The Scientification of Love
by Michel Odent
Free Association Books Limited, 1999
Reviewed by Jake Marcus Cipolla
Lower Gwynedd PA USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 38 No. 2, April-May 2002, p. 40.
As he has since the publication of his groundbreaking Birth Reborn, Dr. Michel Odent strives to reveal the process of childbearing as an essentially primal one ruled by our most basic physical makeup. In The Scientification of Love, Odent delves even more deeply into the research that has been done, and that which still needs to be done, concerning the impact of hormones on human and other mammal reproduction.
From this description one might imagine a technical treatise, but instead, Odent uses lay language to describe the physiology of reproduction in all its aspects—romantic love, desire for sex, conception, childbirth, bonding, breastfeeding, and child rearing. Along the way, the reader learns how oxytocin is released during orgasm and how hormonal release is inhibited by the presence of bright lights and strangers.
Odent seeks to show that love can be systematically studied. He believes that love starts at a molecular level. Odent illustrates how love, in all its forms, is what has led humans to where we are today and invites the reader to think new or expanded thoughts.
Unfortunately, one weakness of the book is that Odent does not define love, but love appears in different forms in various sections. When discussing the role of oxytocin in sexual relationships, love appears as attraction. When discussing oxytocin’s involvement in the birth process, love is equated with attachment. Perhaps of greatest importance to studying the role of attachment in child development and the tendency toward violence, Odent’s love can be read as the ability to empathize.
Odent’s central thesis is best described by Miriam Stoppard in the introduction to the book:
He suggests that love (or attraction) has its roots at cellular level, on the surface of cells in fact, in the form of receptors, which bind to (or bond with) ‘informational substances’—ligands—chemicals with messages attached. This phenomenon of locking on can be seen as love at the molecular level and, as you would expect, it is highly selective. Just as each caterpillar has its own particular leaf, each ligand has only one receptor which it can lock on to, or love.
Along with the relevant scientific discoveries, Odent presents ligands as essential to love as attachment, attraction, and the ability to empathize.
There are two significant areas of weakness in this otherwise fascinating book. First it is awkwardly written, as though the author is not certain how to systematically organize the sentences of each tiny chapter. The reader needs to go back, reread, and reconstruct while reading a distinct, limited subject chapter. My suspicion is that, since there is no attribution to a translator of the book, Odent, a French national, may have written this edition in English, his second language.
The second weakness in the organization of this book is that each chapter includes a “Summary” at the end prior to a decent list of references. In his introduction, Odent states that he believes the summaries necessary because of the complexity of the material but the inclusion of the summaries are actually distracting as they are small, oversimplified fragments at the end of chapters that are short to begin with. The simplicity can also make the reader doubt she has grasped the chapter itself since the summary contains so little substance and the corresponding chapter contains so much.
The book is a small but powerful piece of work. Dr. Odent is not afraid to cite studies that have been known in the scientific literature for some time but mainly ignored. He tells us of research that shows changes in the brain that occur as labor progresses, and prepare both the mother and her offspring for the critical bonding period. He speaks of how the world’s various societies interrupt that critical bonding period, for what he feels is the need to promote the growth of aggression.
Through his presentation in The Scientification of Love, Odent points us in the direction he thinks medical and sociological research should travel in pursuit of creating individuals capable of making productive nonviolent societies. It is a goal worth pursuing. Breastfeeding counselors look forward to seeing such research appear in the coming decades.