Humans are one of the most social creatures on the planet. The sheer range and complexity of emotions we Homo Sapiens exhibit is otherwise mostly unknown in the animal kingdom. Topping this list of feelings, of course, is love. Nobody would deny its importance on a personal, cultural or even societal level; to feel love is to feel joy.
But what purpose does love serve? Is it merely a lucky accident of nature we get to experience “it”, or does it serve a more basic and important function? The truth of the matter is that evolution, and to that end, humans as a species, could not exist without it.
Bonding for protection
Bonding is an attribute found throughout the animal kingdom. Elephants, for example, are known to form lifetime attachments to their children. Yet it’s clear that the feeling of love as we know it – that all-abiding, absolute feeling of complete empathy and caring for another individual – is unique to humans as we know it. And it’s rooted in the basic probabilities that young animals will live to mature to adulthood.
Any species requires a certain degree of protection for its offspring. Some animal newborns, such as turtles, are buried in the sand encased in protective eggs to shelter them from the elements and predators during until they are ready to fend for themselves. Indeed, it’s that ability to stay alive long enough to be able to reproduce and pass along DNA which is the very cornerstone of evolution.
Those species that reproduce and thrive will evolve, and those with too-high mortality rates as young will eventually die out.
The human conundrum
Human children face a unique set of challenges in the animal kingdom. While some creatures are able to walk, run and generally manage for themselves soon after birth, our young require a long time to mature. So why are we, the most intelligent animals ever to appear on Earth, so helpless for so long?
The answer lies in the fact of our intelligence itself. In order to support our large cranial capacity, humans are born with heads very large in proportion to our bodies. It’s fairly easy, from a physiological standpoint, to grow bone and muscle tissue; however the brain needs to be a certain minimum size at birth.
As a result, the baby’s head has to be small enough to successfully pass through the birth canal while remaining large enough to contain his or her relatively large brain. Accordingly, nature has settled upon an elegant solution: trade brain size with cognitive function.
A human baby’s brain is like a sponge, wired to soak up as much information as possible while it develops. A child has a legendary ability to learn languages, motor skills and eventually how to survive on its own; however, it takes a long, long time.
That capacity for learning is a by-product of the large brain size, for if the head were to be any larger and subsequently contain more information, the larger size of the head would make successful birth much more unlikely.
Because of the amount of time we humans remain helpless during our early development, a deeper and longer-lasting parental bond than our animal contemporaries is required to protect us from harm and see to our survival needs. The bond is love.
In the book, The Evolution of Love By Ada Lampert, she talks about an experiment done on premature babies. The experiment was done on premature babies that were at risk from infection the mothers were not allowed to see them.The babies were divided into two groups. Both groups were given the same diet and lived in the same conditions.
The results were astounding. A clear example of how the simple act of human touch and bonding possibly made a difference between life and death.
Love is in our DNA
The capacity for love is in our very DNA. Various neurotransmitters, brain chemicals which allow us to experience emotions, are hardwired into our development. One vital neurotransmitter called oxytocin has but one purpose, which is to feel that sense of closeness with another.
That feeling of falling madly in love, for instance, is usually attributable to frequent oxytocin release. Similarly, oxytocin is released into a new mother’s bloodstream at the moment of birth, and again regularly during the act of nursing. This cycle of mother nurturing and feedback from the child forms a strong bond that has the practical advantage of ensuring it’s viability into adulthood.
Love and evolution
The emotion of love has primarily evolved in partnership with our requirement to be helpless creatures for longer. We know that it’s necessary to keep a child safe and healthy during the formative years, but to what degree has love had an impact on evolution itself?
There’s actually two ways that love affects evolution, and they both have to do with reproduction.
Firstly, a child nurtured by love will grow into sexual maturity and, if successful (in an evolutionary sense), will pass along its own genes into the pool. The more of a love bond exhibited by the mother, the more prepared the child will be to pass along his or her DNA. Those physical traits exhibited by these individuals will serve to collectively shape the form of humanity in the future.
Secondly, the emotion of love allows us to potentially choose a better partner to reproduce with. Different from basic sexual urges, oxytocin-induced love encourages stronger pair-bonding of parents and generally results in more genetically diverse children.
Far from being just the subject of songs, literature, and poetry, love has afforded us humans both an evolutionary advantage and has influenced our evolution itself. Our long, helpless childhoods mean that we as a species would have died out long ago had our young not been able to survive to adulthood and pass along their genetic traits.
Love is the glue that we pass along to ensure the viability of humanity, and we literally couldn’t live without it.