NPR logo Gravity Is Love, And Other Astounding Metaphors

Gravity Is Love, And Other Astounding Metaphors

The earth, shaped like a heart.
Dragan Trifunovic/iStock

I am a deep admirer of Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist who teaches and writes about the epic of evolution. But at one of his first public lectures that I attended, I found my intellectual sensibilities twisting into a pretzel as he threw back his magnificent head and intoned: “Gravity is Love.”

What?? As outrage was traveling toward my toes, I realized that the man sitting next to me was doing just fine. In fact, he was rapt, glassy-eyed, having at last some profound insight as to how to think about gravity.

At a more recent seminar, the topic returned. Swimme was talking about how scientists often complained to him after lectures about the leaps he took with scientific metaphors, and he told us that he was trying to “tone them down.”

“What?” howled a woman who had taken classes with him, “You aren’t taking away ‘Gravity is Love,’ are you? When I first heard you say that, the universe became coherent for me. All that attraction, all that allurement. Things became warm and inviting rather than cold and mechanical.”

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For me, these stories focus attention on a key issue. Granted that a scientific understanding of nature, told straight, can generate goosebumps of connection and belonging in many persons (I happen to fall into this group), the fact is that, for many other persons, this understanding generates goosebumps of fear and alienation. For these people, the anthropocentric analogies — the metaphors — help enormously.

But, in a deep sense, the metaphors are also wrong. Except for the superficial similarity of “attraction,” gravity and love have nothing to do with one another.

We can argue that the problem lies with education, that the goosebumps of fear and alienation will disappear once our scientific understanding of the universe is taught engagingly in the schools.

But I am not persuaded that education will wipe out the problem.

It is my read of human nature that our anthropocentrism is deeply engrained. Indeed, I would argue that a de facto centrism resides in all creatures: organisms without scientific understandings, and human beings until recently, have operated adaptively in the context of supposing that their interests are the interests. Hence our recent recognition that this supposition is a misunderstanding of planetary dynamics is pitted mano-à-mano with our natural biases. Meanwhile, our cultures offer us beguiling stories, from traditional religions to capitalistic orthodoxies, that assure our centricity.

Therefore, it seems to me that we throw out the baby with the bathwater when we insist it is necessary to use scientific language to convey scientific concepts. If the universe story is to compete with other stories for human attention, it is important to offer human-friendly analogies for those who best understand things through experiential referents.

But we have not yet resolved the problem.

The deeper problem is: Who is going to write the metaphors? “Gravity is Love” is charming and arguably does no harm to our understanding of either, particularly when it is clear from Swimme’s contextual usage that he is not attempting to redefine or reinterpret either term.

However, if we consider a second example — “Evolution as the Work of an Intelligent Designer” — we encounter not only a metaphor — God as intelligent designer — but also an implicit interpretation of the mechanism of evolution. In fact, the design proposals on offer variously ignore and/or falsify what is established about biological evolution.

Moreover, the opportunity for misunderstanding is enormous: design metaphors are appealing because they makes sense — when we see a watch we think “watchmaker”; when we see biological design we think “designer” — whereas the notion that design could arise by random mutation and natural selection over long periods of time is foreign to our experience. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that this is what took place. Therefore, if our evolutionary metaphors are to communicate, they need to convey this counterintuitive concept.

So, how to proceed?

Here are two possible rules of thumb. It is important, first, in crafting a scientific metaphor, to really understand the science and have the metaphor ring true with the science. In the case of design, the metaphor intentionally misrepresents the science so as to make a doctrinal point. Other metaphors miss the mark because they fail to grasp or convey the root concept of the science. I once attended a self-described science/religion retreat in California, and at one point a group leader assembled us to meditate and then broke the silence by gushing, “Oh! All the DNA in this room! I can just feel it!” There is much to say about DNA, but “feeling it” isn’t one of them. It’s a terrible metaphor.

So is “Gravity is Love” a good metaphor? Or how about Swimme’s celebrating the “generosity” of the sun in giving us warmth and light? The sun, after all, has no choice but to do so. What is accomplished by calling it generous?

My second rule of thumb, and the larger point of this piece, is that if a metaphor is valid — that is, if it carries some core truth about an understanding — then what’s important is whether it carries that core truth over to someone else. Indeed, we scientists use metaphors all the time when we communicate with one another: we speak of selfish DNA and orphan receptors and proteins that serve as chaperones and genes that hitchhike. When challenged, we explain that while we hold valid understandings of the molecules and mechanisms of which we speak, it is easier to convey these understandings to one another in analogical language.

Exactly. Gravity isn’t love. Not in the slightest. But the metaphor conveys the inevitability, the inexorability, of gravitational attraction that many of us have best experienced in love.

I like to imagine that the man who sat next to me at the Swimme talk is a committed lover, someone for whom the attractions he feels in love are particularly important and meaningful to him — in which case, realizing that gravity has the same kind of large and important meaning has the potential to serve as a vital entrée to his understanding of our universe.