Biology and the Freedom to Love

November 1st, 2016 / 19 Comments

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.

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Paul DeBaufer

I find this line of thought on freedom interesting and one which I have pondered long. As a psychology major forever ago I was increasingly required to consider the behavior as separate from the organism, I could not do that and ended up a biologist. In psychology we were taught behaviorism based on the work of B.F. Skinner who did all of his work with pigeons. I found this unsatisfying because pigeons to not possess higher order brain function as do humans. I think extrapolating from a pigeon to a human is a far stretch. But I think I digress some. I do think that pigeons do have a degree of freedom available to them, not quite so much as humans, but….

My work as a biologist involved signal transduction pathways in the ciliate Vortecella convallaria. Vortecella has two forms, a sessile, stalked form called a stalked zooid and a motile, unstalked form called a telotroch. The transformation from the sessile form to the motile most often the result of changes in the environment, which we referred to as making the cell unhappy. Yet not all Vortecella will transform to the same stimuli. And in the motile form the oral cilia used by the sessile form to trap food resorb but for two cilia which grow and are used for steering. The telotroch swims using these two oral cilia as rudders to steer the organism to a new and more suitable environment where the cell would be “Happy” (yes we engaged in a degree of anthropomorphism). It seem that a cell that can steer has a degree of freedom as to where to steer itself. These cells didn’t just simply break free of their stalk and float with the current. It would be wrong to assign higher order decision making to them, the decisions were based on chemical concentrations, but the cell determined that and made a “choice” as to where to go and reattach itself (which it must do to feed).

So, I guess all of this is to say that while some biologists might argue against freedom for lower organisms I have witnessed a degree of freedom in protozoa (albeit the highest order of protozoans). This does seem a bit counter-intuitive to those of us raised in a Skinnerian atmosphere that reduces freedom significantly.


You seem to be using freedom, intentionality, and voluntariness (self-determining agency) as synonymous, or at least co-extensive.  Do you mean to do that?

Thomas Jay Oord

Paul – Thanks for the comments.  I have a friend who does chemistry at Harvard who reports some of the same “spontenaity” at the molecular level.  I agree that it helps overcome some of the Skinner-oriented psychology that contradicts our own lived experience of freedom.

Kevin – I’m pretty sloppy with my interchanging of freedom, intentionality, and voluntariness in this essay.  As you know, an action could be intentional without being free.  What makes matters even more complex is that I want to affirm genuine freedom among organisms that do not have consciousness.  Unfortunately, our langauge has few words to help with this, which is why Whitehead coined the word “prehension” to talk about this kind of agency without having to invoke conscious decisions for smaller organisms.

Thanks to both of you!

John King

I have been reading your book.  It is great.  Thanks so much for this blog post.  I find your writing so clear and straightforward.  It helps me understand.

Donald Minter


Outstanding work as usual…  But (you knew that was coming), the sentence below reflects why many of us, ok, some of us, alright, me!, reject your fundamental thesis:

“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.”

Biologist struggle, as I do, to understand what you are suggesting when you offer the idea that a cell has ‘internal motivations’.  Motivation for most of us suggests volition associated with ‘mind’ if you will, otherwise it is simply causation.  And that is the rub.  Because you have created such a foundational definition of ‘love’ as inclusive of ‘freedom’, you cannot say “God loves the creation” unless it is free to ‘motivate’, so to speak…

I still remember you holding the glass trying to describe for me how it was free to respond to God in some sense… 

I continue to believe this is a fundamental flaw in your approach and definition of love…  But I love how you define the term and lock us in… Brilliant methodology…  Though I continue to affirm it fails in the end…  :o)

So look forward to your blogs!


Erika Schaub

Dr. Oord

This was a very interesting blog.  I’m unsure if i think genetics really have an effect on people’s self freedom.  What comes to my mind is genetics and people’s personalities.  It’s hard to determine if a person’s personalities are genetic or not because when a person is alwaya around one’s parents of course they are going to act like them and take on some of those traits.  A person some times will have some of their parent’s values and beliefs and those value’s and beliefs can effect their freedoms (choices).  The person stil have freedom to choose to take on their parent’s personalities, values, beliefs, etc; they can reject their parent’s traits.  So i think genetic may not have an effect on a person’s freedom.  People have to choose what they are going to believe, what they do, etc; unless they are being controlled by a person by like mind tricks or drugs or something crazy.

Rachel Benedick

I found these debates on whether love is simply an inherited trait or is something we must imitate as we grow up, rather interesting. You stated, “Each generation must learn these behaviors anew by imitating their elders.” I think that physical abnormalities, structure, characteristics, and features are inherited, but when it comes to being a loving person, I feel that that is something we learn over time. By observing and practicing loving others and realizing that we are loved by others, we are understanding what love is and how to show it to others and ourselves. The more practice we have using it, the better we become at being loving individuals.

Stacie Martin

To be completely honest, I have never really thought about creatures having free will before in the same way that humans have free will. I love that you’re not afraid to talk about the ideas of evolution through genetics and the psychological as well as sociological implications of human behavior and how that connects and relates to love. It seems as though so many “christians” are so terrified of the word evolution that the second they hear it, they close themselves off completely to the context of it’s use, let alone the idea of evolution in God’s creative process. Excuse me if I sound like a heretic, but maybe the sooner we all started admitting our ignorance and lack of certainty as to how creation came about, and the sooner we accept ourselves for the humanity we posses, maybe the sooner we would see a flourishing of love and acceptance among one another.

Miles Wilson

I believe it is true that humans are created with freedom and freedom is necessary for love.  If the brain was programmed to automatically favor someone rather than to instinctively be selfish in order to survive, love wouldn’t exist.  Love is almost unnatural, yet vital for life and all of the events of life.  It is the freedom that humans possess unlike any other life form that give them ability to love because they have the choice to care for someone else before them rather than just survive.

Joy W.

The ideas presented in this blog raises alot of questions. A particular section that I found interesting was the degrees of freedom and how there are different levels of degress depending on the complexcity of an organism. For me this raise the question of whether or not an orgainism can only show a certain degree of love if it only has certain degre of freedom?

Reid White

Even though I say this on nearly every single comment I leave on your blogs, I must say it once again: I never really thought about the act of love from another organism. After considering how a non-complex creature could love, I was left with a primary question. Before asking this question, I want to recap on a couple points.

I enjoyed the way you linked the necessity for freedom in order to love. One cannot be a robot that is simply following its programming and claim to be loving if they are essentially going through the motions. If I go to volunteer because it is required for a class and I do not get engaged in the process, it is not an act of love. Considering this, one must also have the ability to use their freedom. Therefore, I believe that an organism has to have the ability to think in order to be able to love. Maybe I am off basis, but that is why I want to ask you Dr. Oord, does a creature have to maintain the ability to reason and think in order to love?

John Stump

This is a very interesting topic to me. As a biology major it is one of the main points of discussion and research covered in several of my classes. In my personal opinion there is no biological explanation for certain experiences such as love; an extremely powerful emotion. How can this be explained as a process of natural selection? Does this make us more compatible to environmental challenges, which is the driving force in evolutionary change? Freedom however is innate to survival and I believe is present in all organisms, freedom to react and freedom to make choices. There are many beneficial aspects of evolution and it is not something to completely reject, but there are many questions that still need to be answered. Before we can correlate topics such as love and freedom we must first fully understand where we came from.

Torrey Lubiens

I find the examples you provided from Baldwin, Barbour and Clayton to be good advocators for the naturalistic sides of humans contingency for love. I remember watching a documentary on animal adaptation, specifically the Mountain Lion or “Cougar”, and they discussed the differences in the Northwestern Mountain Lion and the Floridian Cougar. Even though the are the same species they have different physical characteristics that help them survive in their environment. The Northwestern lion is larger and more muscular to help it stay warm, capture prey such as deer and fend of the local wolves and bears while the Floridian cougar is more slender and agile so it can stay cool, maneuver through the trees to catch smaller tree animals such as birds and avoid alligators. I believe humans have adapted in similar ways through the course of time to this day. Humans are more inclined to help one another when basic needs are being met. Look at the differences between the first and third world countries, most of it is do to environment. USA and Europe are temperate climates that are more hospitable when it comes to average weather conditions, available vegetation and irrigation, or vicious animal encounters. Countries such as Africa and Russia are not as favorable when it comes to these conditions so people have a much harder time acquiring these needs. When we aren’t physically equipped we are also mentally lacking to give help to others cause we are struggling to help ourselves. Don’t get me wrong I think civilizations in countries like Africa and Russia have gone to great lengths in adapting to the situation, but adapting and thriving are two different things. I feel we are live when we adapt well to the situation but we love well when we thrive in the situation. We need to get ourselves to the point where we thrive in life so we have the ability to give to those around us and help them achieve the that same capability to give.

Colby M

I thought this was a very interesting post Dr. Oord. I have always been intrigued by the relationship between science and religion. I’m sure you have probably read the book “The Case for a Creator” by Lee Strobel, but in that book he states,
“The irreducible complex biochemical systems that I have discussed in this book did not have to be produced recently, it is entirely possible, based simply on an examination of the systems themselves, that they were designed billions of years ago and that they have been passed down to the present by normal processes of cellular reproduction. Perhaps a speculative scenario will illustrate the point. Suppose that nearly four billion years ago the designer made the first cell, already containing all the irreducible complex biochemical systems discussed here and many others. (One can postulate that the designs for systems that were to be used later, such as blood clotting, were present but not “turned on”. … The cell containing the designed systems then was left on autopilot to reproduce, mutate, eat and be eaten, bump against rocks, and suffer the vagaries of life on earth.”
I thought this was very interesting in comparison to this post and last nights speaker, when thinking about the freedom and complexity of organisms and the evolution aspect of science.

david jansen

Evolution is a lie.  God made it clear how everything was created in the Holy Bible.  If it happpened some other way I think God would have explained it to us.  Genesis is absolutely clear on the length of the day/night, year, chronology of the patriarchs, etc.  If the Holy Bible is wrong in ANYTHING, then it is wrong in everything.  It’s time for people to drop this ridiculous compromise which will only be the beginning.  Pleas, please read 2 Peter 3:16.

Elisha Storm

I think the concept of freedom is highly important in the concept of love, which is expressed through our genetics. I believe God “programmed” the need for individuality and personal choice so that the choice of us picking God and loving him is so much more meaningful. But I honestly don’t feel love is programmed in genetics or biology. There are some instances where love is unexplainable, and that’s what I love about love. I love and hate that I love certain people, despite the fact they don’t love me back. To me, that keeps love intriguing, trying to decide if it’s genetics, or just my mentality that is constantly making me fall in love with people, and I’m not just referring to the opposite sex. There’s a genetic programming, I think, where we desire relationships. Love can be a byproduct of the desire and it just provides a fulfilling relationship with more meaning.

Elisabeth Pena

I also agree that freedom is vital in the concept of love. I cannot imagine stating that anything is love if it is not a voluntary action. However, in terms of biology some issues may arise. Biologists are still so uncertain about what is and is not programmed into creatures. With this ‘programming’ comes the question of how free an creature is. Although I agree that there is a portion of creatures that is designated by genetics, there are also portion that are freely designated and shaped through environment. I simply cannot believe that all of our actions are driven by genetic programming.


I have found it helpful to refer to various emergent TELOI – (teleo -potent, -matic, -nomic and -logic) refer to various end-phenomena (un/bounded, stated, directed and intended).

veldopoietic entwinement – marked by the teleopotent end-un/boundedness of field (veld-) dynamics

cosmopoietic entwinement – marked by the teleomatic end-statedness of a

materio-energetic, proto-sentience

biopoietic entwinement – marked by the teleonomic end-directedness of an

electro-chemical, incipient sentience;

sentiopoietic entwinement – marked by sentience, broadly conceived to include

hormonal sentience;

neuronal sentience (including, for example, abductive instinct);

striatal sentience;

limbic sentience and

cortical sentience (including, for example, nonreflective awareness, nonarbitrary inconicity and indexicality).

sapiopoietic entwinement, marked by the teleologic end-intendedness of

sapient sentience (including, for example, abductive inference, reflective awareness, arbitrary symbolicity and subconscious problem solving).


Regarding my account of emergent teloi, above, I only invoke emergence in terms of a vague phenomenology or exploratory — not explanatory — heuristic.

In other words, those different levels of complexity refer to evolved novelties in nature that resist both epistemic and ontological reduction. Specifically, my heuristic does not employ distinctions like weak and strong emergence, which are, respectively, trivial and question begging (in how they invoke supervenience). We needn’t be anxious to prove too much or to say more than we could possibly know.

The Baldwin Effect does suggest downward causations. Among other types of formal and final causations, such as are becoming increasingly in vogue in semiotic sciences, whether or not any of nature’s downward causations violate physical causal closure or not remains an open question, in my view.

That human persons are radically free-enough for most of our theological anthropologies can be established axiomatically via either a reductio ad absurdum or, more rigorously, by a vague semiotic phenomenology with no resort to a more robust metaphysic.

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