Love: from myth to science


Schopenhauer is perhaps the first to seriously tackle the problem of love as a weird phenomenon with its natural causes. The Greek praised love and warned its consequences. But curiously enough, all those great thinkers of the time, especially a man as systematic as Aristotle, did not try to find out what is behind it, although he dealt with virtually every other subject in the universe. Also, as we all know, the love they talk about is a certain kind of love, which Schopenhauer calls pederasty.

If Plato is happy with surrounding love with myths, fables, and jokes, how did the other philosophers score? According to Schopenhauer, the adorable Rousseau, the great Kant, and the admirable Spinoza all did poorly on this subject. Therefore, he has “no predecessors either to make use of or to refute”. As for how his approach might differ from what an elegant discussion of the topic should constitute, Schopenhauer warns,

Moreover, least of all can I hope for approval from those who are themselves ruled by this same passion, and who accordingly try to express the excess of their feelings in the most sublime and ethereal figures of speech. To them my view will appear too physical, too material, however metaphysical, indeed transcendent, it may be at bottom. (533)

Indeed, what Schopenhauer proposes here, as we will see, is nothing but a science of love. And if a science is too physical, too material and too bottom as it appears to its reader, there is nothing we can do about it. Schopenhauer’s idea about love should be examined from a scientific perspective, instead of from a metaphysic one, since it is there it belongs and it is there it shall be properly evaluated. But is what Schopenhauer proposes good enough to stand for science in today’s standard?

It is not impossible to summarize Schopenhauer’s “discovery” in one sentence. This is: love is a manifestation of the species for which an ideal set of characteristics (most of them physical) are sought in the child thus begotten. What the individuals involved in this business call love, then, is nothing but an illusion, an imperative of the higher order, which demands his/her total sacrifice and persuades them somehow to take this will as theirs. Here is how he argues:

The true end of the whole love-story, though the parties concerned are unaware of it, is that this particular child may be begotten; the method and manner by which this end is attained is of secondary importance.

The essential thing is not perhaps mutual affection, but possession, in other words, physical enjoyment. The certainty of the former, therefore, cannot in any way console us for the want of the latter; on the contrary, in such a situation many a man has shot himself.

However loudly those persons of a lofty and sentimental soul, especially those in love, may raise an outcry over the gross realism of my view, they are nevertheless mistaken. For is not the precise determination of the individualities of the next generation a much higher and worthier aim than those exuberant feelings and immaterial soap-bubbles of theirs? Indeed, of earthly aims can there by one that is more important and greater? It alone corresponds to the depth with which we feel passionate love, to the seriousness with which it appears, and to the importance attached by it even to the trifling details of its sphere and occasion. (535)

If a highly advanced asexual civilization were to conduct a scientific research on human behavior on earth, they might be able to adopt a strictly objective view on things since they are totally immune to them. A human researcher on this subject, on the other hand, is easily biased, even in the case of a misogynist such is Schopenhauer, since he is vulnerable to the same disease.

But where Schopenhauer has faulted most is not on the general principle of things, but on details, where he advances assertions without any scientific substantiation. For example, for the new individual, he postulates,

This individual will have the will or character from the father, the intellect from the mother, and the corporization from both. But the form will depend more on the father, the size more on the mother, in accordance with the law which comes to light in the breeding of hybrids among animals, and rests mainly on the fact that the size of the fetus must conform to that of the uterus. (536)

Alas, it is good to know that, before Science was divided into more and more highly specialized branches, a person with good self-education can feel confident to talk about anything without the fear of being accused of dilettantism!

At times, Schopenhauer is most brilliant:

Through a thousand physical accidents and moral misfortunes there arises a very great variety of deteriorations of the human form; yet its true type in all its parts is always reestablished. This takes place under the guidance of that sense of beauty which generally directs the sexual impulse, and without which this impulse sinks to the level of a disgusting need. Accordingly, in the first place, everyone will decidedly prefer and ardently desire the most beautiful individuals; in other words, those in whom the character of the species is most purely and strongly marked. But in the second place he will specially desire in the other individual those perfections that he himself lacks. (539)

The last sentence is instructive as it plausibly explains why the so-called sense of humor always appeals to woman since it belongs to their perennial lacks, such as bravery, seriousness, strength and so on. Man, at least the bulk of them, lacks tenderness, sweetness, patience and tolerance. Human vocabulary encapsulates these qualities as womanly and manly, respectively. And I often heard that a woman will love an ugly man, but not a unmanly man.

Although Schopenhauer went all the length to discourse on the force driven from species to individual, he cannot come up with a better idea than that of delusion to account for the mechanism. But how does the species exert any force on an individual since the idea of species means nothing but an abstract group of relatively closely related individuals? An imperative that can work on an individual of free will must work from inside of him, not from any outside source, let alone an idea.

Fortunately science does furnish a pair of ideas that amply deals with this phenomenon. These are Phenotype/Genotype, first brought to my knowledge by Richard Dawkins. In essence phenotype is the outward, physical manifestation of the organism; and genotype is the internal and inheritable coding information that instructs such a manifestation, and is carried by all living species. Phenotype/Genotype are not Dawkins’ invention and they were coined before DNA came to our knowledge. But his creative usage of the pair is that he maintains evolution is centered around the genotype—hence selfish gene. Granted, there are things cannot be explained by gene-centered view of evolution. But so are other major theories of evolutionary mechanisms. Dawkins is often criticized as practicing a sort of Darwinian fundamentalism or strict/teleological adaptationism. I personally don’t see anything wrong with that.

The question remains, however, that, what about a love not aiming at procreation? What about a sexual selection that bears no fruit of inheritable characteristics? I am not only referring to the full range of LGBT activities, but also the heterosexual love that is meant to be savored without actual cohabitation. The European tradition of knightly love is certainly a good example, although Cervantes has made it as ridiculous as possible.

For Schopenhauer the answer is that these men and women are led astray by the sense of beauty, which in his system of explanation, immediately guides the sexual impulse. He also observes that animals don’t have a similar problem (its not regarded as a problem these days) since animals have lesser preponderance of the brain and therefore more instincts. But even instinct can be misleading.

The complexity of the ritual and its potential impact on human behavior is hard to underestimate. If a science can only be applied to mindless peasants, then it probably needs some revision. But of course I don’t expect, as yet, such a science would be able to produce satisfactory results interpreting a Proustian love—that will be the day!

I propose that a scientific study of the human behavior of love should be guided by this: this behavior, like many others, is primarily based on various facts in the animal kingdom: human being as mammal, as primate; and also based on the fact that human being as species has been shaped by the very society it built up.

In this light, Schopenhauer’s theory limits itself in the first category. It is therefore strikingly universal, but sometimes painfully deviant. The parts in which his description becomes inaccurate is exactly the parts where love as a social behavior has surpassed love as an animal behavior.


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