Is human love special?

Before you answer this question ask yourself this: What is love? Is it hormonal? Is it emotional? Is it a social construct? A psychological construct? A sloppy wet kiss? Jealous husbands? How would one scientifically define love? How would one measure it? Can it be measured? What kind of traits make up love? Does it even need traits?

And what’s with the babysitter?

Did You Know?
Monogamous (a.k.a. monogamy) is defined as having only one sexual partner and raising the resulting offspring together. The opposite is polygamy, in which species mate with multiple sexual partners. Monogamy is rare in the animal kingdom, only certain species tend to follow it, such as bats, lovebirds and certain wolves.

Not a simple question is it? But wait! Of course we must be able to love. Homo sapiens display rituals that wild animals are unable to replicate! For instance, we take our time making love for the express purpose of pleasure, we occasionally do not mate after our partner dies, and we are viciously monogamous. The flaw with these points is that there are animals both in the wild and in captivity that do this as well. Can it be that our jealousy, our protection of our loved ones and faithfulness are not unique to humans after all?

Take the first question: Are we the only creatures that enjoy sex? The answer is no. For example, Bonobos, a relative of chimps, are famous in the evolutionary psychology community for their extensive sexual exploits. Both males and females have been known to share their life partners, even though most animals don’t share their regular mating partners.

Did You Know?
Lovebirds are so named because they are often seen in pairs. More importantly, most do not mate after their life partners die.

Contrast this with lovebirds. This species of parrot are infamous for their strong bonds with their partners. The reason? Lovebirds live in tropical environments, which unfortunately means that it is very easy for young offspring to die. Thus, female lovebirds would want to mate with multiple male partners in the hope that the genetic variation amongst their offspring would mean that at least some of their children would survive. Meanwhile, for male lovebirds, it is to their advantage if their female partners are faithful. That way, they know that the time and energy they are spending raising offspring is truly their offspring. Thus, lovebirds have to be faithful because they don’t have “free babysitters.”

Did You Know?
Genetic variation can be thought of as a fancy way of saying: differing characteristics (similar to how some of us are tall vs. short, blue eyes vs. brown eyes, etc.). With more genetic variation, the chances are that an organism would have the characteristics necessary to survive increase.

Bonobos, on the other hand, don’t use monogamy because they have a strong female social group that will raise the offspring. So, even if the male leaves, the result is not disastrous. I guess that puts a whole new spin on the necessity of babysitters!

Despite these facts, one should not be down hearted by this information. Love is more than just passing around your genes. And even though you must admit that their behavior is quite similar to ours, love is more than just biology.

So go ahead and smell some roses, eat some chocolates, and write a love poem or two for that sweetheart. And don’t forget to thank your babysitter….

Learn More!

de Waal, F. B. M. (1995). Bonobo sex and society. Scientific American, 272, 58–64.

Philips, R.E. (1968) Approach-withdrawal behavior of peach-faced lovebirds, Agapornis roseicolis, and its modification by brain lesions. Behaviour. 31, 163–84.

Sturmbauer, C., Meyer, A. (1993) Mitochondrial phylogeny of the endemic mouthbrooding lineages of cichlid fishes from Lake Tanganyika in Eastern Africa. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 10, 751–768.

Article first published on February 8, 2010.

Photo Credit: iStock

Aurno Khan

Education: Thesis Student at McMaster University
Age: 21
Specialty: Ecology and Psychology
Hobbies: Reading, writing, and running.
Future plans: Grad School in Ecology or Psychology

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