give me the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance every time - Douglas Adams

Evolution Of Love

Love as a human emotion, is something we are all familiar with; it's as universally human as smiling and crying. Every person from the youngest child to the oldest person feels love from time to time, either given or received. Any trait as universally embedded in the human psyche as love, is likely to have been a part of our being for a very long time. For any feature to survive for a long time in any organism it must confer some evolutionary advantage or else natural selection would weed it out.

The obvious thought is that love is necessary for successful procreation, and whilst it undoubtedly helps in human procreation it is not actually essential. Most animals, and as far as I can tell all plants, procreate quite successfully without it. Love as a human emotion is spread far wider than the love of Eros or the love of children and family. We can love inanimate objects, from houses to motor vehicles to teddy bears. Humans can even express a genuine love of humankind in general and some profess love for the whole planet and everything on it!.

There is an obvious evolutionary advantage that love and stable families bring to the human animal that needs such a long time for their young to reach maturity. Love has evolved into this many stranded rope that holds us together and trips us up at the same time. The fact that all manner of family arrangement, single, nuclear, extended and tribal and even several variations in sexual partnership arrangements, monogamy, polygamy and polyandry are practised by different cultures around the world, is a testament to human adaptability. It seems that whatever is required to survive and prosper we will do it. This is one of the defining characteristics of people, we are adaptable.

The way we adapt our culture is in many ways like evolution by natural selection. Somebody has a good idea, other people see it works and copy it. Then someone else sees a way to improve that idea and that in turn gets copied. The process of the spread and development of knowledge is in many ways analogous to the evolution of genes. So much so that Richard Dawkins coined the word meme as the unit of cultural evolution similar to gene being the unit of biological evolution. Unlike genes, memes can reproduce and spread rapidly horizontally as well as vertically through human society. Memes can also mutate. The fittest memes survive and reproduce, the unfit ones perish. Like all analogies if taken to extreme is will break down but none the less its a very useful concept to aid understanding of how culture develops.

If Darwin's theory of evolution teaches us one thing it is that we are an animal evolved to be the way we are. We are shaped from our genetic inheritance, which has been selected from those of our ancestors who were successful enough to have children who survived to have children of their own. We have the in-built hormone driven desires and abilities to love and hate, co-operate and compete, and the potential to use these desires and abilities wisely or foolishly by the use of intelligence.

We humans face an uncertain future, nothing new in that. What is new is uncertainty on a global scale. In the past if things went really wrong we could always pull up the tent pegs and find somewhere else. This a rapidly diminishing option. For all practical purposes there is only one habitable planet and this is it! To deal with population pressure on natural resources, climate change, mechanised warfare, pollution and all the other tricky problems of our time we will need all our adaptability. To overcome global problems we are going to need a rapid evolution in our thinking and behaviour. Genetic change of significance takes many generations. Memetic change however is much more rapid.

When we were all hunter-gatherers, (not so long ago in evolutionary terms) the tribe and religion were our safety net. To be without a tribe to protect you was to be unlikely to survive. This system and thought processes were developed in the Bronze Age into the religions and ethnic groupings that survive to this day as the countries to which are bonded to by citizenship (and taxation), and the religions that many are bonded to by childhood indoctrination. Children around the world are taught to be patriotic, and if not actually to become devoutly religious then at least respectful of religion. People's genetically inherited need to belong to a tribe is expressed in modern life by patriotism, or fanaticism. Supporting a football team, being a member of a club, church, mosque, synagogue or political party, or just wearing certain types of clothing are all expressions of this need to be “in the tribe.” Whilst this can all be good clean healthy fun there is a dark side, a violent confrontational side. To focus on what makes your “tribe” better than others, who may look or dress or speak differently is a necessary part of belonging. The tragic consequences of this line of thinking have been and are being lived with, war seems always to be among us.

Our world is full of man made barriers. Fences, walls and borders are there to control us, to restrict our movement. These barriers are a physical manifestation of tribal thinking. Tribal thinking is a barrier to cooperation on a global scale and will have to go if we are to survive. Change on this scale is not achieved through, politics and legislation, or by religious doctrine. This change will be memetically driven, it has long been so. People know a good idea when they see it. The technology for mass peer to peer communication is in place. We have the phones, the computers to communicate with our friends around the world in seconds.

The love we feel for our partners or children or parents and even of our “tribe” is deeply genetically driven. The memes of love are developing to take us onto another level, the global village level. The understanding that it is to all our benefit to give up our Bronze Age institutions and gods, and develop a truly human approach to our needs. We are not about to start loving our enemies but maybe we may start to realise that other people are not our enemies. The main threat to our future well-being is outdated thinking. The enemies of reason are blind faith, superstition and misguided loyalty. When our love can actually, really embrace all, then we will move up to the next level of consciousness and today's seemingly intractable problems become eminently solvable. 

Good ideas will catch on!