A continuation of the previous post…
The genetic account of love is radically ahistorical. That is, it proposes a universal and constant human nature — of the mind as well as of the body. The broad outline of the genetic inheritance of all people is the same. This makes it look as if love ought to be always and everywhere the same. Such an account may also be thought to support the pessimistic conclusion that there is nothing we can do to ameliorate the problems of love. The two sexes just do have different dispositions and nothing we can do can change that.
These conclusions seem enticing to anyone who wants to attack certain liberal assumptions of the late twentieth century. The liberal view puts the blame for the unhappiness of love upon social conditions: the conventions we have adopted, or which have been imposed upon us, lead to misery. These conventions can and should be challenged and changed. The genetic theorist is unimpressed. You can change conventions all you like, but you can’t change human nature.
But is the position really as simple and depressing as this? If we accept the genetic position, do we have to embrace its universal and pessimistic conclusion? A key question we have to ask concerns the status of what I have been calling inclinations, tendencies and dispositions. The genetic thesis is that dispositions can be inherited.
These words mask considerable uncertainty. What is a disposition? It is quite clear that men are not compelled to be promiscuous, nor that women are bound by a law of nature to be highly selective when it comes to finding partners — yet if the genetic thesis is true this must be compatible with a disposition towards promiscuity or selectivity. More blatantly, neither side is even compelled to reproduce — which would, from a logical point of view, have to be a stronger disposition than any that concerned the details of who to reproduce with.
So it is clear that if there are such dispositions they must stand in complex relation to other aspects of the mind or personality. And these other aspects of the mind can override or modify dispositions. They can invest dispositions with further significance or meaning — and do so in ways which have no direct bearing upon evolution.
For example, lust might be regarded as the prompting of the devil, or as an attack by the body upon the mind; while such ways of thinking do not eradicate a disposition to sexual pleasure they surely have an impact upon behavior. It may be true that the basic components of the mind have not changed since prehistory; but it is clear that the content of thought has developed dramatically. And the content of thought — how we think about ourselves and our desires — makes a difference to our behavior.
One area in which there has been exponential development is reflexive thought. It is clear that human beings have increasingly developed special kinds of belief and desire. These are beliefs and desires which focus not upon the world but upon mental items. We have attitudes towards our beliefs and desires. Thus a man may resist an inclination because he thinks it immoral to accord with it; another may endorse and cultivate the same disposition because he thinks it noble.
While such reflexive attitudes and `second-order’ beliefs and desires are common to humanity they obviously exhibit two kinds of variation: cultural and individual. Cultures vary in general strategies of rejection and endorsement — a whole society or era might be marked by a desire to control appetite or, perhaps, to achieve consistency amongst beliefs. But individuals will also vary in the strength and character of their reflexive attitudes.
Take just one example. The cult of monasticism in the Middle Ages, which led many of the most able and hence most reproducible males into celibacy and chastity, must have overridden any inherited disposition to reproduction. Further, in this period there wasn’t a rejection of love, but on the contrary a massive investment of the notion of love. Only love was directed to God, his laws, his saints — rather than to sexual or romantic concerns. Although this attitude was characteristic of an era and a place it was obviously not possessed in equal measure by all individuals.
This example points to two crucial kinds of transformation which can take place in relation to a disposition. A disposition can be set aside at the level of action, even though it may continue to exert some kind of pull on one’s desires. The point is this: desires don’t automatically guide action; they only guide action in connection with a surrounding set of beliefs and in concert with — or opposition to — other desires.
A second transformation concerns the way a disposition is interpreted. A distinction between sexual desire and love, to pursue the theme, builds upon many other features of intellectual culture. It derives from a vision of human nature — for example the belief that the soul is not sexual, that the soul is `in the body, but not of the body’. It may depend upon a vision of the relation between God and the world — or theodicy, as it is called. According to the Christian view, sex played an important part in the fall of man from God’s grace; the central act of redemption — the birth and death of Christ — was motivated by love. `God so loved the world that he sent his only son to be our savior.’
In this climate of belief the significance of love is very highly charged. So, whatever the underlying disposition defined by evolutionary psychology, the experience of the individual is going to be heavily inflected by culture. People won’t stop having sexual desires but their experience of what sex is and how it relates to — or stands opposed to — love isn’t dependent on their genetic inheritance. Rather it derives from a general, schematic view of just about everything else.
This is why love has a history. The experience of love — what it is like to love and be loved — will depend upon features of the culture and the individual. Therefore despite the common inherited dispositions identified by evolutionary psychology, we have to recognize that the experience of love changes as the surrounding culture of beliefs changes, particularly the beliefs which articulate what we think another person is, what we think is good or right, what we think our duties to ourselves are. Thus, if we believe the evolutionary account we should still recognize the limits of its explanatory power — its power to tell us, today, what love is and what it is for.
Suppose we take an actual historical case of love such as Dante’s love for Beatrice — the love which is woven so deeply into The Divine Comedy — and ask what that love was. The evolutionary answer that it was a genetically inherited strategy for reproduction isn’t going to sound like a plausible answer — even if we accept that Dante would have had such a genetic inheritance. The significance of love was dependent upon all his other beliefs about himself, about God and about the world.
When we consider a case like Dante’s we are powerfully reminded of the reasons which have supported a view of love quite contrary to that advocated by evolutionary psychology. Love, it is suggested, is a cultural construct; and the way it is constructed depends upon various features of a given society. For example, in a society such as ours in which adults very often live alone until they fall in love, love is closely connected to overcoming loneliness. But this could hardly be a major feature of the experience of love in a society in which — until marriage — the individual would normally live in the closest proximity to an extended family.
Again, in periods when the roles of men and women are closely defined and completely distinct, love — which draws a man and woman together — will be envisaged through these roles. In a time when there is no such clear distinction, or where distinctions are grounds of tension and dispute, the experience of what it is to love will change too. What it is to care for the well-being of another person depends upon what you suppose constitutes the well-being of that person.
The evolutionary account stresses the idea that caring for the well-being of another individual (an individual with whom one is sexually active) may be an innate disposition. But depending upon how `well-being’ is understood this may lead to very different patterns of behavior. In one culture, well-being might be likened to having lots of male children; in another to having a tidy home and meat on the table at five o’clock; in another to cultivating freedom of the spirit.
Genetically speaking the same disposition is at work but its impact upon behavior depends upon the way we think, or what we happen to take for granted, about what is good for ourselves and for other people. And although these beliefs and concerns are framed by our cultural horizons, there is, of course, huge individual variation.
What is the significance of cultural variation with respect to the experience of love? Does it matter, at a personal level, whether one thinks that love is a universal or local phenomenon or some combination of the two — as I have been suggesting? What is the incentive to invest one’s belief in either of these positions?
The idea that a kind of feeling is natural and universal can be used to lend dignity to our emotional lives. It is felt that if love is natural it is therefore proper and good, because an equation is made between what is natural and how we should behave. (An equation still manifest in commonplace advice: `Just be natural.’) But this positive evaluation is misleading. The fact that a tendency is universal or natural does not show that we should abide by it. It is almost certainly natural to distrust strangers – and it is quite easy to see how such an attitude could have evolved.
It is probably natural to neglect, or even attack, weak infants and direct resources to more healthy children; bitter rivalry amongst siblings seems to be natural. But in none of these cases do we now think that such behavior is good. We are perfectly able to see that an instinct may no longer serve a good purpose. We are able to evaluate our instincts by reference to their consequences in the world in which we actually live — a world radically different from that in which they were laid down. Therefore to show that love is natural is not in fact to show anything very important. The worth and dignity of love is not ensured because it developed in foraging societies.
What then of enthusiasm for the view that love is not natural? The relativist, liberal claim is sometimes formulated quite aggressively. Love is `merely’ a social construct; it is `simply’ the product of economic and ideological factors. This imports an evaluation: constructs are flimsy, products are tainted. If we put our faith in them we are compromising ourselves.
But this negative evaluation is open to question. After all, there is a very different interpretation which could be drawn from the same premises. One might say, for example, that the experience of love has changed over time — and therefore concede that love is not an ahistorical constant. But in saying this one is not necessarily suggesting that love is just a `convention’ — just a made-up set of rules which we could easily dispense with. Love may have changed, but in many ways changed for the better; the possibilities of romantic love, or the personalized, communicative love of a parent for a child, are an achievement of civilization.
The evaluation, positive or negative, doesn’t follow automatically from the assumption that love isn’t a universal phenomenon. There might be wonderful things which require special conditions in order to come into being. The sonata, for example, is obviously the product of particular cultural conditions — but that doesn’t reduce the value of Beethoven’s efforts in this genre. The fact that it requires education and leisure to read the volumes of Proust doesn’t lead to the conclusion that there is something wrong with his novel; it reminds us why we value education and leisure. What is given by nature is not necessarily good, what is achieved by artifice is not necessarily worthless.
The attraction of the liberal position has always been its optimism. It allows one to think that patterns of behavior are not fixed and that change for the better is possible. Since there have been real changes in the way people conduct their emotional lives it looks as if the liberal position must be, at least, partly true. Yet if we are also persuaded by the genetic thesis we are going to have to accept that not all aspects of the psyche are open to conscious modification. In fact, there is much evidence that suggests that emotional life is at once flexible in some respects and inflexible in others.
For example, the twentieth century saw dramatic changes in the sexual self-presentation of women. Female sexuality became much more public and the assumption that men have a duty to please women in bed became a commonplace. Nevertheless, certain things didn’t change. Male and female patterns of arousal still seem to be different. Male arousal still seems to be more closely connected with visual stimulation and less closely connected with affection than is female arousal. Some aspects of sexual experience have been open to change, others are intransigent.
When it comes to love we see something similar. Recognition of what the needs of another may be is open to change and progress. We really can become more loving by developing a richer sense of what might be important to another person and by cultivating an interest in finding out what those needs are. On the other hand, emotional structures like jealousy and possessiveness don’t seem to change much.
It was just this complexity in our nature, governed partly by convention and partly by nature, that eluded the sexual reformers of the 1970s. Having realized that it was only a convention that men should cut their hair short or wear ties, they proceeded to the very different conclusion that sexual possessiveness is also merely a convention and therefore something that can be easily discarded.
They tried to understand the whole of the human psyche according to a model derived from fashion. Fashions change regularly but always seem natural to those who follow them. The genetic thesis shows up the flaw in this analogy. With fashion, the goal is to align oneself with a group; changes in fashion are insignificant so long as a whole group changes at the same time. So through changes in fashion the important factor, the relation between individual and group, is constant.
However, the emotion of jealousy is not concerned with groups. The desire to hold on to what one has, and to resent it being taken by others, is a self-protective instinct. Various aspects of our conduct have different bases in the mind; this helps explain why they are not equally open to change or reformation. A pattern of change applicable to one field of behavior can be inapplicable to another. We need to work with two ideas simultaneously: the experience of love is open to change, but only in some ways.
If we accept this premise of limitation, we might still want to know to what extent the experience of love is open to change and to understand the mechanisms by which such change can be brought about. In thinking about dispositions we saw that they need to be fleshed out by our view of the world. A disposition to be nice to another person will govern our behavior in concert with our sense of what niceness consists of. One of the ordinary tragedies of love occurs when one person is well intentioned and well disposed towards another, but has no adequate idea of how to make the other person happy. It is one thing to feel loving towards someone, another to translate this feeling into words and actions which make the other person feel loved.
Love needs to be realized, made substantial, in conduct if it is to be communicated. Although this fact gives rise to many of the problems of love it is also an avenue of hope. For the ways we realize our intentions, the ways we turn them into behavior, are more open to change than the underlying intentions and dispositions themselves.
People can be better or worse at seeing opportunities to make their affection apparent to the one they love. They can be better or worse at seeing what the needs or problems of the other might be; at recognizing the impact of their own behavior on the other. This has nothing to do with strength of feeling or intensity of longing. Instead it has everything to do with perceptual acuity and imagination. For it is imagination that allows us to think about how the experience of another may differ from our own; it allows us to wonder what they might need and to wonder how our behavior strikes them.
Imagination opens up the possibility of asking: How might I do things otherwise? The role of imagination is central to love and is the subject of the central portion of this book. But for the present I want to concentrate on a slightly different issue: the value we place upon our actions and those of others.
To elaborate on this point, consider a painting by Chardin — the Meal for a Convalescent, painted around 1747 when Chardin was in his late forties; the picture hangs today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The picture shows a middle-aged woman carefully peeling an egg. On a small table, draped in a fine linen cloth, stands the rest of the simple meal. What is striking about the picture is the air of thoughtfulness it creates. We do not see the convalescent; but the woman’s patient care is made evident. A generous reaction to the picture will see it as a vision of the way in which love is enacted in small things.
Anyone who can identify with this woman’s care is drawn into a culture that endorses and helps give value to such actions. Culture — in this case Chardin’s pictorial art — helps invest a moment with significance and value. For the painting gives this ordinary, uneventful moment special weight – it picks it out as especially worth attending to and reveals its beauty and grace. With the help of the picture we can see how love may be enacted in the shelling of an egg. But it may take an artist of Chardin’s stature and power to reveal this to us.
Thus love has two histories. It has a general history that follows the broad changes of the cultural climate. And love also has an individual history, worked out in the life of each person who comes to love another. This is the history of how we, as individuals, turn inherited dispositions into actual bits of behavior. It is the way we find, or fail to find, openings for our love in words and actions.
When we pay attention to the variation of love according to time and place, we are really studying the way in which the experience of love depends upon the wider beliefs and concerns within which evolutionary dispositions operate. It is this conjunction which creates the experience of love. And this indicates what it is one has to look at in the attempt to understand one’s own experience of love.
We have to attend to the surrounding culture of ideas and concerns that provides the arena in which we try to love — in which our genetic dispositions get played out, interpreted, resisted and transformed. Long-term love is always going to be difficult — the evolutionary account reveals that. But the difficulties are also the product of how we think; and how we think is something over which we can at least hope to exercise some benevolent control.