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Not Everyone Does It

Un homme et une femme, 1891, Stephan Sinding (1846-1922).

All humans love to kiss, so kissing must go back to early hominids and even chimps and bonobos. This is how ethologists and evolutionary psychologists think when they write about the subject.

Just one thing. Even in historic times not all humans loved to kiss. Far from arising millions of years in the past, kissing seems to have arisen no earlier than 40,000 years ago, when modern humans began to enter northern Eurasia.

So concludes a recent cross-cultural study:

We found only 77 out of 168 (46%) cultures in which the romantic-sexual kiss was present. Significantly, no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic-sexual kiss. However, kissing appears to be nearly ubiquitous among 9 of the 11 foragers living in Circum-Arctic region (i.e., northern Asia and North America). The concentration of kissing among Circum-Arctic foragers, for which we do not have a satisfactory explanation other than invoking cultural diffusion, stands in stark contrast to its equally striking absence among foragers in other cultural regions.(Jankowiak et al., 2015)

This is not the first study to deny the universality of kissing, although scholars have tended to place its origin in the civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and South Asia (Hawley, 2007; Hopkins, 1907). The English sexologist Havelock Ellis argued that kissing began with “civilized man”:

It is only under a comparatively high stage of civilization that the kiss has been emphasized and developed in the art of love. Thus the Arabic author of the Perfumed Garden, a work revealing the existence of a high degree of social refinement, insists on the great importance of the kiss, especially if applied to the inner part of the mouth, and he quotes a proverb that “A moist kiss is better than a hasty coitus.” Such kisses, as well as on the face generally, and all over the body, are frequently referred to by Hindu, Latin, and more modern erotic writers as among the most efficacious methods of arousing love. (Ellis,1897-1928)

It may be that kissing originated in prehistory among the hunter-gatherers of northern Eurasia and then spread south, where it reached its full flowering in a milieu that idealized it in prose, poetry, and painting. A kind of positive feedback thus developed between the practice and the ideal.

Then, at a later date, it became less common in northern Europe because of the moral climate that followed the Reformation, having been previously very common. When the Greek scholar Demetrios Chalkokondyles (1423-1511) visited England, he was surprised by its ubiquity:

As for English females and children, their customs are liberal in the extreme. For instance, when a visitor calls at a friend’s house, his first act is to kiss his friend’s wife; he is then a duly-installed guest. Persons meeting in the street follow the same custom, and no one sees anything improper in the action. (Bombaugh, 1876, p. 33)

Another Greek traveler likewise remarked a century later:

The English manifest much simplicity and lack of jealousy in their customs as regards females; for not only do members of the same family and household kiss them on the lips with complimentary salutations and enfolding of the arms around the waist, but even strangers, when introduced, follow the same mode, and it is one which does not appear to them in any degree unbecoming. (Bombaugh, 1876, p. 33)

Similar comments were made by Erasmus (1467-1536):

If you go to any place, you are received with a kiss by all; if you depart on a journey, you are dismissed with a kiss; if you return, the kisses are exchanged. Do they come to visit you, a kiss is the first thing; do they leave you, you kiss them all around. Do they meet you anywhere, kisses in abundance. In short, wherever you turn, there is nothing but kisses. Ah, Faustus, if you had once tasted the tenderness, the fragrance of these kisses, you would wish to stay in England, not for ten years only, but for life. (Bombaugh, 1876, p. 34)

Kissing then fell into decline among the English; so much so, that frequent public displays became seen as a continental thing. Nonetheless, it remained much more common than in other parts of the world, particularly East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This difference amused travelers as late as the 19th century:

An American naval officer, who had spent considerable time in China, narrates an amusing experience of the ignorance of the Chinese maidens of the custom of kissing. Wishing to complete a conquest he had made of a young mei jin (beautiful lady), he invited her—using the English words—to give him a kiss. Finding her incomprehension of his request somewhat obscure, he suited the action to the word and took a delicious kiss. The girl ran away into another room, thoroughly alarmed, exclaiming, “Terrible man-eater, I shall be devoured.” (Bombaugh, 1876, p. 80)

For the same time period, Havelock Ellis noted: “Kisses, and embraces are simply unknown in Japan as tokens of affection” with the exception of mothers hugging and kissing their infants. Similarly, “among nearly all of the black races of Africa lovers never kiss nor do mothers usually kiss their babies.” He then went on to argue that the romantic kiss evolved out of this maternal kissing, which seems more or less universal.

With the globalization of culture through movies, magazines, and other media, kissing has been spread to the four corners of the earth. Clearly, we can all do it and enjoy doing it to some extent. But I don’t think we all share the same urge to do it.

Gene-culture coevolution?

Even religiosity is partly genetic, so why not the desire to kiss and be kissed? What little we know about the subject comes from studies of compulsive kissing syndrome, where a lesion to the right temporal lobe (associated with epilepsy or glioma) causes an uncontrollable urge to kiss anyone independently of sexual interest (Mendez and Shapira, 2014; Mikata et al., 2005; Ozkara et al., 2004). This compulsion differs from other disorders where increased kissing results from loss of sexual inhibition and is targeted at sexually desirable individuals. The brain may thus have a pre-formed circuit that triggers the desire to kiss. In short, kissing is not solely learned. It has an innate component.

At first, this innate component would have been the same in all humans, back when kissing mainly happened between a mother and her infants. It then became more sexual and more important among the hunter-gatherers of northern Eurasia. Later still, in Europe and the Middle East, it developed into a second channel of sexual arousal almost on a par with the sex act itself.

As Havelock Ellis observed:

[…] there is certainly no such channel for directing nervous force into the sexual sphere as the kiss. This is nowhere so well recognized as in France, where a young girl’s lips are religiously kept for her lover, to such an extent, indeed, that young girls sometimes come to believe that the whole physical side of love is comprehended in a kiss on the mouth; so highly intelligent a woman as Madam Adam has described the agony she felt as a girl when kissed on the lips by a man, owing to the conviction that she had thereby lost her virtue.

Sexual kissing initially arose through people pushing the envelope of phenotypic plasticity. This envelope in turn became part of the environment that people had to fit into. Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, were at a disadvantage and were bit by bit pushed out of the gene pool. Those who could, and would, took their place. New genetic variants thus arose and flourished, some to strengthen the new behavior and others to make it more pleasurable.

In this, and in many other ways, Man has created Man. We humans have shaped our environment, which in turn has shaped us, even in our genes. This point becomes clear only if one abandons the assumption, so dear to evolutionary psychology, that we stopped evolving back in the Pleistocene. We didn’t. In fact, most of the interesting stuff has come about since then.