The Complementarity of Love and Freedom

Column by Glen Allport.

Exclusive to STR

Complement: add to (something) in a way that enhances or improves it; make perfect
    ~ Apple's OS/X on-disk dictionary, ver. 2.2.1

– 1 –

Yin and Yang. Heart and head. Female and male. Complementary elements, forces, and qualities are everywhere in the natural world.
Wikipedia puts it this way:
“In Chinese philosophy, yin & yang (also, yin-yang or yin yang) describes how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.”
Life itself is built upon and requires complementarity in many areas. For example, deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA, is a double-stranded molecule, the second strand complementing the first in important ways. The two strands store the same biological information (but running in opposite directions), which allows for the highly-accurate self-replication of cells and of life generally.
No complementarity, no life.
Speaking of DNA: the molecule encodes information with four symbols, called nucleobases, represented by molecules of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Wikipedia again: “In a DNA double helix, each type of nucleobase on one strand bonds with just one type of nucleobase on the other strand. This is called complementary base pairing.” 
Beyond these primal examples of life's complementarity, there are many other structures, situations, and designs, both physical and psychological, from the quantum level up through the nanoscale,1 the cellular level, and on up to the level of full individuals and ultimately to societies at every level, that rely on or make use of two or more complementary elements.
Body plans throughout the animal kingdom (with some exceptions, such as the octopus) show a type of complementarity called bilaterality; your left hand surely complements your mirror-image right hand, making for “enhanced or improved functionality.”
The brain is divided into two hemispheres with different, complementary characteristics. One can live with a single hemisphere, but the strengths and characteristics of both hemispheres together make a more complete, better functioning human being. In addition to this bilaterality, our brains contain a number of structures largely grouped in a nested fashion starting at the brainstem (in a level sometimes called the ancient reptilian brain or the “lizard brain”), above which – literally and evolutionarily – is the limbic system or palleomammalian brain (home of many emotions and species-specific social rules), and above that is the most modern level, based largely in the neocortex and, in the oversize neocortex we humans carry, capable of extensive symbolic thought ranging from deeptime navigation2 to calculus and other intellectual pursuits. Each of these three nested levels of wetware generates and is home to a fairly distinct level of consciousness (AKA “the soul,” the ongoing subjective result of biologically coded software running on the wetware), and a healthy person has fluid access to all three levels; a healthy person IS a constantly-shifting blend of all three levels.3 Each level is important and enhances or improves us relative to how we would be with diminished function in (or access to) that level, be it from psychological repression, physical damage, or disease.
Reproduction via sex is another common example; complex life appears to require both sexes for long-term viability. The few examples (some fish, for instance) that reproduce without any male involvement have short species lifespans (averaging about a million years) and even those species that switch to asexual reproduction only under extreme conditions are less viable in the long term than similar-but-always-sexual species.4 Asexual reproduction in larger organisms is associated with more-rapid deterioration of the genetic code, which suggests that at the level of DNA, the complementary elements of male and female enhance or improve the sustainability of life.
In more complex forms of life, males and females complement each other in many additional ways, ranging from better care for the young to an improved or enhanced experience for the two entwined individuals. In addition to male/female complementarity, the complementarity of two or more individuals is required for emotional health in humans. No person is a (healthy or perhaps even sane) island – other people, often including spouse, children, parents, extended family, friends, and more are necessary for a full, healthy life. My own life is certainly enhanced and improved by having my wife around, and by my relationships with others.
Humans are an intensely social species, and in the modern world, we have extended that trait dramatically (starting long before the Internet and social media), most importantly by the fine-grained and global division of labor. The skills and efforts of many humans complement each other to such an extent that together they have created a new world, unlike anything that existed before. Leonard Read's famous essay I, Pencil (well worth the $2.99 for Lawrence W. Reed's Introduction, although this essay is also available free in both text and YouTube versions; see here) gives stunning detail on the wide-ranging human knowledge and cooperation needed to simply create a common wood pencil, and why crippling this distributed intelligence with central planning always leads to poor outcomes. This Lexar video titled How We Make Our Products (6 min 23 sec) – an ad for thumb drives and other memory products – is even more jaw-dropping than Read's essay and will remind you how amazing it is to live in the 21st Century: a simple memory card for your camera cannot be made without billion-dollar factories containing more automated, high-tech equipment than you might believe – not to mention all the people, unseen here, who designed the equipment, the buildings, and the memory tech itself, who built the equipment and the buildings, who mined the raw materials to build all this, and so on. For that matter, just making a sandwich from scratch is a months-long chore when you grow and process your own food for the meal.
Saying that our complementary skills and efforts enhance and improve life for all of us is a serious understatement. Humans complement each other to such an extent that the modern world would fall apart tomorrow if this division of labor were interrupted. The disasters of today's Venezuela (see also here) and North Korea, along with every Communist nation since Marx and Engels, show clearly how important a truly distributed, non-centralized marketplace and division of labor really are. Post-Mao China, in contrast, shows how quickly and dramatically moving to even a partially free economy can turn crushing poverty into world-class prosperity. (How bad was centrally-ruled Maoist China? Angus Deaton, the recent Nobel Prize winner in economics, says Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' of 1958-1961 caused the deaths “of around thirty-five million people from starvation and prevented the births of perhaps forty million more. Weather conditions were not unusual in these years; the famine was entirely man-made.”)
Interfering with complementarity in life has negative consequences. Eventually, the consequences become extreme.

– 2 –
Love Withers Without Freedom;
Freedom Degenerates Without Love

Like the left and right hemispheres of the brain, love and freedom complement each other. A full, healthy life – individually or society-wide – requires high levels of BOTH love and freedom. You'd think that would be obvious, but most people deny it.
Just try to imagine a world with love but no freedom, or a world of freedom with no love. That sounds like a choice between Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, but neither of those stories describes a world characterized by either love or freedom.
Love and compassion (along with empathy, happiness at the good fortune of others, and other love-related experiences) are inner states experienced by individual people, not external actions or social policies, and so cannot be legislated or otherwise coerced into being. Positive actions flow from the inner state of love, in a manner unique to each person. In contrast, love is crushed, diminished, and endangered in a world of coercive central control. Using coercion to simulate love or to emulate the actions caused by love can only harm love in the long run because coercion is toxic to love. Systematic, centralized coercion (“government”) is exactly the wrong tool for improving the world.
Freedom means only wide application of the Non-Aggression Principle, or NAP. In other words, freedom – the absence of initiated coercion – is a beneficial negative, much like the absence of infection. That makes freedom necessary but insufficient for a healthy, positive life. To be healthy and inviting for humans, a free society requires the positive element of widespread, well-protected, and commonly-fostered love. Friendship, charity, civic-mindedness, and many other important elements in life fall away or erode in a society lacking widespread emotional health, which is to say a society with too-little love. Cruelty, avarice, and corruption eventually replace tenderness, integrity, and honesty when coercion reigns. Love and compassion at the start of life are especially important, for early life shapes the feelings and outlook with which we respond to later life.
Love and freedom are a necessary combination for healthy life, no less so than food and water. Each quality – love and freedom – enhances and improves the other; the two are indeed “complementary, interconnected, and interdependent.” Harm to one harms the other, and until we relearn that truth, the modern world will be increasingly in danger.
1. Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili. This is one of several recent books for a general audience about nanoscale and smaller elements that combine in unexpected ways to make life different from non-life. A fun read and a stunning, breakthrough subject.
2. 18th century Scottish geologist James Hutton used the term deep time to refer to geologic time, but “deeptime navigation” was used (and perhaps coined for this particular meaning) by the late Leonard Shlain in Sex, Time, and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution. Shlain theorized that the human ability to mentally navigate deeply forward and backward in time – to learn from the past and plan for the future – was dramatically enhanced in humans by a confluence of forces and situations centered around the common, uniquely human difficulty of giving birth, and by the many social, psychological, and physical changes, especially in females, that this dire situation engendered.
3. See my column Feeling, Emotion, Intellect: Why Rational Thought is Not Enough for more detail and references.
4. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane.  A nice companion to Life on the Edge, with a tighter focus and equally eye-opening material. Also recommended: Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, Peter M. Hoffmann's Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos, Andreas Wagner's Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle, and Nessa Carey's The Epigentics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 110

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.


KenK's picture

People feel unsettled and vulnerable right now Glen. They crave security and predictably rather than bromides from Chinese philosophers. People are just in no mood to hear this right now. Not an attack on you I'm just sayin.

Glen Allport's picture

Well, if love and freedom are difficult thoughts for people who are "unsettled and vulnerable", I suppose they can always turn on Fox News and get the security and predictability of the Power Elite viewpoint. Heard a few snippets today as I walked past the television, and some of those Fox geniuses were insisting that Obama quit being such a pussy, worrying about civilian casualties Over There, and bomb the *bleep* out of ISIS camps where those crafty women and children are living. (Seriously!) Can't win a war without some collateral damage, you know . . .

Bill St. Clair's picture

Unsettled and vulnerable? Why? Because eight nutjobs killed a handful of people in France? Horrible, of course, but no threat whatsoever to my life, unless the government amplifies it and brings it here.

The crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Center towers (or whatever really happened) was also no threat to my life. The TSA, however, created supposedly in response to that atrocity, threatens me every time I need to use a commercial airliner.

Nice thought piece, Glen.

Glen Allport's picture

Thanks, Bill! And good point: the gub'ment kills way more of us than the terr'ists do.

Mark Davis's picture