, another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, nearly beat him to the punch. In the 1850s, Wallace sailed around South America, collecting samples, much in the same way Darwin had done. Wallace was moving toward the same conclusions. When he published an essay on his findings, Darwin was finally forced to publish his book, On the Origin of Species.
There are those who say that had it not been for love, Darwin would have published his theory of evolution ten or twenty years earlier. I’m not entirely convinced of that. If anything, it may have been love that produced a sounder, more comprehensible book.
You often find disparaging remarks in the history books about Darwin’s wife Emma. “She was a traditional Christian,” they say. “Fear of her religious views kept Darwin from publishing,” they write. Emma Wedgewood was his cousin, daughter of the owner of the Wedgwood pottery works. Both she and Darwin had been raised as Unitarians, that is, Unitarians of the times. They had been steeped in a Christianity that did not accept the Trinity, yet still firmly believed in God. They had grown up in families that were open to questioning and debate about ideas. Emma’s father, Josiah, had progressive ideas about the treatment of his workers. He had mass-produced a medallion with a picture of slave and the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?” The proceeds from the medallion supported abolition efforts.
Emma was lively and intelligent, though disorganized, and had studied piano with Chopin. She lost her closest sister at an early age and had long consoled herself with the promise of their reunion in heaven. We know much about the inner lives of Emma and Darwin because they both kept journals and corresponded extensively with each other, and with friends and family, throughout their lives. In fact, Darwin kept private journals about his feelings and emotions, and about his children’s emotions, that he then incorporated into his studies.
“What passes in a man’s mind?” he asked. “When he says he loves a person – do not the features pass before him marked, with the habitual express emotions, which make us love him, or her. – It is blind feeling, something like sexual feelings…” All that Darwin experienced he meticulously noted and then tried to relate to his understanding of the world of animals.
Before he married, Darwin’s father had warned him not to share his religious doubts with his future wife. But Darwin never kept anything from Emma. His lack of belief shocked her, as it would have any woman of that time and circumstance. In the same year that Darwin proposed to Emma, he wrote in one of his notebooks:
“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.”
Many years later, Darwin would write in his autobiography, written only for his family, that his faith slowly faded away as he came to see that the God of the Bible was not the source of creation of all the many wondrous living things upon the earth. Emma feared for his salvation, but over time her views seemed to soften.
Together they had ten children, three of whom died. It is evident from their letters and journals that they shared a deep love. For all that Emma feared Darwin’s theory of creation without a God, it was Emma he trusted to read everything he wrote before he published. She corrected his grammar and his spelling, which were apparently atrocious. When he finally decided to publish On the Origin of Species, it was Emma who carefully edited what he had written. When she didn’t understand something, they discussed it at length so that he could revise the passage.
Was it his wife’s faith that held him back? Although he had been sure about his theory early on, he spent two decades amassing proof of that theory. He studied barnacles obsessively, so much so that one of his sons once asked a playmate, “Where does your father do his barnacles?” Darwin was sure that if he could trace and demonstrate the evolution of one species, his argument would be airtight. Had he not been so thorough, would his ideas have been as persuasive? He knew that he would be confronting a world that still believed that God had created the earth in seven days. To persuade the world otherwise, required more than an elegant theory. Emma’s prodding helped to strengthen his argument.
Of course, it would have been like Darwin to muse that there was something evolutionary going on in his own life. He and Emma did produce ten children, and several of those children went on to have their own children. Had he stayed away from marriage because of religion and its threats to his ideas, he would not have succeeded in what he most adored.
Toward the end of his life, Darwin wrote in a letter that he did not believe it was impossible to be both a theist and accept evolution. As for his own views, he wrote, “My judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term...” In the end, he chose to call himself an agnostic.
Going back to those three brain systems and that study of people madly in love… More recently, the researchers have taken MRI images of the brains of people who have been together for more than 20 years. Interestingly, their brains show activity in exactly the same place as those subjects who had recently fallen madly in love. Go figure. Even after a long time together, love is still an addiction, a biological drive. I imagine that if you could have taken pictures of Darwin and Emma’s brains, that’s what you would have found. They remained deeply devoted to each other to the very end of their lives. As Emma once wrote to an aunt, “I sometimes feel it very odd that anyone belonging to me should be making such a noise in the world.”
When Darwin’s theories came to light, there was strong reaction, both positive and negative. “How insulting,” some said, “to say that we have evolved from apes.” As for me, I am a believer in evolution. What an amazing thought that every organism on this earth is entirely distinct and has never existed in its exact form before, and never will again. Yet, how much we each have in common, thanks to the past that has formed us. Still, when it comes to understanding our emotions, I know I chafe against biological explanations. I don’t want to be reduced to an animal. Then again I know that’s what we are. As Darwin noted in his notebooks, we humans often lack humility in the face of creation. Still it’s hard to believe there isn’t something more beyond our biological impulses. Surely, you and I are more complex than that. Surely, we have more free will.
Then, I wonder, how will we evolve next? So, how about this example: I recently saw an article about a study of 4,000 British women. The majority of women surveyed in this particular study said that their mobile phones were more important to them than their boyfriends. They said, “You can take my man, but don’t take my phone.” Now, what does that say about love and natural selection?