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 do.

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 wills
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 charity?
Or to our neighbor's kids, since we're supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves?
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 they
love them. Well, of course. We take that for granted. But that got me
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 who need
it most. We love ourselves less because we aren't loving enough.
In general, we love our parents, our mates and our children. Beyond that, the
love that comes easy is love for the lovable; not the most deserving. We love
beauty, brilliance, luster, cuteness, charm, grace and talent. But these are
not, for the most part, qualities people acquire by their own efforts. Love
is no meritocracy.
If we want to get anywhere in our personal campaigns to become more loving,
it behooves us to know what we are up against. What makes us love who we
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 senses.
When you see a loved one and love surges up in you, that surge is not just
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 the
line. Over the course of many generations, the genes that build traits that
contribute to reproductive success tend to filter through. The genes that
build traits that impede reproduction tend not to. It's simple. We learned
it in high school biology, though I doubt any of us noticed what it implied
about love.
The one generalization we can make about every one of our ancestors all the
way back 4 billion years is that they were good at reproducing, or at least
good enough. The genes that managed to make it into in us had to be good at
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 likelihood
they will survive enabling our genes pass through life's evolutionary filter.
Humans have taken this mammalian strategy to an extreme. The world over, not
just parents but grandparents dote. I was with a reknowned Buddhist teacher
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 down.
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 when we
ask parents why they want to leave all of their money to their children, they
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 in
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 inside
the bacteria that interprets the difference in sugar concentrations and
motivates that swimming. In bacteria the motivator is something pretty
simple, like a mechanical process. The bacteria sense the sugar and the
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 the effort.
Nature blindly produces a lot of variations. Some are better at surviving to
reproduce than others. Over time we see a higher representation of the
varieties that survive to reproduce. That's all. The filtration process
simply leaves standing those genetic combinations that produce bodies that
In creatures a little more like humans-dogs, say--the motivators look more
familiar. You can see it on a dog's face and hear it in his whine. Think of
a male dog on a tethered leash yearning to get at a passing bitch in heat.
He doesn't seem to care that he's choking himself half to death, at least
not as much as he cares about getting close to her. Obviously getting close
to her increases his chance of reproducing successfully. We can guess that
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 is removed
from her scent. We know that biochemistry is involved in producing this
physical sensation, and that genes produce the biochemistry. We know that the
dog finds the biochemicals very convincing.
We say the dog craves the bitch. Craves, not loves. We wouldn't call it
love, precisely because it is mere reproductive success that drives its
behavior. We reserve the idea of love for some higher goal. We don't feel
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 genes for
reproduction and human love isn't? In humans, the strongest, most convincing
emotions are those most directly tied to reproductive success: falling in
love, fear of losing a child, love for a newborn baby, sexual jealousy, a
young child's devotion to mommy and daddy, the survival instinct. Is it just
coincidence that the more directly linked a feeling is to keeping us alive
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, we can
be pretty sure it is different in one important respect. The dog puts no
name on his craving. He experiences it raw, unscrutinized. We humans name
our motivators.
Humans are the only species on earth that can define a symbol with other
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 other
names for things, we are able to build comprehensive mental pictures, mental
models of the world around us. Not just the fire hydrant and the bones we
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 of
compassion. The spherical stillness of peace.
This ability to conceptualize is a very fancy adaptation. You can see how
it increases our chances of surviving to reproduce. We can try out different
actions on our comprehensive mental models before we take them on in real
life. That way most of our dangerous ideas are weeded out before we act on
them. Our dumb, unsafe ideas can die in our stead, leaving us alive to make
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 truth.
In a way we are like storytellers, telling the story about love that makes us
feel best. Sometimes we tell likely stories; sometimes we tell just likable
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. The more
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 that if
we care for our children well, our genes will have a better chance of
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 far. It
motivates us to do all sorts of things including pay Judith's legal fees to
write our wills assigning our assets to our children.
I recognize that it is a rare sermon that downplays the supremacy of love. I
know you didn't come here to hear your favorite sensations debased. Perhaps
you expect and prefer to be encouraged to believe in a love supreme because
ideal love--loving everyone, loving mother earth, loving your neighbor as
yourself-- is what motivates your best, your most generous behavior. It is
the stuff that makes our world run more smoothly. Maybe you want a pep talk
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 bidding
is pretty repugnant. But it is precisely because love is genetic in origin
that it is hard for us to look at its genetic origins. For love to work, you
have to believe in it. An unconvincing emotion would be a poor motivator for
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 basic
survival strategy in our lineage is curiosity about our environment. Not all
creatures are curious. A starfish doesn't wonder about the world around it.
It doesn't try to figure out how to live more efficiently. It follows a
more rigid evolved strategy; one that works perfectly well for it in its
narrow niche. Our strategy is different. Our strategic curiosity enables us
to learn in real-time, to innovate, to pioneer and to work out ways to live
in all sorts of niches.
Given this strategic curiosity, we can't help but wonder sometime why we
love. Especially when love bites you hard. As it does. It bites like a
dog's barbed choke chain. Alone, widowed, abandoned, rejected, torn apart by
love; through your tears you can't help wondering at least a little. What is
this bedevilment about? It reminds me of a cartoon that shows the standard image
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. Our
curiosity didn't evolve so we could figure out the meaning of life. Yet, here
we are, among the first few generations since Darwin--the first living beings
in life's four-billion-year history to have a clue how life really works.
Understanding how it works has never been necessary to living it. We don't
know what this new understanding will do to our sanity.
And so we find ourselves with the gripping bodily experience of love, a
natural aversion to scrutinizing it, a natural curiosity that leads us to
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 together?
Dear friends, I have felt romantic love, love for my children and love for my
parents as strongly as anyone. Love is the primary source of joy for me
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. Universal
love is my name for all the interactions of all the parts and wholes of life.
The relations between all the cells, the organs, the microbes, the cancers,
the plants, the viruses, the predators, the prey, the species, the tribes,
the you, the me. All of it. It includes the love that comes easy, that I,
as a human prefer: being loved, loving nice friends, loving a lover,
especially when she is lovely; loving my child; my flesh; my blood and genes.
It includes the love I aspire to: truly selfless generosity, compassion,
cooperation. Loving my neighbors as my self, whether they are lovely or not.
But universal love must also include the interactions in life that don't
strike me as lovely at all: exploitation, competition, deception, parasitism,
dominance, predation --all forces within nature and within us simply because
they are conducive to reproductive success--all forces that surge through me
as surely and convincingly as the surge of love. I hereby embrace universal
love, the entire product of this disinterested filtration process we call
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 to make
us saner. Embracing universal love, embracing evolutionary theory can breed
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, so
mean, so bad? When I notice someone else falling short, I berate them too,
out loud, or just in my head. A lot of us do that. I suppose berating can
be motivating, but it can also be very distracting. It can get in the way of
change, or take the place of it. If looking at our faults is painful, we find
ways to avoid doing it. We get defensive. We berate others more harshly to
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 the virtues
of compassion simply because it is good for us, or because a higher authority,
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 to all
its variety of interactions, I can understand why it is so much easier for me
to love my children than my neighbor's children. If I am skillful, I can
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 using
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 it
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 them
successful. On the other, because the gene's success in your lineage has
been enhanced by your curiosity, you are clued-in enough, at least sometimes,
to see through your emotions to their evolutionary origins.
I think awareness of one's split personality is the sanest way to live. At
your most aware, love's visceral appeal and the ability to see it for what it
is can co-habitate. It is the best of both worlds. You get to enjoy love's
ride and the awe that comes from taking in the very big picture in which love
and ten thousand other motivators move you and all other life forms through
the evolutionary dance. Do as love bids you, and have the clarity and wisdom
that comes from understanding how it serves your gene's reproduction, its
more fundamental, yet surprisingly ignoble purpose. We are all dancing with
the forces that got us here. Notice them, and you can dance with grace.