Sonnet 116.1

Let me not to the scientists studying love
Concede authority—love is not yours,
To alter or reduce the scope thereof,
Or tend with the specimens in your drawers
O no! It is a never-fixed mark
That brings forth tempests, in chaotic fashion
It lives and dies by show or want of spark;
Its worth is known and measured by our passion.
Love’s not its parts, though hearts and even brains
Are called upon, love’s details to depict;
Love, explored in shards across domains,
Too often its description will restrict.
If this be error, prov’d to be untrue
It never will survive the peer review

Apologies to Will, of course. Short rant, after the jump.

Serves me right. I have written before* about reductionist approaches to studying whole-person phenomena like love. Seems every year there’s a half dozen articles about how love is this chemical or that, this evolutionary strategy or that, this illusion or that. So I write this year’s sonnet, and cast about for one of the many such examples that must surely exist.

And I don’t see any.

Worse than that, there’s an article on NPR’s site on actual real poetry for valentines day–not Hallmark verse, not the silly stuff I write, but real poetry by real poets. So it appears that this is the year when reductionism has not come out to play.

But my verse was finished, and I didn’t want to wait a year. So if you see the obligatory “love is the chemical found in chocolates and red wine” or “this pill mimics what happens in the brain when you fall in love” articles, let me know in the comments. It will make me feel much better.

*like, say, some of these:
A reproductive message
Science of love
Evolutionary Biology Valentine
Scientific Valentine
What do women want?
Heart in a jar


  1. The Lorax says

    Of course it’s all chemical. So are we. So is the entire universe. So too is there an explanation. So it benefits our survival.

    More importantly, so what?

    Knowing everything there is to know about nuclear physics doesn’t make the Sun shine any less bright.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    But it’s not all chemical. Wrong level of analysis–knowing what chemicals are at work tells you noting about whether I love person X or person Y, and believe me, that is an important distinction!

  3. Epinephrine says

    Knowing everything there is to know about nuclear physics doesn’t make the Sun shine any less bright.

    It might make it seem less bright. I often have told my children that it doesn’t matter what colour bowl they get, the food tastes the same. They insist otherwise, and they are possibly right (though I don’t encourage it). We know that the strength of a placebo response can be affected by the colour of the placebo, and that expectation changes one’s experience of things (see tests of wine tastings, violins, etc.) I suspect that the food does taste better out of the appropriately coloured bowl, and that the sun could indeed seem dimmed when presented in a material manner. We construct our reality via our perceptions, and our perceptions are subject to all sorts of subtle effects. While objective brightness of the sun will not change, we tend (as humans, and specifically in the context of emotions) to care much more about the subjective experience.

  4. markjuers says

    I don’t think of reductionism proper as x=>y. Reductionism proper is, to me, more a statement of, “this is way too complicated to understand holistically, so let’s just break off this little part to understand and then try to refit it into the bigger picture.”

    Then the news gets its hands on it and all bets are off; coffee is great, or evil (depending on the week) and theobromine will make you Superman. Got a question? The answer is oxytocin! Or dopamine (again, depending on the week). I think the latter interpretation really does a disservice to the powerful tool that reductionism–real reductionism rather than simply sweeping oversimplification–actually is.

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