Oxytocin Makes the World Go Round: Love Affronts the Divine

Science & Spirit 7 (Spring 1996): 10-11

Kevin Sharpe

Love is an adaptive trait, both a willed and an involuntary phenomenon (often a combination of both), but it always involves the release of biochemicals. Yet, tradition says that parental, filial, altruistic love--the behavior involved in the biochemical release--originates in the Divine. Is this a conflict? Further, if love derives largely from the involuntary release of biochemicals, is it reasonable to urge people to love each other?

In the summer of 1848, an explosion shot a steel rod through the brain of Phineas Gage. He recovered, physically. Before the accident he was even-tempered with a strong, ambitious, social, and positive character. Afterwards, despite emphatic admonitions, he was fitful and irreverent, obstinate, unable to stick at anything for long, and indifferent to other people. Did the steel rod remove his values from his brain?

Other mammals share this same physiology, including voles, small, brown, mouselike mammals which live under grasses. Members of one species, the prairie vole, share elaborate systems of burrows and feeding tunnels. Males and females form long-lasting bonds, raising their young together. Montane voles, however, occupy separate burrows and avoid each other except to mate--which they do often and indiscriminately. Mother montane voles usually abandon their pups sixteen days after birth, and fathers never see their offspring. When a predator plucks a youngster from its nest, it neither calls for help nor surges with stress-related hormones. In comparison with their prairie cousins, montane voles lack "family values" and are exceptionally asocial. Why?

A female prairie vole copulates with a male repeatedly, more than fifty times over 36-48 hours, as soon as she reaches sexual maturity. After such a bout, she becomes socially exclusive, preferring her mate to unfamiliar males. Mating instills long-term pair bonding. Copulation causes the release of oxytocin; is this the critical factor in developing her social preferences? A female prairie vole rapidly forms a preference for a male if exposed to oxytocin for six hours, but when administered with an antagonist to block the oxytocin receptors, her social response ceases. Oxytocin apparently causes these rodents to form monogamous pairs, shaping their sexual and parental behavior, and their social organization.

What about in humans? While the study is still in its infancy, experiments suggest similar reactions to those in voles. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, love is "a deep and tender feeling of affection for or attachment or devotion to a person or persons;...a feeling of [unity and cooperation] and good will toward other people;...a strong, usually passionate, affection of one person for another, based in part on sexual attraction." Oxytocin fosters friendship, love, and nurturance. With vasopressin, it provides the chemistry of human attachment. Says Cort Pedersen, "Human relations are influenced by the model of the parent-child relationship in that they include the notions of nurturing, care, help." These behaviors we call love. Despite obvious qualifications, love derives from the positive effects of oxytocin and vasopressin.

The dictionary also defines love as "God's tender regard and concern for [hu]mankind." Saint John writes: "Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." Parental, filial, altruistic love--the oxytocin/vasopressin behavior--originates in the Divine. Yet it arises from the biology of our bodies. Is this a conflict?

These questions challenge the traditional view of the nature of the Divine and the Divine's relationship to us humans, and the traditional approach to morality. What is a spiritual understanding of love in the light of this new research? What role does the Divine play in love? Whatever the answer, it should emphasize the relevance of scientific and spiritual ideas for each other.

Copyright 1996 by Kevin Sharpe.