Monday, February 14, 2005


It is impossible, around this time of the year, to escape the inevitable pink and red barrage of heart shaped paraphanelia. Instead of rejecting the most commercial of modern holidays, I've decided instead to write on love (although it is clear that Valentine's Day and love have very little to do with each other). Put simply, what is love? Baby, don't hurt me no more.

Robert Wright wrote that "emotions are evolution's executioner," that is, that those traits which evolution cultivates within us are motivated by the emotions we feel related to them. In the case of guilt, for instance, those organisms which felt guilty about not following through on their potential non-zero-sum interactions with others were less likely to fail to follow through, and thus more likely to benefit from these interactions. Thus, guilt was bred into the population, slowly but surely, as those organisms which felt guilt at failed contracts started to succeed over those who did not.

Love, I'm sure Wright would tell us, is similar, and I can agree. Love is, at is base, a feeling that keeps us engaged with the people who will bear or take care of our children, passing on our genes. Non-romantic love is nature's assurance that we have some connection to each other that will stop us from betraying our partners in life's business. Love, then, is just nature's way of keeping our non-zero-sum interactions somewhat safe and assured.

But emotions are, in many ways, both a priori and a posteriori. They do exist, as Wright posits, as the executioners of our evolutionary adaptions, but they also happen as a response to value judgments about the world around us. Besides being evolutionary designed motivators, emotions are simply the feeling connected with those things which are important (or unimportant) to us. In this way, love also becomes the ultimate expression of our highest values. Those things which I say I love are simply those things which I value the most, for whatever reason.

Love, by either reckoning, has become, at heart, self serving. The reason why we value anything is because it leads to our own self preservation and amelioration, and the a priori feeling of love only exists in order to assure we continue to engage in non-zero-sum interactions with others, all for the sake of, again, self preservation and self amelioration.

Is this a negative representation of love? Does this somehow make love less romantic? This view is probably more cynical than most would like to believe, but if we value self preservation, and if love contributes to that, then there isn't any way in which this representation of love is somehow bad. If anything, explaining love as an inherently selfish emotion only validates its use to the egoist, as an emotion that is altruistic must necessarily be bad.

Does all of this change the silly commercialism of Valentine's day? Sadly, no. I guess we'll just have to deal with another day filled with silly fat flying kids with arrows and fuzzy pink hearts. Sigh.


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