One of my favourite historical accounts of kissing comes from the 1864 book Savage Africa. The British explorer William Winwood Reade described falling in love with the beautiful daughter of an African king. After pursuing her for many months, he dared to steal a kiss. Unfortunately things didn’t go so well. The girl, having never encountered this before, screamed before running away in tears. Only later did Reade find out that this princess had interpreted his kiss as an intention to eat her.
Not all people express love and adoration through their lips. In fact, new research published in American Anthropologist reports that only 46% of cultures kiss mouth-to-mouth as most of us would recognise a romantic kiss today. The study contradicts previous anthropologists who claimed the behaviour was near universal. Still, while it’s clear we’re not all connecting this way, it’s important to consider how we define a kiss before jumping to any broad conclusions.
Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, described kissing in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. He made an important distinction between kissing with the lips and various “kissing-like behaviours”, noting that rubbing noses and other related practices often serve a similar purpose and might be a precursor to modern romantic mouth-to-mouth kissing.
Darwin’s list of “kissing-like behaviours” included a series of exchanges between individuals that focused on the use of the lips, face and sometimes other body parts. He grouped kisses with similar activities that included “the rubbing or patting of the arms, breasts, or stomachs” and even an instance of “one man striking his own face with the hands or feet of another”.
After collecting so many accounts of similar exchanges all over the world, Darwin assumed that they must reflect an instinctual desire to receive “pleasure from close contact with a beloved person”. He concluded that the drive for humans to “kiss” is innate and, by broadening the definition of kissing to include related behaviours, it can be considered truly universal.
Some anthropologists disagree, maintaining that the kiss is simply a cultural phenomenon – something we learn in our own communities or see in the media and copy. And, of course, a European-style kiss is certainly not a required intimate activity from a reproductive standpoint.
The anthropologist Donald Marshall memorably described the people living on the Pacific island of Mangaia as the most sexually active culture on record. Men spent their late teens and 20s having an average of 21 orgasms a week (more than 1,000 times a year) without a single mouth-to-mouth kiss before Europeans arrived. Clearly human beings do fine with or without locking lips.
However, after an exhaustive exploration of the scientific literature and research, I am convinced the kiss is a wonderful example of a human behaviour where “nature” complements “nurture”. We seem to have an inborn drive to connect with another individual this way, but the shape it takes is influenced by our cultural mores and social norms. Just as Darwin observed nearly 150 years ago, kissing-like behaviours appear to be part of our evolutionary heritage, but the way we express them at any given time and place is heavily influenced by what’s familiar in our own societies.
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