"Good Chemistry"

Valentine's reflections on a bad but convenient metaphor

Posted Feb 14, 2014

If there’s one thing that clearly isn’t chemistry, it’s human attraction. Yes, there’s a sort of animal magnetism about human attraction, but scientifically speaking animal magnetism is an oxymoron, and an invitation to think about one of the greatest mysteries remaining in science, a mystery as sweet to dip into on Valentines as a box of chocolates.

Magnetism, gravity, chemical attractions—these are all strictly physiochemical phenomena. The moon’s pull on the tides is a function of gravity. A physics professor who told students that the moon pulls on the tides because of animal magnetism, love, or romantic attraction would not be granted tenure.  We all know that there’s a difference between physical and animal attraction. 

A poetry professor could be granted tenure for saying the moon loves the tides, but that’s poetry for you. It generates evocative metaphors without regard to scientific accuracy. Science is relatively new, and long ago the wisest people might have confused physical and romantic attraction and aversion. Lightning and thunder were seen as a God’s unrequited love for goodness that’s not forthcoming from some disobedient tribe. There’s a thin line between love and hate and a loving but jealous God crosses the line with acts of God. Now we know lightning is actually just electro-magnetic chemistry.

Today “just chemistry “ is a convenient way of bowing out of engagement with someone you’re not physically attracted to. We’re uncomfortable with the way we fall in love in large part through ear, touch, smell and especially eye candy. We should love someone for their character not the shapes of his or her ass. But when that ass prevails in our assessment, we say “I just don’t feel the chemistry.”

Looks-wise, alas, there are $10 and $5 dollar people. Yes there’s some variation in who finds whom attractive, but not as much as we’d like to think. Within any society there’s undeniable concordance in the ordinal ranking of who is and isn’t physically attractive. Love is more a product of commodity supply and demand than we’d like to think.

It’s easier to talk about “not feeling the chemistry” than it is to talk about being un-attracted to someone. Chemistry is nothing personal.  It’s not you; it’s not me, it’s just chemistry. And anyway every chemical has its pairing, so don’t worry, we’ll all find our chemical bond. In your case, I’m just not the one. And besides it’s not my fault that I’m not attracted to you. It’s chemistry. I have no control over it.

When relationships of any sort end we wonder what went wrong. Did I not try hard enough? Did they not try hard enough? We can resolve to agnosticism by saying it was just bad chemistry, nobody’s fault.

Talking about “chemistry” in relationships is more useful than accurate. Love is delicate work. The stakes get high and so do sensitivities. The word love is likewise more useful than accurate, useful primarily through its potency yet lack of precision.

On the one hand we treat love as the definitive test of whether we’re safe. Either they love us or they don’t. If they do, we’re safe; if they don’t, we’re in trouble. We ask “do you love me?” or more often, we ask by declaring our love. “ I love you,” we say, listening for an echo. 

On the other hand, you can’t get a much more ill-defined term. We use love when talking about those for whom we’ll lay down our lives, and when talking about hubcaps we just bought, or a movie we liked. Most people balk when asked to define love.

I do research on how to bridge from chemistry to life. On how physiochemical matter became the kind of mattering, we see in living systems. I have a pretty precise definition of love.

Love is actually the distinguishing feature of living systems, precisely what you don’t find in chemistry alone. Nothing in chemistry does active work to maintain access to something. But living systems do, and at all levels. Bacteria do dedicated work to maintain access to sugar, your liver does dedicated work to maintain access to what your other organs produce, you do dedicated work to maintain access to what your friends, lovers and relatives provide. Businesses do dedicated work to maintain access to what customers provide.

Love is partiality and I mean that in three different ways. First, the colloquial meaning. “I’m rather partial to you.”

Second, partial in the sense of bias, as in “I’m an impartial judge." We know love by the dedicated highly biased work a living system does. Of all the things a bacterium could do, it does a very narrow subset that maintains its access to sugar. Likewise of all the things you could do, you do the particular things biased to satisfy your loved ones.

And third, partial in the sense of being incomplete without that which sustains us. Why do living systems do dedicated work to maintain access to something? Because without that something, they are incomplete, the way a bacterium is without sugar, or you are when your lover leaves.

In other words living systems do dedicated work to maintain access to that which they depend upon. The evolution of dedicated work to maintain access to that which we depend upon—this is the distinguishing feature of life, a feature not found in chemistry. It’s also what distinguishes love. Life starts with love.

And before we get too mushy on this Valentine's Day, partiality’s dedication and dependency is also what distinguishes addiction. Indeed, by my definition, I have no way to differentiate between love and addiction other than by connotation. We love love; we don’t love addiction. In terms of their dedication and dependency dynamics I’ll argue they’re both the same.

Happy Valentine's Day. May your addictions and loves be good ones, ones that sustain you and are worthy of your dedicated effort.