Is love an evolutionary instinct?



Is love an innate, unconscious impulse that has been encoded into our genes over millions of years as a mechanism to ensure the survival of (the whole or individual members of) the species? Or is there more to it? Is there another way to explain it? Do all animals experience love?



comments: Thor May -; ;

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Below is a summary by Yena of the actual meetup discussion on this topic, some personal comments by me (I am extraordinarily unqualified to comment on the topic), and a list of references








Yena's Summary: 16th Gentle Thinkers Debate





 Comments by Thor on “Love …etc”



1. “Is love an evolutionary instinct … etc” .  Well, if you want it to be. If you are talking about some concoction of evolutionary instincts and decide to call that particular brew “love”, well there is no argument about it. It is then a contextual definition, not a discussion topic.


2. If a discussion is wanted, then it might come in several forms:


a) Supposing that we have some competent knowledge about instincts etc, then we might want to decide which mixture of neuro chemicals and physiological responses it might be useful to call “love”, or whether some other descriptive label was useful for this context (for example, “limerence” – see the Wikipedia entry on this).


b) Following a) we might then go on to hypothesize what kinds of environmental influences, such as nurture, reshaped the primal “love” concoction, to what extent, and in what manner, and for whom (male, female, adult, infant etc).


c) We might in fact decide to reserve the word “love” for wider and more vague cultural contexts. These could indeed include elements of a) and b), but would also take account of general usage of the word in daily life. As a linguist I would have to say that the “love” token is one of the most used and abused terms in most human languages. This in itself is culturally and psychologically interesting. That is, it is worth exploring. In English you can love your wife / husband / boyfriend / girlfriend / child / dog … or even a brand of toothpaste. You can love getting drunk on Saturday night, or you can love a movie you have just seen. Your interlocutor might respond with some exasperation that these are different and unrelated meanings of “love”, not what he wanted to talk about. In that case, you have to ask, very very precisely what he wants to talk about.


3. Since language is my trade, the chimerical meanings of “love” are not uninteresting. This is because the human brain both thinks and produces natural language by processes of analogy. Analogy, examined closely, is a fascinating phenomenon; ( in fact, I think it is a bridge between what are commonly called “mind” and “matter”, but that is too complex to go into here). The salient aspect of analogy for our purposes is that it connects apparently unrelated events, perceptions, or symbols by extracting or asserting shared features, and thus builds a network of cognitive relationships (language and/or other cognition). Thus for all the myriad uses of “love” we can find trails of connections which at some nodes coalesce densely enough for people to put them into a bucket labeled with the word token “love”. Once that happens the poets and spruikers and street kids take over. “Love” hits the billboards, the TV sets and infects the speeches of politicians. If you happen to have the hobby of tracking word meanings, you can then watch “love” spread like an ink stain through the culture.


4. OK, if you ask me, Thor May, what I know about “love” in some everyday, fuzzy context of gender relationships, I would have to say that you have come to the wrong guy. On the existing evidence from an otherwise interesting life, I have few dizzy secrets to recall from the reputed “being in love” mystery which saturates music, literature and film. But probably that is not what this meetup discussion was meant to be about anyway (??).









Al-Khalili, Jim & Philippa Perry, Julian Baggini, Jojo Moyes and Catherine Wybourne (Thursday 13 December 2012) “What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all”. The Guardian newspaper, online @


ASAP Science (11 February, 2013) “The Science of Love”. Yahoo video, online @


BBC, UK (n.d.) “The Science of Love”. BBC Science: Human Body & Mind, online @


Boudreau, Diane (10 January, 2007) “The Effects of Affection”. Research Matters website, online


Big Think (2013) "Love is the product of lousy neurons". Youtube video @


Catholic Encyclopedia (n.d.) “Love – Theological Virtue”. New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, online @


Doidge, Norman (30 April 2012) "Neuroplacticity". TVObigideas series , online Youtube video (1hr) @


Edwards, Michael (August, 2013) “Can Love Change the World?”. The Greater Good website, online @


Fox, Beth (1999) “Falling in Love is a Primitive Instinct”. Vanderbilt University Newsroom, online @


Flanagan, Caitlin (May 11 2010) “Love, Actually - How girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture”. The Atlantic, online @


GoodReads (n.d.) “Quotations About Love”. GoodReads website, online @


Haworth, Abigail (20 October 2013) "Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?" The Guardian @


Keltner, Dacher (2004) “The Compassion Instinct”. The Greater Good website, online @


Koval, Rick (August 4, 2013) “A mother's love, or an animal's instinct? Surprising acts of selflessness, courage in the face of death”.  Pocono Outdoors blog, online @


Heinrichs, Markus and Gregor Domes (2008) “Neuropeptides and social behaviour: effects of oxytocin and vasopressin in humans”, extract from I.D. Neumann and R. Landgraf (Eds.) Progress in Brain Research, chapter 28, Vol. 170. Publisher: Elsevier B.V.  online @


Lyubomirsky, Sonja (December 1, 2012) “New Love, A Short Shelf Life”. New York Times, online @


Maestripieri, Dario (March 26, 2012) "Games Primates Play - the evolutionary history of love". Psychology Today, online @


May, Thor (2011) “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. Thor’s New China Diary blog, online @


McCamish, Thornton (June 4, 2005) “Your dopamine or mine?” The Age newspaper, online @


Michaels, Paula (n.d.) “Love and Instinct”. Parenting website, online @


Minchin, Tim (2011) "If I didn't have you". Youtube video @


National Geographic (n.d.) "What's Sexy?"  National Geographic video channel, online @


Pattberg, Thorsten (29 October 2013) "No quick fix for China's mistress culture". Asia Times, online @


PregnancyWeekly (n.d.) “Is Maternal Instinct Really Instinct?”. Breathing Space supplement, website online @


Science Daily (2008) “Why Do We Love Babies? Parental Instinct Region Found In The Brain”. online @ [ source reference: Kringelbach ML, Lehtonen A, Squire S, Harvey AG, Craske MG, et al (2008) “A Specific and Rapid Neural Signature for Parental Instinct”. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1664.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001664 ]


Urban Dictionary (2013) “Love”. online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Love”. online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Limerence”. online @



Wikipedia (2013) “Eros” [Romantic love… (Ancient Greek: ρως érōs) is one of the four words in Ancient Greek which can be rendered into English as “love”… In the classical world, erotic love was generally referred to as a kind of madness or theia mania ("madness from the gods")… Eros has been recoded in a variety of ways across cultures and eras ]. online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Storge love”. [(Ancient Greek στοργή, storgē) Storge or affection is a wide-ranging force which can apply between family members, friends, pets and owners, companions or colleagues; it can also blend with and help underpin other types of tie such as passionate love or friendship. Thus storge may be used as a general term to describe the love between exceptional friends, and the desire for them to care compassionately for one another]. online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Phylia”. [(Ancient Greek: φιλία, philia ) in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics φιλία is usually translated as affectionate regard or "friendship" … Aristotle divides friendships into three types, based on the motive for forming them: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of the good… friendships of pleasure are based on pure delight in the company of other people. People who drink together or share a hobby may have such friendships… Friendships of the good are ones where both friends enjoy each other's characters…the central idea of φιλíα is that of doing well by someone for his own sake, out of concern for him (and not, or not merely, out of concern for oneself..]. online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Agape”. [(Classical Greek: γάπη, agápē) ... appropriated in Christian theology as the love of God or Christ for humankind. In the New Testament, it refers to the covenant love of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God; the term necessarily extends to the love of one’s fellow man...]. online @









The room is an ordinary room,

You are gone,

The day is an ordinary day,

Friend's smiles are just ordinary smiles,

My care is an ordinary care;

The air still smoulders.


You came, some nowhere time

Were here, a rag doll,

Bedraggled we thought,

Pale as a cave-born moth, astounded by light

Urgent in living, you came

How brightly you burnt.


Burnt me woman, warmed the air

Lit the day, rushed blood to my lips

Made smiles come out of hiding,

Scorched the old paper words

That rustle on our tongues, and dying

Left me an ordinary man.


Thor, 1995



Today has lasted for 4 billion and 2 years, 6 hours, 12 minutes and 13.5 seconds


Live fast they said, go wild,

It flies, it doesn't last.

Go chase your moment

Run you mile, strut your hour

Build your pile, and don't come home

Don't come home, don't come home

And this is the way the world

Of the world, world, world, world stopped.


Susan smiled and waved from the footpath.

She was walking and smiling;

I was driving and smiling.

We went, went each way

And all day we were smiling

About driving and walking.


Thor, 1973

This poem was also published (much to my surprise!) as part of an article in The Hindu, a major national Indian newspaper, on February 1st, 2006.









Is love an evolutionary instinct?(c) Thor May 2013


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