You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our Group site.

Is Julian Savulescu Channelling Bryan Ferry?

24 May, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Specifically, I have in mind Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug“.  (Annoyingly, I can’t get the video to embed.*)  And I don’t just mean Julian – I mean him, and Anders Sandberg, with Brian Earp somewhere in there too.

The thought crosses my mind because I’ve been reading this essay in New Scientist, which apparently prefigures a paper that’s soon to come out in Philosophy and Technology.  It deals with the possibility of using neurochemistry to maintain loving relationships.  The evolution of human emotions has not, they claim, kept up with the other changes that humans have undergone and caused over the past few hundred thousand years:

[I]n many ways we are stuck with the psychology and drives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We are not made for the world and institutions we have created for ourselves, including that of life-long marriage.

The suggestion is that, while there is no “love gland” that we could tweak, we do know enough about neurochemistry to be able to make a difference to the likelihood that a relationship will last.  With care, administering and manipulating things like oxytocin, dopamine and testosterone might allow us to alter our emotional landscape – allegedly for the better.

Convinced?

One of the worries that is articulated has to do with authenticity.  Isn’t it a bit strange to talk about chemically-stimulated – or even simulated – love?  Isn’t that something other than love after all?  Now, I don’t normally have all that much truck with appeals to emotional authenticity – and it has been shown by SCIENCETM that people who make such appeals are significantly more likely to end up talking about their poetry, which is never a good thing** – but on this occasion, I do wonder.  On one hand, if you genuinely feel an emotion, that seems to be all that counts.  To be in love might very well usually require nothing more than that you feel you’re in love.***  But – and this is where the authenticity point comes in – if you know that that feeling arose at about the time you started taking oxytocin… well, might it get in the way of the feeling?  Would a person who knew himself to have taken the chemicals ever really be able to take his feelings seriously?  That’s not at all obvious.  And in respect of the partner?  If you knew, or suspected, that your partner was using oxytocin to keep the emotion vibrant, wouldn’t that make a difference?  Wouldn’t it, perhaps, make it more likely that you’d leg it out of the door more quickly?  At the very least, it’d plausibly make a difference to whether you’d ascribe love to the relationship.  (Imagine that you know your partner can only tolerate sex with you when very drunk.  You wouldn’t mistake that for love, would you?  Noone has ever boasted that his girlfriend loves him so much she has to knock back half a bottle of Bombay Sapphire…)  So the use of these drugs might actually turn out to be deeply counterproductive.

A variation of the same worry goes like this: is it really plausible that oxytocin pills would keep a relationship going when the people in it have a good reason to believe that the pills are what is important, and that the magic isn’t really there?  I spent 13 years working behind a bar, and we used to joke that the people hardest to chuck out at the end of the night were the 40- or 50- something married couples who’d eke out every last drop of their drink simply to defer for as long as possible that horrible moment when they’d have to go home together.  I suspect that the joke was often near the mark, too: the wine we served was nowhere near good enough to warrant staying out on its own merits.  But I’m now imagining people taking a pill on the way home from the office purely so that they can face the thought of another evening together.  And if your relationship is in that much trouble… wouldn’t you and your no-longer-best-beloved both be better off out of it?

And then there’s what I’ll call the Titania Problem.  Suppose your relationship is flagging, and you decide that you and your partner should take the pills.  (I’d love to eavesdrop on that conversation… “Look, I know the spark has gone; maybe we should both take medication so that we come to believe that it hasn’t…  No, wait!  Come back!”)  How can you be sure that your affection will end up being directed at the right person?  Isn’t there at least a danger that, in your loved-up state, you’ll end up forming a meaningful (or apparently meaningful) attachment with someone else entirely?  That could fatally put the kibosh on any plans to revivify your extant relationship.

Anyway: Julian and Anders have a backup appeal: successful pair-bonding is desirable for other reasons.

[L]oving relationships are good for us, improving both parent and child welfare through the social support they provide [write Julian and Anders]… [A]ttachment allows pairs to cooperate and stay together until parental duties are complete.

Hmmm.  Maybe I got the wrong Bryan Ferry – maybe they have in mind “Let’s Stick Together“:

Now if you’re stuck for a while consider our child
How can it be happy without its ma and pa
Let’s stick together.

But does the appeal work?  I’m not sure it does.  After all, even if you accept that, in the best possible world. all children would be raised in conventional nuclear families – a contentious claim, but one I’ll let pass for the moment - it doesn’t follow that other family models are particularly bad for kids.  Maybe the perfect parents wouldn’t split up – but very few parents are perfect, and that doesn’t stop them being good enough, or even good.  Indeed, there’re plenty of kids who seem to be pretty much fine irrespective of having only one parent – who might even see the other parent only rarely, if ever.

I suspect that what kids actually need is stability and security, which might come from long-term bonding between their parents, but which could also come from all manner of other sources.  Granted that there’s no guarantee that a given life will be free of misfortune and disruption, it would seem to be desirable that any child has several sources of stability and security – family, extended family, school, friends, and so on.  That being the case, should one aspect of the child’s life be disrupted, it won’t be catastrophic.  Even if it’s an split between parents.

 

* If anyone can explain the eyepatch in the vid, I’d appreciate it.  I’m intrigued.

** May not actually have been shown by SCIENCETM at all.

*** Though to be honest, I can’t say that I know that for sure.  I’m fuelled mainly by misanthropy; when it comes to love, I’m well out of my depth.

By submitting your comment you agree to adhere to these terms and conditions
  • Keith Tayler

    Well put. Tweaking the chemicals in our brains to make us more loving is what you did each night in the bar. Of course we laugh at the drunk that professes undying love because we know it is the alcohol talking. If we were to take another drug that did much the same we would also find it laughable (it would no doubt also have side effects that would not be so funny) . Not sure whether we should laugh or cry at the suggestion that chemical fixes can fix the world. What separates Savulescu and Sandberg from 1960s Hippies? No doubt they would say they are doing science, but then a lot of Hippies claimed that. Although I agree with you, I am always a little uneasy about entering into debates with ’strong’ evolutionary psychologists and their apologists. Should we consider the ethics at the point you discuss? If we do, should we not make it clear that it is only a silly thought experiment? I have the same problem with AI. If I debate the ethical issues that are invented by the AI fantasists, am I giving credence to their delusions? I am reasonably happy to debate with theists even if they do try to import a little dodgy science. I have also had long discussions with economists about their forecasts knowing full well, as Gulbraith quipped, that ‘the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.’ But EPs and those that believe in what boils down to ‘the survival of the fitted’ is more difficult. I agree with John Dupre that strongevolutionary psychology is the paradigm of scientific imperialism. Scientific, in this case, means simplistic speculations on past, present and, most bizarrely, future human behaviour. The Just So stories and hokum is founded upon an old and incorrect understanding of the relation between the genes and phenotypes. The theory that there is a Stone Age man inside every modern man is as credible as the reverse notion that there is a 1960s American in every Stone Age man (this often looks like the view of evolutionary psychology but it cannot see the mirror). Women figure more highly in the Flintstone version of the theory, but in both cases they do tend to be mere passengers. I guess we should keep the discourse going even if it is painful. evolutionary psychology is the paradigm of scientific imperialism. Scientific, in this case, means simplistic speculations on past, present and, most bizarrely, future human behaviour. The Just So stories and hokum is founded upon an old and incorrect understanding of the relation between the genes and phenotypes. The theory that there is a Stone Age man inside every modern man is as credible as the reverse notion that there is a 1960s American in every Stone Age man (this often looks like the view of evolutionary psychology but it cannot see the mirror). Women figure more highly in the Flintstone version of the theory, but in both cases they do tend to be mere passengers. I guess we should keep the discourse going even if it is painful.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Latest from JME

Latest from JME

Blogs linking here

Blogs linking here