Marc Bouji is a Neuroscientist interested in life philosophy debates and communicating science to the general public.
In pursing their goals, genes are harsh, malicious and the most inconsiderate fighters you can meet. To replicate themselves and ensure their survival they went from creating membranes for protection to design a whole factory (the cell), and complex organism (the body) at their services. They used every possible strategy to compete for resources and opportunities. They created photoreceptors for best vision equity and the most diverse digestive enzymes to extract energy for their copy machine. Even the tiniest sequences and the most simple ones were able to find their deadliest weapon. Think of SARS-COV-2 virus which was solely able to agonize more than 240 million organisms for the sake of replication. Yet, maybe the most malicious and sneakiest way genes invented to serve their intentions was: Love.
Love is one of nature proudest creation that infected species on different levels, from attraction to desire and attachment. It’s a complex phenomenon that aimed to reach the ultimate goal of gene replication without caring for any disastrous collateral damage.
To be objective, demonizing genes for their creation is not really fair. At the end, it is a question of survival. Actually, genes tried to make it simple with their first model of replication: asexual reproduction. Simple in concept but complex in practice, asexual reproduction creates copies of genes leading to the formation of new organisms identical to the organism of origin, in summary: clones. But asexual reproduction had it limits regarding survival. It is true that it created millions of copies in a brief period of time, but since all the copies had the same characteristics, any change in the environment that wasn’t supported by these organisms would have led to the extinction of all copies, which means, extinction of ‘Life’. Thus, the idea of creating different forms and variations of genes was inevitable. Non-similar organisms with different pool of genes would present different characteristics. Therefore, any external parameter variation would threaten the survival of certain organisms and not others. In summary, ‘Life’ is always spared and it can thrive again. This strategy works. In fact, it was tested with 5 mass extinctions during 3.5 billions years and here we are, still thriving, waiting for our 6th human-made extinction to happen. The ultimate mechanism to diversify genes and pool different sets of genes together is called: sexual reproduction. It needs the presence of two different organisms (parents) to create offsprings with a new set of genes; thus, new characteristics. The better the pool, the higher the chance of survival. Thus, with sexual reproduction started the choice of a partner, with sexual reproduction ‘Love’ began.
Love started in the form of few chemicals that recognize and attract other molecules that are secreted or expressed by other cells. This is the basis of compatibility and partner matching: a simple chemistry process obeying the rules of protein interactions and energy bindings. It’s not by chance that we talk about ‘chemistry in love’ or we define love as an ‘energy’. In simple organisms a set of ‘chemo-attractive’ and ‘chemo-repulsive’ molecules determine who would reproduce with whom. Yes, even a jellyfish will get rejected if its secretions’ set was not attractive enough.
With the course of evolution, genes did their best in designing the greatest tools for attraction. In their conquest to mix the fittest pool they designed extravagant fur colors, voice production, and more lately emotions and feelings. Thus, love turned from being a chemical interaction between two molecules to a set of variety of emotions and feelings reigned by a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters. And so, we became a big complex molecule that searches for its best companion to create a better mixed version. Here, instead of hydrogen, ionic, hydrophobic or covalent bonds, the linkage is made through emotional bonds called love. Indeed, the whole outcome of your genes’ interactions with each others and their environment will skyrocket your levels of cortisol, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin bringing you the euphory feeling of love.
So far this gene strategy was so powerful that it served well the task of survival and perpetuation of our species. The plan was carried on three level: (1) selecting and attracting the fittest and most compatible partner by relying on the physical and behavioral expressions of their genes. (2) Increasing the chance of survival of the new mixed pool by inducing the highest attachment of parents towards it, aka parental love (3) Inducing the best environment for the mixed pool to thrive: big family and ‘society love’.
However, as the collateral damage of this strategy on each level is being more and more obvious, the gene strategy is questioned. In fact, we tend to glorify love and seek it, but love is not the outcome, love is the tool; and this tool is becoming a suffering for us. It’s like its turning to a glitch in evolution where the survival of the species is on expense of the species itself. How? Think of the pressure of finding the right partner and the dread soul we become when we don’t. Think of the aching of breakups, the abusive attachments, the killing in the name of love and not to mention, the constant search of feeling loved, by the closest and the strangest, which can lead to the most atrocious mental traits and psychological cases. But maybe the most difficult thing to overcome above all is managing love after death. How to fill the craving of oxytocin rising when its trigger is not here anymore. Or more sadly, where to bond all the electrons when a mother loses her son, or vice-versa. Yes, nothing can compete this cruelty, but in the course of species perpetuation, everything seems to be permitted. Today, the loss or lack of love is one of the leading cause of depression. A major disorder blocking people from conducting normal life activities and even taking their lives. So yes, love became like technological inventions, a myth of Janus, it is the motor or our growth and survival and at the same time our source of suffering and deterioration. We fall for its magic each time and we end up being used and manipulated by it, by our own genes. It’s like a betrayal, a lesson that is not learned through generations.
As we are aware of the origin of love, its purpose and glitch; how will we react to it? Will we be able to control this ‘love’ tool? And should we? Societies all over the world are being confronted consciously or unconsciously to this dilemma. Rising of individuality, the booming of self-love industry and the emerging of ‘modern couple’ concepts are no more than a desperate try to escape the genes trap and their tool. Yet, in the battle between the mind (consciousness) and love, the latter is still taking over by far despite its damage. As long as Homo Sapiens didn’t create its own purpose in life beyond the ultimate purpose of genes, this will always be the case. While our conscious purpose will still involve the survival of our species, the aim will be to do with a better life quality; and this may be done by managing and controlling love.
How? The start is by continuing to work thoroughly on understanding love physiologically and psychologically in order to redefine it for the new generation. This will demand a real cooperation between different actors including biologist, cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist. Their work will consist of ‘un-powering’ love of its overly mesmerizing image drawn centuries ago via poetry, movies and culture; and bringing it to our school and university programs. It is there where we should teach an objective view of love, relationships and their purpose. It’s there were we should transform love to a skill and learn to make it a conscious choice to meet self and others. Only then can we start to take control of this tool and who knows, maybe we can use it this time to define our new purpose in life.
© 2022 Marc Bouji