Saturday, February 14, 2009

We Think, Therefore We Love

When life is portrayed as a creation of God, its description usually involves fragrant flowers, chirping birds and people full of the milk of human kindness (or humankind-ness, as some Shakespeare scholars prefer). When one replaces ‘God’ with ‘natural selection acting on random variations’, interpretations of the same data change dramatically, and life becomes cut-throat, savage. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri opens his column in yesterday’s Hindustan Times with the line, “Charles Darwin wrote of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’.” Chaudhuri is incorrect, and obviously unwilling to do simple Google searches before sending off his articles: Tennyson wrote that line, not Darwin, and he did so before On the Origin of Species was published. But the phrase encapsulates the way Darwin’s ideas were interpreted in the Victorian era, and continue to be received today. The few who actually read On the Origin of Species find a long treatise about pigeons and many pages spent explaining how differences in beak size and shape among finches of the Galapagos arose because of the varied terrain of the islands. Far less blood is spilled in Charles Darwin's books than in the Bible, Quran or Rig Veda.

As a counter to the brutalist view of natural selection, I’m dedicating this Valentine’s Day post to the cause of love viewed from an evolutionist perspective.

Since I began with God, let me get in a Biblical reference first. In the Book of Genesis, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden. He invites the first man to relish the fruit of every tree, but warns him that, should he eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will die. God creates a woman as companion for Adam, and this woman, named Eve, encounters the garden's resident serpent, who prods her to taste the forbidden fruit. Eve says, no way, God has said we’ll die if we take a bite. The serpent replies, the guy’s bluffing, you’re not going to *die* by eating this fruit. Try it, it will open your eyes. And so the woman eats, and persuades Adam to partake as well. When God finds out and gets upset, Adam cries, it wasn’t me, she did it, she gave it to me, she’s to blame. God curses the woman, saying, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” And so on.

I suggest an allegorical reading of this passage. What sets us humans apart from other creatures is, undoubtedly, our intelligence. We have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The most obvious physical marker of this is our increased brain size. Modern humans have between three and five times the cranial capacity of any of the Great Apes. We possess, in other words, seriously big heads. These big heads create problems in childbirth. It’s much more difficult and painful for human females to give birth than for their chimpanzee and gorilla counterparts. That’s the curse which comes from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge: “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”.

End of allegory. But not the end of my story about big heads. Obviously, some million years ago, having bigger brains conferred significant adaptive advantages to proto-humans. But the hominid birth canal and pelvis couldn’t keep getting wider to accommodate cleverer babies. Beyond a point, the costs associated with inhibited locomotion outweighed the benefits of bigger heads. There was, however, a second way in which enhanced cranial capacity could be achieved; this was by delaying maturity, or, to put it another way, giving birth early so that more development could take place outside the mother's body.

No woman who carries for nine months feels it’s too short a period, but consider this: humans live twice as long as chimps or gorillas. They mature when they’re twice as old. But their gestation periods are more or less the same (7 to 8 months for chimps, 8 months for gorillas). By being born prematurely, humans can continue the development of their big heads without compromising the birth-giver's anatomy (Stephen Jay Gould was the most prominent supporter of this 'early birth' hypothesis). However, this clever manoeuvre creates a problem of its own, in that a human infant stays dependent for far longer than those of any of the Great Apes. It is so helpless for so long that a single parent (without the amenities offered by the affluent modern state) would be hard pressed to take care of it. Having an attentive father greatly improves the chances of an infant’s survival. Long-term emotional connections therefore need to be formed, to keep fathers interested in their children and partners. This is achieved through a variety of adaptations, notably the capacity of human females to remain sexually receptive even at times when they are infertile. The inter-connected development of bigger brains, early birth and perpetual female sexual receptivity takes hundreds of thousands of years, and results, eventually, in the bond between partners that we call romantic love, a bond geared to last long enough to ensure successful child rearing.

The conservatives who insist romantic love is an import, not part of our culture, are deeply mistaken, as are left-wing theorists who classify love as a social construct, along with everything else under the sun. Romantic love went into the very creation of humanity; we would not exist as a species without it. The modes through which the bond is expressed might change from place to place and generation to generation, but the emotion itself is found everywhere and in all eras.

I imagine the opening of a window in time, permitting us a look back fifty thousand years. We peek at a scene in West Asia close to the location of the mythical Garden of Eden. A band of men has been out foraging or hunting and, as they turn to head home with the food they've collected, a youth spots a cluster of bright wildflowers blooming under a tree in the distance, the first sign of spring. Asking his mates to wait, he sprints across and plucks a few to take back for his partner. He doesn't say, 'Happy Valentine’s Day' while presenting the blossoms to her, but the lovers feel very much as millions of couples will do today when they greet each other with those words.


duryodhan said...

hahahah I can imagine you sitting with your partner on v-day .. "do you love me girish?" and you launching into a tirade "well what is love? its only about creating emotional connections to rear children because of our big heads"

way to get into the spirit man ! w00t! :D

Girish Shahane said...

Hey, I'd never use the word 'only'. Love isn't 'only' about those things. Those are merely the conditions for which love arose. Besides, if my partner found this version of love unromantic, I'd say, "Well, it's more than any chimp, gorilla or orangutan could ever offer their lovers". That should settle it :)

globalbabble said...

Giggle... Happy Valentine's Day! Only you could to come up with such pearls of wisdom...

Girish Shahane said...

I wouldn't use the word only :)
Hope you had a great Valentine's Day.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the sweetest posts ever.

Fangs said...

awesome post!

Chronicus Skepticus said...

That was... informative.

On an aside, I never quite understood why the god of the Bible couldn't just *remove* the tree of knowledge from Eden. Or actually, why he put it there in the first place. And then went through all the trouble of pointing it out when his creations were unlikely to have noticed it, there being such a glut of brand-new, never-been-before flora.

What an oddly Puckish god.

Girish Shahane said...

True, Chronicus, God's actions in Genesis are pretty bewildering.