Summary: 16th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Love)

“Is love an evolutionary instinct? I.e., is it 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?”

Note: This summary is based and interpreted from notes taken during the debate and may contain errors. If you wish to correct, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.


  • Reading list and introductory essay by Thor May.

  • Most of the group agreed that most (80-90%) or all of human behaviour is evolutionary instincts in action. Some people noted that it is difficult to discuss love as it is part of our internal programming and may be difficult to separate from the cultural influences.

  • One member of the group argued that being conscious of your actions doesn’t make love (or any other emotion) an instinct. Being able to think before and reflect afterwards does make having emotions a rather interesting aspect of the human condition.

  • While we have only been “intelligent” for a comparatively short time of our evolutionary history, long-term monogamous pair bonding might have only been a very recent cultural invention. (Extra content – You Tube Video on biological polygamy)

  • It is not yet known if non-human animals experience similar emotional experience as us but the amount of time they are pregnant and how they nurture their young may tell us quite a lot about the evolution of love.

  • Lacking affection and adequate welfare in one’s early years can drastically affect your current and  future relationships and your physical and emotional wellbeing.

  • Love beyond reproduction is a choice (at least for humans) and arguably one that was reserved to those who have the power, luxury and freedom to do so.

  • Despite the wealth of love literature in our global culture, arranged marriages were the norm (and arguably still are in some cultures).

  • Humans still haven’t developed a clear definition/notion of love as a concept, you can tell by the many different ways we define it in our cultures and language. Love for children, love for other humans (compassion and empathy) and spiritual love all fit under the banner of love.

  • Tracing the linguistic changes of the word “love” can show you a lot about how a culture perceives it.

  • Physical demonstrations of love vary between cultures which may influence how we perceive their success in relationships and how they rank as potential mates.

  • In some cultures where sexual segregation is a common social practise, a gesture like hand-holding is not reserved for lovers but may be a sign of affection between close friends.

  • One group member commented that love might be a source of bigotry because bonding with people similar to us excludes “strangers”.

  • Altruism may be a cultural phenomenon because different cultures may rank help towards family and strangers differently.

  • Arguably altruism is an evolutionary phenomenon because it allows us to reproduce and survive successfully.

  • Falling in love, staying in love and loving another person (like offspring) were seen as different states by the group. Being in these states can change you (emotional growth) and your brain (neuroplacticity).

  • Some members of the group have observed that being in a relationship is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced to ensure your success. The skills need to stay in love are different from the ones you us to fall in love.

  • Mythological love (love for the divine or the paragon) may adversely affect people’s perceptions of potential and current lovers. Some people may say that having a mythological love and love literature is a way of easing the pain of reality.

  • The concept of unconditional love may be an example of putting someone or something on a pedestal.

  • Some have argued that all our relationships may be conditional because we expect some reward or expect people to fulfil expectations.

  • For some, compassion (caring for another) is more important than love (caring for yourself). You will need to learn to adapt to changing conditions and priorities between you and your loved ones.

  • Modern dating may involve people actively seeking love and expecting to find it. This may be problematic as one has to accept that they will be evaluated while evaluating others. Some of us may opt out of this cultural system.

  • Not being in love or lacking this experience doesn’t deprive you of the full human experience (whatever that may be).

Interesting questions posed by the group:

Do humans have control over their instincts?

Do we have the final say in what we choose do?

Do cultural elements override our “natural” mechanics?

Is love a responsibility?

Is the most important thing in a relationship, the (mental) growth of the others involved?

Is there a limit to how many times a human can genuinely fall in love?

Do the feelings/emotions involved in falling in love become successively weaker each time a human falls in love again? i.e., Do we run out of falling in love chemicals?

Do we unconsciously mimic the love/partnering behaviour of our parents?

Additional content covered by the debate:

The Imago Relationship Theory [The Imago website]

The honeymoon period [Scientific American]

Overpopulation [SciShow – YouTube Video] [Freakonomics article]

The rise of defacto relationships [Figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies]

Dividing property when a de facto relationship ends [Property Division FAQ via the Australian Government]

Divorce rates [Figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies]

Chivalry [Wikipedia Article]  [Chivarly Today]

Online dating [TED Talk – YouTube Video (on how to hack online dating)]

Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene [Wikipedia Article] [The Fifth Ape extract – YouTube Video]

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.

3 thoughts on “Summary: 16th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Love)

  1. Thanks for the notes. I had a few extra questions: “Is there a limit to how many times a human can genuinely fall in love?” and “Do the feelings/emotions involved in falling in love become successively weaker each time a human falls in love again?” (i.e., do we run out of falling in love chemicals?) Also, do we unconsciously mimic the love/partnering behaviour of our parents?

  2. Thanks very much Yena. This is an excellent summary. I will also copy it to the reference list page. [btw: typo above: “It is yet known” => It is not yet known]

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