Biology and the Freedom to Love
In recent decades, biology has moved to the fore of research on love. Evolution, the function of genes, selection pressures, and group interaction play a prominent role in contemporary biological discussions of the possibility of love. But does biology allow for the freedom apparently necessary for love?
As I define it, love require some degree of freedom. Chance and entirely determined events, if such exist, should not be called acts of love.
I don’t believe creatures possess limitless freedom. Unlimited freedom does not exist. “Love” that is entirely coerced or unintentional is not love at all. Even if one’s nature necessarily includes love – as I believe is the case for God – some measure of freedom must be present if love is to be expressed.
Freedom and Genetics
Contemporary theories in biology rely heavily upon the role of genetics. Unfortunately, genetic-oriented theories in biology tend to describe organisms as genetically programmed or controlled.
Biologists rarely attribute freedom and spontaneity to the organisms they study. They do not do so, in large part, because biological theory is thought to be based upon the work of examining external results while ignoring any possible internal experiences.
Biologist Sewell Wright summarizes this prevailing assumption in biology when he says, “science must restrict itself to the external aspect of things.” Wright continues that science is “concerned with the external and statistical aspect of events and incapable of dealing with the unique creative aspect of each individual event.”
The practice of restricting scientific purview to observations of external behavior and refusing to infer what such behavior suggests about internal motivations is, however, not actually a restriction many biologists practice when they offer explanations of what’s “really happening.” Richard Dawkins, for instance, uses language suggesting creatures are entirely controlled by their genes.
Contemporary biology rejects questions of freedom and self-organization, in part because it rejects the view attributed to an early evolutionary biologist: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Today, Lamarck is mainly known for the view that creatures can intentionally pass to their offspring the traits acquired through their own efforts.
The giraffe is the Lamarckian’s classic example of a creature that, through its own efforts, can change its own characteristics and passed those changes to its children. As giraffes intentionally stretch to reach leaves residing high in trees, Lamarckians believe that they gradually lengthen their necks. Their offspring inherit longer necks as a result of their parent’s efforts.
The vast majority of scientists today, however, reject the view that traits acquired during a creature’s lifetime can be passed to offspring. Each generation must learn these behaviors anew by imitating their elders. Beneficial behaviors, such as giraffes stretching for leaves atop trees, are not transmitted through genetic encoding.
The Baldwin Effect
A view accepted in contemporary biology, however, is the Baldwin effect. Named after James Mark Baldwin and first proposed at the turn of the 20th century, this theory says that the sustained behavior of a species or group in response to its environment is gradually assimilated into the group’s genetic structures. Learned behaviors cannot be directly inherited, said Baldwin. But the general propensity to act well in the organism’s environment is supported by genetic mutations and becomes part of the offspring’s genetic inheritance.
Science-and-religion scholar, Ian Barbour, uses bison and horses to illustrate how the Baldwin effect works. The common ancestors of bison and horses may have either charged enemies or fled their enemies. Strength, weight, strong skulls, and other bison-like qualities would have enhanced the survival of those who charged their enemies. Those who survived by fleeing enemies would have benefited by speed, agility, and other abilities we see in horses. “The divergence of bison and horse,” suggests Barbour, “may have arisen initially from different responses to danger, rather than from genetic mutations related to anatomy.” Barbour concludes, “organisms participate actively in evolutionary history and are not simply passive products of genetic forces from within and environmental forces from without.”
The Baldwin effect offers a way to account for the free initiatives of organisms to have significant long-term consequences. Barbour speaks of creaturely “interiority” that evolves “starting from rudimentary memory, sentience, responsiveness, and anticipation in simple organisms, going on to consciousness with the advent of nervous systems, and then self-consciousness in the case of primates and human beings.”
While it is not difficult to attribute freedom to complex creatures like humans, chimps, canine, and dolphins, most biologists are reluctant to infer that less complex creatures also possess a measure of self-determining agency. To argue that organisms at varying levels of complexity exhibit self-organization, spontaneity, or self-determination, however, does not require one also to argue that less complex creatures are free to the same degree as more complex creatures. Nor does it require one to deny the powerful influence of a creature’s genes. Instead, one can appeal to the possibility that creatures of varying complexity possess varying degrees of freedom, interiority, or self-organization.
The late biologist Charles Birch suggests that degrees of creaturely freedom are of great importance. “Determinism by genes is not an all-or-none affair,” says Birch. “There can be different degrees of freedom. There is all the difference in the world between 100 percent determination and 99 percent determination. One provides no room for choice and purpose. The other does not.”
Freedom at the Micro Level?
Speculating that organisms at all levels of complexity possess some measure of spontaneity does not, of course, scientifically demonstrate that freedom is present throughout existence. But speculating that creatures are robots blindly programmed by their genes is also not scientifically demonstrable.
It may be that freedom and self-organization emerged at some point in the evolutionary process. Relatively simple organisms may not possess self-determination. Instead, freedom emerged as creatures increased in complexity. This view, often called “emergence,” is attractive to those who wish to acknowledge the freedom apparent in human experience and apparently present in other complex creatures. This version of emergence also allows one to resist the claim that the least complex entities of existence — atoms for instance — are to some degree free.
Theologian and philosophers of science, Philip Clayton, advocates this emergent view of creaturely self-determination. Clayton argues that human freedom should be “understood in terms of a developmental story that includes the role of physical laws, biological drives, and the increasing latitude of behavior in more complex organisms – features both shared with other animals and distinguishing us from them.”
Ian Barbour argues for a different emergent view, which posits a minimum of interiority at even the most basic levels. Barbour’s argument is partly, as he says, for “the sake of metaphysical consistently and generality.” Barbour says that we ought to generalize from the human experience of freedom. “We are part of nature,” he argues, and “even though human experience is an extreme case of an event in nature, it offers clues as to the character of other events.”
Which version of emergence theory – the one Clayton advocates or the one Barbour advocates – best accounts for biology is debatable. Resolving the question, however, may not be necessary for love research in the biological sciences. Even if molecules have interiority and subjectivity, few scholars are likely to describe molecular activity as loving. But as creatures increase in organizational and mental complexity through evolution, the importance of freedom rises.
If humans share significant continuity with their nonhuman companions, it seems plausible that freedom and intentionality are present in the earliest biological stages of evolutionary history. Whatever the case, we would do well to speak today about creatures capable of love as also possessing at least some degree of freedom.