Evolution of Love

This sermon has become irresistible for this time of year. Early February gives us a conjunction of Darwin’s Birthday and Valentine’s Day. Many years ago a professor named Michael Zimmerman started the Clergy Letter Project in which ministers sign to publicly show out support for the theory of evolution and we agree to preach on the topic on the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday, which has come to be called Evolution Sunday.But Evolution Sunday is also Love Sunday, and there couldn’t be a more central religious value than love in Unitarian Universalism. We don’t have saints, but if we did, St. Valentine would be high on our list.

So let’s start with his story. It is of course, shrouded in legend and who knows what of it is true, but the story goes, in the Second Century of the Common Era, a cruel Roman Emperor named Claudius was concerned because he was running out of soldiers. Claudius was making war on almost everyone around, but he couldn’t raise a big enough army. He realized that the young men of Rome would rather make love than war. So he decreed that no marriages could take place in this time of emergency. But Valentine circumvented this decree and went on marrying couples in secret. For this he was arrested, tried and put to death. Since his martyrdom, he has become canonized and is the patron saint of lovers.

Amor vincit omnia, said Virgil, love conquers all. We like to think so. In 1935 the Universalists adopted a statement avowing a faith in “God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love.” Love, we like to say, is the most powerful force in the universe.

It is also one of the most debased, common, cheap, vulgar words in the language. Most pop tunes are about love, the headlines you see from supermarket tabloids are about love, in a sense. Madison Avenue exploits this little four letter word to sell all kinds of products. Many, probably most of us, have been seriously injured by love at some point in our lives. Yet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said love was “that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

The love that is represented by God in Universalist theology is much broader than the love which would induce people to get married, but it includes such love. Christian thought has often distinguished between love as eros, erotic love and love as agape, a selfless love for all humankind supposedly exemplified by Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. I think it’s all of a piece.

Love leads us as UUs towards a wider inclusion. If God loves all people too much to damn any to hell, don’t we have the obligation to do likewise? There is a straight line from the 1935 Universalist affirmation to our First UU principle, that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

But if we’re talking love and evolution, we need to ask what light evolution can shed on how we come to love in the first place. The basics are well-known. When we look at the whole animal kingdom, the most distinctive features of human beings physically are our large heads and large brains. And that creates a problem at birth, getting that head through the birth canal. As a result, human infants have to a do a lot of their growing after birth, and they are born at an earlier stage of development than other animals. It takes a long time after birth for a human baby to be able to fend for itself.

This means that if the baby is to survive into adulthood, one or more adults, usually parents, must form a bond which will induce the adult to protect the child. The chemical agent for this bond is called oxytocin. The mother’s body makes oxytocin while in labor, and this acts like Love Potion Number 9, making the mother fall in love with her newborn infant upon his or her arrival. The act of nursing brings further floods of oxytocin.

An article in the science section of the New York Times put it this way:

Oxytocin has been described as the hormone of love. This tiny chemical, released from the hypothalamus region of the brain, gives rat mothers the urge to nurse their pups, keeps male prairie voles monogamous and, even more remarkable, makes people trust each other more.[1]

Oxytocin establishes a love bond between the mother and the child and that’s basic to allowing the child to survive. But how about the bond between mother and father?

This is the stuff we think of on Valentine’s Day. Several of you last night offered songs or poems about the loves of your lives. We deem it normal that humans mate for life, we celebrate the one great love of our lives in song and story.

What does science say? A few minutes ago, I read from a BBC report which aired two years ago on an interesting hypothesis.[2] It seems that among primates, which includes humans and our closest animal cousins, mating for life with one individual is not universal. There are plenty of animal species in which there is no pair bonding, and the offspring somehow succeed in making it to adulthood. Among primates, chimpanzees and bonobos do not mate for life.

Why do some species form lifetime attachments while others don’t? One slightly sinister explanation which has been put forward is infanticide, the practice of males killing babies. Mothers are not sexually receptive when they are raising their babies, and this gives a male who wants access to a female an incentive to kill the babies. Now, since the point of evolution is to ensure that one’s genes persist to the next generations, males would not kill their own offspring, but would have every evolutionary incentive to kill babies sired by another male.

In 2013, a professor named Kit Opie at University College London, suggested that monogamous mating, mating for life, evolved as a means to prevent such baby-killing. His team of researchers

“peered back into the family tree of primates to reconstruct how behaviours like mating and parenting changed over the course of evolution. Their analysis suggested that infanticide has been the driving force for monogamy for 20 million years, because it consistently preceded monogamy in evolution.”[3]

But what about the chimps and bonobos? you ask. Well, it turns out that these species are so promiscuous that males would not kill babies because they couldn’t tell whether it might be their own.

But there was another factor at work:

“...in those species where males and females started bonding strongly, their offspring's chances of survival improved because the males could help out with parenting. As a result, monogamy was favoured by evolution, says Opie.”

In other words, where evolution brings the males into the process of parenting, that helps ensure successful child-rearing.

“This process may have been a one-way street, says Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford in the UK. It could have resulted in major changes in the brain, "to keep the pair-bond together for life". This includes a preference for your partner and antagonism towards potential rivals.”

For you see, there are aspects of love that depend on our larger brains, which only appeared late in evolutionary history. One researcher who did functional MRI studies on the human brain while experiencing love found that the most intense and "abstract" states of love rely on a part of the brain called the angular gyrus.

“This is known to be important for certain aspects of language, like metaphors. This makes some sense, as without complex language we cannot express the more refined and intense aspects of our emotions. Conceivably, Shakespeare's angular gyrus was active when he penned his love sonnets.

The angular gyrus is only found in great apes and humans.

Oxytocin to the angular gyrus, there are multiple ways in which evolution has equipped us for the experience we call love. And these are the physical foundations for some of the grandest experiences we have in this life.

But there are many kinds of love. Love may lead you to become infatuated with another person so that you lose all sense of perspective. You may forget to eat, to sleep. Love may lead you to establish a family and care for your children, but it may also lead you to get enamored with someone else and abandon your spouse and children.

There is love which is heroic and grand and noble and love which is disgraceful. A famous example of the latter is right at the apex of Jewish history as related in the Bible. King David became enamored of Bathsheba when he saw her bathing on a rooftop and being the powerful king he was, he arranged to put Bathsheba’s soldier husband in harm’s way in battle so that he would be killed. After Uriah’s death, David took Bathsheba for his wife and she bore him a son Solomon, who was second only to David in Jewish history as the greatest king of Israel. All for love.

Love can be the glory of human life and can be its biggest pain as well. I expect that each of us has a story we could tell about being wounded in love. I was once so wounded, and I’ll spare you the details, but I wrote a poem at the time which said I now knew how the earth felt when the moon had been ripped out of its side. I felt that my innards were all coming out of me, trailing behind on the sidewalk when I walked.

When you feel that kind of pain, your whole instinct is to close up in self-protection, to make sure that you can’t be wounded that way again. But then you have to ask yourself, is this how I want to live the rest of my life? A closed-up, loveless existence?

No, I answered myself, I have chosen the path of ministry within Unitarian Universalism, and this religion as well as the position I have chosen within it, requires that I remain open to love. That is what I want to be doing in my life. Opening to love.

How can love hurt us? Let me count the ways. You may love someone desperately who doesn’t love you back. You may love someone still who doesn’t love you any more. You may love someone who is physically or mentally abusive or cruel or addicted to alcohol or drugs. In this age of #Metoo, let us not forget that a kind of love combined with power may lead to sexual assault or harassment, and some victims of this kind of behavior will be led by love not to report it to the proper authorities.

Then there is loneliness; the person you have loved most in your life dies, or moves away, or you fall out of love. We may feel incapable of love. Or we so easily convince ourselves that we don’t have enough love. We make ourselves unhappy because we think nobody loves us or we aren’t loved enough. We look for love, often in the wrong places. For most of us most of the time, this lack of love is a delusion; a moment’s reflection will reveal we have all the love we need already.

We think of love as all good, but a better way to look at it is to realize that love itself is neither good nor bad. Like sexual desire, like fire or electricity, it has enormous benefits and enormous dangers.

Of course, if you and I were designing the world, we’d take out the bad stuff, wouldn’t we? We’d make sure that if you fall in love with a certain person, that person has to fall in love with you. We’d never let anyone in a committed relationship have eyes for anyone outside it, and love would always stay new and exciting, day in and day out. Brothers and sisters, parents and children, spouses and lovers would never fall out with each other, would never encounter disagreements, have spats, stop speaking to each other for years at a time.

If we perfected love to eliminate these painful aspects, would the resulting world be better than what we have now? It would be duller, that’s for sure. But there would be missing something else, something very important: the chance for spiritual growth.

For the challenges of love, my friends, the challenges of love are part of its glory. Maybe for some of us love descends from the sky, is simply visited on you from the universe. For me, the love that I experience comes from within. I generate it, together with those around me whom I love.

When I perform weddings, I often tell couples

“A household cannot afford to run out of love. You can run a household without electricity, or plumbing for awhile, but you can’t do without love. If it runs out, you have to make some more; make love in all the senses of that phrase.”

My colleague Fred Smalls wrote a beautiful song called “Everything Possible” which asserts that in the end, “the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”

Love without challenges would be vapid and shallow. We must live in the world as it is, warts and all, though we can certainly work to make it better. The love in your own heart is where to look to find the strength to carry on after a hurt, a betrayal, a loss.

Maybe for a while you can’t find that; maybe the blow was too great. But if our choice is to live the rest of our life in cynicism, bitterness, loneliness or to find love and the strength to go on, most of us will eventually find the latter.

The path of love is the path of risk, my friends. To love means to risk losing love. Or as an anonymous reading in our hymnbook, number 658, puts it,

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.

To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.

To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self.

To place our ideas-our dreams-before the crowd is to risk loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return.

To hope is to risk despair.

To try is to risk failure.

To live is to risk dying.

Evolution has given us a gift of incalculable value: bodies and brains capable of love. Knowing the risks, let us nevertheless use these tools for our own happiness and the happiness of those we love, and let us expand the circle of our love to include the whole human race.


Reading for Evolution of Love

“The Sinister Reason Why People Fall In Love” by Melissa Hogenboom, BBC, 15 February , 2016 http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160212-the-unexpected-origin-of-love

Your heart beats a little faster, glands open to secrete tiny dribbles of sweat, and your body starts producing hormones, which make you feel a bit giddy and warm inside.

These are some of the biological processes that occur as you are thrust into the early throes of love – or infatuation, it can be hard to tell which it is.

Love is such a pervasive part of our humanity that art and culture is filled with references to love won and love lost. Libraries have shelves of books filled with romantic prose. "Love is not time's fool," wrote Shakespeare in sonnet 116: "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks / But bears it out even to the edge of doom."

It seems Shakespeare was more correct than he could have known. Peer into the evolution of love in the animal kingdom and it becomes apparent that love had its beginnings long before the advent of humanity. What's more, it could have been born out of something quite sinister.

The journey to love as we know it today began with sex, which was one of the first things life on Earth figured out how to do. Sex began as a way to pass on an organism's genes to the next generation.

To love, life first needed a brain that could deal with emotions. It was not until a few billion years after life began that the brain began its journey to existence. At first it was only a small clump of cells.

Fast forward to around 60 million years ago, when the first members of our family, the primates, appeared. Over millions more years of evolution, some primates would evolve ever bigger brains, eventually producing modern humans.

[1]Depth of the Kindness Hormone Appears to Know Some Bounds by Nicholas Wade

January 10, 2011

[2]“The Sinister Reason Why People Fall In Love” by Melissa Hogenboom, BBC, 15 February , 2016 http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160212-the-unexpected-origin-of-love

[3]BBC, supra

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