Kissing & the science of humanity

By Razib Khan | January 5, 2011 12:23 am

I approached Sheril Kirshenbaum’s The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us with some trepidation and excitement. The former is a consequence of my hypochondria and its associated germophobia. I have no aversion to kissing in my own life (apologies for divulging personal information), but I did have some worries about having to read about other humans engaged in such an act of hygienic daring. And yet I was excited because I am interested in multidisciplinary explorations of human behavior. And of course I was familiar with the author’s oeuvre, and was expecting an engaging and wide-ranging exploration of the topic at hand.

I was not disappointed. The Science of Kissing is an intellectual full-court press; every conceivable discipline of relevance is brought into the mix. History, ethnography, ethology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, physiology, and epidemiology, all receive attention, to name just a few of the more prominent lenses which the author fits over the course of the narrative. In other words you’re presented with an intellectual buffet. A well rounded meal will require you to sample widely, but if the lack of punctiliousness of Romans in matters of hygiene is not to your taste, you may find a discussion of the latest neuroimaging techniques and their application to matters of behavioral response more to your liking.


After the first chapter one immediately perceives that The Science of Kissing is not a tight and narrowly argued case for a positive hypothesis. Rather, it is more synoptic. Of broad scope, and yet rather tentative in its conclusions. The author makes clear in The Science of Kissing that this stance of humility of what we know is the position which is warranted by the science as it is now: the science of kissing is immature at best. In fact, this reality seems to have been one of the prods for the author’s project. Her own curiosity as to the lack of a general and accessible entry into the literature, provisional as it is, turned into the opportunity to transform her own journey of discovery into a book-length exposition.

Each chapter in The Science of Kissing is rather concise, but they are bracketed into three thematic portions. First, there is an exploration of the ultimate roots of kissing. That is, why? Naturally this entails a historical perspective, both human and natural. This is where the author immediately abdicates any pretense at making a forceful and tight argument which brooks no ambiguity or uncertainty. A book about the science of kissing might plausibly begin by asserting that the phenomenon is a human universal. No, not exactly. The author reviews a diverse range of contemporary and ancient ethnographic reports which indicate a wide variety of cultural attitudes toward kissing and its substitutes.They are often amusing, and it must be said, occasionally kinky. I have admit that the idea of foreplay not including kissing struck me as profoundly alien, but it was a reality check on the presuppositions that we bring to expectations of the plausible range of human behaviors. On the other hand, the deviations from kissing do seem to share general features with the behavior, whether it be an attention to the face or violation of norms of personal space. For example many substitutes for kissing seem to involve a sort of sniffing of the other, and it could be argued that kissing is one particular route to this general behavior of olfactory exchange. It is also notable that kissing can be found among other animals, for example the Bonobo chimpanzee.

As a social species there are a clear range of ultimate rationales for why kissing may emerge. A form of grooming, interpersonal communication, as well as ascertainment of genetic fitness. But as a complex behavior which is culturally modified and channelled the sum of human and natural historical evidence point to kissing as being a specific instantiation of a general phenomenon. Kissing seems to be on the way to becoming a human universal, but that may be a contingent fact of human history. In particular, the rise of European hegemony, and the acceptability of kissing in companionate relationships within this culture (though not exclusively within this culture, as evidenced by records of kissing in the Hebrew Bible and Hindu epics). But the contingency of the phenomenon of kissing does not entail that its emergence was arbitrary. Rather, the balance of evidence seems to suggest that kissing is a phenomenon which we humans are mildly disposed toward. Kissing exists in related taxa and has been independently practiced across disparate human societies. Ultimately kissing as a universal human phenomenon may not have been inevitable, but it was at least not improbable.

Next The Science of Kissing moves to the proximate: how the phenomenon expresses in a concrete sense. Here’s a chestnut of wisdom: men like sloppy kisses, while women do not. Another: men are much more likely to be willing to have sex with someone without kissing. The author was skeptical about the robustness of such results indicating strong sex differences, and so she decided to do a personal survey. To her surprise these sorts of sex differences were perfectly replicated in her own sample. This is where ultimate causes loom large: males and females have somewhat different sample spaces of possible reproductive strategies as a function of the number of offspring they may have. Women have about ~30 gestations available in their lives. Men on the other hand have a much higher upper bound on the number of offspring they can have via polygyny thanks to the surfeit of sperm. This tension is at the heart of much of evolutionary psychology, so the leveraging of this framework to explain sex differences in kissing seems to be on relatively solid ground.

But the differences between men and women are explored in more than just ultimate abstract causes. The Science of Kissing also delves into behavioral and cognitive neuroscience and genetics, exploring the possible links between chemistry and kissing. Earlier I noted that kissing may serve as a predictor of genetic fitness or compatibility. How? It may be an avenue by which potential mates can assess their long term compatibility, whether through pheromones, or modulation of hormones such as testosterone, oxytocin or epinephrine. Kissing in this telling may be one of the roads which leads to the Rome of pair bonding. This dovetails well with the model where kissing is one of a set of probable behavioral phenomena to facilitate necessary relations for reproductive fitness. The author is admittedly on tendentious ground in this section, but though many of the hypotheses may be falsified, it seems unlikely that all will be.

And then we move to “cooties.” Needless to say this was the chapter which discomfited me the most. And yet the lessons here are rather plain and straightforward. Follow your dentist’s advice. Those of you engaged in promiscuous polyamory may have to worry a bit more than those of us who are not so engaged. And that vampire fad? Don’t get too into biting fetishes unless you want to risk your mortality. Don’t French kiss wild animals. Seriously.

The final in depth section is perhaps one of the more peculiar, and praiseworthy, aspects of The Science of Kissing. Quite often popular science books are written by scientists who focus on their own research, scaffolded with extraneous “hooks” when necessary. If not, they are written by journalists who serve as tour guides to the world of science. Intellectual voyeurs. The author was not reviewing her own research, but she also deviated from the “outsider” viewer as well. She managed to obtain the collaboration of David Poeppel at NYU to perform a set of experiments utilizing magnetoencephalography (MEG). I won’t detail the experiments and their results, except to relay that the author had some “interesting” adventures with finding images of same sex kissing on Google Images. The Science of Kissing begins as a readable but rather conventional popular science book, if a touch on the cautious side. But through this survey of a real set of experiments inspired by the author’s curiosity in researching The Science of Kissing you get a taste of the excitement and possibilities of science as an enterprise and method, rather than a set of results and “facts.” To me this portion seems almost a challenge to the complacent preconceptions of the public as to what science is, as opposed to how science operates. Instead of an answer one is left with a series of questions.

The Science of Kissing tells its story with economy. The chapters are short and to the point. But quite often there is a density of fact which will satisfy. The qualified and nuanced take on many of the issues will appeal to the nerd, who yearns to dig between the layers of the scholarly strata. Quite often I found myself putting the book down to do further research on Wikipedia or Google Scholar. This is not a book which punches you in the face with a bold and explosive thesis. When it comes to human behavior and biology robust bold explosions are hard to come by, so I believe that this tack was the honest one. The author navigates deftly between the shoals of the “blank slate” model dominated by nearly arbitrary historical contingency and a naive genetic determinism which is hard to justify based on the empirical data.

In some ways kissing is something which has two faces. On the one hand most people would not deny its central integrity to our most personal relationships. It seems far more substantive a matter than whether you shake someone’s hand. And yet kissing may also seem a sliver of a window upon the broad expanse which is human nature. The Science of Kissing illustrates that this is not so; an exploration of the phenomenon of kissing allowed the author to shine a bright light on the gamut of the human sciences, from those which focus on the ultimate biological bases of behavior, to those which characterize its proximate manifestations. Perhaps it is the omnipresent and most personal of behaviors which may serve as the most representative windows upon how our biological inheritance interfaces with the environment in which we express our predispositions and needs. How about the science of laughing? Crying? Blinking? The possibilities are endless. But this was an excellent start.

Note: Also follow the author’s posts on the book.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Human Evolution, Psychology
  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    I’ve always been under the assumption that kissing evolved as a socially acceptable way to access chemosensory information about potential partners, but I never really looked up any evidence to support or deny my assumption.

    Even without kissing, foreplay offers lots of options for passing chemosensory information. You’re sticking your head in a lot of places you otherwise wouldn’t have access to, right?

    Also I’m sorry to hear about your germaphobia/hypochrondria, but it is nice to know I’m not the only weirdo. ;)

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  • Scott

    “…my hypochondria and its associated germophobia.”

    How are you dealing with the resulting allergy and autoimmunity?

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  • Sandgroper

    #1 – Doesn’t explain why parents want to kiss their babies.

    My favourite place to kiss my daughter before she grew much hair was on the temple. I presume there was a reason.

  • pconroy

    Sandgroper,

    I would assume that the impulse to kiss babies, who have an immature immune system, is due to the evo bio need to pass on acquired immunities to them

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    Or it could just be ingrained as a cultural expression of affection and modified for non-sexual affection. But now I’m speculating on a speculation.

  • Harold

    “Rather, the balance of evidence seems to suggest that kissing is a phenomenon which we humans are mildly disposed toward.”

    Razib, I’d be interested to hear what evidence there is to suggest that people who are neither Indo-European nor Semitic are disposed towards kissing. Likewise what evidence there is that Indo-Europeans are only mildly so disposed.

  • scott

    @Harold: When my sister (East Asian) was recovering from a traumatic brain injury, she would kiss everything from people to mittens, stuffed animals to pillows. The nurses and doctors said that it was a normal reflexive response especially at that point in her recovery where she was basically infantile. My family may not be the best example since we were raised in the US. But considering it was one of the first almost purposeful things my sister did, it seems to me that kissing is a pretty hard-wired action.

  • Sandgroper

    #6&#7 – If I were to speculate (which of course I never do) I would speculate that it is a general purpose thing which is used in different ways for different purposes (e.g. I never see parents kiss their children on the mouth, or extremely rarely). As in #9, the fact that small children do it in an asexual way also makes me think this.

    The fact that bonobos do it also makes me speculate it is something that long predated AMHs.

    #8 – Travel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia and watch adults with babies and small children, never mind the young lovers who are attached to each other like suction cups everywhere you look.

  • Harold

    Thanks for the anecdote Scott.

  • Sandgroper
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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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