Love: The Chemical Reaction?

Love: The Chemical Reaction?

Mom got us a subscription to National Geographic for Christmas. She figured since we liked it as kids, it would be good for our kids.

This month’s issue arrived within days of the release of Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. By a strange coincidence the subject of this month’s cover story is Love. The article focuses on the chemical differences between “the passion of early romance” and “long-term love” and is framed by accounts of the author’s relationship with her husband. 

The science the article investigates is fascinating. Evidently when staring at pictures of one’s beloved in the first stages of passionate romance dopamine levels rise; the seratonin levels of a person in the throes of infatuation are comparable to those of a person with OCD; and high levels of oxytocin appear to be linked to the deep bonds of long-term relationships as well as the parent-child bond.

But the troubling a priori assumption of the article seems to be that the mysterious range of phenomena we lump together as “love” can be traced solely to a physiological, chemical, or psychological cause. In short, to something purely material with no spiritual element at all.

The views I found most disturbing were voiced by a professor from Rutgers University, who explains everything in terms of evolutionary anthropology and chemical reactions. In the caption on a photo of an Italian bride and groom emerging from the church in a gleeful embrace she says, “Look at the joy of this man… he has just won the most important thing in his life: the opportunity to pass along his DNA.” So much for love and the dignity of the human person. This formulation objectifies them and reduces them to the sum of their body parts.

The author, Lauren Slater, doesn’t seem to attach herself to any one of these views and indeed the final story of staring at a photo of her husband while on the other end of the phone he stares at a photo of her is quite touching. But an awareness of love as a mystery that science can never solve is left for an editor’s note at the front of the magazine which ends: “Science can explain how love affects the brain—but not the mystery of how it affects the heart.”

I’m by no means anti-science; but I do not think that science alone can unlock all the mysteries of the universe. In the end there are some questions science can’t answer and these are the province of philosophy and theology. When we throw those out and try to make a religion of science our understanding of ourselves and of the world is impoverished.

The final photo in the story says it all to me. The caption reads:

What’s kept Emily and Marion Grillot married for 58 years? It may be the bond forged by having children—20 of them, plus 77 grandkids, many pictured in the Grillot’s Ohio home. It could be the calming effect of oxytocin, a chemical thought to be plentiful in long-term couples. For Mr. Grillot, a farmer, ‘it’s our commitment and concern for one another. Some call it love.’”

The photo shows an old couple sitting in two rocking chairs. Behind and between them in the background is a shelf lined with photos of children and grandchildren. You can make out at least a dozen wedding photos, including a black and white one that must be the couple’s own portrait, as well as pictures of family groups, the couple cradling grandbabies, and what are obviously the obligatory school pictures. Also prominent are statues of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin. Emily has a huge grin and Marion smiles more subtly, posing with his baseball cap on his knee.

God is love, Pope Benedict tells us, and clearly God’s love is a solid foundation for the Grillot’s long and child-blessed marriage. But the God who laid the foundation of the world can’t be measured, instead he is the ultimate measure of all things. Science will never be able to tell us about the deepest mystery of love, which is the nature of God himself. But it seems that many people today would make science into a religion, and close their eyes to the possibility that there is indeed more to life and love than can be quantified by the scientific mind. It may, however, be experienced by the soul in an encounter with God.

Love cannot be reduced to a biological process because God is love and God, except in his incarnation, is not biological. God is Spirit and Love is a spiritual reality.


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