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Agape’s Pragmatism II: The Ecology of Hatred

14 November 2008

We now know, if Bartels and Zeki (2004) and Zeki and Romaya (2008) are correct, that love and hatred have different effects on brain function and the activation of certain neural pathways that set in motion different motor, cognitive, and affective cascades.  (McGown, that just means love and hate make our minds and bodies work in different ways.)

In the case of hate, it appears that our motor systems are mobilized and our cognition is keener.  In evolutionary terms, does that confer a competitive advantage, increasing our odds of a successful campaign of violence against a competitor?  Does hatred fuel a self-reinforcing natural-selection process? 

Love, by contrast, appears to deactivate some of those processes that make us capable of “critical social assessment” and “negative emotions.”  In other words, love may not be intrinsically blind, but it is easily blinded.  (Leave aside for now the distinctions among agape, phileo, eros, and storge; neurobiologists may not be so inclined to differentiate at the philosophical level.)  And it is wired to sacrifice itself, if we think in evolutionary terms.

There are lots of bearings to this, but one that intrigues me is – again – this idea that other-directed, sacrificial love is unnatural and must be cultivated, whereas hatred is naturally self-perpetuating.  The spirit must be trained to overcome the flesh.

It would also appear that nature is hard-wired to give the world over to those who hate.  Left to our own devices, we will devour one another.  That takes us beyond the animal kingdom, too, but in the wrong direction.  Couple hatred with another of humans’ unique capacities, greed, and you have the recipe for self-destruction.  At least the animal kingdom appears to keep things in long-term ecological balance because predators seem to take only what they need.  (Maybe there are exceptions; I don’t know.)

So when Jesus says “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” he is really going out on a limb.  The only way that could be true, given the apparent evolutionary advantage that hatred possesses over love, is if there is a spiritual realm (will, soul, heart) that can be governed by spiritual laws deriving from a benevolent God who wishes to overcome natural law.


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