Evolutionary love


Excerpts taken from Markus Mühling’s Resonances: Neurobiology, Evolution and Theology: Evolutionary Niche Construction, the Ecological Brain and Relational-narrative Theology (2014).

Peirce’s Agapasm

Whereas in Medieval times love was seen as a cosmological principle and in the theology of the Reformation it expresses the rule of created beings, since the rise of evolutionary biology the question arises whether this expectation can be met in any meaningful way. In 1889 Charles Sanders Peirce analysed the problem in a way that is still helpful for understanding the problem today. Peirce, an unusual monist who regarded the mental as basic and material as the derivative, explained his understanding of love as follows, with the love commanded in Christian ethics meaning:

Sacrifice your own perfection to the perfection of your neighbour. […] Love is not directed to abstractions but to persons; [… “Our neighbour” […] is one whom we live near, not locally perhaps but in life and feeling. (Peirce, ‘Evolutionary Love’)

But apart from being an ethical principle, love is also a law of development:

Everybody can see that the statement of St. John is the formula of an evolutionary philosophy, which teaches that growth comes only from love, from I will not say self-sacrifice, but from the ardent impulse to fulfill another’s highest impulse. […] The philosophy we draw from John’s gospel is that this is the way mind develops; […] Love, recognizing germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely.(Peirce, ‘Evolutionary Love’)

In this statement, love has a creative function reminiscent of Luther’s famous explication of the distinction between the love of God and the love of humans in the 28th thesis of the disputatio heidelbergensis:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

However, what Luther attributes solely to God, creative love, is attributed by Peirce to love as a creative principle in evolution. This kind of evolution is called ‘agapasm’; and its principle, that Peirce regards as being in concord with the gospel, is the following:

The gospel of Christ says that progress comes from every individual merging his individuality in sympathy with his neighbors. […] Yet the strong feeling is in itself, I think, an argument of some weight in favor of the agapastic theory of evolution […]. Certainly, if it were possible to believe in agapasm without believing it warmly, that fact would be an argument against the truth of the doctrine. (Peirce, ‘Evolutionary Love’)


… What is the counter theory to agapasm? Here Peirce is perfectly clear: It is the economic perversion of love, i.e. the opinion that development is driven by self-love, the love of a limited class with shared common interests and love of mankind as a species. (201)…

Agapasm, niche construction and niche reception

The question for us is, then, is it possible to revisit Peirce’s question about the possibility and actuality of agapasm in evolution under the present circumstances? … Unlike Peirce we would argue that being convinced ‘warmly’ of a kind of agapasm is not a real possibility for the fallen, but only for the restored; therefore, perceiving love in evolution presupposes the personalistic attitude and cannot be restricted to the naturalistic one. Furthermore, not any personalistic attitude can be a presupposition, but only the restored one that is necessarily culturally and communally formed. … under a naturalistic attitude it is not love itself that is perceptible, but only something vaguely compatible or a restricted kind of love. And at this point we would opt for the claim that whereas classical Neo-Darwinism does not meet these expectations, an extended theory of evolution and niche construction does. A slightly altered and revisited kind of ‘agapasm’ is at least compatible with niche construction. Love is an internal relationship including mutuality, but not necessarily symmetry; niche construction is also a relationship in which the relation between a species and the environment (including other species) is seen as an internal relationship. Furthermore, cooperation alters and increases the models of evolutionary theory in a decisive way – this is something one would expect in light of the gospel. One would also expect that not only different species, but also particular living beings are bound together in ways that resonate what can theologically be called love. The importance of pair-bonds in anthropology and primatology meets this expectation in a very clear way. (201-202)

… Creatures are also niche constructors, but only in a manner that resonates the ultimate niche construction of the triune God. If one remodels the classical doctrine of the imago dei, one has to say that being made in the image of God does not mean a representational relationship, but a resonating one: humans resonate God in co-creating their own created niches on the basis of niche reception.(219)

Evolutionary love by WD street art.



This entry was posted in Being human, Love, Markus Muhling, Relationality and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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