Recently the radio was playing that old song about "the purpose of a man is to love a woman, and the purpose of a woman is to love a man." As someone who has tried to construct his entire philosophy out of lyrics from pop songs, I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of these lines.
I started thinking about how a Darwinian might turn this around. If someone claimed gills evolved so a fish could breathe underwater, the scientist would say we have that backwards: gills happened, and the fact that they helped the proto-fish survive is the reason we now have Salmon croquettes. Survival of the fittest or, reduced to a tautology: survival of that which survives.
So my straw man Darwinian would say love continued to exist simply because it bestowed certain survival advantages; for one thing, it allowed men and women to pool their incomes so they could afford larger mortgages.
But I've never been totally comfortable with the Darwinian correction of this perceived cause-effect reversal. Isn't it possible that cause and effect somehow caused each other?
If every cell in the proto-fish's body desperately wanted oxygen, maybe that very desire somehow accelerated the evolutionary process by triggering the necessary mutation; in other words, maybe random mutation is not so random. As the ancient poet Cliche said: where there's a will there's a way. If I can move my finger simply by thinking a thought, why can't a thought rearrange one of my DNA molecules?
Call it magical thinking, but until I see a complete, believable explanation of the miracle of life in terms of fundamental chemistry and physics without a lot of handwaving until scientists can create a gerbil from common household cleaning supplies I have to wonder whether Darwin only had half of the answer.
Is it possible that, while love may have survived because it gave us certain survival advantages, the flip side of the evolutionary coin may also be true that love happened because that's our purpose in the universe? Maybe love is the fundamental meme encoded into our genes.
Which came first? Are we survival machines for whom love evolved out of a differential fitness advantage, or were we love machines from the proverbial get-go?
The average Joe understands that the purpose of gills really IS to enable fish to breathe, and it doesn't take an evolutionary biologist to figure out that the purpose of a man is to love a woman (or whatever) it just takes a songwriter.
Admittedly, songwriters sometimes lie (love does not, in fact, make the world go 'round), but is it so hard to imagine that love might be the very essence of the DNA molecule?
Or do we have to settle for Cliche's post-modernist saying about the woman, the man, the fish and the bicycle?
Additional speculation, 2005:
At what point in the evolutionary chain does love develop? Is all life capable of love? And if not, why does it bother? Do amoebas feel, express or embody love (in their own way, of course)? Do plants? Viruses? Cancer cells?
Wild speculation: maybe cells become malignant when their love genes become damaged, and then they spread out seeking their missing capacity for love or, failing that, revenge. And maybe the cure for cancer will be genetic engineering to repair the damaged love gene.
(Or is love perhaps even more basic than life itself? Is it somehow built in to the universe, an inherent property of space-time? If so, how would we comprehend such a meaning of the word "love?")
Certainly love will be necessary for the continued survival of the human race, as it has been from the beginning; only time will tell if it will be sufficient.
In retrospect, I'm uncomfortable with much of the above, because it's a bit too close to, ahem, "intelligent design." And as James Lileks says, "I want to believe in intelligent design, and hence I am suspicious of anything that seems to confirm my desire to believe."
Over a hundred years after Darwin, it's still hard to imagine the power of the combination of random mutation and survival of the fittest, but that may be merely a failure of imagination. While I have some lingering skepticism about Darwinian orthodoxy, Creationism's roots in the mother of all orthodoxies should suggest a correspondingly greater degree of skepticism. Just because evolution is a theory doesn't mean that intelligent design has earned equal billing.
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