Scientists put love under the microscope

For years now, evolutionary scientists have insisted that, outside close-kin relationships, all caring acts are motivated by self-interest and calculation. The "selfish gene" theory permeates wide realms of contemporary life.

Yet everyday experience seems to suggest otherwise – not only in extraordinary lives like that of Mother Teresa, but in those of ordinary people, like the hundreds who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis, or those who rushed to help at ground zero after Sept.11, or who quietly devote energies to serving others in their communities.

Now, the world of science is starting to grapple with that dichotomy by undertaking an investigation into the nature of love and its expression in compassionate service.

"In a time of international violence and an alarming amount of hate in our world ... we have no real alternative," says Stephen Post, a bioethicist who heads the new effort.

The initiative represents another step in bridging the gap between science and religion. And it is further evidence of a significant shift within key scientific disciplines from focusing on the negative, deficit, or disease model of human nature to the positive, virtuous, and thriving aspects of human nature.

"Empirical work on what makes people good can make a better world," says Jacob Neusner, professor of religion at Bard College. "If you can identify what motivates acts of self-sacrifice and love, you have a shot at forming an objective foundation for moral improvement."

The new Institute for Research on Unlimited Love is located at one of the country's most prominent medical schools, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, with an initial endowment of $4 million. "Unlimited love" is defined as "altruistic affirmation and care for all humanity without exception."

Despite a name couched more in the language of religion than of science, the response from scientists "has been overwhelming," says Dr. Post. The first call for proposals brought more than 320 submissions from top research institutions such Stanford, Harvard and Princeton. About 30 projects will be funded.

"Given the power of the scientific model as an explanatory key in our world," it's crucial that science capture to the extent possible the full image of human nature, including forgiveness, gratitude, and love, he says.

The effort ranges across disciplines from psychology and human development to public health and medicine, neuroscience, sociology, and evolutionary science. It will also consider the link between religion/spirituality and these virtues.

A proposed project from General Theological Seminary in New York City, for example, would provide a portrait of American spiritual culture through the lens of the volunteers and workers at Ground Zero over the past eight months. "It was like you were seeing the relentless love of God being poured out through people everywhere you looked," says Courtney Cowart, a former Trinity Church staff member who supported workers who slept at St. Paul's Chapel, next to the site.

Post recalls that right after 9/11, Mister Rogers of TV fame was asked what should be said to the children. His reply: "Tell them to keep their eyes on the helpers."

Some researchers are galvanized by the paradigm shift in disciplines. The "positive psychology" movement has made strides over the past decade in research on forgiveness, gratitude, and optimism. This has begun to happen in other areas, such as health and medicine, says Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist in Kansas. "This is a radical shift because the focus historically has been on what makes people sick – medical science has done next to nothing to study healing.

"It's an opportunity to jump-start an entirely new field investigating the effects on human well-being of love in the broadest sense." He'd like to know, for example, whether loving people have less anxiety or depression. Are there effects on longevity, on physical well-being?

In the field of human development, Peter Benson, president of Search Institute in Minneapolis, which promotes the well-being of children and adolescents, says the initiative is very important.

"So much of the work in America by public and private agencies is organized around problems and their reduction – whether teen pregnancy or alcohol and tobacco, or violence," he adds.

Search has one of the largest databases on teenagers in the US, and Dr. Benson proposes to use that database to identify sources of caring and compassion among teens. "When adolescents choose to be a constructive force in the life of a peer or younger child – boy, is that powerful," he says.

Even evolution theorists aren't immune to the change under way. "It looks like the whole field of evolutionary psychology and biology is kind of doing an about-face," Post says. There's been a surge in interest in altruism and love because it's recognized that they "constitute an unresolved evolutionary quandary," says an institute white paper.

This isn't the first time a center has focused on research into love. After the horrors of the two world wars, Pitirim Sorokin, one of the 20th century's great sociologists, founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism. He believed politics was unlikely to bring about peace in the future without the "notable altruization of persons, groups, institutions, and culture."

Sorokin's work was controversial and the center did not survive, but his major work, "The Ways and Power of Love" (recently republished by Templeton Press), set out a thorough analysis on which to base a scientific investigation. He "understood human love as a partial reflection of, and ... a participation in, divine love," says Post, in a new introduction.

As for the new initiative, Bruce Weber, professor of biochemistry at California State University at Fullerton says, "I'd expect any such project to be controversial, even if it is of high academic standards, because of different worldviews within the scientific community."

George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says the jury is still out. But he's intrigued enough to join the institute's international advisory board. "It's hard to prove that love works," he says. "But if anyone is to convince the medical community, these are the people who will have a good shot at it."

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