God loves you. Does evolution?

Evolution selected our ability to love. Can it also actually love us, as religious believers feel that God loves them?

Let’s back up a bit. According to biologists, the roots of human love are found in the length of time that a human baby requires nurture and protection. While the offspring of other mammals become independent of the mother within months at most, a human baby is dependent for years. The main reason for its dependency is its big brain and its long learning curve.

So for children to survive, natural selection favored parents who bonded with each other and who would stick together for a number of years. Over the millenia, with our capacities for memory and imagination, we developed the ability—and the desire—to love not only another individual but also groups of people and other beings, in all kinds of nuanced ways.

One of those ways is spiritually. Monotheistic religions encourage believers to love a single, parent-like deity who also, they feel, loves them back.

But here’s my question: for those like me whose firmest conviction is in the reality of natural history and not in a deity, is it still possible to hold a justified belief in some form of cosmic or spiritual love?

On the face of it, probably not. Atheistic naturalists, humanists, and other secularists may find the universe inspiring and beautiful, but I’ve never heard them try to make the case that it cares about individuals in any way.

But there is this: we humans are capable of love in the first place because of evolution. Love is an evolutionary product. Plants don’t do it, most animals can’t do it, higher animals and humans can. So we have evolution to thank for the kindness and love that we humans and many animals give to and receive from others. During our lives and especially at times of sorrow, pain, or fear, we need to feel cared for and to care for others, and the history of life has cultivated in us not only these needs but the ability to meet them for and with each other. I feel a gratefulness of sorts for that.

4 thoughts on “God loves you. Does evolution?

  1. I think that’s a very good point, and now that Darwinism is slowly being eroded frmo above, below, in front and behind and around the core, people are starting to wonder why that hadn’t been the theory from the start.

    Animals have very strong bonds with their young; I read about an experiment when I was about 16 in which a mother rabbit was examined in the laboratory and her heart rate measured while in a separate, soundproof lab, scientists killed her newborn babies one by one. They reported that on each death, the mother’s heartbeat and stress signals jumped alarmingly. She registered the loss as her own.

    In another experiment, two rats were kept side by side in cages. One was given food, and each time he ate, the other rat was given an electric shock. Eventually the first rat associated the other’s pain with his own actions, and stopped eating. And he refused to eat for long enough that scientists realised his empathy for the other rat outweighed even his will to survive. Primates have shown the same wired-morality in reactions to scientific cruelty to other primates.

    All of which shows that caring and love – even tarted up with words like “mirror neuron apparent empathic reactions” is wired throughout the animal kingdom, of which we form part. Therefore empathy is a natural state, one scarcely likely to evolve from nothing – and perhaps a reason why the standard behaviour even of insects is to raise their young as best they can rather than feed on them as a handy source of protein –

    – and a lack of empathy with other intelligent living beings, in the cheerful performing of cruel experiments (!) can only mean some kind of freakish behaviour which must be very damaging for any species, but especially so for the human race which, able to think up horrible and constantly more powerful ways to kill, only awaits the arrival of a charismatic psychopath to completely obliterate it!


  2. Hi Brock. There’s growing evidence that most of our societal behaviors, those that seem to operate outside or beyond evolutionary survival requirements, have in effect been layered on top of earlier, more survival-oriented behaviors like bonding. For example, we can imagine good survival benefits from feeling disgust at the sight or smell of putrifaction, but the same brain areas responsible for those reactions also activate when we feel “disgusted” by societal triggers like movie violence, political news, or fashion errors, which typically do not threaten survival. See this link on someone who lost function in the part of the brain that feels disgust: http://www.sciencenews.org/pages/pdfs/data/2000/158-24/15824-18.pdf

    Love, of course, follows suit. Extended human childhood supported by strong parental bonds makes good survival sense and it is directly responsible for our much bigger and more complex brains. However, we have survived the need for survival, so to speak, and now all that brain power can be co-opted for societal purposes by the neocortex. So we can love our shoes, love our country, and love to love, none of which has one bit of influence on our survival as individuals or as a species. And yes, the old brain wants to attribute that flush of emotion to a cause, because that’s what the old brain does, it makes connections, sees causes. And yes, society has co-opted that flush of emotion and provided various targets for gratitude–god, country, krishna, karma, good luck, your choice–for benevolence on things like getting an A on a test or avoiding an audit of your dicey tax-return.

    However, the new brain has the ability to step back and analyzed the who, what, and why of it all, and sometimes we can understand that gratitude towards…whatever benefactor we choose to be grateful to…can be understood as a biological brain event that is largely unrelated to the societal abstraction we have invented to explain it. Humanists and atheists do not imagine that the universe cares about them because it clearly does not, cannot, because “caring” is a human construct layered on top of the old brain’s impulse to nurture offspring. But rather than inventing an abstraction to fill in the gap, many non-theists instead decide that the impulse to feel gratitude towards “a higher power” does not require them to *believe* in such an entity.

    I see it a lot like I see astrology–it was fun at one point in my life to imagine that this handy system for putting people into handy pigeon holes might actually having “meaning”, and I might even today call someone a “Leo” for acting a particular way. But I realize and accept that the whole thing is a human fabrication with no real meaning. In the same way, I might actually utter the habitual words “thank god” when someone says they avoided a deadly collision, but I recognize that the words are a human fabrication based on a flush of emotion from the old brain and have no real meaning.

    A hard part of being a non-theist is learning to embrace the idea that there simply is no real target for some of our organic impulses, like our fear of the dark, our tendency to separate “us” from “other”, and our wish to thank *somebody* for the things that make us happy. Recognizing this fact can leave one feeling small and alone. But the next step after recognizing this is to say, okay, so I’m small and alone. That means that I have only myself to rely on, and those of my species that I feel I can trust. It means *choosing* significance for myself and skipping the thanks, rather than kowtowing to some imaginary superbeing who, some human assures me, will confer significance on me in exchange for my everlasting gratitude. No thanks! 😉


    • Hi Nora. Thank you for the clear and helpful explanation of old brains, new ones, and co-opting. You describe it all with great clarity.

      On gratitude for abstractions: I think that one abstraction we might have a modest flush of emotion towards is evolution or simply the history of life. (Exploring this possibility is more or less the purpose of this blog.) Both are abstractions but grounded ones. For me this has been a reassuring step after the realization of being “small and alone.” The same capacity that enables us to understand the difference between the emotion and the unreality of its target also enables us to find an appreciation for the process that brought us that capacity in the first place, along with other constructive human activities such as love. More simply, we can feel some respect/amazement/maybe-gratitude for the way we got here. And I admit this is also a rather self-reflexive approach to finding what one believes in.

      On your point that the impulse for gratitude towards a higher power does not, for non-theists, entail a belief in the entity’s existence. I think that this also has relevance to many traditional believers who, less consciously, hold on to fervent belief more for the sake of the emotion itself than from a firm conviction in the existence of what or who they are praising.


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