By Brian Volck
...to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends.
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act III, scene 1)
In my second year of medical school, the woman I’d been dating for more than two years explained, near then end of a strained conversation, “I’m trying to live my life according to certain design principles, and you no longer fit into them.” I laugh at that now, seeing—as I could not then—the gathering cataclysm of our relationship, but I was not a happy man. I wanted her to love me, but I couldn’t make her.
I even daydreamed, in a rage-fueled flight of imagination, of tracking down the “Other Man,” and performing some subtle and ingenious act of medically-informed revenge, but reason and cowardice prevailed. After weeks of depression, I began dating someone new. Suspicious of rebound love, I told her on our first date that I wasn’t interested in anything long term.
Last month, we celebrated our twenty-fourth anniversary.
I chuckled over those and other embarrassing emotional earthquakes while reading Laura Bramon Good’s recent post here on the Oprah-celebrated phenomenon of women leaving men for women. How can we know what we’re looking for until we find it? But one paragraph in particular, the one with phrases like, “sexual fluidity,” and, “the chemistry behind” brought to mind darker, more disturbing thoughts, prompted by several recent science articles purporting to reveal the truth about love.
One, from the esteemed journal, Nature, purports to “reduc(e)...love to its component parts,” namely the neurochemistry of sex and bonding. In short, primate researcher Larry Young extrapolates from the behavior of prairie voles to suggest human love will soon be proved little more than an epiphenomenon of rising and falling brain levels of hormones such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine.
Another essay, originally in The Economist, revisits data on voles, vasopressin, and oxytocin (named “the cuddle hormone” by science-beat journalists) and concludes, “Scientists are finding that, after all, love really is down to a chemical addiction between people.”
And a recent New York Times article, titled “Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss,” looks forward to the day when doctors prescribe medicines to “enhance feelings of trust and empathy,” and offer vaccines permitting recipients go about their usual activities (including, it would seem, frequent sex) without all that pesky emotional attachment. (Apparently the author hasn’t met my teenage male patients, many of whom have already mastered the art of attachment-free sex.)
These, and essays like them, combine breezy prose (“Love is indeed a many-splendored thing, but sometimes we all need to tie ourselves to the mast”), and ironic detachment (After all, love is insanity”) with a confidence that astonishingly complex relational behaviors are reducible to elementary physics.
In fact, the entire exercise is built on densely-packed layers of simplification: love reduced to lust, attraction and commitment to the ebb and flow of hormones, differences in individual response to genetic variation, and all these behaviors accounted for by natural selection. (For a scientific critique of “evolutionary psychology,” see this essay by the late paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould.)
I’m not disturbed by analogies between my love for my wife and the vasopressin-modulated behavior of prairie voles, nor am I offended by teasing out the biochemical foundations of human affection.
Where I get off the bus is the assumption that love is nothing but chemicals at play in the brain, evolved to make more copies of me.
A proper critique of this line of reasoning would require a very long essay and considerable outside assistance to make sure I got the neuroscience and genetics right. The “science will soon be able to” chestnut has a massive (and sometimes destructive) track record of overpromising, under-delivering, and offering explanations simply too naïve and simplistic to be taken seriously, but persuasive responses demand meticulous care to distinguish the known from wistful conjecture.
For this arts and faith blog, I’ll simply offer two brief observations.
First, no honest neuroscientist will deny the prodigious effect culture has on behavior. For some, though, “culture” quickly becomes a black box to explain what biologically-based theory currently can’t, with the implicit promise that, soon enough, such crutches will be unnecessary.
It betrays a serious lack of imagination and lived experience, for example, to suggest that what Ophelia really needed was a boost of dopamine and serotonin or that the only a few micrograms of oxytocin lay between Othello and happiness. Are we now to put aside Love in the Western World with a polite, “Merci, Monsieur de Rougemont, but neuroscience renders your work obsolete?” Should art historians reinterpret depictions of the female breast in medieval and Renaissance art as always and everywhere about sex?
Second, the shift from “explaining love” to technologically modifying and controlling it is at once dispiriting and expected. Moving from understanding to power has been the explicit trajectory of the scientific enterprise since the Enlightenment. Unlike, however, the small cadre of Manhattan Project physicists dismayed to see their work kill Japanese civilians instead of Hitler, the science writers here are already limning dubious applications, from love potions to affectionless orgasms.
An entire website devoted to oxytocin and “the science of love,” has on its home page a long quotation which reads, in part:
…our genetically-enriched descendants may view us as little better than sociopaths…. (N)aturally loved-up and blissful on a richer cocktail of biochemicals than anything accessible today, our post-human successors will be able, not just to love everyone, but to be perpetually in love with everyone as well.
If this is the future where reason and love are at long last friends, I think I’ll stay home.