Here is a thought experiment: Imagine asking your congregation the first thing that comes to mind from the prompt, “Human evolution.” What kind of responses would you anticipate?
I can imagine a wide range depending on the congregation, but I bet this is something you would not hear: Evolution helps explain the human capacity for love; in fact, it looks like it could be the process God used to create a unique species that imaged God’s loving nature.
Sit with that thought for a moment. It is not the way I have seen us approach evolution. Instead, the focus tends to be on competition and selfish genes and nature “red in tooth and claw”—aspects that map better with a notion of sin and evil. A more nuanced view might add the role of cooperation. But love? That’s not our usual language for talking about evolution.
Love is, however, the language of God, even God’s very own essence. It should be the language (and work) of the church. So this week I want to consider the intersection of human evolution, the Bible, and love to see what the Book of Nature has to offer the church.
There is ongoing debate in evolutionary biology around what is the most important unit of selection among humans (and other species): a group or an individual. Those in favor of groups believe they are at least as important, and perhaps more important, than individuals when it comes to the flourishing of our species (and other social animals). After all, deep human history has our ancestors hunting and gathering in small bands long before anything like settled life, urban living, and today’s nation states existed. For many millennia, these small groups were the context in which evolutionary change happened in our species.
Importantly, these groups favored cooperation from within as it gave them an advantage in raising their offspring, securing the necessary resources, and, when needed, outcompeting other groups. (Both cooperation and competition seem to spur evolution.)
Scientists in a range of disciplines describe how evolutionary changes in these ancestral groups wired us to be social creatures who can cooperate and connect at remarkable levels. The result is modern humans capable of things like empathy, compassion, generosity, and love.
Thinking about evolution at a group level even helps biologists make sense of altruism, which confounds the logic of evolution at the level of the individual (how can it help me as an individual to make sacrifices for someone who has no bearing on the future well-being of my kin?).
Biologist David Sloan Wilson likes to say, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” He acknowledges that both selfishness and altruism co-exist, but that altruism can confer a significant competitive advantage at the group level. Hence, our capacity for love was beneficial and spread within our species, even to the point that some humans will act altruistically like the Good Samaritan. This also helps us understand the strong bonds we make with friends and romantic partners who, prior to those bonds, are often individuals outside our group.
Explaining is Not Enough
As you read scientific literature about love, it sometimes feels like scientists are trying to explain it away. Science, after all, is really good at describing how natural phenomena work. So you see language like this as the rationale for why we love: “Because the only point of evolution is to pass genes down.” That sounds nothing like the rationale for love we proclaim in church.
This is where we need to understand the limits of a scientific explanation. A biologist’s description of why we love is not the same as our experience of love. Why? Well consider humor. One can explain what humor is and how it works, but the subjective experience of laughing at jokes will always be a prerequisite to fully understanding humor. You can’t know humor by a description of it; you must experience it.
It is the same for love. Even with a plausible biological description of how we developed the capacity to love and why we are at times altruistic, we won’t know love until we have given and received it.
- It is worth 20 minutes of your time to watch (or hear) two biologists, David Sloan Wilson and Jeffrey Schloss, discuss Love + Evolution.
- Greater Good Science Magazine details recent work showing how love is wired into our brains.
- A new book investigates Why We Love. Read this interview with its author, evolutionary anthropologist Anna Machin.
- Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt goes a step further saying love—specifically the mother-infant bond—is the key to human evolution.
- Biologists heavily debate both the level of selection (a group vs. an individual), but also the relative importance of cooperation over and against competition.
- A Christian psychologist considers what her research on relationships can teach us about love.
- Billy Graham and Philip Yancey help us think about the love of God.
The Bible Tells Us So
John the Evangelist tells us that God is love (I John 4:16). Social science shows that nearly all Bible-believing Christians accept this truth. A 2017 Pew survey showed that 97% of “adults who say they believe in the God of the Bible say they think God loves all people regardless of their faults, and that God has protected them.”
For God so loved the world that in addition to giving us God’s only son, God also wired us with the capacity to love one another even as we love ourselves.
On this, human evolution agrees with the Bible. Evolutionary anthropologist, Anna Machin, puts it this way: “Love is so important that evolution has seen fit to engage every mechanism in your body to make sure you’re as close and bonded as you can be.”
Or, as neuroscientist turned science writer Summer Allen writes: “We are each equipped with biological mechanisms that underlie our ability to empathize, cooperate, give, and love. These neural circuits underpin all of our relationships, beginning at birth—and maybe even before.”
Love is a central reality of human experience. It is what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus and the Logos has endowed us biologically with what we need to accomplish it. That is how I see the intersection of human evolution, the Bible, and love. Yes, selfishness, anger, and the ability to do horrible things remain part of us but we are also equipped to love, even our enemies.
The challenge is less in how we explain the remarkable convergence between Scripture and science in regard to love and more in how we help the world to experience God’s love. The harder question is, will they know we are Christians by our love?