Nothing Personal: Sermonettes from the Church of
The Likely Story
by Jeremy Sherman
Nothing Personal is the latest experiment... sermonettes from a fictitious
church I'm calling the church of the likely story. They are sort of like
Darwinian Dharma talks. I've chosen a church instead of a zendo image--
more mainstream and it raises less red flags about messianics than gurus
Nothing Personal invites readers to imagine living their lives with full
awareness of what evolutionary science teaches about who we are and why
we are here. It explores the risks and benefits of adopting an evolutionary
perspective. It explains our aversions and attractions to Darwinian ideas.
Above all, it suggests a way to harness evolutionary theory to drive a compelling
practical philosophy-one that increases our capacity for learning and change;
acceptance and compassion.
An evolutionary perspective can afford us a newdegree of equanimity.
From its vantage, we can gain a realistic overview of our lives. There,
we recognize our gifts and faults; our successes and failures for what they
really are: nothing personal. We visit that state where Buddhism and Taoism
invite us to dwell, outside our self-absorption and stress. And delightfully,
one of the first things to subside is stress about being so self-absorbed.
For evolutionary theory makes clear, in ways that Buddhist psychology and
Taoist philosophy do not, why it is natural for us to be self-absorbed.
In light of the overwhelming biological evidence synthesized by evolutionary
theory, compassion for ourselves and for allself-absorbed sentient beings
becomes a no-brainer--the obvious, natural response.
Evolutionary theory is like a Rorschach test. We can learn a lot about
our biases and predilections by noticing the ways in which our minds react
to Darwin's news.
Sermonette #1: Love*
*Sample chapter from 'Nothing Personal: Sermonettes from the Church of
The Likely Story'
- After services last week, I was talking with Judith, our gospel choir
- director about her day job. Judith is an estate planner. She writes
- and trusts. Being in the church business, I asked her about charitable
- giving. She told me that 87% of people's money ultimately goes to their
- kids. I wondered why the figure was so high. Why not leave more to
- Or to our neighbor's kids, since we're supposed to love our neighbor
- Especially if the neighbor's kids are better behaved than our own?
- Judith said that if she asked any of her clients to explain, they would
- answer with one word: love. They give their money to their kids because
- love them. Well, of course. We take that for granted. But that got
- wondering about something else that we take for granted.
- Just why do we love our own children so much? Why do we love some people
effortlessly and others not at all?
- Many of us spend a lot of time wondering about the particulars of our
love lives, but little time wondering what love is. We know we need it,
like food, water and air. But unlike these things, it is hard to say precisely
what we need love for. In fact, many of us feel that dissecting and analyzing
love is a violation, a futile exercise, or a bring-down. Love is sacred.
End of story.
- We aspire to be more loving--to spread our love, to give it to those
- it most. We love ourselves less because we aren't loving enough.
- In general, we love our parents, our mates and our children. Beyond
- love that comes easy is love for the lovable; not the most deserving.
- beauty, brilliance, luster, cuteness, charm, grace and talent. But
- not, for the most part, qualities people acquire by their own efforts.
- is no meritocracy.
- If we want to get anywhere in our personal campaigns to become more
- it behooves us to know what we are up against. What makes us love who
- love? What gives birth to love?
- Some say love makes the world go 'round. In the beginning there was
love. Love is the force that holds the universe together. Some say God
set the universe in motion and created love to keep it going. But thanks
to biologists, we now know that something specific preceeds love in history,
and by that I mean natural history. Recognizing that something is the first
step toward understanding why we love some people so easily and others
with such difficulty.
- Whatever else love may be, it is certainly bio-chemical.
We have built-in
- receptors for the bio-chemicals that feel like love. We have built-in
- triggers that send those bio-chemicals to receptors on cue from our
- When you see a loved one and love surges up in you, that surge is not
- metaphoric. It is the surging of real chemicals. These receptors and
- triggers and chemicals are built into our bodies by our genes. Why?
- The genes that build our bodies descended into us through a
- four-billion-year-long filter that filters for one thing only: reproductive
- If genes make a body that make a baby, the genes pass through one
- stage -one generation-of filtering. If they don't, that's the end of
- line. Over the course of many generations, the genes that build traits
- contribute to reproductive success tend to filter through. The genes
- build traits that impede reproduction tend not to. It's simple. We
- it in high school biology, though I doubt any of us noticed what it
- about love.
- The one generalization we can make about every one of our ancestors
- way back 4 billion years is that they were good at reproducing, or
- good enough. The genes that managed to make it into in us had to be
- passing through the filter. They could be good or bad for other things.
- What matters when it comes to the filtering is simply that they pass
- through. The creatures on earth today express a lot of different ways
genes build bodies that pass through evolution's filter. For example, some
- creatures make lots of babies, and attend to them very little. Others
make few babies and care for them a lot. A female cod fish produces 40
million fertile eggs in her lifetime of which, on average, two survive
to reproduce. Only two in 40 million! Cod beat the odds against survival
with a lot of tries, but not much attention to each try.
- Mammals like us have many fewer than 40 million offspring and care
for them a
- lot more than cod do. When we dote on our children we increase the
- they will survive enabling our genes pass through life's evolutionary
- Humans have taken this mammalian strategy to an extreme. The world
- just parents but grandparents dote. I was with a reknowned Buddhist
- last week who said she didn't really breathe easy about her child-rearing
- task until her children had children of their own.
- Both cod and humans are species whose genes have successfully filtered
- Both follow different strategies that amount to the same thing: reproductive
- success. We all know this. I'm not saying anything new to you. But
- ask parents why they want to leave all of their money to their children,
- talk about love. Genes don't come to mind. So let's talk about love.
Just what is it? Love, we say, is a feeling, and feelings are strong. Convincing.
They compel us to do things. To behave in certain ways.
- Who feels love? Bacteria sense a difference in concentrations of sugar
- the water they swim in. If there is more sugar in one direction than
- another, they detect it and swim toward it. There must be something
- the bacteria that interprets the difference in sugar concentrations
- motivates that swimming. In bacteria the motivator is something pretty
- simple, like a mechanical process. The bacteria sense the sugar and
- internal motivating mechanism gets the bacteria moving in its direction.
We could say that the bacteria love sugar, but that's a strange way to
talk about creatures smaller than a grain of sand. Does the bacteria experience
love the way we do? Unlikely. It's simply responding to its genetically
programmed internal motivator. It's as if the genes were saying, "we
have a better chance of getting through the evolutionary filter if we move
toward the sugar."
- Mind you, the genes don't "want" to get through the filter.
There is no
- "want" involved. This is a difficult point to grasp but worth
- Nature blindly produces a lot of variations. Some are better at surviving
- reproduce than others. Over time we see a higher representation of
- varieties that survive to reproduce. That's all. The filtration process
- simply leaves standing those genetic combinations that produce bodies
- In creatures a little more like humans-dogs, say--the motivators look
- familiar. You can see it on a dog's face and hear it in his whine.
- a male dog on a tethered leash yearning to get at a passing bitch in
- He doesn't seem to care that he's choking himself half to death, at
- not as much as he cares about getting close to her. Obviously getting
- to her increases his chance of reproducing successfully. We can guess
- the dog feels this craving in his body. We can guess it is an uncomfortable,
- unsettling physical sensation that only stops when he gets her, or
- from her scent. We know that biochemistry is involved in producing
- physical sensation, and that genes produce the biochemistry. We know
- dog finds the biochemicals very convincing.
- We say the dog craves the bitch. Craves, not loves. We wouldn't call
- love, precisely because it is mere reproductive success that drives
- behavior. We reserve the idea of love for some higher goal. We don't
- comfortable thinking of true love as just another motivator for reproduction.
- But tell me, how could it be that doggy craving is built in by the
- reproduction and human love isn't? In humans, the strongest, most convincing
- emotions are those most directly tied to reproductive success: falling
- love, fear of losing a child, love for a newborn baby, sexual jealousy,
- young child's devotion to mommy and daddy, the survival instinct. Is
- coincidence that the more directly linked a feeling is to keeping us
- and reproducing, the more powerful the emotions involved? Bacteria are attracted. A dog craves. But only we love. Yet the love
we feel must be, in large measure, a means to reproductive success. It
is a trait that has made it down into us through life's long filtration
system. The most intense aspect of our experience of love is the physical
sensation; that thoroughly convincing, biochemical, unsettling and euphoric
state that doesn't abate until we get what we want or get over it. Sounds
like a motivator to me.
- Yet as similar as the dog's experience of craving might be to our own,
- be pretty sure it is different in one important respect. The dog puts
- name on his craving. He experiences it raw, unscrutinized. We humans
- our motivators.
- Humans are the only species on earth that can define a symbol with
- symbols. Some brain scientists say this is the key to our unique gift.
- Because our minds house a great mesh of names for things defined by
- names for things, we are able to build comprehensive mental pictures,
- models of the world around us. Not just the fire hydrant and the bones
- have hidden under the tree. Ideas. Concepts like love, peace and happiness.
- We can talk about the features of these things. The dewy-eyed gentleness
- compassion. The spherical stillness of peace.
- This ability to conceptualize is a very fancy adaptation. You can see
- it increases our chances of surviving to reproduce. We can try out
- actions on our comprehensive mental models before we take them on in
- life. That way most of our dangerous ideas are weeded out before we
- them. Our dumb, unsafe ideas can die in our stead, leaving us alive
- more babies. One way we define love is by the physical sensation we
feel. But because of our unique gift we also conceptualize love with other
word symbols. We characterize love with words like godly, sacred, pure,
true. Consciously and unconsciously we develop stories about love. What
it means. What it's for.
- In a way we are like scientists trying to uncover the most accurate
- In a way we are like storytellers, telling the story about love that
- feel best. Sometimes we tell likely stories; sometimes we tell just
- stories. Here's what seems a likely story then: pledging your net assets
at death to
- your kids is an act of love conducive to your reproductive success.
- money we can leave to our children the better their chance of reproducing.
- Our reproductive success is dependent on theirs. Just as bacteria embody
- their genes' prediction, our bodies must embody our genes' prediction
- we care for our children well, our genes will have a better chance
- filtering through. The love we think motivates us is really an intermediary,
- a motivator built into us because it has helped our genes get this
- motivates us to do all sorts of things including pay Judith's legal
- write our wills assigning our assets to our children.
- I recognize that it is a rare sermon that downplays the supremacy of
- know you didn't come here to hear your favorite sensations debased.
- you expect and prefer to be encouraged to believe in a love supreme
- ideal love--loving everyone, loving mother earth, loving your neighbor
- yourself-- is what motivates your best, your most generous behavior.
- the stuff that makes our world run more smoothly. Maybe you want a
- on loving, even if a pep talk doesn't always work.
- To talk of love as a way for our genes to trick us into doing their
- is pretty repugnant. But it is precisely because love is genetic in
- that it is hard for us to look at its genetic origins. For love to
- have to believe in it. An unconvincing emotion would be a poor motivator
- any gene to design. What good does it do your genes for you to go peering
- behind the curtain and see them back there pulling love's strings?
- Still, we are curious by nature. Besides doting on our kids, another
- survival strategy in our lineage is curiosity about our environment.
- creatures are curious. A starfish doesn't wonder about the world around
- It doesn't try to figure out how to live more efficiently. It follows
- more rigid evolved strategy; one that works perfectly well for it in
- narrow niche. Our strategy is different. Our strategic curiosity enables
- to learn in real-time, to innovate, to pioneer and to work out ways
- in all sorts of niches.
- Given this strategic curiosity, we can't help but wonder sometime why
- love. Especially when love bites you hard. As it does. It bites like
- dog's barbed choke chain. Alone, widowed, abandoned, rejected, torn
- love; through your tears you can't help wondering at least a little.
- this bedevilment about? It reminds me of a cartoon that shows the standard
- of evolution: a parade of creatures starting with a fish, moving through
lizard, bird, dog, ape and then human. Fish through ape each has a thought-balloon
that says "eat, survive, reproduce." The human's thought balloon
says, "What is the meaning of life?"
- We are curious creatures because curiosity got our genes this far.
- curiosity didn't evolve so we could figure out the meaning of life.
- we are, among the first few generations since Darwin--the first living
- in life's four-billion-year history to have a clue how life really
- Understanding how it works has never been necessary to living it. We
- know what this new understanding will do to our sanity.
- And so we find ourselves with the gripping bodily experience of love,
- natural aversion to scrutinizing it, a natural curiosity that leads
- scrutinize it, and evidence that under scrutiny, it is more genetically
- engineered than we would like to think. How do we hold all of this
- Dear friends, I have felt romantic love, love for my children and love
- parents as strongly as anyone. Love is the primary source of joy for
- living as I do through my human body. I can't help but believe in it.
- I have also begun to recognize and honor a greater, stranger love.
- love is my name for all the interactions of all the parts and wholes
- The relations between all the cells, the organs, the microbes, the
- the plants, the viruses, the predators, the prey, the species, the
- the you, the me. All of it. It includes the love that comes easy, that
- as a human prefer: being loved, loving nice friends, loving a lover,
- especially when she is lovely; loving my child; my flesh; my blood
- It includes the love I aspire to: truly selfless generosity, compassion,
- cooperation. Loving my neighbors as my self, whether they are lovely
- But universal love must also include the interactions in life that
- strike me as lovely at all: exploitation, competition, deception, parasitism,
- dominance, predation --all forces within nature and within us simply
- they are conducive to reproductive success--all forces that surge through
- as surely and convincingly as the surge of love. I hereby embrace universal
- love, the entire product of this disinterested filtration process we
- Will embracing it make me go insane? That may seem an unnecessary question,
- but you do have reason to wonder. People have justified all sorts of
- attrocities with Darwinian explanations. Hitler did. Stalin did.
- I think if we are careful, we can use our understanding of evolution
- us saner. Embracing universal love, embracing evolutionary theory can
- extraordinary compassion.
- When I notice myself falling short of my high ideals-not loving broadly
- enough, for example--I wince. I berate myself. How could I be so stupid,
- mean, so bad? When I notice someone else falling short, I berate them
- out loud, or just in my head. A lot of us do that. I suppose berating
- be motivating, but it can also be very distracting. It can get in the
- change, or take the place of it. If looking at our faults is painful,
- ways to avoid doing it. We get defensive. We berate others more harshly
- take the load off ourselves.
- This is well understood. There are many spiritual practices that teach
- compassion as the antidote. Many start by teaching compassion for oneself,
- because, it seems the more compassion we have for ourselves, the more
- compassion we can feel for others. But most spiritual practices extol
- of compassion simply because it is good for us, or because a higher
- God or Jesus, or Buddha, encouraged it. Recognizing the true biological
roots of our selfish attention to our genes and their needs makes compassion
a no-brainer. Through an understanding of evolution, we recognize that
we come by our failings and inappropriateness honestly. They are vested
in us by the dance of life. By evolution. Don't panic; it's organic.
- By honoring universal love and the evolutionary dance that gives birth
- its variety of interactions, I can understand why it is so much easier
- to love my children than my neighbor's children. If I am skillful,
- weave my recognition of universal love into a stronger fabric of compassion,
- and acceptance of the way things are. If I'm skillful, I'll keep from
- evolution as a rationale for not trying to love my neighbor more.
- Love who you love; feel what you feel and, at the same time, see through
- to universal love. On the one hand you are just another evolved organism,
- manipulated by your successful genes in the very ways that have made
- successful. On the other, because the gene's success in your lineage
- been enhanced by your curiosity, you are clued-in enough, at least
- to see through your emotions to their evolutionary origins.
- I think awareness of one's split personality is the sanest way to live.
- your most aware, love's visceral appeal and the ability to see it for
- is can co-habitate. It is the best of both worlds. You get to enjoy
- ride and the awe that comes from taking in the very big picture in
- and ten thousand other motivators move you and all other life forms
- the evolutionary dance. Do as love bids you, and have the clarity and
- that comes from understanding how it serves your gene's reproduction,
- more fundamental, yet surprisingly ignoble purpose. We are all dancing
- the forces that got us here. Notice them, and you can dance with grace.