Comment: Why we are more than just biological robots

Biology, not love, may have attracted Kate and Wills to each other, according to some theories. Picture: Getty
Biology, not love, may have attracted Kate and Wills to each other, according to some theories. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

To suggest love is down to your genes fails to explain why human beings are free-thinking individuals, writes Tiffany Jenkins

When sparks fly between two people, when they are attracted to one another, it commonly said that they have “chemistry”. In recent times, this expression has come to be taken more literally than it should. When we now ask: “what is this thing called love?” many rush to suggest that courtship and lust can all be explained by science and, in particular, by our biology.

Researchers line up to account for love in terms of hormones: testosterone, oestrogen, oxytocin and vasopressin. Those studying the science of attraction draw on evolutionary theory to explain why we pair up and reproduce.

Love is not the only target in a power grab currently at play which attempts to reduce everything that is human as down to, and explained by, biology. More broadly, there is a creeping and dangerous scientism at play in many aspects of our lives today – scientism being a belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach.

For example, in On Being – A scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence, Peter Atkins, a former professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, asserts that “everything is an aspect of the physical, material world”. According to this idea, the scientific method applies to and can shed light on the most profound questions of existence – belief, the reasons for feelings, and morality.

Let me clarify. The scientific method and the gains of scientific application have dramatically transformed our lives and our understanding of life, for the better, for centuries. The tremendous breakthroughs and the continuing potential of the scientific method is not what concerns me. What worries me is how and why science is all too often the answer to questions about the meaning of human life, brought into areas where previously it was not considered to shed light. In particular, when it comes to understanding us – human beings – it is too often said that humans are just organisms; that we are animals that can be explained away by the biological sciences.

In the last few years there been a flurry of publications, research and even policy, based on science, advancing into arenas that were once the subject of the humanities. There has been an encroachment into the space once filled by philosophers. Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation, is one of the latest attempts. Here, the evolutionary biologist is interested in understanding the basis for speech, social organisation, culture and technology – all of which mark us out as different and unlike other animals.

Pagel acknowledges we have culture. But rather than seeing this as something exceptional and as an indication that we are more than just biology, he suggests that our capacity for culture is because we are hard wired for it, due to it increasing our chances of survival. Basically, he argues that culture enhances our genes’ chances.

Being artistic, being good at playing the piano, makes a person more attractive and thus a catch. A bit like the tail for a male peacock – the talent, according to this point of view, attracts a mate. Pagel argues that natural selection can explain love and that our creative culture is a consequence of the drive for survival. This – not us – is the driver of romance. Birds do it, bees do it, and so do we, all for the same reason – to reproduce and survive.

But is it all, really, that basic, that reductive? I think not. What about those who don’t have kids, who choose to be celibate? What about those of us who fall in love with the wrong person, who fall in love in spite of it being against our best interests? Why are people having fewer children today? What about gay relationships, what about those that are polygamous, and what about freewill?

Free will gets short shrift here. For Pagel it is an illusion, and not “all it’s cracked up to be anyway.” But Pagel gets it the wrong way round. We – human beings – shape our relationships, our own lives. And we shape society, even if it doesn’t always go to plan. The choices we make occur not just because of our biology, but other social and personal factors. Our ideas of what could be influences what is.

According to the Raymond Tallis, the former physician and philosopher, and author of Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, the idea that it is all about biology, all about survival, is deeply flawed approach. It is not possible, Tallis argues, to reduce everything, especially choice and consciousness, to just an aspect of the physical material world: “The very notion of a complete account of the world in physical terms is of a world without appearance and hence a world without consciousness.” In other words, human beings can think for themselves.

Human beings may be of nature and subject to its laws, but we influence our environment. Just consider the contraceptive pill – a great advance for men and women to actively choose when to reproduce, or not. Indeed, just a cursory glance over human history and it is clear that there are many different ways of organising our personal and family lives, and there are competing ideas of how to do so. This is all to the good. The debate over how to do so is a sign that we can be free-thinking, imaginative people who do things not just because of our genes.

Science can tell us many things, but it can tell us little about love. After all, what better captures the intensity of feeling and commitment? The understanding of neuro-transmitters and “monoamines” or this: “Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove”. In this sonnet by Shakespeare, we hear a truth about the feelings for another that scientific experiments do not and could not reveal. The Bard had it about right; a better understanding of love than later, apparently more enlightened, men.