What is Love? A Valentine’s Day Reflection on its Many Forms

@ThomasJayOord chimes in today on our blog about love!


Thanks for the opportunity to contribute!


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I appreciate the comprehensive approach to “love” described in Thomas Oord’s blog post. However, as a biology professor in the field of animal behaviour, I feel compelled to point out that the anecdotes mentioned of wolves and bees “sacrificing themselves so that the group survives” are common misconceptions—false appeals to seductive “group selection” thinking. Instead, wolves and bees have been selected (through kin selection) to help others in their social group so that copies of their own genes are passed to the next generation via relatives. Ultimately, then, such “helping” behaviour in nature is self-serving…animals only care for their group insofar as it brings a net benefit to themselves.

All the claims of true (“self-sacrificial”) altruism in animals that I’m aware of fail to account for more parsimonious (i.e. self-serving) explanations for the behaviour. Much confusion about this occurs because biologists trained in evolutionary thinking use more rigorously-defined terms than do non-biologists for concepts of “altruism”.

I’d be happy to discuss cases of apparent altruism if you think you have an example. I recently wrote a term paper for a seminary class in which I argue that true altruism can’t evolve, and review the current biology literature to show there are no clear cases of group selection in animals.

That paper is a general critique of S. Coakley & M. Nowak’s work. Not sure how to upload or link to it in this forum, though… if the moderators have any suggestions?
Dr. Karen Wiebe


You could just copy and paste a link in a comment if it is saved somewhere in the cloud. I don’t think you can attach pdfs.

You can save a Word file as a pdf, and then (you will have to register if you don’t have one), save it to your personal drive.google.com – that will let you obtain a URL to share for that document. There may be a better way, anyone?

(In fact, you don’t have to convert it to a pdf – you can save the Word file directly to drive.google.com and share it.)

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Thanks everyone. It’s a learning curve today but maybe the link below will work. Sorry that the term paper is rather technical in its present form. I’m happy to paraphrase or explain if anyone has any questions or feedback. I see that clicking the link brings up the file with the page numbering a little screwed, but hopefully still readable. Feel free to email me for a WORD file if you wish.


Maybe give the paragraph version to start with? I think some here are familiar with Nowak, Coakley, and David Sloan Wilson. Might have some engaging discussion.

Nothing I said undermines that. What I said is that I see the love of God in these things.

Wrong post. I used essentially the same examples in another post talking about seeing the love of God in nature. Without reading it I imagine they are essentially doing the same things. Seeing through faith the workings of love and righteousness through science. Philosophically, not technically or scientifically.

I think people could argue that about almost anything. Even with pets. I also think that’s a belief that is going beyond what can actually be proven either way. We see animals showing grief over their young being killed. I don’t think someone can prove that’s emotionless and just purely over some kind of deep seeded issues of genes not being transferred.

Out of curiosity, are there biologists that are equally trained or even more so that disagrees or do you believe that’s the overall general belief?

Have you read studies on the vampire bats that shared meals with bats not in their families even though bats can only go a few days without feeding? There was a greater number of sharing between closely related bats but it still occurred in those not related.

We’ve also seen rats similarly help others rats not related to them.

Enjoyed the paper, @klw. Welcome to the forum! It is always good to hear new voices. I am curious as to whether this is a paper for your biology dept. or for some other purpose, as it does not seem to fall into a neat category.

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Hi Phil,
The paper is a (unpublished) term paper written for a seminary course I was taking at Regent College called “Theology and Science” so it’s not related to my job at the U of Sask. I chose the topic because it is close to my own field of biological research, behavioural ecology, and managed to squeeze it in just under the word limit (so its pretty dense). I’ve published about 125 peer reviewed papers on topics related to my position at the U of Sask, but this isn’t one of them. :wink:


The overwhelming consensus among trained biologists in the field is that there is no true altruism in animals, at least no examples of selection for such behaviour. Yes, I am well familiar with the scenario of the vampire bats, but that is a good example of reciprocity–where the individual gets something back in return if it donates a blood meal to another bat. In other words, there is a net fitness gain for a bat which donates a meal, not a fitness cost. Any behaviour which results in a net fitness gain is not defined as true altruism which requires that there be self-sacrifical costs to the individual. So, reciprocity is easily explained by natural selection, individuals behaving in a way that maximizes their own genetic contribution to the next generation (as opposed to a behaviour based on truly caring or promoting the reproduction of non-relatives).

Thanks! That satisfies my nosiness and curiosity. Your bringing Jesus’s command to love our enemies as being a prime example of altruism struck a chord with me. We look forward to hearing more from you.

But again, can’t that be said for anything? How do you know your kindness is not based on religious commands, societal or family expectations or that it released endorphins making you feel good to do good. If you have pets don’t you take care of them just because it makes you feel better to have them? All the same arguments used for animals, is equally applied to us as animals. Yet most of us would say that’s simply not how we view it. Isn’t there biologists in every field that also believes that we don’t really know for sure? I mean it seems difficult to make that claim that animals don’t do anything without wanting to gain something.

Even with Jesus I could make that claim. According to Jesis everything he did was because it’s what he felt his dad wanted from him.

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Hi, actually the point I make in the paper is that the biological definition of altruism is not based on feelings or emotions at all. You are correct that debates over “internal motivations” feature in discussions and debates over human altruism, (this is a psychological definition). But it is not so among biologists assessing animal behaviour. In evolutionary biology, it is only the resulting fitness, (survival or reproductive consequences) of the behaviour that matter. This is because natural selection can not act on thoughts or feelings if they do not result in fitness differences for the organism.

I agree that is what natural selection is. I’m just saying I think that free will and emotions are more than is it chemical processes and in include that for animals as well. When dogs get someone’s attention because of their hurt owner I don’t think it’s just because they want him better to feed and let them. Since we are humans as well, I don’t think that we get this exception for free will and emotional choices. I just don’t think there is any reason for be to land on the view that we see the exception for this and that science can’t tell us exactly why they do what they do all the time. I think this is the stud that goes beyond what is scientifically testable.

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I agree that freewill is more than chemical processes and inner intentions are necessary for moral assessments of behaviour (and so are important in theological and psychological discussions of altruism in humans). But when speaking about altruism from a biological viewpoint, emotions and freewill (whether or not a species has them) are simply irrelevant from an evolutionary standpoint. So it makes no difference to the natural selection of a behaviour what a dog may consciously “think” about its owner (if anything) while they are doing something. It is only the actual physical effect of the behaviour on the reproductive fitness of the animal that matters from an evolutionary (biological) viewpoint, and which can be selected.
Dogs have been artificially bred to see their human owners as members of their pack. And dogs (or wolf ancestors) in packs may naturally react to injured pack members in a way to “help” them. But this is not surprising from natural selection and a “selfish” perspective because the individual dog benefits (has greater reproductive success) by being in a pack and keeping pack members alive. For example, the pack can hunt larger prey by cooperating, and so each individual in the group gets more meat per dog compared to a solitary dog. So natural selection will favour a behavior that helps a pack member stay alive, based on the fact that such behaviour also “selfishly” results in more meat (a net reproductive benefit the individual). Note that, evolutionarily, there is no need to appeal to any thought-processes or emotions that dogs may or may not have. Assessment of biological altruism is based on observed reproductive fitness benefits and so such “pack-helping” behaviours simply cannot be defined as altruist because they result in observable net fitness benefits for the “helping” pack member.

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For most of the animal kingdom, survival is largely an individual, or maybe a school or troupe thing. Human altruism may be distinct in that competition is manifest on a larger social scale. Despite much protest to the contrary, history reveals that human altruism is proportional to the degree of social engagement, family followed by the tribe, followed by people of common language and culture. Human behavior to others outside that relationship has often been indifferent or savage. That is consistent with an evolutionary process of collective survival.

But ultimately, and this will be the last time I say it.
Whatever arguments are used for humans, is the same potential arguments used for animals because we are animals. Nothing in science at this moment can seemingly give solid answers to how free will and emotions work beyond just a chemical process and I apply that to animals as well regardless if it’s limited or not. Regardless of biology, natural selection , evolution and chemistry. There is just ultimately no reason for me to view is as exceptional to this.

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I think you’re correct, Ron. The natural willingness of humans to help others is proportional to the degree of social contact. Usually family or tribal based, social units based either on relatedness (kin selection) or a high chance of reciprocity of helpful acts. Biologists wouldn’t call such helping behaviours “true altruism”, though, because kin selection or reciprocity are ways that the individual still gets net fitness benefits from the act of helping another. Biologists would refer to such acts as “cooperative” rather than “altruistic”. But this is where the conventional terminology between disciplines can cause confusion.

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