The Slow-Cooked Sentence: Words as sustenance.

Cell biologist connects seed husk and butterfly cocoon to deeply human feeling of love

Rachael Conlin Levy
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Series of self-portraits with youngest child, 2014.

The overwhelming desire to nurture is shared among all living things and manifested in countless ways, said cell biologist Ursula Goodenough.

Parental instincts of tenderness, warmth and protectiveness span time and species, from the thousands of exhausted parents and weakened children seeking to cross our southern border, to the unprecedented mourning displayed by an orca whale when her calf died this past summer, to the selfless acts of a 19th-Century mother driven by unimaginable grief and deep love to continue her daughter’s work after her death.

In Goodenough’s 1998 book “The Sacred Depths of Nature,” which is both a refresher in biology 101 and an exploration of religious naturalism, she wrote:

“It seems likely that the emotional circuits invoked when we contemplate our deep evolutionary affinity with other creatures, and when we are infused with compassion, will turn out to map closely onto the circuits that drive our parental instincts.”

Driven to protect and provide for our offspring, we endure physical hardship, financial sacrifice, and intellectual challenge. These characteristics motivated the actions of Virginia Jones when her daughter died unexpectedly from typhoid fever more than 100 years ago. In an effort to honor her daughter, an amateur ornithologist and self-taught artist, Jones overcame her ignorance of birds, learned the rigorous and demanding art of scientific illustration, and suffered physically as she completed her daughter’s work, which would have lasting scientific value.

The power of parental instincts like sacrifice and devotion, as well as evidence that the emotions cross species, are regular themes in today’s news where a caravan of families seeking a brighter future for their children forced the federal government to close, and a record-breaking emotional journey of an orca whale who had lost her calf was closely followed by my youngest son and the rest of the nation last summer.

Goodenough wrote:

“Plants go to great lengths to ensure that their fertilized ovules are surrounded with hardy seed coats and fruity tissues. Butterfly larvae snuggle in cocoons; the social insects stagger out of disturbed nests with larvae in their mouths to carry to the next refuge. And the vertebrates, particularly the mammals and birds, have devised a stunning array of behaviors to assure the survival and maturation of their progeny.”

But with my last biology class taken as a college freshman, I had forgotten how the scientist connected the seed’s hard shell to an emotion like tenderness, and, finally, to a feeling called love.

My ignorance grew more evident over the winter holiday when I took children skiing and returned with a bruised rib and stiff neck. A series of restless nights followed. Unable to find a comfortable position in bed, I rolled slowly, achingly from side to side, each futile turn a recrimination of my best parenting instincts.

If one had questioned me at three in the morning where love resided in the body, I’d have grumbled that it lay in bruised flesh and aching bone. Although my rudimentary knowledge of biology failed at a response, it was sufficient answer to insomnia. I slept. Finally.

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But waking, I recognized my need to brush up on biology, so returned to Goodenough.

Emotions, she reminded me, are the body’s response to outside circumstances, and something we share with most organisms. Even the single-cell amoeba can attach value to an object (this is good, that is bad), moving toward food and away from a threat, she said. More complex systems like a mouse or myself experience an emotion like fear through a rush of hormonal and neural changes, and we share similar responses to freeze, fight or flee. Goodenough wrote:

“Our basic emotional reactions are ancient and hardwired survival systems that mediate our behavioral interactions with the external world. … Feeling is a conscious response to the unconscious fact of having had an emotional system activated. When we speak of a ‘gut feeling,’ this can be very close to the truth.”

Many organisms, Goodenough explained, will attribute meaning to something they are aware of. In humans, this awareness manifests itself as an ability to think and act symbolically. While we share an emotion like fear with a mouse, scientists believe that humans are unique in experience the feeling of being frightened. This is self-awareness.

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Goodenough conceded that most of us can accept why fear, which we think of as a “primitive” animal instinct, springs from the body’s neural and hormonal systems, but find it harder to grasp a neurobiological view of love. In “The Sacred Depths of Nature” she wrote:

“Neuroscientists in fact have as yet little to tell us about love or joy or astonishment, and they are unlikely to have much to say until they understand how consciousness (self-awareness) is produced in brains. But once this is understood, then it will doubtless be the case that all feelings, including those we consider most deeply human, will be found to be created the same way that other conscious experiences come about — by establishing a mental representation of the workings of underlying processing systems.”

The reductionist explanation of love comforted me. Elementary understanding could not diminish its magic.

The genetic motivation to nurture my children and set them up for success is a trait I share with most living organisms. While the acorn’s hard shell falls short of love, the nut and I are impelled to protect and provide for progeny, be it tree or child.

The undercurrents of love, sacrifice, and anxiety that directed my ski trip, and the subsequent emotions of protest and resentment, swell to epic levels in “Lady Bird,” a 2017 coming-of-age movie that included bruising scenes between mother Marion McPherson and her daughter, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson.

Marion McPherson: Whatever we give you it’s never enough. It’s never enough!
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: It is enough!

But for the first time since 1940, “enough” is as likely as not to ensure our children will have a future better than our own, according to a 2016 study by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty.

Chetty, who uses “big data” to understand how to give children from disadvantaged backgrounds better chances of succeeding, found that a fraction of children who will earn more than their parents (defined as absolute mobility) fell in all 50 states.

Although the rate of decline varied, with the largest declines concentrated in states in the industrial Midwest, such as Michigan and Illinois, the study found: “The decline in absolute mobility is especially steep – from 95 percent for children born in 1940 to 41 percent for children born in 1984 – when we compare the sons’ earnings to their fathers’ earnings.”

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Motivated by this economic anxiety, modern-day parenting is “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive,” The New York Times reported.

The amount of money parents spend on children, which used to peak when they were in high school, is now highest when they are under 6 and over 18 and into their mid-20s, the newspaper said.

As I read this I had an ah-ha! moment, reflecting on both the ski trip and the imminent financial obligation to support three children in college from a neurobiological point of view, thanks to Goodenough.

“We nurture our children selflessly. But we also recognize them as our most tangible sources of renewal.”

I have come to see that the hardship and risk endured by the migrant family to set up their children for success — even as the promise grows more elusive — illustrated the effort Goodenough said a species will make to ensure the “survival and maturation of their progeny.”

And I understand that the sadness expressed by both 19th-Century mother and orca whale is evidence that the complexity of grief is shared among mammals.

And I know the jolt that ran through ribs as I searched for sleep was parenting as it penetrates conscious awareness, a feeling, unique to humans, called love.



2 responses to “Cell biologist connects seed husk and butterfly cocoon to deeply human feeling of love”

  1. Linda Conlin says:

    Reading The Slow Cooked Sentence always provides a visual delight and food for thought. I enjoyed delving into the references as well. I’ve enjoyed a completely satisfying meal, thank you.

  2. Thanks, Ma. Your visit and comments make my day.

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